REVIEW: THE PRICE OF SALT, BY PATRICIA HIGHSMITH

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Set in Manhattan in the early 1950s, The Price of Salt takes the reader into a forbidden love between two women: one, Therese Belivet, a set designer, and a wealthy suburban wife and mother, Carol Aird.

It is nearly Christmas in the year the two meet, when Therese was working as a temporary employee at Frankenberg’s, a department store. The author describes the first moments, as the two gaze across the room at one another…and then Carol approaches, followed by a shop transaction that takes place involving a delivery. Could something momentous be happening?

It doesn’t take long before they are drawn together again, for a lunch, then drinks, and then a visit to Carol’s suburban home, and, at the very least, a friendship is developing. Carol and her husband are separated, and their daughter Rindy goes back and forth between them.

Nothing overt happens between Therese and Carol, but within a few weeks, they are traveling across the country, toward the West…and their lives are changing dramatically.

Meanwhile, Carol discovers something very sinister is happening, at the hands of her husband. Will the two be ripped apart? Will it be a question for Carol of losing her daughter?

The intense and somewhat obsessive love between them could end; in any case, their lives could be altered moving forward. Wondering what will happen and if the societal expectations of the times will dictate the course of their feelings is a reminder, once again, of how times have changed and how stultifying the world once was. A timeless tale that could be about any kind of forbidden love, gay, straight, or otherwise…and was captivating in its ability to describe the longing of two people reaching across barriers to be together. 4.5 stars.

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REVIEW: IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT, BY JUDY BLUME

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The opening lines of In the Unlikely Event take place in 1987, with an unnamed character experiencing great anxiety as she ponders whether or not to board a flight to Newark, NJ. She is suffering the angst of belonging to a very special secret club of members joined by a tragic winter long ago.

Flash back to December 1951, to a small New Jersey town called Elizabeth. Christmas lights are out and there is gaiety in the air. It won’t be long, though, before everything changes for the residents of this picturesque town.

The first plane crash comes only days later, with everyone aboard dead. It landed in a riverbed, so the damage below was negligible.

The residents of the town haven’t even recovered when, in January 1952, the second crash occurs. And a month later, another one.

Henry Ammerman is a journalist covering the story for the local newspaper, and he finds a measure of fame through his provocative columns, as he probes the questions that plague them all. What is happening? Are the crashes coincidental, or is there some kind of sabotage behind them? Some blame “the Communists,” while the teenagers mention aliens.

As the story unfolds, we meet numerous characters, some seemingly random and their presence in the tale becomes readily apparent, as they connect in some way to the plane crashes. Like Ruby Granik, a young dancer and a victim; or Kathy Stein, who has been dating Steve Osner, a resident of Elizabeth, also dead in one of the crashes.

Miri Ammerman, the daughter of single mom Rusty and niece of Henry, is fifteen, and her life is shaken by these happenings, just as the life of her best friend Natalie Osner takes a strange turn. Has Natalie been “taken over” by the deceased spirit of one of the victims?

Even as I loved certain aspects of this novel, the numerous characters, most mentioned only once or twice, were confusing and distracting. I would have loved to dig more deeply into the lives of the primary characters, like what has Rusty been feeling all these years, raising Miri alone, with no help from the father? And when he does appear, why is she so reluctant to let him help? How do the core characters deal with the aftermath of these events?

Then, almost abruptly, we flash forward to 1987, with Miri returning to Elizabeth for a memorial of that strange year. And in a quick summarizing of events, we are caught up on what has transpired in the lives of those residents, another reminder of how much I would have enjoyed the story with more depth and a focus on the core characters. An engaging novel, however. 4 stars.

REVIEW: THE UNWITTING, BY ELLEN FELDMAN

91wYirk+gzL._SL1500_Our story begins on November 22, 1963, when we meet Charlie and Nell Benjamin, poised for an ordinary day, living the writer’s life in Manhattan. But nothing about this day would be ordinary. Grief, both the country’s grief and her own, would overwhelm Nell for the foreseeable future.

We are then swept back in time, to college years, and to how Charlie and Nell first met. We are exposed to what happened to them during the McCarthy years, and how that era felt to writers and intellectuals with liberal leanings, and we can experience the dark and malevolent shadow of evil that lingered for years.

They were a couple for whom writing was a way of life and even though their choices tested the conventional roles of their time, the two of them, even after the birth of their daughter Abby, seemed to be coping. Their idealism kept them going, even when life was difficult.

But in the pivotal moments after Charlie’s mysterious death, bits and pieces of who he really was began to come to Nell from various sources, including a televised piece that suggested some unethical funding for the literary magazine they both loved. How did the secrets and lies change who they were and what they contributed? Did the secrets change who they had been, or is there another way to see it?

When Nell writes a piece about what she has learned, readers react in interesting ways. Some applaud her, while others suggest that Charlie was just doing right by his country. “Others railed against him for undermining the American system and warned that the road to tyranny was paved with means justified by ends.”

In the end, Nell comes to her own conclusions that allow for the imperfections in others, the ambiguity of ideals, and holding onto what remains. A person could focus on the transgressions and misdemeanors or zero in on the “glue that held you, no matter what.” The Unwitting: A Novel was a thoughtful journey through a time in our country and in the life of one family. Memorable. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: SHELTERING RAIN, BY JOJO MOYES

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Three generations of women–mothers and daughters–are the core characters in Sheltering Rain; we join the first of them in 1953, in Hong Kong, where young Joy and her best friend Stella are waiting to listen to the coronation ceremony of Elizabeth II. On that same day, Joy meets a young man, a naval officer, named Edward Ballantyne, and before the day is out, the two have pledged themselves to one another.

Leaping forward to 1997, in Ireland, we first meet Sabine Ballantyne, Joy and Edward’s granddaughter, aged sixteen and eager to put distance between herself and her mother Kate. We experience both Kate and the grandparents through Sabine’s eyes, as the teenager flails against her mother’s choices, while also finding her grandparents’ rules and regulations unbearable. She reaches out to the men who work with the horses, and soon finds solace in riding.

The story unfolds slowly, moving back and forth through time, until we begin to see how the secrets, betrayals, and pain of the past have affected each of them. Will they find a way to work through their differences? How will discovering what was hidden in the past help them in the present?

The author brings the reader right into the Irish countryside, into the pubs, and shows us the emotional terrain of the characters’ lives in very satisfying ways.

At one point or another, I found each of the characters frustrating. I liked that we began with Joy, as meeting her first through Sabine’s eyes would have made her unlikable. And understanding Sabine from her own perspective made it possible to overlook her rudeness and lashing out when we saw her through Kate’s eyes. However, I found it difficult to like Sabine, even understanding her point of view. Her self-absorption is probably typical for someone her age, but she seemed to go out of her way to be cruel to her mother.

Kate is the character in the middle, in a sense, sandwiched between a disapproving mother and a rebellious daughter. But as she begins to search through her past mistakes and learn from them, we see hope for them all. In the end, the climactic events bring closure and a sense of connection. 4.0 stars.