The Dutch House

My old friend’s younger face stared at me from the cover of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, as I wandered through the airport bookstore.  I had just left her husband’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery and the moment of her last goodbye as she bent over the coffin, surrounded by the military color guard, was still with me.  Looking back on his life seemed like a fast forward through time, full of moments of joy and sadness – some only he and my friend shared alone.  Ann Patchett captured this colorama of life as she focused on one family’s life journey in her book, based in a place I grew up – the suburbs of Philadelphia.

I read through The Dutch House from Washington D.C. to Honolulu, never turning on the movie screen in front of me, and time flew by as I did.  I noted Bishop McDevitt High School, where my brother and I cheered the basketball team, Abington Memorial Hospital where my father and brother died, the references to Elkins Park, the neighborhood a cut above it all,  and Jenkintown, with its old library, all within the radius of my childhood home.  I followed Danny and Maeve from childhood to funerals, and gladly immersed myself in a world of characters Patchett created.

If you’ve read Patchett’s books, you know she is all about the characters and the place.  In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Patchett gives her reason for setting the house in the story in Elkins Park:

“I was looking for a tony suburb that was near New York, because New York would definitely play into the story. And I have a very close friend, Erica Buchsbaum Schultz, who is originally from Wyncote {the actual site of Bishop McDevitt High School}.. And when I was in college [at Sarah Lawrence], I would always go to her family’s house for weekends, because I lived too far away [in Nashville]…I like to write in a place that I know, but maybe not too well. I would never set a book in Nashville. If I know a place too well, I get overburdened with details.”

But she got her descriptions right.  I know – I grew up there – and it added to the pleasure of reading the book for me.  There was my friend on the cover and in a place where we both grew up.

The story is unlike anything I knew when I was there, however, and maybe a little fantastic. A mother, overcome with guilt over her husband’s new wealth, cannot accommodate living in a glorious mansion with servants and expensive art, and leaves her three year old son and eleven year old daughter, to go to India to help with the poor.  Danny, the son, is the narrator, as we follow his journey from his life in a glass house to his reunion as an adult with his mother. Martha Southgate for the New York Times calls the story a fairy tale, and it does have the wicked stepmother with her two selfish daughters, and a few fairy godmothers.  Danny is not Cinderella, but he and his sister Maeve, do lose the comforts of wealth when their father dies.  Despite all the obstacles they have to overcome and the suffering they endure, Danny and Maeve thrive, and the wicked stepmother gets her due.

Unlike a fairy tale, Patchett weaves a story about characters you can care about, and offers so much for a discussion – great book for a book club, just like her Commonwealth.

Thank you, Ann Patchett, for delivering a book for publication, and as my friend’s husband would say, your timing for me, “was exactly right.”

Caring for Aging Parents: Hot Milk with They May Not Mean to, But They Do

Although both books I had been reading together had some humor, both Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Cathleen Schine’s They May Not Mean To, But They Do were giving me a headache.  With the focus on illness and dying, they made a good pair. In both cases, the books delivered unexpected lessons in grace, patience, and fortitude.  I had forgotten both authors have more to say than their plots.

9781620406694_p0_v5_s192x300  Levy’s Hot Milk, short listed for the Man Booker Prize this year, focuses on the relationship of an English Rose, a hypochondriac mother and her daughter, Sophia,  who uses her dutiful caring of her mother to avoid her own life. Sophie has an ABD (all but dissertation) in anthropology; she is constantly observing and internalizing. Frequently, I wanted to tell her to stop studying life around her and start living her own. 

Sophia’s father, a Greek who has remarried a younger woman, appears later in the drama, contributing to Sophia’s angst, but the mother-daughter enabling relationship holds the focus.  .  . Levy lightens the mood with her wacky characters – my favorite, the “quack” doctor who seems made to order for a quack patient.  And when Sophie leaves her mother in the middle of the road in a chapter titled “Matricide,” I laughed out loud at her frustration.

9780374280130_p0_v4_s192x300  In Schine’s They May Not Mean To, But They Do, the Weismanns of Westport reappear as the Bergmans of Manhattan, with an elderly dying father being cared for by his younger eighty-six year old wife.  The scenes describing her caregiving may seem funny to some, but will strike a sad chord of familiarity for anyone who has been there.  

The children surround and hover,  intermittently ignoring and suffering their aging parents – making decisions from afar, not really wanting to acknowledge the reality.  Although Schine uses the title from Philip Larkin’s famous poem, in her view it’s the children messing up the parents. After their father dies, they try to help their mother by buying her a dog and then a tricycle.  When Joy finds companionship with an old friend, Karl, the story reminded me of Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night.”  Do all adult children have those same fears and reservations for their aging parents?Like Roz Chast in her graphic novel addressing adult children and aging parents, Schine does not shy away from difficult discussions but manages to cultivate the laughs.

Despite the sprinkling of humor, both books reflect on the misery and reality of aging, illness (real or imagined), and the ultimate prospect of death.  Rightfully, the authors draw attention to matters needing to be discussed, observed, and perhaps offer some solutions, but to quote Roz Chast – can’t we talk about something more pleasant?

Against my instincts, I kept reading both. Because Hot Milk was a book for discussion by one of my groups, I soldiered on, sometimes wondering if the book was a translation (it was not).  Because a good friend promised I would appreciate the ending of Schine’s book, I finished it.

The ending of Hot Milk was a surprise.  Schine’s ending was also unexpected, but much easier and hopeful.  We all die. Levy would have us philosophize our way to the end with an ironic laugh; Schine offers resignation with humor.




The Children’s Crusade

9781476710457_p0_v3_s260x420Ann Packer has some thoughts on that old adage – “It’s all my mother’s fault” in her new book, The Children’s Crusade.  Whatever we have become may be attributable to our mothers – or not…

At first glance, the Blairs are the model family – something out of the old Donna Reed show, with the pediatrician father, the repressed mother, and four children – three boys and a girl.  Of course, they are not ideal – no family is – and Packer allows the reader to live among their yearnings and disappointments, learning how families survive, and offering a little wisdom about relationships.

After Penny Greenway marries Bill Blair, who has dreams of a family-filled house on the wooded California acres he bought on a whim after returning from the war,  she chafes at her role as wife, housekeeper, and mother.  Looking forward to the day when her three children will finally all be in school, she is sidelined by a fourth unwanted pregnancy – another obstacle to her free time and her development as a budding artist.  The story flips between her life with her young children and the grown adult children they’ve become, with each telling the story through alternating chapters.  When the black sheep, the youngest, returns to force the sale of the big house, the plot turns inward to adult feelings of inadequacy and betrayal.

Throughout the story, James, the youngest among his three R siblings – Robert, Rebecca, and Ryan – forces the action.  As a young child, James is unmanageable, lively, and unpredictable, demonstrating bizarre behavior, possibly in an attempt to get attention from a mother who would rather not give it to him.  As the others grow into doctors and a teacher, James drops out, wanders the world, and finally finds himself in a commune in Oregon.  Needing money to start a life with his new love, a married mother of two, James returns home to test the conditions of the trust his father had established before he died.  The sale of the big house is contingent on the approval of Penny, now an artist living in New Mexico, and at least one of the children.  Up until now, the children have been united against their mother and  rallied against the sale.

The “crusade” refers to the young children’s plan to make their mother happy.  What could they do as a family that would interest their mother?  How could they rein her into their circle?  Make her want to be with them?  An impossibility – Penny is overwhelmed with the drudge of her life, and only wants to escape to her shed to create art.

Packer is careful to create shadings as she describes Penny’s life in the fifties.  Penny hungers for recognition as more than the stay-at-home mother, hostess, wife of a Doctor.  Some sacrifices were just too hard for her to make, yet, in a moment of clarity toward the end of the book, Packer has James state the obvious – “Wasn’t the whole thing mutual?”  Could Bill and Penny have figured out a way to give each other what they needed as individuals?  Their children do figure it out, as they move on away from the past and into their own futures.


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

9780399162091_p0_v3_s260x420If you take Barbara Kingsolver’s advice in her New York Times review of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,  as I did   – “avoiding everything written about it…”  including Kingsolver’s review –  you will enjoy the surprise that Fowler conceals until almost 100 pages into the story.  No spoilers here but you might consider stopping right here so you won’t risk it.

Rosemary Cooke, narrates the tale of her family. Her father is a respected university psychologist with a crew of graduate students to help with his research in animal behavior.  She starts her story “in the middle” and jumps back and forth from her college days at the University of California Davis to her childhood with her brother, Lowell, who becomes a fugitive from the FBI before graduating from high school, and her sister, Fern, who suffers a terrible fate when she is only five years old, that changes everything for everyone.

Fowler includes some comic moments with a puppet modeled after Madame Defarge (Madame Guillotine), but the serious notes predominate, with frequent references to scientific study and political upheaval – at times overwhelming the story with detailed erudite citations and shocking brutal treatment of animals.  In addition to her obvious agenda for animal rights, Fowler slowly unravels family lives that are irrevocably sidetracked.  When the surprise is revealed, the consequences of family interaction seem unique to their situation, but by the end Fowler has connected the story to all families who suffer the distractions of sibling rivalry as well as family loyalty.  And, she may challenge your perception of what is normal human behavior.

It’s no surprise that the New York Times asked Kingsolver to write the review; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has faint notes of Flight Behavior – a book with a message and characters who will stay with you.

Defending Jacob

What if an assistant district attorney had to defend his fourteen year old son in a murder case? Sound like a television Father’s Day drama? That’s just what William Landay delivers in his courtroom crime story – Defending Jacob. Although the characters follow a formulaic stereotype and some of the dialogue is reminiscent of Mickey Spillane, the plot is fast-paced, easy reading, with enough change-ups to keep you reading.

Jacob’s middle schooler life is a mystery to his parents until one of his classmates is found stabbed in the park adjacent to the school. Suddenly, the bullying, the hidden knife, a fingerprint, and Jake’s loner personality implicate him as the murderer. Landay effectively uses two catalysts in the mix: the internet – citing Facebook, Twitter, and iPads as adding to public suspicion; and the “murder gene” – a genetic tendency to violence.

I’ve had this book on my shelf and decided to give it away to make room, but, first had to read it. A quick read – less gruesome than other crime novels – Defending Jacob has some father/son relationship angst and family-in-crisis warts, but, for the most part – just another good legal thriller – scheduled to come out in a movie theater soon with talk of Michael Shannon playing the father.

The ending came as a surprise; don’t stop reading after court adjourns.