AFTER THE FALL — A REVIEW

Life in TriBeCa in the late summer and early fall of 2001 seems precarious to Corrine and Russell Calloway, whose marriage may be on the skids.

Corrine has returned to her career, while still juggling motherhood and other commitments; Russell seems detached and distant, arousing all of the suspicions that have accompanied the two of them since their separation a few years previously.

“When she had yearned to be a mother, imagining what it would be like to be a parent, it had been easy to conjure the joy…the scenes of tenderness, the Pieta moments. What you don’t picture are the guilt and the fear that take up residence at the front of your brain, like evil twins you didn’t bargain for. Fear, because you’re always worried about what might go wrong, especially if your kids were born, as hers were, three months early.”

In the opening pages of The Good Life, we sense who these characters are, with their privileged lifestyle that should make them the objects of envy. However, we can also see the fraying seams of their existence.

Suddenly and totally out of the blue, their worlds are shattered by the events a few days later. The 9/11 events that turned a city into a shocking inferno, and the rest of the world into a frightening place to live.

In the aftermath, Corrinne happens upon a man near Ground Zero.

“Staggering up West Broadway, coated head to foot in dun ash, he looked like a statue commemorating some ancient victory, or, more likely, some noble defeat–a Confederate general, perhaps. That was her second impression….”

And she thus meets Luke McGavock, a man who will become a central part of her life in the weeks ahead. His life, too, is unraveling.

In these moments when the two of them connect, the tragic events seemingly open them to new possibilities. A little while later, they become connected further when they volunteer at a kind of soup kitchen for the rescue workers.

What will next happen between them? Will their common goals lead to something more? Will they reach out for the comfort of each other to assuage the ills of their marriages? Or will the baggage of their lives prevent a fresh start?

The author’s prose captured my attention and kept me turning pages. I soon came to care about Corrinne and Luke, and less so about their spouses, Russell and Sasha.

I wanted the journey to continue, with everyone learning valuable lessons from what had happened. But in the end, would the old habits and expectations cling to them all like the ash from the inferno? Would only a residual of the experience remain to remind them of what could have been? A story that seemed to promise much, but didn’t quite deliver what I hoped for. Four stars.

TUESDAY INTROS/TEASERS: THE GOOD LIFE — APRIL 24

Welcome to another Tuesday celebrating bookish events, from Tuesday/First Chapter/Intros, hosted by Bibliophile by the Sea; and Teaser Tuesdays hosted by Should Be Reading.

Just grab your book and share the opening lines; then find another excerpt that “teases” the reader.  Today I’m featuring a book that’s been on my TBR stacks, languishing away, and I’m now eager to dive in.  The Good Life, by Jay McInerney, is a story of love, family, conflicting desires, and catastrophic loss in his most powerfully searing work thus far.

Opening Lines:  Summer used to be as endless as the ocean when she was a girl and her family rented the gray shingled cottage on Nantucket.  Now she found it hard to believe she was already back in Manhattan and the kids were in school and she was already racing home, late again, feeling guilty that she’d lingered over a drink with Casey Reynes.  The kids had been home for hours after their first day in first grade, and she had yet to hear about it.

Women blamed themselves; men blamed anything but.

This was Corrine’s interpretation of the guilt nipping at her high heels as she cantered up Hudson Street from the subway, passing the hand-lettered sign in the window of their Chinese takeout:  FRESHLY GROUND COFFEE.  Guilt about leaving the kids for so long, about not helping Russell with dinner, about attempting to restart her long-dormant professional life.  Oh, to be grounded herself.  Seven-fifteen by her watch.  Still attuned to the languorous rhythm of the summer—they’d just closed up the house in Sagaponack four days ago—she’d barely had time to kiss the kids good-bye this morning and now the guests would be arriving at any minute, Russell frenzied with cooking and child care.

Bad mother, bad wife, bad hostess.  Bad.

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What do you think?  Would you keep reading?

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Teaser:  How were you supposed to trust your judgment when your sense of proportion and balance had been shattered, when the governing body that generally checked your emotions was overthrown, anarchy threatening to break out at any moment? p. 161

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Amazon Description:  Clinging to a semiprecarious existence in TriBeCa, Corrine and Russell Calloway have survived a separation and are thoroughly wonderstruck by young twins whose provenance is nothing less than miraculous, even as they contend with the faded promise of a marriage tinged with suspicion and deceit. Meanwhile, several miles uptown and perched near the top of the Upper East Side’s social register, Luke McGavock has postponed his accumulation of wealth in an attempt to recover the sense of purpose now lacking in a life that often gives him pause—especially with regard to his teenage daughter, whose wanton extravagance bears a horrifying resemblance to her mother’s. But on a September morning, brightness falls horribly from the sky, and people worlds apart suddenly find themselves working side by side at the devastated site, feeling lost anywhere else, yet battered still by memory and regret, by fresh disappointment and unimaginable shock. What happens, or should happen, when life stops us in our tracks, or our own choices do? What if both secrets and secret needs, long guarded steadfastly, are finally revealed? What is the good life?

Posed with astonishing understanding and compassion, these questions power a novel rich with characters and events, both comic and harrowing, revelatory about not only New York after the attacks but also the toll taken on those lucky enough to have survived them. Wise, surprising, and, ultimately, heart-stoppingly redemptive, The Good Life captures lives that allow us to see–through personal, social, and moral complexity–more clearly into the heart of things.

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What are you sharing today?  I hope you’ll come on by with some comments and links.

LIVES DEFINED BY ACCIDENTAL MOMENTS — A REVIEW

A summer in 1922 marks a defining moment for Cora Carlisle, a middle-aged housewife from Wichita, Kansas. Her life is seemingly wonderful, but secrets lie behind the mask she wears. From her beginnings as an orphan child sent to Kansas on a train to the marriage full of deceit, Cora has much to hide. And a longing that she has expressed to no one informs her decision to chaperone a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks, a dance student.

What will Cora uncover in her free moments while Louise is in class? How does a journey that began with a secret agenda turn into something even more significant in her life for years to come?

Even after the summer is over, decisions made in the final days will affect many lives.

We follow Cora’s and Louise’s journeys from the twenties, with highlights of historical significance marking the passage of time. From the years of Prohibition to the later years when freedoms were granted to marginalized individuals, Cora finds her voice in the fights for those who have none.

And throughout the years, Cora keeps track of the ups and downs in the life of Louise Brooks, her charge during those momentous weeks one summer. The willful, difficult child who, for a shining moment, was famous. And then when her public life seemed over, she began another chapter.

In many ways, Cora has seen it all. In the closing pages, as she reaches the end of her life, a metaphorical train seemingly rumbles by, rocking gently while moving forward, following the passage of an orphan child on her journey to the accidental life she would never have otherwise experienced.

Beautifully portrayed characters filled the pages of The Chaperone, and each brought significant reminders of the times and settings in which they lived. Despite the fictional events, many factual moments were chronicled in the life of Louise Brooks. Imagining these surrounding events was the author’s gift to the reader. Wouldn’t we all like to know the true details in the lives of the famous? A five star read that captivated me from beginning to end, showing much more than I expected to find.

CREATING A NEW LIFE FROM OLD WRECKAGE — A REVIEW

After living in the old, genteel building in Brooklyn throughout his marriage, Harry Quirk has come to take his life there for granted. But throughout his thirty year marriage to Luz, there have been turbulent shifts beneath the seemingly placid surface of their union that have finally broken through and disrupted the balance. Luz has kicked Harry out, accusing him of infidelity with his friend Marion, and despite his innocence, she will not hear anything that challenges her strong belief system.

As Harry struggles to manage his life on the “outside” of The Astral, while searching for anything and everything that can somehow redeem him in Luz’s eyes and allow him back into the marriage and the home, he gradually begins to form a new kind of life for himself.

Meanwhile, grown children Karina and Hector grab Harry’s attention, with their lifestyle choices and the dissonance created by their values.

I enjoyed immersing myself into the Brooklyn world of these characters, feeling as though the streets they walked and the neighborhood haunts they visited were vivid and real enough to be part of my own world…at least for awhile.

What unexpected moments suddenly illuminate Harry and help him face up to the path he must take? And how does he finally confront the differences between himself and Luz enough to let go of the failed dream?

Told in the first person narration of Harry, The Astral: A Novel offered a realistic portrayal of life from his perspective. I could feel his angst, his concerns, and see, through his eyes, the realizations he reached.

Five stars.

A TALE OF LOSS & SERENDIPITY — A REVIEW

A breathtaking and lyrical tale unfolds as we meet, in turn, two female characters: Julie Holt, a New Yorker and native of Massachusetts and Aimee Guidry, maternal “great-grandmother” of Julie’s best friend Monica Guidry.

After Monica’s death, Julie takes Monica’s son Beau back to Biloxi, to the beachfront property left to them in Monica’s will. What Julie finds, however, is a storm-ravaged home (Katrina) and dead beach trees. Her journey next leads her to the home of Ray Von Williams, who gives her a mysterious package and directs her to New Orleans and to Aimee.

As the relationships between the characters are revealed over the following pages, we learn the stories of the two women, told in first person narration by each of them. Aimee’s story begins in the 1950s and details the pre-and post-Hurricane Camille years, while Julie’s shows us the mysterious loss of her sister Chelsea during their childhood.

As a backdrop to the family stories, we watch as Julie, in partnership with Monica’s brother Trey, who shares ownership of the beach cottage, take on its restoration and gradually begin to trust and even like each other. Will a romantic connection develop here?

What the tales of the women reveal about their families, the secrets they carry, and the mysterious connections between them is the backbone of The Beach Trees: a tale told with beautiful language, poignant themes of loss and reconnecting, and the gradual unfolding of the mysteries of the past that underscore its timeliness. The lively and very real and flawed characters are reminders that, in the face of great destruction, people can begin again.

Five stars.

A PIERCING TALE OF LOVE LOST, FOUND, & EMBRACED AGAIN — A REVIEW

When Raymond Gaver’s plane crashes enroute from LA to NY, Charlie Leveque, his attorney, is the one to tell Raymond’s ex-wife Martha. Martha, who remembers hating Charlie for his role in turning her world upside down in the divorce from Raymond.

And now she discovers that he is the executor of the estate and the one to whom she must address financial requests for her son Jack.

Sorting through the detritus of a life abruptly ended brings these characters in close proximity with one another, and then, almost by accident, Charlie and Martha become friends. She begins to understand that he is not to blame for how Raymond tore her life apart, and, in fact, he has gone through his own divorce and is left trying to figure out how to raise his teenage daughter Phoebe. They realize they have more in common than they thought.

As their relationship begins to change and they become close, they discover that, as it turns out, their children are tight friends, who may be more than friends. Instead of making life easier, this complicates things.

The journey of these characters in forging their new lives, separately, and later together, is beautifully wrought, set against the backdrop of Manhattan life with all of its complexities.

Gutcheon has a unique talent for showing us what life looks like in Manhattan in the 1990s, and especially how to navigate life after divorce in these times. She is brilliant at dialogue, showing us the delightfully awkward movements of adults discovering new love, just as she also takes us right into the world of teenagers, with all their funky behaviors and appearances. We begin to see each of the characters; we hear what they hear and chuckle at their flaws, foibles, and missteps. Here is an excerpt that spotlights some of the issues for Martha and Charlie:

“Martha looked doubtful. She was so tired she could hardly remember why it was she couldn’t just fall into his arms and go to sleep. Why couldn’t they just tell the children to behave themselves? Think of the pleasure of cooking breakfast together for all three children, of going to bed together two nights in a row, of going to the supermarket together and deciding together what to cook, of taking a walk together without having to arrange baby-sitters or take three subways to get to each other to do it. Think of sitting together in lamplight after dinner, reading and looking forward to going upstairs to bed together, instead of looking forward to going out in the rain, getting in a cab, and going sixty blocks to sleep alone.”

We meet other characters along the way, like Sophie, Charlie’s ex-girlfriend, and her sister Connie, whose marriage is falling apart. These characters intersect with the others, almost randomly, but their appearances somehow shape and redefine the lives of our major players.

But what obstacles will appear to seemingly derail their lives? How do the complexities of sharing their domestic lives somehow prevent or complicate those ordinary moments? And how, finally, will each of them sort it all out so that the domestic pleasures can be accessible to them?

I loved Domestic Pleasures : A Novel and thoroughly enjoyed savoring the lives of such colorful and real characters that made me root for them, and long for their victories, even as they struggled. There were humorous and sad moments, just as there are in real life, in this memorable tale that I highly recommend for anyone who enjoys touching, piercing stories of love lost, found, and embraced once again. Five stars.