Saturday, February 22, 2014

"The Husband's Secret" by Liane Moriarty

For the first part of the book, The Husband's Secret has elements of Gone Girl which make it appealing--dark secrets revealed at turn; people with questionable motives. It never gets anywhere near as insane as Gone Girl, though the coincidences and overlap between characters do build up quite incredibly by the end. But, by not letting its characters stray into the psychotic, The Husband's Secret also remains a lot more relatable, which makes it a very different book by the end.

The book interweaves the stories of Rachel, whose daughter Janie was murdered as a teenager; Cecilia, a type-A woman who learns of a dark secret of her husband; and Tess, whose husband Will wants to leave her for her cousin Felicity. As alluded to before, the first half of the book is a build up in suspense, but by half way through, most of the big reveals have occurred. The second half of the novel, then, follows the consequences: what do you do when your life has been turned upside down?

What I got most out of the book was the fact that anger--and, maybe even more importantly, righteous anger--is still most harmful to the angry person. Even in circumstances where a person has every right to be furious at another, those emotions prey on the holder, not the person who's done wrong. Funnily, this was most hard for me to accept in the case of Tess. I could see where Rachel needed to move on from her fury about Janie's murder, but I wanted Tess to punish Will, to be vicious to him for straying in their marriage. Letting go of one's anger doesn't mean condoning the wrongdoing, but it is the only way to preserve relationships and yourself.

Less significantly for me, the book also focuses on the secrets (big and small) that we keep from one another. While I could certainly understand Cecilia's husband, John-Paul, keeping his secret, other characters' actions seemed utterly bizarre. Tess thinks she has social anxiety but has never told anyone? (and her husband never picked up on it?) Cecilia and John-Paul don't have sex for six months but Cecilia is ashamed to bring it up? Funnily, at the same time, I read a New York Times article that said, "Spouses who spent time alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity at least once per week were 3.5 times more likely to be very happy in their marriage than spouses who did so less frequently." And all I could think was: there are enough spouses who don't talk once per week to make that statistic meaningful?! Clearly, the point is: talk with your family. It just surprised me that that was a point that needed to be made.

The epilogue really pushes the coincidences too much, but The Husband's Secret is still an enjoyable and quick read.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"On Such a Full Sea" by Chang-rae Lee

I think reading some reviews of On Such a Full Sea prior to reading the novel itself helped me appreciate the book more. Several reviews talked about the epic, myth-like quality of the story, and understanding it--and protagonist Fan's journey--through that lens avoids pesky and ultimately irrelevant objections of "that's not realistic!" For though the book is fiction, it's certainly not realistic fiction, nor even realistic dystopian fiction (though that would probably be closest to its genre). Instead, it's part futuristic dystopian and part Odyssey, with Fan's journey being best understood as a series of encounters and challenges (cannibals! Sirens!) with obstacles on her path.

And while the central narrative is Fan's (little "o") odyssey to find her boyfriend Reg after he is taken from B-Mor, the regimented colony in which Fan and others live and work to provide fish for the wealthy Charters, unlike in the Odyssey, Fan's journey is only half the story. The other half of the story is that of those left behind in B-Mor, told through an anonymous first person plural narrator. In this way On Such a Full Sea is really a combination of ancient Greek styles: half epic hero's journey and half chorus in a Greek tragedy. And though at times I felt a little frustrated to be brought back to B-Mor (where little happens) when I wanted to keep following Fan (where much was happening), I do think there's something worthwhile in exploring what happens to those left behind in an epic journey. As Fan becomes myth and legend, the residents of B-Mor use her as a catalyst to question their own lives, and what results is fully realistic: some resistance, some acceptance.

Though structurally Fan is our epic hero, she's not a traditional hero (something the choral narrator reminds us of). She's brave, determined, and good, but she's also not entirely purposeful, often reacting to what happens to her rather than initiating. And she's also less fleshed out than you might think such a character would be, her presence often more a symbol than actual person.

So the book is a little different, but I liked it thoroughly, even though it leaves a rather ambiguous ending.

*Minor quibble in a book a quite I enjoyed is that it, like so many others, uses the trope of "woman getting pregnant the first time she has sex." Though obviously such a thing is possible, I have no doubt it's also very rare, so it irks me to no end to be used constantly to artificially create drama. I'm going to start creating a list:
- On Such a Full Sea
- My Real Children
- Life After Life
- The Natural
- A Thousand Splendid Suns
- Water for Elephants
- Twilight series
- Downton Abbey (TV) -- more than once too!
- Glee (TV)
- Juno (movie)

Monday, February 3, 2014

"Pilgrim's Wilderness" by Tom Kizzia

I wanted to like Pilgrim's Wilderness more than I did. Maybe the idea of reading about a crazy, isolationist Fundamentalist family who battled heads with the National Parks Service (and many others) in their attempt to live in Alaska sounds more interesting than the sad and pathetic truth. That Christian fanatics are often the worst kind of hypocrites, and the revelations of "Papa Pilgrim's" sexual assaults, physical abuse, and psychological manipulation against his wife and 15 children are utterly expected.

In fact, I had a hard time reading the book at times because any word or letter from Papa or the family made me cringe and gag. Even worse, they manipulated many Alaskans' strong feelings about property rights and lack of government oversight for their own purposes, preying on many decent people in the process. Kizzia isn't an impartial observer about the family--after hearing the whole story, no one can really be with the Pilgrims--but he also clearly comes down favorably on the National Park Service's efforts against the family. It was perhaps his attitude that let me continue to read.

At the end of the novel, we learn of Papa Pilgrim's trial and conviction. The remaining children are informally "adopted" by another giant isolationist Fundamentalist family. Two of the Pilgrim sons even marry two of the family's daughters. Though I was, of course, happy to see them out of the reach of Papa Pilgrim, it was hardly (from my perspective) an uplifting ending. It doesn't seem like the new family is abusive, but they're still fanatics keeping their children from the real world--and I can't root for that.