12 August 2009

Mercury in Retrograde by Paula Froelich

Flap Copy from ARC: "In this debut novel, the lives of three women intersect when they each decide to move into the same SoHo apartment building. Penelope Mercury is an intrepid reporter at the New York Telegraph who spends her days pounding the pavement in every borough to meet the unreasonable demands of her boss. She aspires to covering courtroom drama for the paper, but on one disastrous day, instead of being promited, she gets fired. Lena 'Lipstick Carcrash' Lippencrass is an Upper East Side socialite who works at the high fashion magazine Y and loses her perfect apartment after her wealthy parents cut her off from her trust fund. And Dana Gluck is a corporate lawyer on the verge of becoming a partner who has seen her marriage and prospects for motherhood disappear, leaving her almost comatose with depression.

As these three very different women become friends, they soon discover that having their carefully planned lives fall to pieces might have been the best thing that could have ever happened to them."

Despite a mildly formulaic feel and a very happy but a little too pat ending, I was surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed reading this book. Three down-on-their-luck women end up in the same SoHo apartment building and rebuild their lives largely through their helpful and often hilarious interactions with one another. Each character is well-conceived and carefully drawn, and watching them wrestle with personal and professional failures (and eventually successes!)was made highly engaging by Froelich's strong and confident prose. This book is definitely worth the read, and proves that even when the stars are aligned against you, anything can happen.

11 August 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Flap Copy: "On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband's presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House - and the repercussions of a life lived, as she believes, "almost in opposition to itself."

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. Alice candidly describes her modest upbringing and the tragedy that shaped her identity; she recalls her early adulthood as a librarian, and her surprising courtship with the man who swept her off her feet; she tells of the crisis that almost ended their marriage; and she confides the privileges and difficulties of being first lady, a role that is uniquely cloistered yet public, secretive yet exposed.

As her husband's presidency enters its second term, Alice finds herself increasingly conflicted. Ultimately she must confront contradictions years in the making and face questions nearly impossible to answer."

Curtis Sittenfeld's novel, loosely based on the life of Laura Bush but clearly more full of fiction than reality, was interesting and frustrating at the same time. Divided into four parts that represent the major periods in Alice's life, the book explores a coming-of-age in Riley, Wisconsin, the steady life of a public school librarian, the early days of married life and then finally the mystique of the White House. The first parts of the book were definitely more engaging and better written - by the time we hit the grat denouement, I was so tired of Alice and Charlie that I couldn't have cared less.

My biggest frustration came from the face that Alice is a study in contradictions, some too implausible for me to bear. She's a well-read, intelligent woman who makes every effort never to speak for herself. She is actively passive, always holding back, soothing ruffled feathers and letting her own thoughts and needs fall by the wayside. She is a liberal Democrat who marries into a staunchly Republican family and somehow supports her husband's political ambitions.

As a complex look at marriage, loyalty, responsibility and choice, Sittenfeld's third novel succeeds and even shines. But as a story that should engage and question the reader, the book falls a bit short. Still worth the read though, if only for the voyeuristic thrill of a novel that may contain just a bit of truth!