Review of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a novel that was not on my radar until it showed up as a Book of the Month pick (before I was a member) and SO many bookstagrammers started posting about it. I read this as a buddy read with one of my book buddies–Priscilla of @2.ps.in.a.bookstagram.

This novel centers around Evelyn Hugo, a starlet whose fame and acquirement of husbands (a la Elizabeth Taylor) rose to astronomical proportions in the 50s and 60s. The book starts in present day with a reporter, Monique, from a fictional magazine coming to interview Evelyn about her life. Most of the story is Evelyn telling Monique about her life. I loved the format of the book. Sections are divided by the names of Evelyn’s seven husbands. At first glance, this may seem like a frothy, light read about an aging celebrity. (Which is what I though going in) Trust me, it is not. This book examines the role and treatment of a female in Hollywood during this time period, and the lengths actresses went to to find success and fame. In addition, it really examines the many forms love takes as well as the importance of the legacy we leave behind.

This novel is definitely not at all what I expected it to be. It delved into places that I did not anticipate. Typically, I shy away from books that center on celebrity or celebrity life, which is odd because I enjoy reading about real celebrities in magazines like People. But, for some reason, reading about fictional celebrities is not something I seek out.  What I love about this novel is that while it does have a lot to do with Evelyn’s thirst for fame, it also has a lost of human elements in it too. In addition, the narrative seems really timely in light of the current sexual misconduct scandal in Hollywood which began with the outing of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged misconduct. After reading Taylor Jenkins Reid’s version of Evelyn’s life in the 50s and 60s, the question that begs an answer is, “Have we really come that far?” I fear the answer is no, and that is utterly depressing.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s approach to this narrative is unique and well-done. For me, a slow reader, this went by quickly, and I felt all the feelings. At certain points in the story, I sobbed. But it was, oh so good.

Bottom Line:I really enjoyed this book. It would be a fantastic choice for a book club read, because there is just so much to discuss. Loved this one! 5/5

Review of This Is How It Always Is

This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel is a pick for my work book club. I had a lot of expectations going into this one, because I had heard so many good things about it. And…it delivered. Mostly.

Rosie and Penn Walsh-Adams, a husband and wife, and their five sons–Roo (Roosevelt), Ben, Rigel, Orion, and Claude are a family of seven living in a large farmhouse in Wisconsin. Rosie is an ER doctor who works the night shift so she can help with family duties during the day. Penn is a work-at-home father who is a writer. The book centers around Claude, the youngest of the family who, by age 5, is struggling with gender identity, requesting to wear dresses and barrettes to school, and saying he wants to be a girl. This Is How It Always Is follows the members of the family as they navigate Claude’s revelation and what it means to be a family.

This quickly could have become an “issues book” with a clear agenda. Which is not a bad thing, but could easily turn off some readers. But This Is How It Always Is isn’t a book with an agenda. This book is an exploration about how Claude’s journey impacts the family and how each member is affected by decisions that are made. This is also the story of a marriage and how sometimes, in life, couples have to accept and traverse difficult situations that do not have clear answers. I love the dynamic between Rosie and Penn. They both want what is best for their family, but have different ideas about what exactly that is. It was interesting to see how their differing approaches played out as the story progressed.

My favorite quote in the book really stuck with me, and is a testament to Frankel’s excellent and at times, poignant writing . As a parent, this quote hit me in the heart (and the gut). It comes from Penn, when he and Rosie are discussing Claude:

“You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there is no alternative.”

Oh my goodness, friends, doesn’t this just sum up parenthood? This is what I love about this novel. It doesn’t matter what your political and/or religious affiliation is on the issue of gender identity. You can read this book and see the hope, the struggles, the heartache, and the love that it takes to be a member of any family and to be in a marriage. Because as a member of a family, there are always decisions that have to be made that impact the lives of everyone involved.

For the most part, I really enjoyed the first three fourths of the novel. The last fourth of the novel felt contrived and unrealistic to me. I will not say specifically why, because, you know, spoilers, but I will say that as a mother, I cannot fathom Rosie’s knee-jerk choice toward the end of the novel. Also, for readers who love a page turner, this book is not that. This Is How It Always Is is not a plot-driven novel, but more of a character study. I did not find myself scrambling to read it, but I am glad I finished it.

Bottom Line: I give this a 4/5 for the superb writing style, and the deep dive into what it means to be a family.

 

Review of The Underground Railroad

I just finished Coleson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Before I give my review, I would like to take a moment to speak to the fact that this book won The National Book Award. That is no small feat. Coleson Whitehead is a gifted writer and he crafts what he says deliberately and does not waste words. And, while his writing, for lack of a better term, is beautiful it is not excessive and self-indulgent.

So…a brief synopsis…

Cora, a slave on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, is a head-strong and capable young woman who endures countless atrocities at the hands of her owner and her fellow slaves. Cora and her quest to be free is the focal point of the novel. When Cora meets Caesar a new arrival to the Randall plantation, and he asks her to join him on an escape attempt, she agrees. The rest of the narrative follows her state by state quest for freedom.  In order to move from state to state, Cora utilizes the Underground Railroad which Whitehead reimagines as an actual system of conductors, railcars and stops that transports slaves from one destination to another. Along the way she encounters and is both helped, hindered, and abused by different characters. Whitehead is thorough in fleshing out the backstories of many of these characters. One such character is Ridgeway, a notorious slave catcher who prides himself on hunting down runaways and returning them to their owners. He is in pursuit of Cora for a majority of the novel.

I found this novel heartbreaking at points, and Whitehead’s descriptions of slave life and the treatment of the black population are harrowing and inexcusable. However, throughout the novel there are perspective shifts and time jumps that made it hard for me to stay invested in the heart of the story. The component of magical realism (the underground railroad being an actual train with no history or background to explain it) present in the novel will appeal to the taste of some readers, but it did not to mine. For me, I wish the focus would have remained on Cora and her journey. While reading, I was incredibly impacted by individual scenes, but not the over-arching story, which can be attributed (for me) to the time/perspective shifts throughout the narrative. I would never discourage a reader from this ambitious novel, because it is eye-opening and unique. However, there were a few narrative choices that I could just not get past which tarnished my reading experience.

That being said, I did love Cora and all she represented, and I rooted for her throughout the duration of the novel.

Bottom Line: This novel is an important look at slave life and is worth the investment in time it takes to read it, if only for Whitehead’s spectacular command of the written word. For me, there were issues in several of the narrative choices which affected my overall enjoyment and rating of the novel. My rating is a 3.5/5.

Review of The Confusion of Languages

The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon is a pick for one of my IRL (In Real Life) book clubs. I have to say I was SO excited to read this one. I was the one who nominated the book, and my excitement to read it was palpable.

The premise is so interesting. Cassie, an ex-pat living in Jordan with her husband who is in the armed forces, befriends Margaret, a fellow ex-pat, new to Jordan, in a similar situation. The two foster an initially, co-dependent friendship wherein Cassie attempts to teach Margaret the ins and outs of living in Jordan. However, Cassie soon realizes that Margaret has her own ideas about living in Jordan and how to conduct herself within the culture. The heart of the story lies in the fact that Margaret and Cassie are involved in a minor traffic accident. Margaret leaves her young son in Cassie’s care in order to take care of the traffic infraction, but never returns.

The narrative alternates between Cassie’s real time thoughts about what is happening and Margaret’s journal that Cassie uncovers in the hours that Margaret is missing. I really enjoyed this part of the story, especially the parts that helped to shed light on Margaret’s motivations based on her history with her own mother and her life before her marriage.

I would like to say that I did not hate this book. It was compelling, and at times, I felt like I couldn’t put it down. That being said, I did find that there were some issues with the overall narrative. First, I felt like many of the characters played into stereotypes. For example, Crick, Margaret’s husband, is a character driven solely by ego. Crick, along with several other characters, felt one-dimensional. Margaret and Crick have a complex past; however, the way Crick is portrayed in the book, leaves the reader to believe he is only motivated by strokes to his ego. By the conclusion of the book, this does not seem to be accurate; however there is no connection between how we get from Crick, the ego maniac, to the Crick at the end of the book. This is also the case with Saleh, the house manager where Margaret and her family reside. I did not like how one dimensional Saleh seemed in the story, and the path that his relationship with Margaret took during the story.

In addition, it is hard for me to love, or even like, a book where there is no character that I am rooting for. In this book, Hassan, an embassy guard who Margaret befriends, is my favorite character, but he is in the story so briefly, that he could not redeem my overall feelings about the book as a whole.

Again, I have to say, I SO wanted to love this book. The story had so much potential, but ultimately, I felt like it fell flat and was disappointing. By the end, I just didn’t care enough about either of the main characters (Cassie and Margaret) to care where their story ended. And I hate that. I am a reader who loves to get totally and completely absorbed in a story and root for the characters within. It just didn’t happen with this one for me.

I did feel sorry for Hassan and how his friendship with Margaret unfolds; but, really, I just felt let down by both Margaret and Cassie. They both felt really selfish and clueless, and I just wasn’t vested in their story.

This was an ambitious outing for Sibohan Fallon, and there is no doubt in my mind that she is a gifted writer. I just felt like a few character and plot points fell short for me. I would definitely read something from her again. And this is not to say that others would not enjoy this book. For me, it just didn’t live up to the hype I heard about it before I read it. That being said, I am in awe of Fallon’s bravery in tackling a tough subject matter and being able to craft a narrative that is both compelling and thought-provoking. I think this book would be a great choice for a book club because it offers ample material to discuss and contemplate.

Bottom Line: This is a compelling premise, but for me, there were some shortcomings in the narrative and the characters that I just couldn’t get over. I give it a 3/5. I do think this would be a great choice for a book club for its discussion merit.

 

 

A Review of The Sound of Gravel

I love a good memoir. My favorite thing about memoirs is that they allow me to connect and live vicariously through another person. Memoirs allow me to have experiences I never would have in the “real world.”

This memoir did not disappoint. Written by Ruth Wariner (known predominantly as Ruthie in the book), this book chronicles Ruthie’s life with her family in a polygamist colony in Mexico. Ruth and her siblings live in poverty with her mother and her stepfather (who is shared between multiple wives) in a house that is barely livable. Several times during the book, Ruthie remarks on the smell of mouse feces that greets her when she steps into the house in Mexico. For some reason, the mention of this smell several times throughout the book, really made an impact on me and my comprehension of the circumstances relevant to Ruthie’s existence in the colony. Ruthie’s mom, Kathy, another key player in the novel, is the catalyst in the trajectory of Ruthie’s life throughout the course of the novel. As a reader, Kathy’s role in Ruthie’s life circumstances is the most frustrating and compelling portion of the novel.

While this memoir is so opposite from anything that I have ever known, I found myself at times fascinated by the sense of community fostered in this colony, and at times repulsed by that same sense of community. The standouts for me were Ruthie’s relationship with her mother and her relationships with her siblings. Ruthie’s relationship with her mother, which is at times difficult, is a testament to the love between mother and daughter no matter what the circumstances. At times heart-breaking and raw, ultimately, this is a story of survival and the triumph of the human spirit. Ruth Wariner’s story is reminiscent of Jeannette Wall’s story in The Glass Castle. Fans of Wall’s story are certain to love and relate to Wariner’s story.

On a side note, this is a pick for my in-real-life (IRL) book club, and I cannot wait to discuss it with the ladies in the group. A true page-turner, this book provides the framework for rich discussion on complex characters and situations. If you are looking for a non-fiction pick for your book club, consider this one. It is largely driven by its narrative merit, but is a great study of the ability of a person to rise above the lot that has been prescribed for him or her.  Give it a read if you like narrative-driven non-fiction!

Bottom Line: I could not put this one down. My rating is 5/5.