Family Relationships

Commonwealth

Fifty per cent of all North American children experience the divorce of their parents. Talented author Ann Patchett explores her own family’s divorce in this novel, altered, of course, as all fiction is.

A chance meeting at a 1960s christening causes two families to divide and then merge in new ways.  The novel jumps around in the lives of the Cousinses and Keatings. Fix Keating is a Los Angeles cop, and Bert Cousins, an attorney who moves to Virginia. When Cousins falls hard for Keating’s wife, Beverly, at the christening, two families are forever tied though they end up living across the continent from each other.

The novel proceeds from the perfectly realized christening—where many of the guests are cops and the families of cops, and many of the partiers get drunk including some of the children, to one lakeside vacation where the blended children of the two families seek their own adventures while their parent and step-parent laze away in bed until mid-afternoon.

Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel

Can’t say when the last time I read a book written by a seventeen-year old, but this memoir by a high school student was touching and well-written despite Nicolaia Rips' youth. Growing up in New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel gives one a head start, at least when it comes to knowing interesting characters.

The Chelsea’s fame reached its ascendency in the 60s and 70s with noteworthy residents:  Leonard Cohen, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Patsy Smith, who wrote her own memoir about it, Just Kids.

First Nicolaia describes how she came into being. Her mom was a globe-trotting artist, and her dad had zero interest in raising a child, but somehow the artist got pregnant, and the couple began a new way of life. Though not immediately.

While pregnant, her Mom traveled through Europe and along the Silk Road in Asia. Her dad, a non-practicing lawyer and writer, stayed in New York and added a psychiatrist’s office to his daily rounds of coffee shops. He also denied that he was the father, accusing a gay friend for parenting the child. However, once Nicolaia was born, he came around and warmly embraced being a dad, but still the family remained footloose, decamping for several years in Italy, and then roaming North Africa and India, before returning to NYC and the Chelsea Hotel.

The Past

This novel is a dense, rich celebration of an English family, first in the present time, then in the past--the late 60s and early 70s.

In the first half, four siblings: Harriet, Alice, Roland, and Jane meet at the old family homestead near the sea for a family reunion.  The house is being sold, and it will be their last time together at their childhood home.

Accompanying them, are children (Jane’s), a new South American wife (Roland’s--his third), a young friend, and son of a former lover (Alice’s), and all alone, (Harriet).

In the siblings’ idiosyncratic fashion, Harriet arrives first; she leaves the house locked and goes wandering in the forest.  Alice arrives with Kasim, and then realizes, what she has done, brought an eighteen-year old to a place with nothing going on. Roland calls and says there will be delay, and that he and Pilar will arrive on Sunday.

Alice runs through the house, throwing open windows, picking and placing beautiful bouquets in each of the adults’ room, while Jane, the mom, practically begins cooking the evening meal as her two children, Ivy and Arthur explore.

Privately, Jane and Harriet discuss whether Kazim is more than a friend to wild, actress Alice. Kazim reads on the porch terribly bored. But on Sunday when Roland, Pilar and Molly, Roland’s sixteen year old daughter, arrive. Kazim immediately perks up at Molly’s appearance.

The Dogs of Littlefield

Something is happening to the dogs of Littlefield, Mass.  Is someone poisoning them or does the blame fall on something more supernatural?  A cast of delightful, small-town characters suffers through this travesty as circumstance and personality pit one against each other.

It begins with the posting of warnings: pet-owners should not let their dogs roam free in the park. The signs start off politely, then denigrate into meaner advice: “Leash your beast or else.” Then a white bull-mastiff is found poisoned in the park woods.  Soon the aldermen schedule a meeting to discuss two diametrically-opposed proposals: ban all dogs from the park, or create a leash-free area for the dogs to play and have freedom.

Littlefield, long on the top ten list of best small communities to live in America, appears to be coming apart in myriad ways. Most of the teens and adults have therapists. The veneer of social niceness quickly disappears.

Eligible

What do jogging, hate sex, cross fit gyms, and reality TV have to do with Jane Austen? Don’t be so 19th century. So what if Austen is rolling over in her grave. Sittenfeld has made a delightful pastiche of Pride and Prejudice, much more to my fiction-reading tastes than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

In this reimagined version of the classic, it’s 2013 and the Bennet family has relocated to a spider-infected old Tudor in an upscale neighborhood of Cincinnati. Country club lunches, anyone?

The five unmarried daughters still ground the story although all of them have turned very 21st century. Even Mrs. Bennet has been modernized, she’s now a shopaholic busybody. However, she still remains in determined pursuit of worthy husbands (rich, upper class) for her daughters.   

Jane and Liz have flown the nest for New York City where gentle Jane teaches yoga, and Liz, writes for the entertainment mag, Mascara. She also sleeps with her married boyfriend. At thirty-nine, Jane has given up on finding a man, and has begun in vitro fertilization treatments in the hopes of having a child. Alas, no wedding bells in the offing for both Jane and Liz.

My Name is Lucy Barton

If you ever worried as a child about bringing other children home from school and their possible reaction to your home and family life, this book will resonate with you. If you ever reconnected with a close relative after a long absence, ditto.

Lucy Barton had a pretty horrific childhood: dirt-poor for many years the family lived in an actual garage without running water. And not only was there little money, food, or clothes, but her parents provided little emotional sustenance. 

Strout takes you deep into the mind and heart of her protagonist, a young mother in her twenties, recently hospitalized after an operation.  Lucy is happily married with two young children whom she feels she has abandoned because of her illness. She also is a new writer, proud of her work, but still not at ease calling herself an author.

The present time of the book occurs in a New York City hospital where Lucy is amazed to see her mother, who’s come all the way from Iowa to take care of her daughter.  But this is so out of character for her, that Lucy can scarcely believe she has arrived. Neither parent has ever visited Lucy before and neither attended her wedding. At his one meeting with their future son-in-law, Lucy's father flipped out because her fiancée was German.

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