Summer Reads and Some that Will Take You into Fall
A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher
It is hard to believe, in a way, that this is Shawn Nocher’s first novel. It is so accomplished, so intricately constructed that it reads like the work of a novelist with years of practice refining and polishing her craft. It is one of the few books that I have ever picked up to reread nearly immediately after finishing it, because I didn’t want it to be over.
Lacey, a single mother of a daughter with a dreadful illness whose own mother ran away when she was a child, is still haunted by her mother’s unexplained disappearance, and her daughter’s illness makes that loss more poignant. Willy, the man her mother married when Lacey was a toddler, ended up raising her, and when Lacey’s daughter, Tasha, is diagnosed and needs treatment closer to his rural Maryland farm, she moves back home.
Lacey’s mother May speaks in the novel through her diary, a visceral, painful accounting of her fear, confusion, shame, and naiveté, and of years of abuse at the hands of other men. As the title of the book suggests, Willy is one of those “hands to hold in deep water” and a character so deserving it makes May’s disappearance all the more inexplicable. Willy may have been able to save her had May not been subject to an insidious force more powerful than love.
Tasha’s father, to whom Lacey was never married, makes frequent visits to the farm to help care for Tasha, bringing his goth, angry daughter and lots of the couple’s baggage with him. New chances at love for both Willy and Lacey are woven into the novel, leavening the otherwise tough realities of abuse and illness, and keeping the story from feeling Kristin-Hannah-heavy.
Nocher’s skillful use of water as a metaphor throughout the novel is one of those things that makes this first novel so impressive. My only reservation is with the ending, on which I can’t extrapolate without giving too much away, other than to say it’s not as believable as the rest of the book. But that complaint is minor, because it does tie things up nicely, and it satisfies.
I highly recommend this book.
Ladies of the House by Lauren Edmondson
I may be the only American woman in the current era who does not consider herself a fan of Jane Austen. But the fact that Ladies of the House bills itself as a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibilities didn’t dissuade me from reading it. I picked it up because it is a tale of women in politics, a topic we rarely see explored in fiction. And I do love politics. (Or I used to, anyway, until … well, you know.) Both fiction and biography about political women has typically been focused on wives of politicians, the exceptions in only very recent times being biographies and memoirs of the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Samantha Power (whose book, Education of a Liberal, I think is the best of them all).
To the plot: Daisy Richardson’s father—a man she revered and followed into politics—dies in bed with a mistress, and if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out he was stealing from taxpayers and his donors to fund the lifestyle to which his wife and two daughters had become accustomed. And that’s not the only scandal to follow him into the grave.
Daisy, her mother, and her younger sister navigate the shark-filled waters of Washington’s politics, move out of the family home, and attempt to avoid further controversy. But her sister falls for a most inconvenient (and politically opposed) man, and her mother struggles to hang onto some semblance of respectable public persona and financial stability. And Daisy is asked to help an old, best friend write an exposé about her father.
The plot thickens but it doesn’t surprise. I’m not sure if the ending was predetermined by the denouement one would expect from a novel that patterns itself after Austin or whether it’s predictable because it would otherwise disappoint readers who expect some hope in romance. But the plot’s ending probably isn’t as important as the rewards: the bad guys get what they deserve, and most of the good guys come out happy or at least no worse off.
Golden Girl by Elin Hilderbrand
Currently (as I write this in the middle of July), Elin Hilderbrand’s latest novel, sits at No. 8 on the NYT hardcover fiction list. Most of her recent, seemingly countless books have hovered on the list thanks to a devoted following of those who enjoy summer “beach reads.” Part of the allure, of course, is the setting, and here again, Hilderbrand sets her story on Nantucket Island, a small community invaded for three months of the year by hordes of tourists.
Usually tourists in such resort-location beach reads provide not only a major character or two, but also a trigger for the plot. Here, however, the story sticks close to home. The protagonist, her ex-boyfriend, her ex-husband, her best friend, her three children and their friends make up the majority of the cast, and the influx of summer visitors is only incidental to the plot. The protagonist and other main characters get to know only one new person of consequence, who, rather than upsetting their insular world, helps bring the novel to its satisfying, romantic end.
In an art-imitates-life way, the protagonist Vivian Howe is so much like Hilderbrand herself, it is likely she didn’t even have had to get out of bed to construct this novel. The author has lived on Nantucket for 28 years, and every turn a car makes and every morsel a character eats would have required no going-out-of-the-way research on her part. As an author of historical fiction who spends years researching a single period of ancient history to write a novel that sells 5,000 copies at best, I have to question my sanity. Why do I do that, when this woman simply mines her own life for all the details needed to bring her best-selling cozy mysteries to life?
Vivian, the protagonist, is an author of beach novels and three children She’s also dead. Her last novel, also titled “Golden Girl,” is just about to be released when she is killed in a hit-and-run car accident. She ascends to a place one might imagine as heaven and gets to watch her friends and family navigate the consequences of her death for the rest of the summer. She also gets a chance to interfere with what happens on earth three times, and her guide in this heaven-like place helps her figure out the best way to use her “nudges.” There are plenty of people needing help: her daughter Willa, who desperate to not to lose her current pregnancy after three miscarriages; her daughter Carson, who is hell-bent on breaking every rule and code to get attention and satisfy her need for adventure; and her son Leo, whose undeserving girlfriend threatens to ruin his life. Of course, Vivian could also use a nudge to either grant her forthcoming book No. 1 status on the NYT list or to keep the truths in the novel from reaching a high-school boyfriend and ruining her reputation.
As in all her books, Hildebrand treats her readers to mouth-watering meals and vivid landmarks that makes the story as much armchair tourism as cozy mystery. Artfully written and as generous as always, her tale ends by granting even the worst of motivations and the most cynical of characters a bit of grace and forgiveness so readers can close the book with no regrets for having spent a few more hours of their lives on the golden island of Nantucket.
Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? by Jenny Diski
Jenny Diski was a British columnist, and as such, she often made cultural or political references that go over my head. But that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying this collection of book reviews and essays written for the London Review of Books. Erudite, opinionated, and LOL funny, she tackles subjects as diverse as “death, motherhood, sexual politics and the joys of solitude,” in the words of her publisher, to which I would add psychiatric wards, the use of arsenic in murder and housewifery.
When she tears into a biography or other non-fiction tome, you may cringe in sympathy for the author, but it’s tough to disagree wholeheartedly with her analysis, as biting as it is. In the case of memoir and biography, her wit is aimed not only at the writer and the book, but also at their human subjects, which range from Howard Hughes and Princess Di to Keith Richards and Richard Branson.
While most of these pieces are reviews for books published long ago (in internet time), the political, economic, sociological, and psychological points she makes are timeless. I dipped in and out of this book over four weeks, enjoying a bit at a time, and found myself disappointed when I ran out of material. Sadly, we’ll get no more; Diski died from cancer at the age of 69 in 2016.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
Sometimes I wonder if the reason readers buy and love Kristin Hannah’s books is because there’s so much to them. So many words that is. The writing, pedestrian and serviceable, works to deliver the lengthy plot, many characters and action scenes told over many years and long distances. All a reader needs to enjoy her books is plenty of time on their hands.
In the case of The Four Winds, enjoy may not be the operative word. You may to enjoy the first 57 pages of this novel, but after that, things get bleak and the joy can only come from having so much to read, not from the story itself. Following the characters into the world of the Dust Bowl and the miserable existence of migrant workers in the valleys of California’s fruit and vegetable farms isn’t something to relish. It’s something to endure. This novel is so bleak that unless you love wallowing in sorrow and pain, you may do what I did: read the first 100 pages and then jump to the end to see if there’s a chance that anything good is going to happen. (I won’t spoil it by telling you if there is.)
The novel starts at the end of WWI, when Elsa is an old maid in her mid-twenties, kept mostly hidden from the world by her parents, who are embarrassed of her homeliness and size and ostensibly worried that a childhood illness portends a fragile adulthood. Tired of her limited experiences and hopelessness, she ventures out and meets Rafe, a younger man who takes advantage of her naiveté to get what he wants from her. Her mother discovers her pregnancy, and Elsa is married into Rafe’s farm family, where she unexpectedly finds a home, a purpose and fulfillment.
Although unhappily married, farm life suits Elsa. But then the Depression and drought comes to the panhandle of Texas, and she is forced to take her children from the dried up and dying farm of her in-laws and travel to California with other Dust Bowl evacuees. Among other tragedies, Elsa alienates her daughter by refusing to support the labor movement that is fighting for dignity and a living wage for farmworkers like themselves. Brace yourself—life gets even harder for Elsa the next 400 pages.
The research the author needed to do to portray the period and the geography is impressive and for that, she deserves all the five-star ratings the book has garnered. The word immersive may be overused in literary criticism, but the settings and life experiences Hannah depicts in this novel make it impossible to escape the dreadful realities of the time she describes. For better or worse.
He’s Gone by Deb Caletti
I was offered this ebook in a BookBub deal, and otherwise may never have been aware of it, especially since it was released eight years ago, and my book buying usually doesn’t stretch back that far. The setting in Seattle made me homesick—I lived for years within a mile of the houseboat on Lake Union where much of the story takes place. That’s no reason for others to read it, but there are plenty of other great reasons to pick it up at this late date.
The story begins on a Sunday morning when Dani awakens to find her husband Ian missing. She vaguely remembers the party they went to the night before, and a little about coming home, but her memory has gaping holes in it, as you would expect after a night of heavy drinking. As she, her mother, the police, and others search for Ian, she faces not only the uncertainty about her own role in his disappearance, but also the wrath of Ian’s family. Caletti keeps the tension high as Dani searches through her slowly recovering memory, and the truth is finally revealed.
Besides the good use of a mystery/thriller narrative arc, Caletti has created realistic characters, none of whom are without fault. Ian is so much like many of the men I worked with in my 11 years in Seattle tech companies—focused, egotistical, unempathetic, perfectionist and difficult. While Ian is also abusive (I can’t say any of my former bosses or co-workers were), and even though he is present only through flashbacks in the novel, he came to life almost viscerally for me. Meanwhile, Dani is also flawed, but sympathetic, and has a great relationship with her grown daughter. She still falls for men for all the wrong reasons (don’t we all?) and finds it hard to extricate herself from these tough places (don’t we all?).
Pardon the cliche, but this is one of those novels that;s hard to put down. I read it quickly, not going to bed on time, and getting up early to finish it.