"Before We Were Yours" by Lisa Wingate

Two storylines vie for our attention in Lisa Wingate’s hugely popular novel, “Before We Were Yours” (2017). One takes place in 1939 on the shores of the Mississippi River in Tennessee where a twelve-year-old girl, Rill Foss, and her four younger siblings are taken from their houseboat by men who identify as police. The children have been left alone because their mother is having a difficult birth and her father has gone to a hospital with her, so they believe they’ll be taken to the hospital where their parents are. Instead, they are dropped off at a children’s home where it soon becomes clear that the woman in charge, Miss Tann, has other plans for them.

The alternating storyline plays out in present day South Carolina, where Avery Stafford, a practicing attorney, has taken a leave-of-absence from her job in order to help her father, a busy congressman who’s recently been diagnosed with cancer. Avery is being groomed to follow in his footsteps, and she dives in to support her father in his public appearances. The marriage that she and her fiancé Elliot had intended to plan is noticeably pushed aside.

The link between the two stories appears early, in the form of an elderly woman, May Crandall, whom Avery meets at one of her father’s appearances at a nursing home. In an alert moment, May mistakes Avery for her deceased sister Fern. Avery becomes increasingly interested in May and her story when she sees a faded old photo of May with her own grandmother Judy in it.

This story is sometimes hard to read, as readers watch the children being taken from their families, mistreated where they are warehoused, and, only if they are lucky, sent to live with new families who have paid for them. It is harder still to accept that this is based on the true story of Georgia Tann and her Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis where, for thirty years, children who were often abducted were sold to wealthy couples who yearned for a child of their own. Wingate says that the Foss children were a figment of her imagination, but their abduction, their experiences in the children’s home—cruel treatment, sexual abuse, punishment, even death—come from true stories of children she uncovered in her thorough research.

Wingate connects the two stories seamlessly, making it a compelling read and a perfect choice for book clubs. I highly recommend it.

"Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" by Kathleen Rooney

Grab your coat and come take a walk through the streets of lower Manhattan with a witty, outspoken, fun-loving and still curious octogenarian in “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” (2017). It's New Year's Eve 1984 when 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish leaves her Murray Hill apartment to take a looping walk downtown to a Chelsea party given by a young artist she has befriended.

Lillian is not just any old-timer. For many years, she was the highest paid woman in advertising in the world through her job as an ad copywriter at Macy's. The slogans and catchy poems that she published brought her into the limelight, and her super-active social life was fodder for the gossip columns. But now that she's in her ninth decade, there are only two activities that bring her joy—reviewing the choices she made in her life and walking the streets of Manhattan observing others’ lives.

These are also the things that will bring joy to the readers of Kathleen Rooney's wonderful novel. Rooney's fictional character is based on Margaret Fishback, the real Macy's advertising superstar of the 1930s. Through a friend, Rooney was privy to Fishback’s papers, journals, and out-of-print books when they were released to the public, and she realized what an electric personality she was discovering. She set out to create a fictional character, using the real advertising standout as inspiration, and using a walk on the last evening of 1985 as a way get to show us there were gutsy women in the early 20th century who were willing to break the mold.

Lillian insists on walking the long distance alone, though others attempt to convince her otherwise, through the threatening neighborhoods late into the night. Along the way, Lillian chats up strangers she comes across. She comforts a nervous, young security guard on patrol by the river. She outsmarts a trio of petty thieves who threateningly demand $5. She gives a sizable tip to a teenage clerk in a bodega who’s filling in all night for his immigrant parents.

Were the story simply about Lillian meandering through Manhattan, it would be a fun and satisfying read. But Rooney fleshes out a full character. One who proclaimed she would never be just a housewife and mother but finds a man who makes her heart sing and then loses him. One whose high-living takes an enormous toll on her mental health. One who finds deep friendships that last a lifetime or just a few minutes.

I loved this book and can guarantee that Lillian Boxfish will be with me for a long time.

"Lilac Girls" by Martha Hall Kelly

The cover of “Lilac Girls” (2017), showing three young women dressed in mid-20th century style, suggests they are chatting as they stroll about…what? Romance? Adventure? Where to have tea? Yet, readers do not have to delve very far into this novel before learning the characters within have much more critical things to deal with.

Martha Hall Kelly’s breakout novel spans twenty years in the darkest period of modern European history, those from 1939 to 1959, from the point of view of three young women. The stories of these women, whose lives were irreparably changed by the cataclysm of the Nazi regime, are woven through the book. Caroline Ferriday is a wealthy socialite, volunteering in New York City at the French Consulate, when her work becomes frenetic as she struggles to help French refugees. Kasia Kuzmerick is a teenager in Lublin, Poland with boyfriend problems, when a careless delivery—her first for the underground—results in her and her mother being crammed onto a train headed to the East German concentration camp Ravensbruck. Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor from Dusseldorf, who begins as a counselor at a camp run by the female wing of the Nazi Party and accepts a position as the only female doctor at Ravensbruck.

Within the novel, Caroline’s involvement as an American working to aid those fleeing from Europe, becomes the positive energy of the book that holds it together. As you might imagine, the stories of Kasia, as a prisoner in the camp, and Herta, as a doctor there who is required to act as directed, involve horrors that are sometimes difficult to read.

Kelly reports in her Author’s Note that her book in based on real people. As a New Englander, she once visited the Connecticut home of Caroline Ferriday’s family and found a treasure trove of information about Caroline’s work which extended long after the war. She learned that this socialite volunteer became an advocate for a group of young women, the real Kasia being one, who were experimentally and brutally operated on during the years they were confined in Ravensbruck camp. Ms. Ferriday worked unceasingly to make the post-war lives of the women, labeled “Rabbits,” better by raising money and arranging to bring them to the United States for medical treatment, respite care, and even some sightseeing.

“Lilac Girls” is a prime example of the kind of beautifully crafted and important historical novel that sheds light on a time, however disturbing, that we should not forget.

 

"A Piece of the World" by Christina Baker Kline

 The cover shows a landscape with an unsettled sky and a lush, grassy hill with a simple, old clapboard house at the top, the kind that has housed children, their parents and grandparents over generations. For many, it will strongly suggest the setting of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World.”  But where is Christina, the woman he shows uneasily stretched out in that field?

Christina Baker Kline chose to create the story of the woman depicted by the masterful painter in her fifth novel, “A Piece of the World.” Kline developed a fascination with Christina Olson, who shares her birthplace of Maine as well as her name, and with the story of the woman’s friendship with the celebrated Pennsylvania painter starting in the 1940’s. Kline’s thorough research of Christina’s family, Wyeth’s art, and his life filled in only some of the blanks, so she used her knowledge of the post-war period in America, gained through writing the bestselling “Orphan Train”, and her imagination to give depth to Christina’s life.

Readers follow Christina as a young woman who bears the burden of a body that doesn’t work right, due to a serious genetic condition that surfaced in childhood, causing the lower half of her body to be twisted. She is a loner who has few close friends and over the decades she lives a quiet life in the family house with her bachelor brother Al. Wyeth drops into her life one summer when she is close to fifty. It starts with his knock on the door and his brisk look through the house, before he lays claim on an unused upstairs room as his summertime studio. He returns year after year as a welcome interruption to her colorless life.

The beauty of this book lies in Kline’s subtle handling of the ebb and flow of the life that Christina has chosen for herself: to stay with her brother in the rundown, family home, lacking electricity and running water that screams out for upkeep and repair. With simple yet beautiful language, she conveys the dedication the two siblings have for one another that is never acknowledged. There are long periods of silence and occasional reprimands, but the depth of their affinity for one another is palpable.

The relationship Christina has with Wyeth is also subtly yet strongly shown. She is a generation older than Andy, whom she sees as a quirky, impassioned man who asks for nothing from her but an upstairs room each day, some home cooking, and space for his moodiness and solitude. Kline delicately reminds us how love can come in different ways.

For a story in which life is so hard for the characters, it is a marvel that Kline shows us that in the bleak simplicity of Christina’s world, the important things in one’s life are more easily seen. Her novel is a beautifully imagined picture of one woman’s life.

"The Light of Paris" by Eleanor Brown

Though I might be yearning for a trip to Paris this summer, I have opted to take only a literary one, allowing Eleanor Brown’s newest novel, “The Light of Paris” (2016) to take me there. As a bonus, it is Paris of the Jazz Age, when the cafés of the Left Bank were buzzing with the creative energy of artists, writers, and free-thinkers, and love was in the air.

Yet Brown’s story is narrated by Madeleine, an unfulfilled Chicago housewife, during 1999, the year her world is turning upside down. She tells us at the start, “I didn’t set out to lose myself. No one does, really.” Madeleine has been functioning for years as a model wife and social bee around town but is becoming deeply aware of how wrong this existence is for her. She understands she is living the life ordained by her mother, and now, by her judgmental husband Philip, an ambitious attorney, and she can no longer abide his demanding ways and pressure to have children “because that’s what people do.”

One evening, when Phillip threatens divorce, tossing out scathing insults, Madeleine throws her things in a suitcase and drives south to her home town, ostensibly to help her mother organize a move out of the big house she grew up in. Going through boxes in the attic, she finds her grandmother Maggie’s diaries, written during her stay in Paris in the 1920s. She reads that Maggie’s “coming out” at her debutante ball is a disaster, not the beginning of the life—a man, marriage, and children—that everyone expects for her. Since Maggie isn’t swept up by a suitor, her family encourages her to chaperone a younger cousin on a trip to Paris, but there, the young woman runs off with a lively group of friends she made on the boat, leaving Maggie alone.

In alternating chapters, we watch Madeleine and Maggie have their different journeys as women. Madeleine in current times reconnects with the artistic energy she had as a girl, long buried in the life she’s been expected to lead. Ignoring the still-critical eye of her mother, she finds new friendships, joy, and purpose in the middle of life. Her grandmother Maggie experiences the gift of independence, satisfying work, and love early in life before returning home to the demands placed on her by marriage and a family.

The light of Paris that streams through this lovely story turns out to show itself as the joy that comes with finding out what you really want in your life.

“Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren announces at the start of her award-winning memoir “Lab Girl” (2016) that “people are like plants; they grow towards the light.” As she rolls out the story of her rural Minnesota childhood, we understand how she chose science as her path, as the safe place to be. She had a “deep orphan-pain” from her repressed mother and the “silent togetherness” of her Swedish-American family. The joy in her childhood came every day after school, when she went to the college where her father taught, and, for hours, the two of them prepared the experiments, demonstrations and equipment for the following days classes. In the silence of the building, “he was the king and she was the prince.”

Jahren was praised as a schoolgirl for her performance in the sciences, yet during college and graduate work, she was shocked by the demeaning treatment she received as a female from the male biologists, often overhearing crude comments about her gender through the office walls. She now views that consciousness as an opportunity—since no one really knew what a female scientist is, she made it up as she went along.

Toward the end of her PhD work as an assistant in undergrad courses, she identified a disheveled loner named Bill as being exceptionally bright and determined. Something in the energy and curiosity of this oddball clicked with Hope, and Bill became her right-hand man from then on. Throughout the early years, she found small lab spaces in which to work, Bill literally camped out in corners at night, and the two fueled each other with energy and creativity in their research. Their verbal sparring frequently lifts the story to hilarious heights.

Jahren scatters specific information about the trees and plants, seeds and roots she studies amongst the events of her life. These breaks, though sometimes hard for the layman to follow, contain fascinating information about plant life around us. They bring a special richness to the book, as well, by their hint at how much all we living things have in common.

Jahren succeeded in becoming a true scientist—one who develops her own experiments rather than conducts those of others—and thereby, becomes one who “generates wholly new knowledge.”  Yet this type of science, which is sometimes called “curiosity-driven research.” only exists when it’s funded by NSF, so a life of science means a life of constant worry about money. Readers know that Jahren hopes we voters are listening carefully.

After only a chapter or two, I started identifying girls or young woman I knew who might be inspired by this engaging memoir. With Jahren’s warning that trees are being wiped from the earth and we are in big trouble, I am hoping that there are a lot more budding scientists out there, ready to dig in.

"Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout has done it again. She has written still another novel that deserves all the attention a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author (for “Olive Kitteridge”) automatically gets. “Anything is Possible” (2017) is her stunning new book, categorized as a novel, but one that reads like a collection of short stories, peopled by folks in and around Amgash, Illinois. You have a head start if you’ve read Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton,” since Lucy and her family have a presence here as well. The Bartons were a poor, struggling family in Amgash before Lucy headed off to college and then to New York City where she is a writer. She is only featured in one story, but referred to periodically when someone reports about seeing her on TV or travels to attend a bookstore reading.

Strout’s gift as a writer comes not only from her seamlessly flowing narrative but also from her keen observation of people—how they speak, what they hold back, what they notice. Dottie, who runs a Bed and Breakfast, observes that one of her guests, Shelly, who bragged about the McMansion they had built, but was embarrassed about others’ criticism, “suffered only from the most common complaint of all: Life had simply not been what she thought it would be. Shelly had taken life’s disappointments and turned them into a house.”

The stories are filled with shocking secrets and revelations. With kindness and indifference. With change and refusal to change. One of Lucy’s friends’ mother has a long affair with their Spanish teacher. The husband of a shop owner returned from Vietnam and is never able to live with himself. A farmer loses everything when a raging fire destroys his property and becomes a school janitor who treats the neediest children with such tenderness. For the first time in years, Lucy visits her brother Pete who lives in squalor in their childhood home, and he scrubs away years of filth to make it nice for the sister he’s so proud of.

In a delightfully poignant chapter, “Mississippi Mary,” Angelina visits her almost eighty-year-old mother who lives with her new sixty-something Italian husband, in an apartment on the Mediterranean. She cannot hide her disdain for her mother’s decision to leave her old life and her family (and proudly wear a yellow string bikini). Justifying her decision, Mary says, “Look what Paolo’s done for me, honey. He downloaded all of Elvis’s songs onto my phone.” But in the quiet midnight moments as she reconnects with the sadness she’s brought to her daughter, she asks herself, “Who leaves a marriage after fifty-one years?” But the answer comes to her, and she knows her daughter could never understand “what it had been like to be so famished. Almost fifty years of being parched.”

As a conscientious book reviewer, I jotted down every character’s name and relationship to the others, reviewing it with each following chapter to keep the connections straight. Yet appreciating this wonderful book doesn’t require that. It asks us only to consider what might be hiding below the surface in their lives, and our lives, where anything is possible.

"Vinegar Girl" by Anne Tyler

 If this review were for The New York Times, I’d surely have been reading Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl” (2016) with a keen eye on noting similarities and differences to the original work, since it is based on Shakespeare's “The Taming of the Shrew.” Luckily I could just sit back and enjoy the playful writing of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author. My days with Shakespeare are a distant memory, but Hogarth Press wants to keep them alive. Five years ago, the publisher began the project of asking top-notch, contemporary writers to reimagine one of Shakespeare's plays in modern times. Several are already out, including Margaret Atwood’s retelling of “The Tempest” and Tracy Chevalier’s nod to “Othello.”

Present-day Kate Battista is a twenty-nine-year-old assistant in a Baltimore nursery school. She lives with her widowed father Louis, a disheveled scientist who works long hours in his lab, and her pretty, self-centered, fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. Tyler shows us immediately what a prickly person Kate is—she says whatever is on her mind, curses inappropriately, has no respect for authority, and doesn't even seem to like kids. Yet Kate's mother had died shortly after her sister's birth, so for the last fifteen years, she has managed the household, taken care of her preoccupied father, and raised her sister. Crabbiness about her lot in life is quite understandable.

The only hint of social interest we see in Kate is her softening around Adam, another assistant teacher who is known for the homemade dream-catchers he gifts to all the women. It is Kate’s father who advances her social life. One day he brings home from the lab his fellow microbiologist, Pyotr Cherbakov, and along with his introduction comes a plan he lays out to his daughter with no apology. He proposes that Kate marry the brilliant assistant, who has an expiring green card, to allow him to stay in this country and continue their project.

Much to the horror of Bunny, who cannot believe their father’s idea, Kate chooses to go along with the marriage, and plans begin for a simple ceremony, naturally without the word “obey.” With a sure, comic hand, Tyler entertains us with details of the arrangement—no guests—and the groom-to-be sprinkling, into his raw English, expressions he picks up—“stepping up to the plate,” “phoning it in.”

Though light and funny, there is definitely enough material for book clubbers to discuss. Readers will have to figure out why Kate goes along with her father’s plan to marry her off to a stranger. Maybe she's tired of watching the four-year-old girls in her class play wedding. Or maybe “she's used up her life” and is ready for a new one. You decide.

"Commonwealth" by Ann Patchett

“Commonwealth” (2016) is Ann Patchett’s seventh novel, but she facetiously calls it her “autobiographical first novel,” alluding to the debut novel a twenty-something might write where it’s unabashedly stolen from her own life. If you’ve read other books by Patchett, you know the action can take place anywhere—in a jungle along the Amazon or at a nunnery in Kentucky. My favorite, “Bel Canto,” takes place in the home of a South American diplomat where several guerilla fighters hold his party-goers hostage for weeks. But since Patchett has fictionalized her own family life, it takes place in suburban homes in California and Virginia with two splintered families.

Patchett leads us into the action at a christening party one weekend afternoon in Southern California at the house of Fix Keating, a cop. Bert Cousins, an attorney known at the precinct, stops by brandishing a bottle of gin, looking for an excuse to get out of his house bustling with three toddlers and a pregnant wife. Bert takes one look at Fix’s wife Beverly and realizes, “This [is] the start of his life,” and that chemistry leads to the end of the two marriages. Fix stays in California, raising the baby Franny and toddler Caroline, while Bert and Beverly move to Virginia. Bert’s wife Teresa is left in California as the single mother of their four young ones—two boys and two girls.

Patchett made a daring choice, though, to tell the story of these two families in a non-chronological way. Readers may be jolted when the second chapter takes place several decades later when Franny, the beautiful baby her father Fix had carried around on that fateful day, is again with him as he undergoes chemotherapy. Each following chapter covers an episode in the lives of one of the ten members of the families, but the scenes that sing with life involve the six kids spending summer vacations together in Virginia. “They did things, real things, and they never got caught.”

Looking back over it, I think of scenes that hadn’t moved the story along and were dropped as soon as they happened—a child dies from a bee sting because the kids had used the antidote he carried to quiet the hyperactive youngest sibling. The kids break into a car and steal a gun but do nothing with it. As an adult Franny has a relationship with a writer she had idolized, and he writes a novel based on her story. But it’s understandable. Life happens. And what you get with “Commonwealth” is a writer letting us in on all the highs and lows, tragedies and wonderful surprises of family life as she works at making sense of the life she’s lived and sharing it with us.

Another beautifully-written novel by Patchett that takes readers into perhaps more familiar territory.

“Today Will Be Different” by Maria Semple

If you're in the mood this winter for a book to snuggle up with that will transport you to a dreamy spot, look elsewhere! You're not going to find it with Maria Semple’s newest novel “Today Will Be Different” (2016). The title refers to forty-something Eleanor Flood’s empowering morning chant, channeling her inner self to “be present,” “listen deeply” to others, “play a board game” with her son, “buy local” and “be [her] best self.” But hang on, because the day Eleanor takes us through, is different and wildly so.

Eleanor is a busy, ambitious and quite neurotic TV writer and animator in Seattle who had plans for her day, but everything shifts when, her eight-year-old son Timby, who has feigned illness, gets out of his ultra-progressive school for the day to have some “mommy time.” Scattered in are other characters she runs into and some she wants to avoid running into. There’s a theft, an accident, bad news about the graphic memoir she’s been working on (several pages of which are included) and other things so whacky you may at first think you misread them.

The way Semple structures the book is disquieting though. The underlying bones of the book are the events on the day Eleanor and Timby spend together. Yet Semple slips in long sections, written in third person, about family members we have yet to meet. There’s the mother-and-father piece, the brother-in-law piece, the sister piece, and lastly the husband piece (which goes in a completely quirky direction). Some are more interesting than others, but occasionally, beginning reading a new chapter after a break, I wasn’t sure I’d picked up the right book. (Wait! Who’s Barnaby Fanning?)

That information should serve as an alert, not as a recommendation to pass on this book. But while I’m at it, I should also warn you that Eleanor can be extremely unlikeable. She’s brash, rude, judgmental, self-absorbed—I see a faint suggestion of a good heart from time to time—but these qualities might be attributed to the fact that she’s a totally stressed-out mother, wife, creative-type, and former New Yorker.

What has some people gushing over the book—The New York Times calls it one of the 100 Notable Books of 2016 —is Semple’s razor-sharp observations, her ability to zoom in on the details of our lives today, and the brilliant gift of tweaking them up a notch or two to get laughs. This book has some of the funniest lines I've read in years, but political correctness is nowhere to be found. I can imagine a book club of frenzied, working mothers howling about their favorite lines, especially those when Timby reacts to Eleanor’s inappropriate behavior. A hint about the book’s genesis: Semple has said in interviews that about half of Timby’s lines to his mother are direct quotes of ones she’s heard from her daughter. No surprise that Semple can portray an on-the-edge mother so well.

It’s your choice now. How do you want to spend your day?