Bits and Bobs from the Bookshelf

~Fates and Furies Lauren Groff I found this a difficult book to get into. The author has a curiously clipped manner of writing that I found to be somewhat jarring and prevented me from getting into a good flow in the beginning.But once you do, this book is brilliant. Lotto and Mathilde Satterwhite marry a mere two weeks after meeting and move to New York in the early ’90’s. The first half of the book, “Fates” belongs to Lotto. We learn about his childhood, upbringing and how he meets Mathilde. Lotto comes from a rich family, he’s 6’6″ and blessed with a charm and charisma that draws people to him. After he and Mathilde marry Lotto struggles to make it as an actor while Mathilde works full time in an art gallery to make ends meet. They are poor but seemingly happy. Years pass until one New Year’s Eve in a drunken stupor, Lotto writes a play about his tangled family background and goes on to become a successful playwright. Mathilde quits her job and they move to the country where Mathilde quietly runs their life and Lotto continues to be a huge success. The only dark spot in all of this, is that the couple have never had children. The second half of the book, Furies is Mathilde’s story. Here, what we have learned through Lotto is summarily dismantled and reconstructed by Mathilde. We learn of her own upbringing, why she has no family and the real reason the couple has never had children. We get to see how Mathilde has operated in the shadows and kept lots of secrets in order for Lotto to lay claim to his version of events. Lotto’s half of the book is generally sunny and positive. Mathilde’s half? Not so much! Mathilde’s half has a much darker tone as she remembers all the sacrificing and scrabbling endured before success was achieved. As is pointed out at one point in the novel, the only difference between comedy and tragedy is the question of perspective. Apparently the same rule applies to marriage. This is a bold and complex novel, sophisticated and messy all at the same time and for that I loved it. I also loved the searing astringency with which Groff writes especially in Mathilde’s half, which quite frankly, I found a lot more enjoyable. It’s a touch chilling with a soupçon of the macabre. And while I can’t say enough about the genius way in which Groff strings her words together, sometimes the prose feels like it’s flying a bit too high, which, every so often, makes reading feel like a bit of a slog. Overall, though, this is an incredibly fascinating and insightful look into a marriage.

~Swing Time Zadie Smith This book brought to mind Amor Towles’ Gentleman in Moscow — only with less charm and more edge. The subject matter is not even remotely related, but Swing Time too is a book that is in no hurry to go anywhere. The narrator, who is never given a name, and Tracey, meet as the only “brown” girls in a local dance class and become best friends almost by default. They spend endless hours watching and re-watching the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film that gives the book its title, along with other musicals, acting them out and practicing their dance moves. As the two grow older they grow apart. Tracey, who always had more talent in the dance department does go on to have a modicum of success as a professional dancer but ultimately falls back into the poverty where she started. Our narrator becomes a personal assistant to a famous pop star, Aimee, spending nine years of her life doing the singer’s bidding in one form or another, ultimately becoming embroiled in a scandal and then fired, which is where the novel starts out. Large chunks of the book are spent in Africa when Aimee decides to open a school for girls and the narrator must make several trips there to oversee the progress of things. Other parts take place in London: visits with the narrator’s father, complicated conversations with her mother who has become an activist, dealings with Tracey who pops up repeatedly during the years. It’s a rich and multilayered story and so many parts feel wise and soulful. I loved the storyline when it involved Tracey who is brash and bold and broken. And the parts involving the complicated relationship with her mother and the less fraught one with her father, feel real and compelling. But the parts with Aimee feel flat and uninspiring in comparison. Aimee displays all the shallow self-centredness you might imagine of a pop star, but her obvious and naive desire to throw money at a cause without regard for the consequences, as we see with her dealings in Africa, along with her sudden decision to adopt a baby girl from there, all feels rather stale and a little predictable. And it pains me to say this, but by the time I had finished reading I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. There is no denying Smith’s talent as a writer, and as a self-professed lover of long, windy novels that go nowhere, I certainly couldn’t hold that against it. And the book has plenty to say about race, about friendship, and certainly identity. In the end, the book feels like a series of beautifully written pieces that never quite fully coagulate and I found myself rather disconcertingly thinking sometimes that Smith should write less and say more. When all is said and done it is an impressive and well written book that, for me, just never quite lives up to the sum of its parts and somehow lacks the elegant gravitas that I thought it would have.

~Dark Matter Blake Crouch Jason Dessen is briefly leaving his wife and son one evening to visit with an old friend. He’ll be back before dinner’s on the table, he promises, armed with ice cream. That, of course, doesn’t happen. While he’s gone he’s kidnapped by a masked stranger, drugged and wakes up strapped to a gurney in a world that does not belong to him. Indeed, Jason is in an alternate reality, one where he has made sharply different choices. In this world he has no wife, no son and his staid college teaching job has been replaced with a high powered, high profile career in the world of quantum mechanics, a world that Jason left behind when he chose family. What Jason discovers is that this alternate Jason has created a box through which he can travel to different dimensions…the multiverse paradox. Jason must use this to get back to his own world, but in the process of going through different doors to get there, he produces many versions of himself, all of whom want his life and whom he must now fight off. The book is a fast, high energy read. Sentences are short, often just two or three words which has a tendency to speed up your reading and carry you along on a tidal wave of adrenaline, leaving you little time to ponder the ins and outs of everything. It might be as well really, ’cause I’m pretty sure that if I stopped to think about quantum mechanics for too long my brain would start to hurt. It’s a fun and thrilling look at the what ifs and maybes of life, that perpetual need to look at the road not travelled.


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *