Faithful by Alice Hoffman

9781476799209_p0_v3_s192x300 Alice Hoffman always manages to instill some magic into her narrative, and a little appears in Faithful, but more believable than some of her other stories like Practical Magic or Nightbird – yet just as captivating.

Hoffman weaves the story around a mother-daughter relationship after a devastating car accident.  Seventeen year old Shelby Richmond was driving when the car crashed; she survived but her best friend, Helene, became a vegetable and the town saint.  As Helene lies comatose in her parents’ living room, amazing miracles seem to happen to some who make the pilgrimage to her bedside – scars disappear, diseases are cured, roses bloom in February on the anniversaries of the crash.  Shelby, on the other hand, shaves her head, cuts her self, becomes a drug addict, and hides in her parents’ basement – in shame and guilt at having survived.  The reader follows her journey to redemption as Hoffman takes Shelby from antisocial misery to working in a pet store and eventually to veterinary school.

Along the way, Shelby has help growing up and realizing how to live her second chance at life.  Mysterious postcards appear intermittently in the story, and solving the mystery of the sender becomes a catalyst to reading on.  When the “angel” is revealed, the story satisfyingly provides closure in a number of ways – to tell too much would spoil the reading.

great_pyrenees_tavish Despite her rocky relationship with her mother and her subsequent connections with men, it’s the dogs in Shelby’s life who are the true saviors.  She rescues abused homeless dogs, taking them to live with her in her three hundred foot studio apartment.  Their personalties reflect Shelby’s needs – from the French bull dog, who always leads the way, to the one-eyed small dog who needs carrying, and the gentle guardian, the white Great Pyrenees.  Eventually, her mother’s toy poodle becomes part of the brood.  Dog lovers will readily identify with the value of Shelby’s canine friends.

Alice Hoffman’s stories always catch me unaware – before I know it I am deep in the story and cannot let go.  Although the story begins on a depressing note, Hoffman quickly escalates to her real message, and the dogs in this story were an added bonus.

Reviews of Other Alice Hoffman Books:

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.




Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

Memoirs are not my favorite genre and the last time I read Anna Quindlen, she scared me away with the desolation of her novel,  Every Last One, but a good friend suggested that I read Quindlen’s memoir – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.

Not willing to wait out the long library reserve list, I escaped to a Barnes and Noble to nurse a double espresso while reading the red covered book with a flap that boasted “You wouldn’t believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation” – sounded promising.
So, Anna became my morning coffee companion.

As she chatted about friends, school, religion, and children, I realized we have a lot in common. I squirted coffee out my nose laughing at her wanting to lick the brownie bowl without sharing with her small children. (One of my first published pieces was about licking the cake batter bowl.) Although I admired her handstands and one-arm pushups, she did not inspire me to do the same, but her admonition to “drive out fear” is advice worth keeping. When was the last time you did not try something because you were afraid of the outcome?

After a while, I took Anna home with me and discovered her mother had made her pepper-onion-egg sandwiches just as mine had for me. I listened intently as her life changed when her mother became ill when Anna was 19, and suddenly realized the significance of her theme of loss in most of her novels.

Quindlen’s memories have a universality that will resonate with anyone who appreciates “the examined life,” but I made an unexpected connection – just as my friend suggested I would. As for that kitchen renovation, she took the words right out of my mouth…

A safety net of small white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage.

Book Review: Every Last One

Burnt Mountain

Do you have fond memories of summer camp?  Or did you write  letters like Allan Sherman’s “Hello, Mudder; hello, Fadder…” from Camp Granada?  Anne Rivers Siddons bases her latest Southern drama – Burnt Mountain – on camp experiences that change lives – and not as expected.

Siddons’ novels are usually full of elaborate descriptions of Southern living, with detailed attention to the Low Country landscape and the regional characterizations.  Burnt Mountain is no exception, offering a view of gracious living, with flawed personalities.  Thayer Wentworth, the daughter of a social climbing mother and old-moneyed father, finds refuge in a summer camp after her father suddenly dies in a car accident.  After a few summers, she becomes a counselor and meets the handsome young prince from the boys’ camp, Nick Abrams, and they fall in love.  After Thayer finds herself pregnant at seventeen, her mother tricks her into an abortion – with dire consequences.  Her wealthy grandmother subsidizes Thayer’s college education, and Thayer falls in love with Aengus, the handsome Irish professor of Celtic folklore.  They marry and move into Grandma’s house when she dies.

All seems relatively stable, except for Thayer’s haunting nightmares and her husband’s penchant for Celtic magic.   Looking for an audience for his storytelling, Aengus finds a receptive group at the local boys’ camp, Camp Forever, and also volunteers for the city’s upcoming Olympic hospitality committee.  As Aengus becomes immersed in his work and distances himself from Thayer, Nick Abrams reenters the narrative – now an architect, focused on building housing for the Olympic participants.

Siddons inserts her signature flair for family secrets that undo the best of them – with the theme of living your own life.  The resolution has strange otherworldly inferences with Aengus’s abrupt and disconnected descent into a forbidden world.   With the weird life-sucking witchcraft at Camp Forever, you may be reminded of Bette Midler in her Halloween role in Hocus Pocus.

Siddons novels are usually easy reads, following an expected formula.  Her strength lies in her captivating descriptions with doses of romance in an easy storytelling style that eventually ends in a happily ever after.  This ending, however, was not only contrived – it was unbelievable.

Silver Sparrow

One husband – two wives – a daughter with each: one wife and daughter live in ignorant bliss; the others spy on their counterparts as they live their parallel lives in Atlanta -unknown and in secret.  In Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones creates a story with quiet drama and private misery.

James Witherspoon is a black man with a stutter  –

“…a bit on the short side and wore glasses thick as a slice of Wonder bread…”

No handsome lothario – but he did the right thing and married Laverne when he got her pregnant at 14, and then falls in love with Gwen and marries her when she becomes pregnant.

Jones uses the first half of her book to focus on Gwen and Dana’s secret life with James. Gwen has always known James is married; she’s made her peace with being the other woman, but knows how to manipulate his guilt into gifts for their daughter, Dana. Although she was working at a retail store when she met James, who came in to buy an anniversary present for his wife, she successfully completes her practical nursing degree to supplement James’s meager support.

Gwen and Dana regularly embark on “surveil” trips – to check out the other wife and daughter, their house with the attached beauty salon, what they are wearing, how they live – blackmailing James with the information, unsuccessfully trying to match their lives.  Jones makes their place as second-best pathetic yet resilient, and the masquerade could continue indefinitely – with Dana not allowed to attend the same school or work at the same summer job as her sister Chaurisse; James is determined to keep his lives separate.  If Dana would be satisfied with the deception, she could have graduated from Mt. Holyoke in South Hadley, and someday Gwen might have turned up dressed in widow’s black at his funeral.  But Dana is not happy with her secret standing, and her longing to be known as her father’s daughter is the quiet time bomb that you expect to explode.

In the second half of the book, Jones backtracks to tell the other side – Laverne pregnant at 14, losing the baby, forced to drop out of high school, giving birth to a daughter a few months after Dana is born.  After the ground work is laid, Jones begins her campaign to cross the lives of the two daughters.  They meet as teenagers, but only Dana knows it is her sister, Chaurisse, that she has been stalking.  As their strange friendship develops, Chaurisse unknowingly reveals pieces of her private life.  In a pivotal scene, the two girls have a flat tire on their way to a party.  Chaurisse calls her father for help; Dana, in a panic not to be discovered, calls her mother for a ride.  James arrives with his friend Raleigh, at the same time as Gwen, but only Chaurisse is unaware of the relationships.

At times, you don’t know who is more to blame – James for his deceit or Gwen for her complicity.   But the novel is about his daughters: one secure in her family life, not as bright or pretty as her illegitimate sister, but blissfully ignorant of her father’s deception; the other, a silver girl – beautiful and smart – who sees her father only once a week for dinner, cringing with a desperate yearning under the veil of being second-best that ruins her life.

The ending is unforgiving but realistic.  What a great book for a group discussion.  So many possibilities to think about:

What if Dana had kept away from Chaurisse?  Was her longing for a legitimate father – or was it a sister she craved?   What if Raleigh had married Gwen?  Was Laverne really that clueless or did she choose not to know?  Would you have ended the story differently?

Set in Atlanta, Silver Sparrow has the authenticity that is lacking in The Help.  No happy endings here, but a thoughtful and compelling story – that could be true.