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Posts Tagged ‘Claire McMillan’

The title of Rachel Khong’s pithy first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin (Henry Holt, digital galley) doesn’t make sense until you read the book, and then it makes perfect sense. So do the neon-colored lemons floating on the cover. They’re as unexpected as this darkly funny story in which a daughter tries to make sense of her life even as her beloved and brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. Ruth, a 30-year-old medical sonographer recently jilted by her fiance, returns home for Christmas, and her frustrated mother asks her to stay for a year and help out with her father. An admired history professor, Howard Young is on a forced leave of absence from teaching because of his dementia, and he knows what’s going on — except when he doesn’t. Then he wanders off, throws plates against the wall, tosses pillows in the neighbor’s pool.  In a chronological series of vignettes, Ruth narrates events, everything from fixing nutritious meals full of cruiciferous vegetables (Howard calls them “crucified”) to joining with Howard’s grad students to convince him he’s still teaching a seminar. Brief excerpts from the journal Howard kept when Ruth was a little girl add smiles and depth. It’s a happy/sad story, heartfelt, semi-sweet. Not your usual summer book, perhaps, but one of my new favorites. “What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers.”

Superheroes play an integral part in Joshilynn Jackson’s eighth novel The Almost Sisters (William Morrow, review copy), which cements Jackson’s rep as a Superwriter. She knows how to pack a plot with quirky characters, realistic emotions and thoughtful observations on the Old South and the New. Here, self-confessed dork and successful graphic artist Leia Birch Briggs has a one-night stand with a costumed Batman at a comic-con and two months later realizes she’s pregnant. Just when she’s getting ready to tell her very Southern family that a bi-racial baby is on the way, her perfect stepsister Rachel’s marriage falls apart in Virginia and her 90-year-old grandmother Birchie reveals to her Alabama small town that she has full-blown dementia. With her teenage niece in tow, Leia heads to Birchville to size up the situation with Birchie and Wattie, her lifelong best friend and daughter of the family’s black housekeeper. It’s not good, and things get worse when old bones turn up in an attic trunk and the law comes calling. Then Batman reappears. Class, privilege, racism, family history, small-town norms: Jackson connects them all with panache. Superbook, and a summer selection of the SheReads online book club.

A summer camp in the Berkshires provides the setting for Mandy Berman’s first novel, Perennials (Random House, digital galley), billed as an evocative coming-of-age tale. Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin bond as campers at Camp Marigold, although Rachel is a city girl who lives with her single mom, and Fiona’s the middle child of a well-off suburban couple. Their friendship flourishes in the freedom of summer, but by the time they return as counselors after their freshman year, secrets have come between them. As to those secrets, Berman chooses to disclose them in flashback chapters told from different perspectives, including Rachel’s mother, Fiona’s younger sister and the middle-aged camp director who still sees himself as a young man. Then there’s an incident at book’s end that undercuts the credibility of the whole. Too bad. Berman is good at depicting the roiling emotions of teenagers and the rituals of summer camp, but the linked short story structure doesn’t work, and Perennials is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Five years ago, both first novelists Claire McMillan and Francesca Segal channeled Edith Wharton, with McMillan reinventing The House of Mirth in Cleveland, Ohio with her Gilded Age, and Segal transporting the plot of The Age of Innocence to a Jewish community in London via The Innocents. Their second novels find them moving in different directions, although there’s a distinct whiff of Wharton in McMillan’s entertaining The Necklace (Touchstone, library hardcover). In 2009, Portland lawyer Nell Quincy Merrihew arrives at the Quincy family home in Cleveland after her Great Aunt LouLou’s death. She and her cousins are surprised to find that the matriarch has made Nell her executor and also left her a gaudy necklace from India. When the necklace turns out to be a valuable antique that hints at an old family scandal, Nell has to fight for her rights as a true Quincy. In alternating chapters set in the Jazz Age, the Quincy family history unfolds with a doomed love triangle at its heart. The Necklace is fast-paced and fascinating, and I read it in one sitting. Segal’s The Awkward Age (Riverhead, digital galley) may borrow the name of a Henry James novel, but it’s a thoroughly modern drama of a blended London family. Julia and James are blissfully in love despite the resistance of Julia’s 16-year-old daughter Gwen, who can’t stand James nor his snarky 17-year-old son Nathan. Julia’s former in-laws and James’ first wife further complicate the new marriage, but they can’t compete with the storm of emotions unleashed when Gwen and Nathan hook up. Awkward, to say the least, but it makes for a good story.

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Is Edith the new Jane? Going by the old feature writing rule — twice can be coincidence but thrice is a trend — Edith Wharton is posed to become the latest literary cottage industry a la Jane Austen. This summer, two first-time authors recast Wharton’s novels in contemporary times, and next month there’s a new novel starring Edith herself caught up in a passionate love affair. It’s also the 150th anniversary of her birth as Edith Newbold Jones. “Keeping up with the Joneses” supposedly refers to her father’s aristocratic New York family, and, of course, it was her incisive novels and short stories of Gilded Age society that won her fame.

Francesca Segal’s The Innocents (Voice/Hyperion; advance readers copy) transposes Wharton’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Age of Innocence to the close-knit Jewish community Temple Fortune in North London. Adam Newman, 28, is finally set to marry his girlfriend of a dozen years, Rachel Gilbert, thus solidifying his comfortable position in her family and her father’s business. Enter Rachel’s younger but more worldly cousin, Ellie, back from the States where she has dabbled with drugs, married men and “art” films.  Adam is fascinated by free-spirited Ellie, but his pursuit of her is complicated by his relationship with Rachel and the life he thought he wanted.

Obviously, Adam, Rachel and Ellie are stand-ins for Wharton’s Newland Archer, May Welland and Ellen Olenska, but Segal develops them as appealing stand-alone characters, although Adam is a bit of a stiff. Rachel’s father, mother and grandmother also have significant roles, and Segal nicely updates the plot with relevant references to modern matters of money and class while detailing the ties of family and tradition. The book also has a gorgeous cover.

In Claire McMillan’s Gilded Age (Simon & Schuster, library hardcover), Wharton’s House of Mirth has been resurrected in Cleveland, where the young social set may smoke a little dope and hit on one another’s spouses but correct manners and old money matter more. Ellie Hart returns to her hometown after a divorce in New York and a stint in rehab, soon realizing that she’s going to need a husband if she wants to fit back in with her old set.  But her search for a suitor falls victim to her own bad behavior (for Cleveland), and leads to nasty gossip. If you’ve read Wharton, you know that like Lily Bart before her, Ellie Hart is not destined for a happy ending.

The first-person narrative by Ellie’s best friend from childhood, who is happily married and pregnant, works well, but the book falters whenever McMillan shifts to Ellie’s third-person perspective. So the retelling reads unevenly as it charts poor Ellie’s descent. Someone should have told her you can’t go home again, at least not to stuffy Cleveland.

I haven’t yet read The Age of Desire (Viking, pubs August 2), Jennie Fields’ novel about Edith Wharton’s adulterous affair at 45 with dashing younger journalist Morton Fullerton and its effect on her marriage to the manic-depressive Teddy Wharton and her friendship with former governess Anna Bahlmann. This real-life Gilded Age story is told from the points of view of Edith and Anna, and Fields includes excerpts from Edith’s letters and diary entries.

Open Book: I’ve read most of Wharton’s fiction, and when I was going through my Downton Abbey phase last spring, I reread The Buccaneers with great pleasure. For more on Wharton, I recommend Hermione Lee’s biography Edith Wharton (Knopf, 2007). And Susan Minot has written three good Whartonesque novels: Reckless, Folly and Evening. My favorite of all the film adaptations of Wharton is Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona  Ryder and Michelle Pheiffer. I don’t like Ethan Frome, the book or movie.

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