Review: A Future Arrived

Monday, February 18, 2013


The final installment of the saga of the Grevilles of Abingdon Pryory begins in the early 1930s, as the dizzy gaiety of the Jazz Age comes to a shattering end. What follows is a decade of change and uncertainty, as the younger generation, born during or just after the "war to end all wars," comes of age.
American writer Martin Rilke has made his journalistic mark, earning worldwide fame with his radio broadcasts, and young Albert Thaxton seeks to follow in his footsteps as a foreign correspondent. Derek Ramsey, born only weeks after his father fell in France, and Colin Ross, a dashing Yankee, leave their schoolboy days behind and enter fighter pilot training as young men. The beautiful Wood-Lacy twins, Jennifer and Victoria, and their passionate younger sister, Kate, strive to forge independent paths, while learning to love—and to let go.
In their heady youth and bittersweet growth to adulthood, they are the future—but the shadows that touched the lives of the generation before are destined to reach out to their own.

I was quite sad to finish this book but not for the reasons I expected. I loved "The Passing Bells," the first book in the series and very much enjoyed its sequel "Circles of Time." By the time I was able to get my hands on the third and final book in the series I thought it would be quite hard to say goodbye to the characters.

I mistakenly assumed that Rock would at least honor readers' commitment to the characters they'd been following through World War One and the 1920s. Instead, he introduces an entire new set of characters - the children of the Grevilles, Wood-Lacys and others from the first two books - and proceeds to rush through not only their introductions but ten years of their lives in about four hundred and fifty pages.

Rock's weaknesses are even more noticeable without the bulwark of his fine characterizations to hold up the book. Couples meet and fall in love almost instantly. It's impossible to tell the couples apart because they all talk to each other in the same overheated, melodramatic ways. The battle scenes lack the heart-breaking intensity of the WWI battle scenes - possibly because the war starts so quickly in the book and doesn't seem to terribly concern any of the characters since they're so busy sorting out their own personal problems.

Meanwhile, we barely see the older generation - Anthony and Hanna Greville, the old guard who have seen so much change. What an extraordinary opportunity to show just how much the world changed for these two people who were born in the 1860s but (presumably) lived long enough to see the dawn of the Atomic Age. Or Martin Rilke, whose career as a journalist the reader has seen develop over the course of three books. He's reduced to giving radio broadcasts that function as information dumps to let the reader know where they are in the timeline. The books ends with a death that echos back to a loss in the first book but Rock doesn't even allow the reader time to understand the implications of that loss. The book ends almost immediately afterward.

I'd be interested to know if Rock had some sort of deadline or was in failing health because "Future" is of a noticeably different quality than the other books. I came to "The Passing Bells" trilogy concerned that it was a reprint of a cheesy '70s series trying to make money off the Downton Abbey craze. The first two books were fine works of fiction but the final entry in the trilogy left a sour taste, affirming all my worst suspicions.

Unfortunately, readers who have read the first two books will probably want to finish the trilogy - I would suggest finding a way to buy it used or borrow it from a library. 

Reading Updates

Monday, February 11, 2013

Although it technically meets the requirements for historical fiction (it's set more than fifty years in the past and occurs before the author was born), I don't know that Frances and Bernard would really interest most mainstream historical fiction readers. This short novel isn't really about a place and a time (although it manages to subtly evoke a beautiful sense of New York City in the late 1950s), it's much more concerned with exploring big ideas in an honest, open-hearted way that now seems rare in contemporary fiction. There's God and friendship and love and madness and writing and yet none of it feels belabored. I read this 190-some page book in about a day and yet I felt like I had spent hours upon hours with the characters, immersed in their lives.

I ended up copying out numerous lines from this book, usually I dog-ear the pages or underline or highlight but I was the first person to check out this brand-new library copy and it would be a very cruel thing to deny the next reader the pleasure of discovering the sentences for themselves, so I'll include just one of my favorite lines here:

“You rely on your books for the things the rest of us search for in people.”

I won't say much more about the book other than to urge all readers to find it and give it a try - I'm almost certain you won't be sorry.

Review: The Painted Girls

Saturday, February 9, 2013

1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde. 

Be prepared - Painted Girls is not an easy book. It is not a book of carriages and gaslamp-lit stages, fluffy costumes and girls discovering the enchantment of the ballet. The Van Goethem sisters' livelihood appears only incidentally, crushed by the larger concerns that make up the daily life of a ballerina in 1870s Paris - friends in the ballet company who can turn to enemies in an instant, the stretched agony of muscles reaching their breaking point and the uncomfortable glances of the adones, the men looking to "sponsor" the young ballerinas.

In alternating chapters told in first-person present tense, Buchanan lets the two oldest Van Goethem sisters tell their story. Initially, I was incredibly put off by the decision to use present tense - it felt insistent and rushed. At times, I had to go back to the chapter headings to recall which sister was speaking. After about 60 pages I grew used to it and even came to like how the use of present tense mimics the girls' own lives - overworked, overwhelmed and not always able to make the best decisions.

The evocation of period detail here is brilliant - by the end, the story had me thinking out expenses in francs and agonizing over the cost of a torn skirt or a missing ribbon - all the little things that make a difference for the poor, lower-class sisters who are competing in the same ballet classes against more secure, middle-class students.  

Buchanan wisely makes a creative leap so that this isn't just a story of sisters fighting and dancing. It's known that Marie, the younger of the sisters modeled for Degas at the same time as a series of murders caught the imagination of Paris. While there is no known documentation that Antionette, the older sisters, knew one of the accused murderers – their relationship is one of the finest elements of the book. What could have been an unbelievable, contrived relationship is instead an agonizing, well-examined love affair.  

The ending was far too comfortable  - a pat, romance-novel finish when the unflinching realism of the book up until that point has told the reader such a thing is impossible. I was expecting Buchanan to finish the story with something close to the bittersweet ending in Girl with a Pearl Earring - bittersweet and completely true to the time. Some readers may also find that the unrelenting unhappiness of the sisters' lives and their often bad decisions may make it difficult to identify with anyone in the book. I finished the book a couple of days ago and found myself thinking more about Buchanan's skills as a writer and researcher than the characters or the story - quite simply, the sisters left me cold.

Still, it's nice to know that Degas' statue of Marie is housed just down the street from me at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. I'm very much looking forward to visiting her and seeing her with new eyes.

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 

Review: The Secret Keeper

Sunday, February 3, 2013

During a summer party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is happily dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the long road to the farm and watches as her mother speaks to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime. A crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy—her vivacious, loving, nearly perfect mother. Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress living in London. The family is gathering at Greenacres farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this may be her last chance, Laurel searches for answers to the questions that still haunt her from that long-ago day, answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past. Dorothy’s story takes the reader from pre–WWII England through the blitz, to the ’60s and beyond. It is the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined. The Secret Keeper explores longings and dreams and the unexpected consequences they sometimes bring. It is an unforgettable story of lovers and friends, deception and passion that is told—in Morton’s signature style—against a backdrop of events that changed the world.

I should have learned by now - I start all Kate Morton books with a great deal of anticipation only to get bogged down about a hundred pages in by the very slowly developing mystery and shifting time lines. Usually, I set it down only to come back and finish the book in one great gulp as all the plot lines and mysteries come together. By the end, I'm almost heartbroken that it's ended and find myself wishing for more.

The Secret Keeper was no different. I was drawn in the main narrator - Laurel, a famous actress in her sixties, facing the death of mother she adored. Laurel and her mother are bound by a horrific event forty years before, an event Laurel has struggled to understand in the context of her mother's life and her own. She starts her own investigation into her mother's past and we're soon flung back into a beautifully recreated Blitz-era London - Morton only needs a song or a slash of red lipstick to bring that world to life. I loved that she somehow managed to make that much-examined era feel fresh and current with the characters' personal problems crowding around - and sometimes crowding out - the larger concerns of war.

Back in the current timeline, Morton has also done a better job of integrating real feeling and some deeper observations about love, friendship and parent-child relationships. In her past books, feeling has served second to the mystery but that certainly isn't the case here as in this passage where Laurel sits by the bedside of her dying mother:

"The previous speech, whatever memories it had brought with it, had tired Dorothy - the wind lost from her sails and she was slumped  now against the cushions....Laurel studied her mother's profile, wishing she had been a different sort of daughter, wishing there was more time, that she could go back and do it all again, not leave everything to the last and find herself sitting at her mother's bed with so many blanks to fill."

Morton does a beautiful job of balancing perspectives on characters - I especially loved a chapter late in the novel introducing the reader to the childhood of one of the main protagonists. The writing and imagery in this chapter was gorgeous and yet increased the suspense related to the main plot. Almost everyone in the book has something to hide or has done something morally questionable and yet they were all fascinating, sympathetic people. My main quibble was with the central relationship between Dolly and Vivien - while the book gave reasons for Dolly's obsession with Vivien, I found that element of the book underdeveloped and since this is the main hinge upon which the plot swings, I had to move past that disbelief and accept all that came afterwards.

The central mysteries and secrets didn't seem quite as far-fetched as plot twists in other Morton novels and while one plot element I suspected all along did end up happening, I was still engaged until the end. Looking back, I can see that I've reviewed this book based largely on Morton's previous works. Really, that's the only to evaluate this unique author who has built a mini-genre all her own out of shifting plots set in England from about 1880-1940. She'll most likely return to these topics again and again - and because she does such a beautiful job each time, I'll always return!

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.