Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris part II: Unbecoming

Earlier this month I noticed that my reading habits had taken on a brief trend: books about secretive young woman hiding from their problems in Paris.  Patrick Modiano’s In The Café Of Lost Youth introduced me to the inscrutable, magnetic, restless Louki.  The book’s three other narrators found themselves consumed with interest in Louki’s past, her motivations, and her preference for the “neutral zones” in Paris, where everything seems either suspended or in transit.  The next book I picked up to read was Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm.  It so transpired that Unbecoming also features a secretive, no-entirely-heroic female protagonist who tries to hide by melting into the Paris scenery.

unbecoming

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

“The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name.” That’s the first line in Unbecoming.  Grace was the beautiful, accommodating, clever girl from Garland, Tennessee.  In Paris, she introduces herself as Julie “because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue.”   Already, we’re focused on a woman lying about her name in Paris.  Excellent.

The tense descriptions of Grace’s furtive life in Paris immediately made me curious about what had happened in Tennessee to make her so determinedly ignore-able. In a small antique refurbishment workshop, with only her co-worker as anything like a friend, Grace repairs gold plating, oils hinges, and worries constantly that the boys she knew in Garland will find her.  In between scenes at Parisian flea markets and intriguing peeps into the goings-on at Zanuso et Filles (where not all the antiques are necessarily being repaired), hints at Grace’s reasons for leaving America transform into the real story.

The real story is that Grace wanted to be part of Riley Graham’s perfect, loving family ever since she was a child.  The real story is that she learned how to be a good girlfriend, a good daughter-in-law, a good member of the group, and perfected it to an art form.  Grace’s motivations for this assimilation into a life of Southern charm were largely innocent – the scenes in which she adores Mrs. Graham’s lifestyle and looks after Riley’s feelings show how sweet she can be – but in her practice at becoming what other people want her to be, she honed how to use her skills of manipulation more seriously.

Falling in love with Riley’s best friend definitely wasn’t part of the plan, but it shakes Grace up so much that her relationship struggles lead to a bigger, badder, better plan: robbing the historic Wynn house for it’s overlooked valuables.  With her knowledge from a stint with antiques at college in NYC, Riley’s unimaginative but impressive painting techniques, and two slightly unhinged cohorts (one of them Alls, the aforementioned best friend) the nervy crew of teenagers sets about to pull a heist that goes from a funny hypothetical to potential disaster real fast.  Not everyone can hold up under the pressure.  When the boys get caught, Grace hopes that she’ll be able to disappear from the town’s memory in Europe, but the two men get let out on parole right where the first chapter of Unbecoming begins.  We don’t know who Grace is afraid of, but she’s sure one of them will try to find her, and she desperately does not want to be found.

Grace’s morally ambiguous, totally conniving mind kept me racing to catch up with her every step of the way in this gripping but occasionally over-dramatic debut novel.  I don’t know if I liked Grace by the end of the book, but I was always interested to see what steps she would take to ensure her own security.  The best moments, in my opinion, were the ones in which the (anti?)heroine recognizes what sort of person would succeed in a situation, then takes careful internal steps to become that person.  The idyllic Graham house could have seemed too cloying had not their comfortable family scenes been shown through the lens of Grace’s intense desire to play a role in their daily life.  Grace’s introduction to the outlandish world of New York art students almost had me convinced that she was really an innocent country girl at heart, had she not then betrayed the only truly innocent country heart in the whole novel soon after.  Even in Paris, where I thought she was trying to become a better person, Grace – or Julie – has a really big trick up her sleeve.

The plot twists weren’t nearly so clever as those in The Goldfinch, which stopped my heart, but Unbecoming does have a plot that might appeal to fans of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winner.  This is a much lighter book, without the deft touches of characterization, but there’s old stuff and plotting and best friends who make enemies superfluous. Plus, women being mysterious in Paris!  The differences between Garland – where everyone knew everyone, where Riley painted pictures of beloved buildings that the whole town called “art”, where Grace thought she would be a good wife in her favorite family – and Paris were jarring and nicely done.  I closed the book feeling a little annoyed at the note on which it ended, which was satisfying if not terribly thoughtful, but I also wished, at the end, that Grace had been able to experience Paris the way she dreamed she would: with her husband, loving the scenery, absorbing the art.

That’s not how unhappy women being mysterious in Paris end up, though.  Grace gets what she deserves, and I’ll admit that the person she becomes at the end of Unbecoming is much more her style – more glamorous, happily manipulative, and even more mysterious than before.

I find myself enjoying Undermajordomo Minor quite a lot

IMG_9955

(Quotefrom page 176 of the hardcover)

Patrick DeWitt is certainly a strange one, and it took me a few tries to get into his style, but now I’m hooked. Daniel Handler’s review in the New York Times was encouraging, and I largely agree with his assessment so far.

The bleak setting and futile tone sometimes remind me of Stefan Zweig, if he were to try his hand at an adventure story in a made-up land. But the sense of humor is wry and fresh and there have been several little turns of phrase that made me laugh into my latte.

We shall see if my admiration continues. I just felt like sharing that snippet, as it brought a smile to my allergy-puffed face. Buy the book from an indie bookshop and give it a try.

3 New Books I Recommend This Month

Happy February! I hope you all have tolerable months, or that at least all your troubles will be confined to the mere 27 days left stretching ahead of us, and thus over soon.

“February is the shortest month of the year, so if you are having a miserable month, try to schedule it for February.” – Lemony Snicket

There are a ton of exciting books on the horizon for this spring, and I can’t wait to see them on the shelves at my bookshop.  Prepare yourselves to have hardcovers lobbed at your heads.  (Can we really count February as early spring?  It’s more the depths of an unfeeling, cheerless winter, just with blessed daylight past four in the afternoon.  Whenever the sun can get through the gathering snowclouds…)   I get so focused on new and wonderful children’s books every season, sometimes I feel like the books for grown-ups don’t get nearly enough celebration.  So here are three non-children’s books that will be released into the world this month, and I’ll be recommending them right and left.  Loading them into cannons and aiming at likely readers.  I’ll volley  them at certain teens, too, because age barriers are for the unimaginative.  And anyway, each of these books feature young people in some context or another, struggling against forgetful families; ocean storms; or chess pieces made from butter.

(A note: the copies I read of Of Things Gone Astray and Get In Trouble were advanced reader’s editions, and some details may have changed before publication.)

thingsgoneastrayI read Of Things Gone Astray many months ago – before the Christmas craziness and in a much more peaceful frame of mind – so the magic of it has had some time to settle.  Several characters, seemingly with little to no connections to one another, wake up one morning to discover that they’ve lost something important to them.  Their sense of direction, or the keys on their piano, or the front of their house, or their connection with their child.  I think my little blurb for HarperCollins sums up my thoughts.  The book takes place in London, and oh boy do you wish you were in England as you read it.  Very charming, very thoughtful, and wonderfully strange; you need many cups of tea and a sunny armchair for this reading experience.

The elements of magical realism in Of Things Gone Astray are enchanting but mostly subdued.  It was fun to see how each different character tried to cope with the sudden, inexplicable losses.  Some get flustered.  Some turn into trees. Some bake cake in case of tea-time visitors. I’ll be recommending this book to people who don’t usually go for a touch of fantasy in their stories, as the all-too-feasible personal dilemmas that drive the intertwined plot appear in every recognizable corner of every day life.

I’ve been a fan of Kelly Link’s writing for a while.  Her collection Magic For Beginners delighted me beyond measure from the first story (“The Faery Handbag,” which is actually set in a thrift shop I used to frequent), and her stories for young adults in Pretty Monsters are pretty indeed.  And pretty twisted, too.  Get In Trouble will come out on February 10th, so get ready for some of the weirdest short stories to ever parade in front of your eyes.  And good luck turning your gaze away, because they’re mesmerizing in their oddity.

Short story collections are usually a little hit-or-miss in their quality, so naturally there are a few pieces in Get In Trouble that stand out as the best, and one or two with which I had trouble connecting.  A few of my favorites: “The Summer People,” opens the book and appealed instantly to my creepy-faery-story loving self, with its strange house and enticing illusions.  “Secret Identity” is a new twist on the Superhero genre, poking fun at themed conventions and involving the aforementioned butter chess set.  “Valley Of The Girls” features a cast of spoiled young people hanging out in the lavish pyramids, built early for their eventual afterlives.  Take Bret Easton Ellis’s reprehensible characters and stick them in futuristic ancient Egypt (yes I understand the paradox there), and you’ll get a taste of this opulent, satirically awkward, and inventive story.  “The New Boyfriend” was about teenaged girls and ghosts and secrets.  I would have read a whole novel based on that short story.  If Kelly Link and Maggie Stiefvater ever got together to collaborate, I feel like those unnerving events would come true just from sheer force of those ladies’ awesome powers. Finally, “Two Houses” is a layered cross-section of tales, each one so quick to drag you down you forget what brought you to such a scene in the first place.  Dreamlike; horrifying; tragic; and set in space, I’ve carried the after-effects of that story with me ever since I finished reading Get In Trouble.

There’s so much here that’s worth re-reading.  This collection might be a hard sell to people who don’t find themselves drawn to the wackier side of magical realism (unlike Of Things Gone Astray, which even staunch realists might enjoy), but I’m going to keep recommending it anyway.

source: goodreads

And now we’ve come to We Are Pirates.  This book has simultaneously ruined my year and entertained me to no end.  The premise sunk me into the pits of despair, but the writing perfectly put my own thoughts onto paper in sentences that were a damned joy to read.  This book is my sworn enemy, but I wish it had been around when I was a teenager, because it is exactly what I needed back then.

Here’s the dilemma: Daniel Handler has written a modern pirate story almost exactly like the modern pirate story I was writing.  The main character is a restless and disenchanted fourteen-year-old girl. Same.  The rag-tag crew of scallywags against the world steal a rigged-out ship and fail spectacularly to sail it into the distance. Same. Their chosen victims refuse to prepare to be boarded. Check mark in the ledger for stuff being the same.  Even the boots and coat our heroine Gwen sports during her life of small crimes are spot-on.  They quote from classic works of pirate fiction all over the place!  So many references, even, that I’m sure to have missed some.  I know that in the acknowledgements, Mr. Handler mentions Captain Blood and A High Wind In Jamaica specifically.  The latter of those is my bloody staff pick at the bookshop, by Jove!  My own 3/4 of a drafted novel is full of those very same references, trying to capture the very same sentiment. That sentiment being: Life is a mess and adults have no clue what they’re doing.  Piracy might be the only tolerable option.

I suppose there’s a sort of welcome commiseration to be found in the knowledge that one of my favorite authors dwells on the same anachronistic notions of violent, salty glory as me.  In a way, he has put teenaged Sarah’s troubles into words.  But only, if only, We Are Pirates had been released a decade ago, I might not have labored so hard on my own documentation of that same zeal for the old stories, and the craving for a knife in the hand and the wind at one’s back.

To stop whining on about my own misfortune: We Are Pirates is actually an adult book (mine will someday be for middle-schoolers) and deals with some other more mature themes than ransacking the “high seas” of San Francisco.   Half the book focuses on Gwen’s father, Phil Needle, who is having – if possible – an even harder time navigating the fraught waters of radio production, extra-marital affairs, and parenthood.  There’s that constant theme of grown-ups refusing to take young people seriously until it might be too late: a.k.a. my favorite subject for all fiction.

I don’t honestly know how many other people will react to We Are Pirates as enthusiastically as I did.  I ought to challenge Daniel Handler to a duel for sneaking thoughts out of my head while I was sleeping, but at the same time I was pleased as a pufferfish to read a story I could relate to so strongly. (Gwen’s chapters were far more interesting than Phil’s, to me.)  None the less, I feel it my duty as a fellow buccaneer to recommend We Are Pirates to people this February, in the hopes that at least now fewer customers might ask that tiresome question: “Why are you dressed as Charles II?” when I’m wearing my captain-y boots and coat on a Friday.  The answer should be obvious.

Finally, A Bonus Book I Haven’t Read Yet:

Neil Gaiman’s new collection of “short fictions and disturbances” is out this month.  I haven’t had a chance to look at a copy yet, but rest assured that any and all plans will be cancelled the first day I see it on the shelves.  If you have lunch plans with me that afternoon, or expect entertaining conversation in the evening, sorry but I’ll be reading.  And I’m not even that sorry, because if you’re friends with me, you’ll probably be reading too.

Book Review: The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****  (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 16+ (language, violence including sexual violence)

I’m mostly on vacation right now, but I couldn’t wait to review this book. (I say “mostly” because I drove back from Acadia National Park to work at the bookshop for two days, but I’m headed right back to the crashing waves and pine forests tonight.)  I actually bought The Lobster Kings at Sherman’ bookshop, intending to read it on some windswept rock.  That would have been terribly atmospheric and very fitting to the novel’s remote island setting.  But Zentner’s writing was just too good, and the setting was too wonderful, so I failed to put the book on hold when I came home.  I read The Lobster Kings in two days, mentally transported to Loosewood Island the entire time.  Even if I’d been reading on a crowded subway car, I would have felt the salt spray and heard thunderstorms somewhere in the distance.

The Lobster Kings is set somewhere between Maine and Nova Scotia, on an island which falls through the cracks of jurisdiction and remains very much its own world.  Cordelia Kings is a lobster boat captain, like her daddy, and all the Kings back to Brumfitt Kings.  Brumfitt was a painter who turned the island into a home way back in the 18th century, and the inspiration behind his mythical works can be seen near every nook and cranny of Loosewood Island.  His stories and images haunt Cordelia’s family, too.  The Kings’ pasts and futures seem bound up in the legends he created: they are blessed with the sea’s bounty, but that blessing comes with a curse as well.  Or so Cordelia’s Daddy says.  Given her family’s history on the island — their immense successes and devastating tragedies — it’s not hard to see why she might believe the stories herself, sometimes.

You might be able to tell from the narrator’s first name that The Lobster Kings is inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. (Sort of in a similar way to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, but I liked The Lobster Kings a whole lot more.)  It’s not a complete re-telling of the play, but the parallels are obvious, giving the story some sense of inevitability and poetic justice; even irony when some twists take an unexpected course.  At one point Cordelia does read the play in high school, and she realizes that her namesake doesn’t have a very happy ending.  Aside from the big themes: three very different sisters; the powerful father; the contested borders; and the howling storms, little allusions to the play create a nice treasure-hunt for Shakespeare fans.  (The meth-dealing jerk Eddie Gloucester, for example, isn’t nearly so eloquent as his wicked Elizabethan counterpart.  There’s also a line about eyes and jelly which winked at the reader…no ocular pun intended.)  

It’s not necessary to have read or seen King Lear, though, and when a parallel is extremely important the characters are good enough to discuss it plainly.  The tragedy and exhilaration in this book springs from more personal wells than royal legacy and misspent loyalty, though both of those subjects come up again and again.  This book focuses on family pride, on one woman’s intense desire to prove herself worthy of a name that has kept a whole community thriving for centuries.  Cordelia is an excellent lobsterman and a strong main character.  She loves her father and her sisters, and wants to do right by them as the eldest Kings child.  If that means pushing herself on dangerous waters, or stating the hard truths no one else wants to acknowledge, then she’s prepared to do the work. 

I liked reading the story from Cordelia’s point of view, and thought that Alexi Zentner did a marvelous job of getting into a 30-something woman’s head and heart. She’s got a forceful will, but isn’t nearly so hardened a captain as she’d like Loosewood’s tight-knit community to believe.  Between persistent romantic feelings for her married sternman Kenny, a strained sense of competition with her sisters, and the added tensions when hostile boats start encroaching on their territory from James Harbor on the mainland, Cordelia’s having trouble weathering all the storms inside of her.  She’s an unapologetic narrator but has moments of uncertainty, especially when it comes to her father.  He’s a loving parent and an inspiring figure on the island, but won’t back down or shed his pride, even against his daughters’ caution.  He’s a Kings. He’s the father of Kings, and even the darkly ominous fates Brumfitt painted — fates which can seem like a warning to later generations — won’t keep him from giving every ounce of energy to Loosewood Island and and to his family.  The family tension and the dramas within Loosewood’s community all affect Cordelia and keep her mind churning, until her own struggles start to resemble the tumultuous sea where she feels so at home.

While I don’t know too much about the lobstering life, Zentner’s descriptions of it were so detailed, and functioned so effortlessly, that I’m sure he captured the essence of that livelihood pretty well.  Each boat and crew had such a distinct personality that I felt as though I’d been hanging around those docks my whole life.  The anger whenever men from James Harbor would cut a Loosewood Island buoy became my anger.  The warm camaraderie between Cordelia’s fisherman friends made me see how such a hard life could be full of rewards.  And then the bouts of misery on board — the freezing mornings, fatal accidents, and grisly injuries — reminded me that I’m not nearly brave or devoted enough for such a line of work, no matter how much I like salt air on my face and the sight of weather on the horizon.  I would have been one of the tourists who come to Loosewood Island every year to see the scenes that Brumfitt painted, but I would want to be made of sterner stuff like Cordelia and her friends. (Oh drat. Sterner stuff. Forgive the unintentional fisherman puns.)

The Lobster Kings is a unique new novel with a wonderful descriptive voice.  The Kings family, at the heart of the tale, seems truly real despite the Shakespearean bent to their lives and relationships.  Loosewood Island could be a character in its own right, especially when we see it through the artistic viewpoint of Brumfitt Kings’ fictional legacy.  I don’t know much about art or fishing, but Zentner writes with such vivid detail that I fell completely in love with each subject by the end. 

The mythical properties of the unforgiving sea, which makes up a huge part of the Kings family history, was mesmerizing to me.  It may, however, get old too soon for readers who aren’t so keen on selkie stories and elemental curses.  I don’t think those moments of unearthly imagery ever overshadowed the very human pulse which kept this story alive, though. The sense of place never faltered, shining through the atmosphere and characters of The Lobster Kings on every page. 

Read it if you’re ever homesick for the sea, if you like stories about art and hard work, or if you love novels about close towns and complicated families.  Don’t wait until it comes out in paperback, either. (And please buy from an independent store if you can!!)  This book is too good to miss, and it’s hard to leave Loosewood Island once the story ends.