What Alice Forgot

9780425247440_p0_v1_s260x420A friend of mine always calculates her birthday at 29, celebrating its anniversary, and not admitting to aging beyond that age.  In Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, Alice hits her head and loses the memory of ten years just before her 40th birthday, making her 29 again.

After Alice falls off her bike in spin class, she wakes up to an unfamiliar world.  Her clothes seem to belong to someone else, and she has no memory of her three children, her impending divorce, or the death of her best friend.   Unfortunately, she also doesn’t recognize the person she has become over the last ten years; evidently, her former self was happier, friendlier, and a better version.  As Alice ponders her predicament, Elizabeth, her older sister, fills in the blanks of the missing years for the reader with letters to her therapist.

A quick, easy romance with a humorous premise – picked for discussion by one of my book clubs.  Nice diversion…who wouldn’t want a chance for a “do-over.”

Love Is A Canoe

home-bookAlthough the title of Ben Schrank’s Love Is A Canoe promises a schmaltzy romance formula tale, the story has more Oprah soul-searching than bodice ripping. Schrank observes relationships and offers a perspective that compares a self-help marriage manual to the reality of three couples, while he humorously skewers the book publishing business.

The story bounces back and forth from Peter Herman, author of the marriage manual (“Love is a Canoe”) based on his observations of his grandparents’ idyll in the country, to a young professional couple with infidelity issues  – Eli, a bicycle designer, and Emily, a branding consultant,  and finally back to Peter’s new relationship years after publication and the death of his wife.     Stella, the young, aspiring editor at the publishing company that launched the book, connects the characters and fuels the action with a publicity event to raise interest and sales for an anniversary edition – a contest to meet the author.

Peter Herman, a one book wonder, has become a legendary hero – Schrank compares him to Mitch Albom, with the hint that Herman’s book has the same syrupy lessons, and includes excerpts from the fictitious marriage manual with its chapters ending with self-help advisory quotes that sound funny rather than cynical:

Good love is a quilt – light as feathers and strong as iron.

Desire for your loved ones gives you strength to paddle on.

Find time to be together every day – just the two of you – in your canoe.

After a slow start, the story finally finds its focus when the contest winners – Emily and Eli –  spend a weekend with the author.  Peter’s misguided attempts at marriage counseling and his inept cooking offer some humor, but husband Eli is irredeemable and the disastrous outcome seems predictable.  Stella is left to deal with the repercussions in the publishing world, but the outcome is not what you would expect.

Finally, all the characters find their centers and go off with likable partners – albeit not necessarily soul-mates.  Minor characters reappear at the end to happily complete each scenario.

A music playlist accents the dialogue adding drama and quirky background; you can almost hear the songs of Neil Young, Credence Clearwater Revival, Roger Miller, and the Rolling Stones that helped to define the characters.

They had Emily’s iPod plugged into the car’s amazing stereo and they were listening to Exile on Main Street. Emily always wanted to listen to Alison Krauss and Eli would have preferred the new Dinosaur Jr. album, so the Rolling Stones were how they compromised.

Although Shrank concocts a modern cautionary tale about marriage, love, and publishing, Love Is A Canoe has enough funny moments to keep the story light – despite the moral that sometimes people fool themselves into living with their illusions.

Private Life

Who ever knows what goes on inside a marriage?  Sometimes, the partners themselves may be unsure of each other’s motivation and inner fears.  In Private Life, Jane Smiley examines the life of Margaret Early, while chronicling the history she lives through from 1883 to 1942 – from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition to the San Francisco earthquake and fire, influenza epidemics, and finally to World War II.    Despite the influence of the historical context that Smiley uses to showcase Margaret’s life, Margaret is locked in a marriage in which “their lives were mostly private…lived side by side as necessary…”

Their mothers conspire to connect 27 year-old Margaret, approaching spinsterhood, with Andrew Early, the 38 year-old socially dysfunctional eccentric scientist, who may not be as brilliant as he thinks he is; compatibility is not an issue – “part of the price to be paid.”   Margaret does not know what she has gotten into, but Smiley slowly unravels the truth for her as she follows the marriage through a number of crises.

Margaret never seems to be able to release her emotions or follow her own instincts.  At a young age, she witnessed a hanging, and her repressed feelings about the incident seem to set the tone for the rest of her life.  Her role models: a mother who has lost her sixteen year old son to the measles brought home from her husband’s patients, and her father, who kills himself after his son’s death.  She watches and waits to see what is expected, and then tries to deliver.  After a while, this wears away whoever she ever really was or could be.

In Andrew, Smiley draws the picture of the brilliant would-be academic who never quite makes it in the world.  He takes shortcuts, entitled by his view of himself as a genius.  His ideas are suspect because he cannot forego his arrogance, and he ruins his chances for collaboration and possible recognition by belittling his colleagues.  Eventually, he carries his bravado beyond acceptable boundaries, and involves Margaret.

I lost patience with Andrew far before Margaret did.  Thankfully, Smiley offers other characters to counter the heaviness of Margaret’s life – Pete, Dora, Lucy, Mrs. Kimura. They weave in and out of the story, offering a respite to life with Andrew.

Margaret continues living her life through Andrew, typing his manuscripts, driving him around, tolerating him…

“It was peculiarly painful all of a sudden to know that her friends and relatives valued her life not for anything she had done, but for what she had put up with.  It was like being told she was a dolt… And, of course, there was no help for it…that’s what knitting groups and sewing groups {and book groups} were for, wasn’t it? Commiserating about marriage…”

I wondered how long Margaret could remain in this “relentless” marriage.  Finally, she gets a “headache” and excuses herself from Andrew’s excursions, and quietly steals some time and pleasure for herself, but she still stays with him.

More of the world rolls by – the Depression, the war – and as Andrew settles into his seventies, Smiley provides some funny observations about what happens to genius men as they age: Andrew joins Margaret’s women’s card-playing group on Mondays, takes his dog to the movies, and continues to assail anyone he can with his delusional theories as he takes his daily constitutionals.  Unfortunately, he also writes letters, and one day, Margaret has a visit from the FBI – government agencies, at least Hoover’s men, were not known for their sense of humor.

Smiley uses Margaret’s lack of “daring” to think for herself and live her own life as a cautionary tale.  Although Margaret thinks only her life is affected by her dutiful silence, she does not account for how, left alone to his own devices, her husband can be dangerous.

“I should have stopped you…”

As the story ends, you can only hope Margaret will finally get on with her own life.

Reading a Jane Smiley novel is an exercise in perseverance. Like a professor who knows too much and cannot always get the basics across to her disinterested students, Smiley offers too much information, background, and emotional baggage to digest.  But all that stuffing is necessary not only to understand the characters, but also to connect with them.

Private Lives is a difficult read, but offers a wealth of possibilities for a book discussion, as long as the book group stays with the book and does not digress to Smiley’s definition of “commiseration” as the purpose of the gathering.