The Excellent Lombards

If I hadn’t read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I may have missed Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards. Patchett recommended the book as “the book Hamilton was born to write.” Like Patchett’s Commonwealth, The Excellent Lombards focuses on a family, and has some biographical references from its author. Coincidentally, both books also have a character named Frances.

Since Hamilton tells this coming of age story through the voice of twelve year old Mary Frances Lombard living with her family on a small Wisconsin apple and sheep farm at the end of the twentieth century, the rhythm of the narrative is hard to follow at first. Ownership of the farm lands has been passed down through generations and is now shared by Jim Lombard, Frankie’s father, his cousin Sherwood, and an elderly aunt May Hill. Everyone from old May Hill to the children, Frankie and her brother, William, work the farm, except Nellie, Frankie’s mother who is the town librarian.

Frankie is determined to stay on the farm forever, imagining a long life there with her brother, but the small farm struggle against land development and innovative crops, as well as inner family rivalries, threaten her dream. Change is hard, especially when you don’t want to grow up.

Hamilton, of course, has a message for the reader through tense moments at town hall meetings or around the dinner table, but the novel’s humor, cleverly flowing through Frankie, kept my attention – from her pushing the library carts through the halls in a synchronized dance routine to being locked in the old lady’s bedroom while she was sharpening her spying skills.  Frankie will go to extremes to keep everyone happy, purposely losing the geography bee to her younger lispy cousin to make her feel better.

Hamilton touches on historic moments such as the terrorist attack on the New York City Towers, but only as placements in time. The real terror is the developing history noone can stop. The story ends with Frankie facing her own possibilities, opportunities, and obstacles – some seem inevitable. With grace and wit, Hamilton delivers her perspective on the difficulty of letting go.

Anita Shreve and Stella Bain

9780316098861_p0_v3_s260x420With some authors, what they write doesn’t matter so much as that they meet the expectations of their faithful readers.  The author of seventeen novels, Anita Shreve delivers her latest – Stella Bain – using memory loss, an abusive husband, World War I, shell shock, psychoanalysis, and lost loves in a romantic tale of an early twentieth century woman who has the strength and courage to recover and create a new life.

If you are a fan and have been waiting, you will enjoy the story and wonder when the next book is coming.

Have you read Anita Shreve’s Rescue?  Check out the review – here

The Undertow by Jo Baker

If you’ve ever been lulled into floating blissfully on an ocean, only to be suddenly frightened into realizing the current is taking you somewhere you had not planned, you have experienced that same uneasy drift as reading Jo Baker’s aptly named – The Undertow.  As the story follows four generations from World War I to a terrorist bombing in 2005 – with a series of Williams –  contentedly listing toward uneventful lives, Baker adds the currency of human frailty and unexpected events to jolt into another direction.

Like many family sagas, The Undertow follows the influence of inherited issues.  The slow movement and long descriptions may try your patience at first. William Hastings, a sailor in the first World War, faithfully sends postcards to his pregnant wife in London telling her what she expects to hear, while he is yearning to sustain his adventure at sea and not return.  William shares his ambivalent emotions with his mate, Sully – before dying under attack at sea.  Sully continues to reappear throughout the generations – a dark and persistent reminder of  the weaknesses pulling the characters under.

Billie, the son who never knew his father, grows up to be a star athlete, winning awards for biking, but his own demons keep him from the Olympics. He fights and survives in the second World War,  but not before creating an incident that shapes his life when he returns.  His son, Will, is born with a disability that prevents him from fulfilling his father’s athletic dreams.  Will’s fate is Oxford; again, he manages to sabotage his own happiness.

Finally, Billie, the talented artist great-granddaughter, at first seems destined to follow her ancestors to an unfulfilled life.  Sully again has an influence on her decisions, but this time she exonerates the family line.  With a short scene at the end of the book that’s easy to miss, Billie’s self- assessment is jolting.

Baker cleverly uses props as reminders throughout the story, but chapters jump erratically in time – sometimes years have passed; sometimes only a day, and I always found myself flipping pages back.  Baker’s strength is her careful description that targets the emotions of a scene:

“…the Dardanelles must be kept clear…What they carry back from the beaches are not boys. What they carry back are rinds and husks. They have become grocers of men.  They deliver them ashore full and whole, then come back for the empties.”

This probably will do well as a paperback – a slow, methodical read for a beach or rainy afternoon.  Nevertheless, The Undertow is not to be underestimated.  Baker uses historical settings to connect to the ordinariness of lives, the simple decisions and uncontrollable events that change everything…

“…you can get your verse perfect…the meter and rhythm absolutely undeniably right and true, and then life just comes along and trips you up with inconvenient facts…”