Winter is the best time of year to stay inside and read a book. When I was in college, I would always find that Christmas break was one of my first opportunities to pleasure read after a busy semester. Now that I'm out of school, I've had the opportunity to all Fall. Here are a few of my favorite reads from the last few months, if you are looking for something to read while staying cozy.
Title: The Hopefuls
Author: Jennifer Close
Page Count: 1071 phone sized pages
Where I Read It: Started on the road trip back from DC and finished at Kylemore Abbey
Summary (adapted from Goodreads):
When Beth arrives in Washington, D.C., she hates everything about it: the confusing traffic circles, the ubiquitous Ann Taylor suits, the humidity that descends each summer. At dinner parties, guests compare their security clearance levels. They leave their BlackBerrys on the table. They speak in acronyms. And once they realize Beth doesn't work in politics, they smile blandly and turn away. Soon Beth and her husband, Matt, meet a charismatic White House staffer named Jimmy and his wife, Ashleigh, and the four become inseparable, coordinating brunch, birthdays, and long weekends away. But as Jimmy's star rises higher and higher, their friendship--and Beth's relationship with Matt--is threatened by jealousy, competition and rumors.
Thoughts on Book:
In early August, I found myself in Washington DC on a quasi-family road trip/visit to some of my dear friends in DC. As I listened to my friend’s lives in DC, I became increasingly curious about their lives there. I wondered what it might be like to live in such a young, intellectual, and politically driven city. When I saw a review for this DC set book, I instantly decided to buy it for my drive home.
To be honest, when I started this book, I didn’t really like it. It reads more like a memoire than fiction. The narrator, Beth, does a lot more showing than she does telling. She recounts how she and her husband met, a product of 9/11, essentially- as well as her previous life in New York. All of this is before we can dig into the actual DC part of the plot. And even as the plot moves from backstory into the heart of the narrative, most of it is recounted as if it is memoire.
At first, this really annoyed me. I wanted to get to the drama, the heart of the story- that is, till I realized that this was the style of the writing. Once I accepted that, I was able to get absorbed in the story. Mostly, what sold me on this novel, was that I came to really care about the characters. I cared about Matt’s political ambitions. I understood Beth’s frustration. I was intrigued with Ash’s vivacious life. I was curious about Jimmy’s charisma. By the time the climax arrived, I was so wrapped up in the lives of each character that I truly wanted to find out how it all worked out.
One aspect of the book that both bothered and provoked thought from me, was the role of women. Both Beth and Ash sit back from their husbands’ careers, accessories to their political ambitions, but never diving into politics on their own. This really bothered me at first, Beth spent so much time complaining about Matt’s career and everything that it brought. I was frustrated with her for not thinking that his work was cool (He works for Obama!!), or for not having ambitions of her own. Beth is content to write for DC Love, a Buzzfeed-esque online magazine for DC. But at the same time, Beth judges Ash for working for part of a pyramid scheme, for diving into parenthood, for arguing with Jimmy. This made me ask a lot of interior questions: Is the author simply not empowering to women, having them always on the sidelines of their husband’s careers? Or is she trying to make us ask questions of women’s roles? Is it anti-feminist to have protagonists that are accessories to men’s careers? Or is it anti-feminist of me to judge Beth and Ash for not being ambitious enough? Shouldn’t women be able to whatever they want with their lives, even if it working for a pyramid scheme and raising children?
Another aspect of this novel that I thought was interesting was the role of memoiristic fiction. I talked a bit about this in my review of The Age of Miracles, but there is a trend in post-post-modernist literature to write in the style and with the authority of a memoire, despite it being a work of fiction. I think what made this novel most interesting, is that isn’t something a politicians wife would ever actual write a memoire about. No politican’s wife would write about how she was led to momentarily cheat on her husband with her best friend’s husband, but that is what makes the novel so intriguing: it’s essentially the memoire that you’ll never get to read.
Pair With: I’d say to try The Paris Wife or The Aviator’s Wife, two novels about real life women who lived vibrant lives but were traditionally thought of as accessories to their successful husband’s careers. It’s interesting to compare this to this novel.
Listen Along With: District Sleep Alone Tonight by Postal Service // City People, City Thing by Josh Rouse // Lost Cities by Bandshes
Title: The Glittering Art of Falling Apart
Author: Ilana Fox
Page Count: 400
Where I read it: Between 10 pm and 2 am when the WiFi in our house went out
Summary (Adapted from Goodreads):
1980s Soho is electric. For Eliza, the heady pull of its nightclubs and free-spirited people leads her into the life she has craved - all glamour, late nights and excitement. But it comes at a heavy cost.
Cassie is fascinated by her family's history and the abandoned Beaufont Hall. Why won't her mother talk about it? Offered the chance to restore Beaufont to its former glory, Cassie jumps at the opportunity to learn more about her past.
Separated by a generation, but linked by a forgotten diary, these two women have more in common than they know . . .
Thoughts On Book:
I’ve been rewatching my favorite show, Downton Abbey, with my housemates recently. While perusing my local Wexford library, I found this book and was first interested in it because it involved a girl discovering her family’s old estate and discovering the diary of her ancestor and unraveling her family’s darkest secrets. Mostly, I’m just a sucker for stories with old estates in them.
The story is captivating, full of drama, secrets, and allure. I was instantly gripped trying to figure out the history of the family. Cassie is such a relatable cutie. She’s so earnest, if a little naïve. Her own narrative was sweet, with lots of self-discovery, empowerment, and a little romance.
This contrasted greatly with Eliza’s narrative. Eliza’s took place in 1980’s SoHo. Despite my interest in the grand old estate, the story is much more about the grunge culture of 80’s. Think sex, drugs, and rock and roll instead of flowing gowns and tea. Eliza’s story has some thrilling highs and some really depressing lows. At some points, things were so horrible for Eliza that I didn’t want to keep reading because I was sickened to think about how things could worse. I also am usually a little uncomfortable with stories that have a lot of drug use in them, which this novel does. I’m not sure I would have read it if I knew how much of a role drugs would play. I felt like Eliza was too sweet of a character to end up in the devastating situations that she seemed to fling herself at.
There are moments of this novel that seem quite cheesy. There are some plot points that can be seen from miles away and it seems a little unbelievable that some of the character’s wouldn’t put some conclusions together till the very end of the novel. At the same time, there were some twists that even took me by surprise.
In the end, this is a novel about women and womanhood. It’s about motherhood, sisterhood, cousinhood. It’s about the dreams that women have, for themselves and for their daughters, and how that can cause betrayal, secrets, and hurt. But in the end, the power that love and acceptance has to free us from it.
Pair With: It reminded me a bit of The House of Riverton by Kate Morton. A very different time period, but it had the same themes of old houses, old secrets, and reflecting on them in modern times.
Listen Along With: As We Are Now- Saint Raymond // Don’t Lose Your Love- Ivan and Alyosha // East End Boys and West End Girls- The Pet Shop Boys (and anything else that reminds of you angsty 80’s London)
Title: The Comet Seekers
Author: Helene Sedgewick
Page Count: 294
Where I read it: Starting just around Halloween to mid-November, read mostly at my favorite cafes in Wexford always with a cappuccino
Summary (Adapted from Goodreads):
Róisín and François first meet in the snowy white expanse of Antarctica. And everything changes.
While Róisín grew up in a tiny village in Ireland, ablaze with a passion for science and the skies and for all there is to discover about the world, François was raised by his beautiful young mother, who dreamt of new worlds but was unable to turn her back on her past.
As we loop back through their lives, glimpsing each of them only when a comet is visible in the skies above, we see how their paths cross as they come closer and closer to this moment.
Theirs are stories filled with love and hope and heartbreak, that show how strangers can be connected and ghosts can be real, and the world can be as lonely or as beautiful as the comets themselves.
Thoughts on Book:
In two words, I'd describe this book as dazzling and haunting. It's hard to sum up everything this book is about: it's about Ireland and France. It's about space and comets. It's about ghosts and history. It's about tapestries and cooking. It's about forbidden love and deep family ties. It's about Antartica and loneliness. There is so much going on here, but yet the plot doesn't get muddled because of it, instead it soars comet-like through time and space and stories that weave together in beautiful and unexpected ways.
The greatest underlining theme in the novel is the tension between "home" and "away," between the desire to travel and explore the world and the desire to stay home in the the embrace of family. These theme is played out through two different stories. Róisín is an Irish astronomer and she wants nothing more than to travel the world learning about the heavens. She blissfully travels from Edinburgh to Bayeux, from Toronto to New York City. But following her dreams means leaving behind her cousin and true love, Liam. A decision that eventually comes with disastrous ramifications. The other narrative is that of Severine, a young French woman, who dreams of showing her young son François the world, but is unable to leave her hometown. Leaving Bayeux means losing the ability to communicate with the ghosts of her ancestors, who appear each time a comet passes over. Despite her many attempts to leave, Severine is continually drawn back to family, even if they are ephemeral. This obvious parallel reflects a theme that has seemed very real to me, especially as I live abroad: Do we follow our restless urge for travel and adventure or the familiar comfort of family and home?
Stylistically, the book is written beautifully, but in a way that demands total attention to each word. There aren't any quotation marks, so while I usually skim for dialogue if I'm impatient, Sedgewick forces the reader to slow down. It's worth it, as the language and thoughts in the book are nothing but elegant. I ended up writing down several quotes as I read, not wanting to forget them. However, because of the amount of attention the book demands, I found it took me a while to finish. I'm used to racing through novels, but this book really slowed me down and took me almost a month to read. It's also a heavy book at times. There is loss and loneliness and regret- themes that sometimes forced me to put the book down for a while to process.
Overall, the book was really lovely and I'm grateful that I found it. I ended up buying a copy for my friend who is an astronomer because it was that good (also Sedgewick was physicist herself so the scientific/academic side of the book is well developed and realistic). The cover and inside design is also very pretty, not something I usually comment on- but worth noting for this book.
Pair With: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr because it shares a similar style of flipping between two very different narratives that eventually come together. Like Doerr, Sedgewick has very distinct themes that continually repeat and combine throughout the book. And there is a dash of magical realism!
Listen Along With: Saturn- Sleeping at Last // You Are Made of Stars- I Am The Sky // Corner of my Eye- Roo Panes