Three great holiday reads

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

burning

My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more of less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point. Not in the ‘she moved to Tucson’ sense, but in the sense that ‘we grew apart’.

The Burning Girl tells the story of two girls, Julia and Cassie, who become best friends in nursery school and  stay so until they grow apart as teenagers. Cassie starts changing in seventh grade into someone Julia barely recognises. Having always been together at their small primary school and having played after school every day, the girls then go to high school and are ‘pushed apart by bureaucracy’ – Julia is cleverer than Cassie; they no longer have classes together, and a new girl swiftly becomes Cassie’s new best friend. The novel is written from Julia’s point of view, and one of the strengths of this well-written book is the emotional sensitivity with which Messud deals with Julia’s observations of Cassie, detailing the painful teenage angst Julia experiences; that sense of still loving your friend and aching inside for being left out. They grow apart, yet Julia always defends Cassie as her behaviour becomes increasingly rebellious. When Cassie disappears, it is Julia who understands her friend so deeply that she knows where to find her. Messud’s portrayal of this intense relationship is beautifully depicted.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

fires

Another novel about friendships, this time between two families who both live in the middle-class suburb of Shaker Heights (creepily like the Stepford Wives’ setting) in mid-west America. The Richardsons are a wealthy well-established nuclear family, while the Warrens are their poorer tenants; Mia Warren a nomadic artist and Pearl, her daughter, a teenager desperate to settle down. Ng is adept at portraying these characters; the Richardson teenagers insouciant in their wealth, who lounge about watching Jerry Springer shows, drive expensive cars and wear their clothes effortlessly. Their father is a corporate lawyer, their mother a reporter. Their youngest daughter, Izzy, is not as ‘perfect’ as her siblings, however, being a difficult, prickly individual prone to running away and causing trouble. Pearl is seduced by this family, becoming friends with the younger son, falling in love with the older one, the golden-boy; in awe of the oldest daughter;  becoming embarrassed of her poorly furnished small home and her eccentric mother. On the other hand, Izzy, is drawn to Mia’s creativity and eclectic artistic house, and her unjudgemental acceptance of Izzy. When Mrs Richardson, noting Izzy’s attraction to Mia and Pearl’s presence in the Richardson home, asks Mia to become their cleaner, the relationships start to shift. Another strand of the story arises, where both mothers take opposite stances in a controversial adoption within the Shaker community, while leads to an irretrievable shakeup. Ng portrays these fragile relationship exquisitely, particularly those of mothers and their children and the mistakes that happen, sometimes deliberately,  often almost inadvertently. The title refers to the opening scene in which the Richardson’s home is ablaze with fire,  started, according to the fire chief, by ‘little fires everywhere’; but at the same time reflects the minutiae of each relationship, in which little incidents stoke larger events with dire consequences.

Future Home of the Living Gods by Louise Erdich

gods

It is a pity there is such a focus on the Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the moment, as some readers might accuse Erdich of imitating it, not knowing that Atwood wrote the novel over 30 years ago. Erdich’s outstanding book deserves to stand alone with its imaginative look at a near-dystopian society, in which time appears to be moving backwards; reverse evolution as it were. The main character is a young pregnant woman of Native American origins called Cedar Hawk Songmaker; adopted by a white couple. When Cedar goes to find her Obijwe birth mother, she quite delightfully discovers her real name is in fact just Mary Potts and that her birth family is not mystical in any way. This is one of the things I like about Erdich’s novels – they always have a slight wry humour to them. Cedar seeks out her birth family to find out their medical history and any genetic makeup that might affect her baby, in this society in which animals and insects are slowly reverting to their prehistoric forms. Many human babies are being born in a more humanoid form, while fewer ‘perfect’ ones exist. As a result of this, pregnant women are being rounded up and held prisoner in ‘homes’ in which women disappear after giving birth to babies who are confiscated. Cedar narrates the novel in the form of a diary to her unborn child, thus exposing the reader to her alternating excitement and terror. Erdich has created a novel which, beneath its fantastic plot, weaves themes of diversity, acceptance, familial bonds, racism and sexism in all forms. It was a fantastic read.

 

Daughters of Jerusalem by Charlotte Mendelson

Charlotte Mendelson’s skill at portraying the undercurrents running beneath a family’s daily routines is superb. In Daughters of Jerusalem, she tells the story of the Lux family, who live a normal academic type of life – the father, a professor, the mother a translator, the elder daughter brainy and serious, the younger one pretty and demanding. 

But beneath this facade of normality, emotions and secrets brew and bubble until they have to spill over and break open the fragile security of the nuclear family. Jean, the mother, is bored of her life, she is sick of Oxford, hates the town and its inhabitants, and badly wants to get away. An unexpected declaration from a friend gives her a new escape from her life and in her obsession, she ignores her family.

Victor, the father, appears to be a typical absent-minded professor, yet he is insecure in his post and is desperate to be chosen to give the prestigious Spenser memorial lecture.

Eve, the elder daughter, is exquisitely portrayed as a teenager full of self-hatred and anger at the world. She is ignored in the main by her parents, who concentrate on trying to appease the younger daughter, Phoebe, and Eve resorts to desperate measures to impress her parents, like asking her father to teach her ancient Greek, or give her books on French art. She is a lonely, unhappy teenager, who cuts herself or pricks herself with her mother’s needles to be able to feel something and who plots the demise of her seemingly charmed sister.

Phoebe, the younger daughter, is flirtatious and demanding, wants attention all the time, wants a pony, gets what she wants – but she is not happy, either. She is a ‘dunce’ in an extremely clever family and she secretly drinks and takes drugs to seek distraction from family life. 

The story crescendoes when Victor’s nemesis, Raymond Snow, appears in Oxford and in some way, each member of the Lux family is affected by him. He is a noxious man, yet charming and a perfect antagonist.

Image
The author

Mendelson description of the character’s inner lives is brutal – she doesn’t pretty up any of it. She writes what many of us have thought, but would never say out loud. She depicts familial relationships in as honest a way as possible with all the vicious undercurrents and petty hatreds that suffuse families. Reviews talk about the Lux family being dysfunctional, yet I believe so many families function with similar pathologies – they are just never exposed until a crisis occurs.

Mendelson has written two other books and her fourth is being publishing in August this year. I look forward to it immensely.