Books We Loved, Sept. 2021
Lauren Layne, To Sir, with Love (Gallery Books, 2021)
I was sort of angry when I read the synopsis for To Sir, With Love by Lauren Layne. The idea of two people meeting over a blind date app was one I had been exploring for a future story, and now I’m probably going to have to think of some other way to throw those particular characters together. But by the time I finished reading, my annoyance had dissipated. This story was sweet and entertaining, a modern riff on You’ve Got Mail, and sparkles like a glass of the champagne main character Gracie Cooper sells from the family wine shop she and her siblings inherited when their father died—and which Gracie has been struggling to keep afloat while her brother and sister flit in and out of her life, leaving all the hard work to her.
It’s not like she doesn’t have options. Sebastian Andrews, big-time New York developer, has been trying to take the shop off her hands for months in exchange for a very generous payout. In fact, he’s been hanging around more and more, showing up when she least expects it. But Gracie is loyal to the memory of her father, so even if running the shop isn’t exactly her life’s dream, selling is not an option. Fortunately, she has Sir—the nameless, faceless man on the other end of a chat—with whom to talk through her life’s trials. But as Gracie grows virtually closer to Sir while spending more time with Sebastian in real life, she starts to wonder if it’s possible to be in love with two different men who want two very different things from her.
Or maybe they’re not that different after all…—CJH
Gill Paul, The Collector’s Daughter
(William Morrow, 2021)
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings almost a century ago revolutionized the study of ancient Egypt and its pharaohs. The splendors that surrounded the burial of this relatively minor ruler, interred in a hastily arranged tomb, sparked a furor of speculation, scholarship, and outright chicanery and draw crowds even today. For a long time, though, no one knew that the first modern person to enter the tomb was not Howard Carter, the famed archaeologist who located it, but Lady Evelyn (Eve) Herbert, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of Lord Carnarvon, who funded Carter’s expedition.
In The Collector’s Daughter, Gill Paul approaches the story of Carter’s discovery from the perspective of its long-term effects on those involved in the find. We meet Eve first in 1972, fifty years after these life-changing events, when she has just awoken in a hospital after suffering the latest in a series of strokes that sap her physical and mental strength. She barely recognizes the man sitting next to her, although she soon concludes (correctly) that he is her husband, Brograve.
As Eve fights her way back to health, Brograve attempts to jog her memory with photographs and tales, each of which sets off a trip into the past where we see what actually occurred and contrast it with Eve’s foggy recollections. Meanwhile, Brograve is doing his best to shield his wife from the demands of an Egyptian archaeologist determined to track down missing artifacts from the tomb—on behalf of her government, her university, or herself? We’re not quite sure of the archaeologist’s motives, only that she has secrets of her own.
The tale of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the accidents that followed its discovery, and how Eve came to be the first person to enter its suffocating atmosphere three thousand years after the ancient Egyptian priests sealed the sarcophagus is beautifully told. But what really sets The Collector’s Daughter apart is its haunting exploration of memory loss and its impact on Eve and Brograve’s long and loving marriage. This is definitely a book that you don’t want to miss. Interview with the author at New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL
Paul Theroux, Under the Wave at Waimea
(Mariner Books, 2021)
Joe Sharkey (aka The Shark) is in his sixties when Under the Wave begins. He is living in Oahu and is a well-known surfer whose many endorsements and competition prizes have allowed him to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle without having to “work,” as most of us understand the word. Although he started out as an outsider (a white kid from a military family, in a school attended mostly by Hawaii natives) and was bullied by some of his classmates as a student, his dominance out on the waves has earned him the respect of just about everyone. And he has never had a problem attracting women either, probably for the same reason.
This may sound like the perfect life, but as Theroux goes on to describe it, flashing back from the present to report on Sharkey’s earliest years and his relationship with his parents, drugs, women, etc.—the reader begins to see that while Sharkey can thrill us when he is shooting through the curl on his board, he is rather shallow. This becomes especially evident when Sharkey—drunk one night and driving home in a downpour—hits a homeless man riding a bicycle. Olive, Sharkey’s British girlfriend and a nurse, jumps out of the car at once to tend to the man, only to discover that it is too late; he is dead.
This is the inflection point in the novel. Sharkey doesn’t seem to understand that accidentally killing a homeless man is not any less atrocious than accidentally killing anyone else. And the local police, who are Sharkey’s fans, don’t make much of the situation either. If Sharkey is aware of anything after the accident, it’s the changes he himself is going through. He is getting old, he realizes; his skills, even on his board, are not as sharp as they once were. Killing a homeless man becomes the catalyst for Sharkey to turn inward, but Olive is determined to make sure it is more than his own previously unexamined life that Sharkey finds.
Under the Wave is a page-turner for a number of reasons. The ocean is a character here, and Theroux, who has written numerous travel books over the years (in addition to his fiction), finds a thousand different ways to immerse us in it, to have us understand how it is different from one day to the next, one beach to another. Hunter S. Thompson makes a very realistic cameo appearance in the novel, becoming Sharkey’s good friend when he is in Hawaii. (Theroux, who knew Thompson well, has said in interviews that Thompson was the perfect friend for Sharkey.) There is much to contemplate here—privilege and the divisions it causes, homelessness, and what it means to find success, for starters.—JS