Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Review: Maine

As someone who grew up in an Irish Catholic family on the East coast, J. Courtney Sullivan's novel Maine felt awfully familiar. Something about the cover and the book's popularity made me expect a much lighter sort of "beach read", but I was pleasantly surprised to find a complicated, multi-generational family saga instead.

Technically, Maine takes place over a couple months in the summer when the Kelleher family vacations together in their beach home. But through the voices of this ensemble cast of characters, we read about their journey as a family, beginning with the matriarch in her youth.

We get the story from four perspectives: Alice, daughter Kathleen, daughter-in-law Anne Marie and Kathleen's adult daughter Maggie. All the characters are flawed, and perhaps the most deeply flawed is Alice. The past that torments her is hidden from those around her and all they see is her apparent ambivalence about motherhood. Kathleen, the black sheep of the family, discovers that a lifetime of trying to be her mother's opposite has sent nearly the same message to her daughter. Maggie is unexpectedly pregnant and wrestles with the decisions she must make for her future while trying not to echo the mistakes of the past.

This is character driven fiction- which is my favorite. Each character has their own story to tell which informs the broader story, the portrait of the Kellehers.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Monsoon Season: New Review

The following review for my book can be found on the Literary Inklings website:

Riley is a Massachusetts girl fresh from college when she boldly moves across the country to Arizona, separating herself from her family in an attempt to find her own footing in life. Amid the fervid unrestraint of Tucson’s monsoon season she meets Ben, and the two discover a comfortable life together. They live simply and love passionately until Ben’s spasmodic and unpredictable temper pushes Riley to a place from which she refuses to return. Stricken by the sting of his abuse, Riley once again separates herself from the life she knows and leaves her unstable Tucson world for home and family in New England. But allowing a love to die, she discovers, – even an illogical, rampant young love – isn’t made any easier by walking away. As she comes to grips with the consequences of her choices and learns to reestablish her life, a tragedy close to home will shake her world anew. With determination, and with the help of her true friends and family, Riley will have to learn how to weather a monsoon season of her very own.

Katie O’Rourke’s debut novel reads in a wonderfully unique way; her lyrical prose and the unstructured path of her story make Monsoon Season a refreshing journey through the art of literature. I found myself absorbed in the unfolding drama of Riley and Ben’s tumultuous relationship, guided through the quickly shifting scenes and perspectives with ease. O’Rourke doesn’t tie the novel’s narrative down to one format; some scenes play out in Riley’s voice, others in Ben’s, while others still are seen from the perspectives of the people around them. Such an exploration of the mode of novel-writing could have distracted readers, but O’Rourke is so strong in her ability, so confident in her direction, that the story only gains momentum from it. I had no difficulty in following along; on the contrary, I felt connected to the unique flow of the novel. Monsoon Season’s structure contributes, in a way, to the emotional upheaval and resolute determination Riley feels in escaping a potentially disastrous situation. In Riley the reader finds a very strong-willed and companionable protagonist, a girl at once relatable and admirable. Ben, on the other hand, must suffer the results of his own mistakes, and the reader feels the ebb and sway of the impossible connection he and Riley share.

What would have been a consistently compelling story between Riley and Ben is extended into something a bit fuller, a bit richer, when O’Rourke pulls back from their lives to examine the situations of those around them. Riley’s parents and siblings and their relationships are explored in a way that temporarily leaves a romantic drama behind to touch on the poignancy of family. Ben’s mother is given focus as she herself deals with the aftermath of an abusive marriage and the fear of its genetic inheritance. Donna, Riley’s friend and roommate in Tucson, explores her young life and burgeoning romance. Laura and Jack, Riley’s childhood friends, discover how unexpectedly life can bring joy and sorrow, love and loss. O’Rourke handles every separate thread in such an assured way, and with such a lovely use of language, that the story glides evenly, allowing the reader to experience seemingly everything at once. Monsoon Season will effectively entertain the reader, touch their heart, and leave them reflecting on our intense vulnerability in life and our ability to overcome it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: Red Hook Road

I read and enjoyed Ayelet Waldman's last book Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (which was later made into a movie with Natalie Portman). The only problem I had with that book was a bit of trouble liking the flawed main character. (Don't get me wrong; I like complicated MC's, but I struggled with this one.)

I did not have that problem with Red Hook Road. The chapters alternate character's perspectives, which I love. (I wrote Monsoon Season that way.) The story is told in omniscient, actually, so while each chapter focuses on a different character, there's quite a bit of head-hopping within each chapter. I'm pretty sure my writing professors would say she broke some "rules", but I'd say this is a good example that a good writer can ignore all the rules she wants.

The plot sounds a bit morbid: in the first chapter, a bride and groom die in a car wreck on their way to the reception. As the story unfolds, the two very different families try to figure out how to relate to one another, while wondering whether they really have to. It's blue collar vs. white collar; out-of-towner vs, local; stoic vs. emotional. But in the end, their grief unites them and the love for family is a common thread.

I'm happy to see Waldman has another book, Daughter's Keeper, which I'll read very soon.