Books We Loved, June 2020
C.W. Gortner, The First Actress
Like a lot of people, I have known Sarah Bernhardt’s name for almost as long as I can remember. But until I read this novel, I had little sense of her background or what made her such a standout as an actress. And it’s a fascinating story, here brought vividly to life.
The daughter of a courtesan, Sarah was shipped off to a farm in Brittany as a small child, reclaimed by her mother at the age of six, and a few years later sent away to a convent—in part because of her failure to conform to Mom’s expectations. There Sarah discovered theater in the form of a Nativity play. She loved the convent and even considered taking vows as a nun, but before she could convince the abbess to accept her, her mother’s intervention brought her back to Paris, where she joined the Paris Conservatoire and eventually the Comédie Française. That major achievement marked only the beginning of a dramatic and at times circuitous career.
In addition to the sympathetic and complex portrayals of Sarah and those around her, this novel boasts a fast-moving plot punctuated by rivalries among actors, directors, and entire theaters as well as poverty and war. I reveled in every minute and, when I was researching images to illustrate my blog interview with the author, also had the fun of realizing that this was the unnamed elderly but acclaimed actress who showed Pauline a thing or two in Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes, a childhood favorite of mine.—CPL
Kathleen Jennings, Flyaway (Tor, 2020)
A rich and simmering stew of vivid images, psychological tension, and dashes of horror conspire to create an original and startling tale. The convoluted and intertwining stories of several families will demand your full attention as they spiral together closer and closer to the resolution.
Our unreliable narrator lives cloistered in a house with her adoring mother in a small town in the wilds of the Australian outback. Tina, also called Tink, seems to have a calm and settled home life now that the wild males in the family have vanished. As the story evolves, we also learn that she calls her former best friends by their last names and in general sounds oddly stilted—as if she lived in the fifties instead of present times. She seems unaware of pertinent facts, such as the possible murder of her father. We’re kept guessing as to what suppressed memory has damaged Tina, and why her siblings and father, as well as other residents, have disappeared. Dark secrets lurk at the edge of narrative, to be inferred by her blind spots.
The history of three small towns, deep in the outback, suggest that the wilderness of the land is inextricably woven into the lives of those who live there. In the midst of so much space, ironically, there is almost no escaping your family’s fate.—GM
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
(Vintage International, 2007)
The Bluest Eye is one of the darkest and most profound books I have ever read.
Pulitzer and Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a dark-skinned little girl growing up in the segregated rural South and in Ohio in the 1940s. Painful to read, this is the story of Pecola’s childhood, in which she is a victim of abuse, neglect, poverty, squalor, racism, and her own belief that if only she had blue eyes and fair hair, like the daughter of the woman who employs Pecola’s mother as a housekeeper, then her life would be good.
Blue eyes would change everything. Pecola sees her abusive mother treating the little girl with kindness, she sees the girl’s ribbons and pretty dresses and lovely life, and she sees that she has none of those things.
Even Pecola’s foster-sisters, the lighter-skinned Frieda and Claudia, feel that they are prettier than Pecola, and the prettiest of all is the mixed “high-yellow dream child,” Maureen, with her light skin and green eyes. The tragedy of this book to me was the fact that these little girls ranked their beauty and their self-worth completely on the lightness of their skin and judged each other the same way.
This book made me dig deep and was uncomfortable to think about. Even when I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, the idealized beauty was a European woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. Contemporary woman famed for their beauty—including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Zoe Kravitz—have changed the narrative somewhat, but even these successful role models are lighter-skinned or mixed.
This is a book about a child’s life unravelling to the point where Pecola believes that God has answered her prayers and given her bright blue eyes. It is a book about racism, about inequality, about inhumanity. And it is a book that all of us should read, especially now.—DAS
Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road (Random House, 2020)
Anne Tyler’s newest novel is short and very sweet. Micah, a forty-something-year-old IT specialist with his own small company, is the “fussbudget” in his family. He likes things in place and chores done on specific days of the week. He is, in fact, so fastidious about his own needs that he sometimes fails to take note of the needs of others. In this way he comes to lose his girlfriend—and eventually to realize how much she actually means to him.
Anne Tyler’s writing here is more nimble than ever. Without ever letting us drift away from our earnest concern about Micah’s dilemma, she introduces several other characters, including the young man who shows up at Micah’s house (actually his basement apartment) thinking Micah may be his “real” father from a long-ago relationship; Micah’s several sisters; their husbands; and other family members. Tyler doesn’t waste words; she tells us just enough about each of these individuals to give us a feel for who they are at heart (and heart is what matters most in Tyler’s novels) while fulfilling our need to know even more about Micah by showing us how he interacts with each of them. By the end of the book, we’ve got everybody’s number, and everyone is so darn likable in his and her own quirky way that we don’t want the story to end.
“Quirky” is a word that has been used negatively by several critics over many years regarding Tyler’s work. Shame on them. It’s always relief (never, perhaps, more so than now) to settle into a story with Tyler’s offbeat innocents—who are, by the way, all quirky in their own way; no redundancies here—and watch them untangle themselves from the webs they themselves have woven in the course of living their very ordinary lives. Brava, Anne Tyler. This is her 23rd novel, and hopefully there will be many more to come.—JS