Fiction

Butterflies in November

All stories, the saying goes, fit into one of seven basic categories: overcoming the monster, a rebirth, rags to riches, a journey, etc.

This quirky and funny novel combines the last two of these element in an Icelandic travelogue that is utterly delightful. 

A young woman’s husband leaves her for his work colleague, not only that but the two lovers are expecting a child any day, but the soon-to-be ex keeps coming back to his wife for more of their joint property and yet another bedroom tryst.

The narrator (the characters are mostly unnamed) works as a translator of 35 languages. She is fine with these end-of-marriage conjugal visits although she finds them rather odd, and when she runs over a goose, she decides that she must make her departing husband a last grand meal.  Creatively, she concocts a sauce to hide the tread marks.

The Girl on the Train

One of the things I miss from my East Coast childhood is riding commuter trains.

There is something about the feeling of time being suspended as you lean against the window and watch the world flow past: houses, schools, playgrounds, rivers, cars and those glimpses of people passing ordinary days. After reading this British thriller, I will never look at trains the same way again.

A young woman, Rachel, just past the bloom of youth, rides trains into London every weekday: the 8:04 a.m. into town and the 5:56 p.m. return. Every evening she drinks too much—small bottles of wine or canned mixed drinks.

One particular neighborhood--where the train slows for a crossing--captures Rachel’s complete attention.  In one of the backyards she often spots a young glamorous couple, whom she doesn’t know at all, but she names them Justin and Jess. She often sees Justin coming out to the garden with a mug of coffee or tea for his wife, and they exchange endearments.

Rachel even invents careers for them, a private life. Jess works in the arts, and Justin does something with computers. Meanwhile, Rachel’s career and married life have taken a horrible slide.

Her husband, Tom, left her for another woman, Anna.  He’s not only left her but then had a child with Anna after Rachel tried and failed for years to have a family with him. To make matters even worse, Tom and Anna live in the same house, Rachel shared with Tom. Guess where it’s located?  Yes, just off the railroad tracks, a few yards down from that of the fabled couple, Justin and Jess.

Even though Rachel has no reason to ride the train every day she continues. Now she goes to the library and works on her CV. But her drinking gets worse and worse. She calls, texts, and emails her ex constantly, driving Anna crazy.  Her landlady throws her out of the apartment after she has left a major mess once too often.

Then one morning, a different man joins Jess in the garden. At first Rachel thinks: a brother, a cousin, her husband’s friend. But no, he kisses Jess tenderly as the train slows at its normal spot.

Soon someone is murdered in one of the houses just off the tracks. The problem: Rachel got off the train that night and wandered through the train tunnel.  She was soused and cannot piece together what happened.  So many details were lost to the fog of alcohol. Also, someone hurt her that night. But whom?

This riveting book will keep you turning the pages. My advice: don’t start it on a week night unless you have an open calendar the next day. The characters, the story, the unexpected twists, will keep you guessing and enthralled.

Orphan Train

I had a personal connection to this novel because my mom was raised as an orphan in Chicago. Luckily, she never had to experience adoptions or sharing foster homes with unloving parents but she did start out on her own at age sixteen working as a salesgirl in the Chicago Loop.

This touching intertwined story of two orphans: one contemporary and one from depression era days, was a quick and touching read. It begins with Goth-looking Molly, a young, half-Native America girl from Maine who just got busted for stealing a book from the public library.  Really? Well not every detail in a novel has to be 100% authentic.   

In case you’re curious, Molly took the third and the most beaten-up copy of Jane Eyre.

Claire of the Sea Light

This Sunday at 2 p.m. in Room 2B, join our Booksplus discussion about Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light.  In honor of Black History month, we will discuss this luminous book set in Haiti just before the cataclysmic earthquake of 2009.

Danticat, who emigrated from Haiti as a child, has won many awards including the MacArthur Award (nicknamed the genius award).

If you like folklore and learning about other cultures, Claire of the Sea Light is the book for you. It tells the tale of a young girl whose mother died just after her daughter’s birth. According to Haitian folklore, this makes Claire a revenan, a child who battled with her mother’s spirit and won.

On each of her birthdays, Nozias, Claire’s father, takes her to visit her mother’s grave. In the cemetery they meet Madam Gaelle, a fabric store owner and wealthy widow in town, who lost her own daughter on the same date as Claire’s birthday.

Best Short Stories of the Year

I love anthologies, particularly of short stories. But I must confess I never follow the editor’s carefully thought-out arrangement.

Certainly, I hit pay dirt with this year’s O. Henry prize collection.  The very first story I dove into “Good faith” by Colleen Morrissey wowed me on first reading and ended up being my favorite.

What made it so good? Snake handlers, religion, a summer road-trip, girls coming of age, family conflict, romance, and camping out under the stars. It tells the story of a religious family travelling the south who meet two rich young men on the road.

That night the leading character Rachel does snake handling, not for entertainment, as she tells the more serious young man, Mr. Pattinson, but as part of her faith and religious practice.

The Invention of Wings

Two young women characters guide the reader back to 19th century South Carolina where the institution of slavery affected everyone’s life and relationships. Hetty (nicknamed Handful) is a skinny wisp of a girl with amber eyes and wild braids in her hair. 

At the age of ten, the Missus gives her to her middle child, Sarah, who has just moved up from the nursery.  In this society it’s normal to have your own slave, and one who can mend and sew is highly valued.

At an elegant birthday party attended by the privileged young of Charleston society, Sarah refuses this lady’s maid/slave.  Sarah does not believe in the institution although her family’s life centers around its abuse and brutality.  The Missus walks everywhere with a cane, but the slaves know its real use—to hit them on the head should they bring this lady displeasure.

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