Friday, December 23, 2016

Fates and Furies: Two stories under one cover

I may be late to the party, since Lauren Groff's novel Fates and Furies has been out awhile, but it's one of the books I've enjoyed this year that lived up to its promise. The rule of thumb for how long one must keep reading a book before giving up on it is 100 pages minus your age. Many times I've been rewarded for hanging in there when a book is a slow start. This book, however, drew me in quickly, not just with the story and the characters but the writing.

Divided into two parts (Fates and Furies--hence the title), the novel begins with the marriage of Lancelot ("Lotto") Satterwhite and his wife Mathilde at 22, just days after they first meet. Groff tells what could be considered a full story, tracing Lotto's life from before his birth, when his mother performing as a mermaid in Florida meets and marries his father, who becomes a bottled water magnate. The story follows twists and turns in their marriage, as Lotto fails to fulfill his early promise as an actor but finds success as a playwright. Geoff bring in and out of the story a large cast of characters--childhood friends, Lotto's agoraphobic mother, the twin brother of his first lover, college friends.

When the story shifts in the second half to Mathilde's life, readers may be surprised not only how much they didn't know about her, but how we failed even to be curious about her back story, just as fascinating as his, maybe more. When Groff weaves in the details of the famous art forger who, during WWII, fooled even Hitler's inner circle by painting his faux Vermeers over mediocre works on ancient canvases, it seems obvious that she overlays Mathilde's story over Lotto's.

Even before exploring the mythological allusions the title implies, I was drawn into the story with its surprises which I realize, on retrospect, were always laid out perfectly through the telling of this story of love, deceit, and revenge.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Another War Book

Often my reading list is dictated not by mere whim but by the selections of others.  Since I enjoy the social aspects of reading either with friends or in book clubs, I will often read a book I might not have otherwise chosen. And that's a good thing.

All too often, I'm the one assigning the texts, so turn about is fair play. I know that no matter how hard I try to choose a book that is suitable for a wide readership, someone is going to hate it.

Sometimes the readings align in an interesting way. This semester for the literature class I've been teaching as an adjunct for the community college, I was assigned a novel to teach, Maisie Dobbs, a novel set during and after World War I in England. Around the same time, my daytime book club has been reading a World War II novel, The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, and my evening book club is reading Chris Cleaves' novel (also World War II London) Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.

My attitude toward Maisie Dobbs could have been better. It felt too lightweight for me, and I longed for a little more literary richness. The title character is likeable, even admirable, a girl born into lower working class who advances first through reading. When the wealthy, albeit liberated, woman for whom she works discovers her in the family library reading in the wee hours before her work begins, the woman gives her the breaks that make advancement possible. The book moves from the present, with Maisie working as a detective and using skills she learned from her mentor, to the past as she leaves college to volunteer during the war.

I used one of my favorite strategies in my class after the students finished the novel, with the students leading the discussion as I silently observed. They brought the reading to life, not only having a lively discussion of the plot but going on, with no prompting from me, to discuss the writer's choices.

I haven't met to discuss the two book club selections yet, but as I read The Lilac Girls, I struggled. Wells follows three main characters: Caroline, a  privileged socialite living in New York and working with the French Embassy before the United States enters the second world war; Kasia, a young Polish girl arrested and sent to Ravensbruck for her involvement in the underground; and Herta, a German doctor who works on some of the horrific medical experiments on the female prisoners at Ravensbruck.

The story was so full of descriptive details and historical information that I suspected the author had heavily researched the period and couldn't let go of any of it. My biggest problem, though, was that I disliked the characters. Certainly, it was easy not to like Herta, but even Caroline, the do-gooder, drove me crazy with her vacuous observations, and especially her pining away for her married French lover. It's hard to sympathize with a girl who feels a little let down to learn that her lover's wife didn't actually die in the concentration camps after all.  Even Kasia, certainly a victim, had such a bitterness that she hurt others as much as she hurt herself.

At the end of the book, though, the author fills in the reader on how she wrote the book, based on real characters. Caroline was real, actually admirable; her French lover was a fictional plot device. Herta was real--and she was actually released early before she completed her twenty-year sentence, thanks in part to some political maneuvering by the U.S. government. Kasia and her sister, though invented characters, was based on actual sisters held at Ravensbruck. I'm glad she told me her background into the book. It made me a little more forgiving of what I might otherwise have found annoying. She also made me want to read more about these Ravensbruck girls and about the real Caroline Ferriday.

Of the three stories of women during wartime, my favorite was Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleaves. I fell in love with his writing when I discovered Little Bee, with one of the most engaging narrators ever.  In this book, the protagonist Mary North is also a young woman of privilege, but against her parents' wishes, she enlists soon after the war begins, but is surprised to be assigned to teach school children. When her students are evacuated, her approach to her students leads to her being sent back to London. There she meets her first lover Tom, head of the local school board and not at all in her social league. The plot also follows Alistair, Tom's roommate who does go to war.

Cleaves manages to develop characters that are both flawed and sympathetic. They have a self-awareness that adds to their charm and believability.  The author also builds some of the most suspenseful scenes with a small cast of characters, not only on the battlefield, but back in London during the bombings. This is a story I can't wait to talk about at book club--and it's one I can't wait to recommend to anyone who loves a good story well told.