Sunday, September 29, 2019

Review: 'The Most Fun We Ever Had'

The Most Fun We Ever Had
By Claire Lombardo
Literary Fiction
June 2019
ISBN: 978-0385544252

A long, winding novel about two parents who deeply love other for decades, and four sisters who are not always perfect but who are fully human and relatable -- the perfect novel when wanting to disappear into a good book.

Claire Lombardo's debut novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, is a balance of stories among all the members of the Sorenson family. David and Marilyn found each other at college, in a stairwell. They didn't know it then, but they each found their own person -- the one they were meant to be with, to be there for, to lean on.

Their four daughters think it's freakish how perfect their parents' lives are, how they still make out even. The reader's first introduction to each sister is how she  appears to be a highly functioning, successful person. Oh, but appearances are deceiving.

Caustic, wine-guzzling Wendy hits a bullseye on every member of her family whenever she says something to them. And even though she does something horrible to the sister closest to her, Wendy also immediately volunteers to try to help. That sister, Violet, is no longer a successful litigator but is instead a stay-at-home mom trying hard to be the very model of a modern homemaker. Liza discovers she has earned tenure, but neither that nor an unexpected pregnancy are anything her deeply depressed partner can deal with. And the youngest? Well, Grace is lying about what she's really doing hundreds of miles from home.

Even though their lives are not perfect, there is usually genuine harmony among the family. It's a remarkable portrait of each character. The slings, the hurts are not high-drama moments, but instead are shown as "oh, why did you say that?" or "oh, I wish that had not happened to you" moments. Each of them are learning how to look at the world not through just their own prism, but through that of their relatives.

The catalyst for any of the things that happen to the Sorensons is the return of Jonah Bendt to the family. Most of them don't even know he was family -- Violet gave him away to be adopted at birth. But Wendy found him, and now that his latest foster family is leaving the country, he needs a home. Jonah is a delight. He's a 15-year-old who would love to be nothing but goofy. He's not withdrawn or moody; he is watching to see what happens next. He's not very socially adept, however, and makes mistakes when trying to get along.

Going back and forth in time, the reader sees why the daughters act the way they do. Also seen is how Marilyn and David, regardless of what crises have hit them, may have drifted a bit apart from time to time but have never lost the anchor that is their love and esteem for each other.

One of the more remarkable things about this novel is that a recap like the one above makes the book sound so serious. Well, there are serious feelings and a few gut-wrenching things that do happen. One event in particular, about a stillbirth, was very, very difficult to read. And there was one other thing that happened where it's a good thing I don't have the author's phone number, because I would have immediately called and screamed: What did you just do?

But Lombardo has a light touch and tone in the story. And, with the underlying goodness of each character, even if sometimes cloaked, showing itself when most needed, the Sorensons are characters I loved spending time getting to know. It's not just that they are good people. It's that they find a way to forgive each other, to be with each other, to want to be together. Lombardo regards her characters the same way that David regards Marilyn:

He was governed primarily by the part of himself that contained the love for his wife, his love for her endless capacity for love, for her optimism, for the world that she saw in which no one was ugly or evil, just hurting.

Like the ginkgo tree that plays a significant role in the climax of the story, The Most Fun We Ever Had is about how to endure, how to branch out and how to provide for others.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, September 23, 2019

Review: 'The Water Dancer'

The Water Dancer
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Literary Fiction
September 2019
One World
ISBN: 978-0399590597

A child born in slavery, tasked with watching over his white half-brother, who has inherited gifts from his mother's side that draw the attention of both the slave owners and those in the Underground, is the teller of his own tale in Ta-Nehisi Coates's first novel, The Water Dancer.

The novel begins with a carriage ride over a bridge at night in which his brother and owner-to-be Maynard, drowns and Hiram Walker sees a vision of his ancestress, a fabled water dancer. Hiram lives after seeing a blue light and the lives of everyone changes:

There was peace in that blue light, more peace than sleep itself, and more than that; there was freedom and I knew that the elders had not lied, that there really was a home-place of our own, a life beyond the Task, where every moment is as daybreak over mountains. And so great was this freedom that I became aware of a nagging weight that I had always taken as unchangeable, a weight that now proposed to follow me into the forever. I turned, and in my wake, I saw the weight, and the weight was my brother, howling, thrashing, screaming, pleading for his life.

After losing his own mother, Hiram decides to adopt Thena as his new, well, if not quite mother, a close resemblance. Thena is wise, doesn't coddle and is someone Hiram should have listened to when he dared to dream of a different life. Hiram's gifts for memory and mimicry draw the attention of his father, who tasks his young son with looking over the scion of the house. Maynard is a classic rich child, not respected by the rest of the Quality and determined to stand out. His fiance, a wealthy young woman, will continue to play a role in Hiram's life.

After Maynard's death, his fiance still wants to buy Hiram as part of the now-defunct marriage settlement. Hiram, nearly 20 years old, begins to dream of freedom when a young woman captures his attention and appears to have feelings for him.

Things don't go as Hiram plans. He thought his life was hard before, but it's nothing compared to what he will face. And the differences he will make in the lives of others.

Hiram's journey wends it way through the myriad ways in which enslaved folk lived their lives, whether in the South or North, in places like Virginia, where even "freed" people knew their place and Philadelphia, where freedom only lasted as long as a body was not grabbed and placed in chains.

Trust is not given easily and for good reason. People have to prove themselves time and again, and they are tested time and again. There were times it was infuriating to read about Hiram being tested by those who were supposed to be against slavery. Hiram's journey is literally the hero's journey, in which he must prove himself again and again.

Although Coates has been a strong voice in reporting and commentary, this is his first foray into fiction that is not a comic book. Even using the voice of a character, the voice of Coates is easily recognizable from such works as his articles for The Atlantic and his masterwork, Between the World and Me. When Hiram waxes eloquently about his station in life, or the system under which he and his people strive, it is easy to hear Coates saying the words. With the use of magic realism in the story, to fully realize the dreams and desires of a Tasked people, The Water Dancer could only be his work.

The way Hiram sees the "Quality" folk, the slave owners, is searing commentary that lasts today about the elites:

The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them -- we had to be. ... even my own intelligence was unexceptional, for you could not set eyes anywhere on Lockless and not see the genius of its makers -- genius in the hands that carved out the columns of the portico, genius in the songs that evoked, even in the whites, the deepest of joys and sorrows, genius in the men who made the fiddle strings whine and trill at their dances, genius in the bouquet of flavors served up from the kitchen, genius in all our lost ...

It is not a novel to rush through, although there are page-turning sections as if this was a thriller. Instead, let Hiram's experiences flow over and be willing to dip into the enormity of what lives were like nearly 200 years ago. It helps those of us whose people did not suffer the enslavement of their bodies and the attempts to kill their souls understand how the legacy lives on today.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, September 2, 2019

Review: 'Dominicana'

By Angie Cruz
Literary Fiction
September 2019
Flatiron Books
ISBN: 978-1250205933

A teenager forced into an arranged marriage and motherhood, taken away from her country home in the Dominican Republic and abandoned in a New York City apartment by a brute who leaves her for months at a time, and a family back home who want money and for her to bring them to America, this is the novel Dominicana. Even in hard conditions, Ana and her creator, Angie Cruz, see the world as a place in which to work hard and make dreams come true.

Ana is 15, younger sister to a girl who loves to fall in love and older sister to brothers who are, well, brothers. In a big family, Ana dreams of discovering what else is out there beyond the hubbub of her boisterous relatives. Juan Ruiz, who is twice her age, proposes to her the first time when she is 11. He is one of their community's famous Ruiz brothers, the hard-working clan who has prosperity on the brain.

What's even more important to the Ruiz men than a wife for Juan is land Ana's family has squatted on for years. The men have ideas for its use. On New Year's Day, 1965, Juan takes Ana to New York, where he has been hustling work for a few years. Practically alone, speaking little of the language and tethered to a frustrated husband who loves another woman and has not yet hit it big as he thought his hard work and charisma would do, Ana still dreams of better times. Learning English, taking other classes, bringing her family to the States so she is not alone, being able to do things.

After she discovers she is pregnant, Juan leaves her to go back home to try to secure that property and the restaurant the brothers have been trying to build while domestic unrest upends the country. Back in New York, Ana and Juan's brother, Cesar, try to sell the food she makes at the World's Fair. They both dream of making it without losing themselves or their essential goodness in the process.

By the time the reader leaves Ana, she has weathered all the storms that life has thrown at her. Even when hurt, Ana does not lose her determination to keep on going and try to find a better way.

This essential resoluteness and resilience is the core of Ana and the novel. Dominicana is a clear-eyed view of a young woman who comes of age during tumultuous times and a chaotic family situation. Her mother's cynical philosophy resonates, but Cruz makes it clear that while Ana considers what her mother has taught her, Ana also is determined to make her dreams real.

While still at home, after one brother is stung by a bee, their mother tells Ana:

All girls have to make sacrifices for the good of the colony. They sting to protect their sisters and brothers. And they will do anything to protect the queen. Every colony needs a queen. That's why they feed her all that jelly, so she gets big and fat and lays all the eggs.

Mama rocks on her chair rubbing her stomach while we all sat on the grass by her feet.

Will Ana become a queen or remain a worker bee? And if she is royalty, what will her reign be like?

This is why Dominicana is a fascinating novel of a woman coming of age and a clear-eyed immigrant's story that combines dreams with hard reality. Its publication is Tuesday. It is easy to see why early readers such as Sandra Cisneros have praised Ana's story.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission