Great House

Sharpen those pencils; align the papers; brew the coffee; arrange the space – delay tactics?  or necessary preparation for inviting the writing muse? Nicole
Krauss likes to use writers as her characters; in The History of Love, she focuses on a manuscript to connect them.     In Great House, it’s the writers’ desk.

More like a collection of unrelated short stories, the novel is an expansion of her short story, “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky,” first published in Harper’s magazine.*

Krauss begins with Nadia, the reclusive novelist who uses Daniel Varsky’s nineteenth century desk for twenty-seven years, after the poet dies at the hand of terrorists in Chile.   The desk had been her inspiration, and she becomes blocked when it is suddenly reclaimed, and shipped from New York to Israel.

From here, Krauss begins her mosaic as she backtracks into the desk’s history and narrates the stories of the four different lives it affects: Nadia, the writer; an unnamed Israeli widower; Arthur, a retired Oxford don; and Isabel, a New Yorker.   Holocaust survivors become one thread; painful memories lost to Alzheimer’s another; generational ignorance, regret, and loss weave throughout.

A cliffhanger appears at the end of each chapter, with a new set of characters each time.  Krauss’s stream of consciousness style only adds to the confusion, but her purpose seems not so much to solve the mystery as to immerse you in the loves, lives, and losses of her characters.

The desk reappears regularly – somehow connected to a writer – and teasing – what does it represent? What secret is in the locked drawer?  How is everyone connected? After a convoluted journey, the literal mystery of the desk is solved, but it is not an easy puzzle and ends with more questions than answers.

If you decide to read Great House – just go with the flow – and don’t try to fit all the pieces together – they are meant to create a pattern – not a clear picture.  Because, sometimes, the search for the answer is more important than the answer.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

The moon has always had an ethereal draw – even after astronauts proved it was not made of cheese and the man in the moon was made of craters. The glow from the moon can change a mood – wolves howl, lovers connect,  the sea shimmers.

In Sarah Addison Allen’s latest book,  The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Emily Benedict comes to live with her grandfather in the town her mother left and never looked back.    She finds lingering suspicions, old loves concealed in the carvings in the surrounding wood, and a chance to redeem her mother’s reputation.

More a love story than a mystery,  Allen’s quirky writing asks you to suspend belief with wallpaper that changes with the mood of the inhabitant, a real giant (eight feet tall), and a genetic disposition in the town’s elite family that would make Tinkerbell jealous.    Throw in a couple of star-crossed lovers, a baker of aromatic cakes, and a family feud – you have the makings of a good beach read.

Allen’s characters follow a familiar formula.    The two main characters both have mothers who died when they were teens; both are struggling for acceptance and love in a town with a memory – all’s well that ends well.

Allen’s Garden Spells, also set in North Carolina about a family with special gifts, was less contrived and more fun to read.    The charm of Garden Spells will remind you of another favorite – Laura Esquivel’s  Like Water for Chocolate – cooking with a touch of magic.  If you like the idea of using ingredients and attitude to cook up a dish to literally affect others’ moods, you will like both of these.

If you only have time for one – go with Garden Spells.