19 February 2009

The Position by Meg Wolitzer

Flap Copy:
The Position is the story "of one extraordinary family at the hilarious height of the sexual revolution -- and through the thirty-year hangover that followed.

In 1975, Paul and Roz Mellow write a bestselling Joy of Sex-type book that mortifies their four school-aged children and ultimately changes the shape of the family forever. Thirty years later, as the now dispersed family members argue over whether to reissue the book, we follow the complicated lives of each of the grown children and their conflicts in love, work, marriage, parenting and, of course, sex -- all shadowed by the indelible specter of their highly sexualized parents."

When I first read the back of this book I thought it sounded potentially hilarious and at the very least quite interesting. And while the premise certainly is interesting, Wolitzer falls a little flat on her delivery. The story begins in the seventies when the Mellows first publish their how-to sex guide (featuring illustrations of themselves in all the positions!) but rapidly moves to the present day and focuses on the current lives and loves of the four grown children.

It's hard to imagine, but this story truly was boring. The book was well-written, the author's way with language and humor was fairly adept, and yet I was just soooo bored. The adult characters were really still just whiny adolescents blaming their parents for all their problems, and the parents were now retirees unable to accept the realities of age and still stuck in the memory of their sexual heyday.

Wolitzer's primary focus in the book is certainly the notion of self-discovery -- a worthy one for discussion and certainly relevant to any reader, as were other primary issues (family, expectations, sexuality, acceptance.) I think all the right elements were present in the novel but never quite achieved their potential. I give this book 2.5 stars - it would make a good beach read, but make sure you're wearing sunscreen in case you fall asleep!

06 February 2009

Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper

Flap Copy from ARC:
"Elizabethan beauty Anne Whateley records intimate details of her dangerous, daring life and her great love, William Shakespeare. As historical records show, Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton is betrothed to Will just days before he is forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway. The secret Whateley-Shakespeare match is a meeting of heards and minds that no one - not even Queen Elizabeth or her spymasters - can destroy. Often at odds, always in love, the couple sells Will's first plays, and as he climbs to theatrical power in England, they fight off fierce competition from other London dramatists, some as treacherous as they are talented. Persecution and plague, insurrection and inferno, friends and foes, even executions of those they hold dear, bring Anne's heartrending story to life."

I thoroughly enjoyed this retelling of the story of Shakespeare in love, though I'm not sure what (if any) historical truths the novel actually contains. I have always been fascinated, though, by the mysteries surrounding much of Shakespeare's life -- though his writing is so widely studied and appreciated, details of his life story are murky and patchy at best.

Harper's book is primarily a love story, chronicling the lifelong see-saw of feelings between Anne Whately and Will Shakespeare. Anne is a strong and independent woman -- it's a little disappointing, then, that she so completely devotes herself to a man whose affections come and go with the ever-changing political and social scene. Shakespeare is presented as a flawed man with a burgeoning genius talent, a man who never quite understands how his writing and behavior have affected the two women in his life.

Harper's writing is entertaining and for the most part well-crafted - the only times I felt the story floundered occurred when the characters slipped into poorly executed period speak. Because these moments stunted the narrative, I'm giving the book 3.5 stars, but I definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoys Elizabethan history.

03 February 2009

A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff

Flap Copy from ARC:
Rakoff's first novel "details the lives of a group of Oberlin graduates whose ambitions and friendships threaten to unravel as they chase their dreams, shed their youth and build their lives in Brooklyn during the late 1990s and the turn of the twenty-first century.

There's Lil, a would-be scholar whose marriage to an egotistical writer initially brings the group back together (and ultimately drives it apart); Beth, who struggles to let go of her old beau Dave, a oneime piano prodigy trapped by his own insecurity; Emily, an actor perpetually on the verge of success - and starvation - and grappling with her jealousy of Tal, whose acting career has taken off. At the center of their orbit is wry, charismatic Sadie Peregrine, who coolly observes her friends' mistakes but can't quite manage to avoid making her own. As they begin their own careers, marry, and have children, they must navigate the shifting dynamics of their friendships and of the world around them."

I have mixed feelings about this book. I was thoroughly engaged while reading it but feel somewhat bereft at the end, as though each page or chapter promised a revelation or an emotion that was never delivered. I felt no connection to any of the characters, though I think they were well-drawn and very well-imagined.

Most of the book's writing is episodic, with narrative and chronological jumps that were at times confusing; many important character interactions and plot movements occur off the page and rely solely on indirect mention. I'm not sure whether Rakoff is nostalgic for her own circle of educated-but-floundering post-college friends, or if she was one of the clique's outsiders and so now bitter and reflective about her own and their experienecs.

I enjoyed reading A Fortunate Age and I recommend it as an insightful look at the inner workings of a burgeoning adult friend group -- I'm just left feeling a little unsatisfied, I suppose because I always hope to connect with at least one character in a story and here I reached the end of the book liking each of the characters even less than I had at the beginning.

01 February 2009

The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson

Flap copy from ARC:
"Five years ago, after an exhaustive nationwide search, the Chicago Tribune announced Amy Dickinson as the next Ann Landers. They wanted a contemporary voice and they found it. Bracingly witty and candid, Amy is not your mother's advice columnist. Readers love her for her brutal honesty, her small-town values, and the fact that her motto is 'I make the mistakes so you don't have to.' Her advice column "Ask Amy," appears daily in more than 150 newspapers nationwide, read by more than 22 million people. In The Mighty Queens of Freeville, Amy Dickinson takes those mistakes and spins them into a remarkable story. This is the tale of Amy and her daughter and the women in her family who helped raise them."

This memoir was wonderful - once I started reading I couldn't put it down. Dickinson's candid, no-nonsense prose is at once honest, touching and punctuated with hilarity, and her stories of female resilience are achingly real.

The story follows Dickinson from her divorce (when her daughter Emily is a toddler) to Emily's freshman year of college and catalogues the wide and varied lessons they learned together along the way. It's not a memoir about her rise to fame but rather about the extraordinarily ordinary women in her family who gave her skills to become a successful advice columnist and at the same time raise a child.

I highly recommend this book - read it, then give a copy to your mom!