The Girl Is Mine

I’ve never been an enormous fan of Reese Witherspoon; I think she has talent and she had really shone in some things I’ve seen her in (Legally Blonde, Election, Cruel Intentions) but there was always just something about her, though, that set my teeth a little on edge; nothing I can explain, but she just always struck me as the “I need to speak to your manager” type. But her television work has turned me into a fan, and not just because she’s been killing it in shows like Big Little Lies, The Morning Show, and Little Fires Everywhere…she’s been terrific in all of these shows, but the bigger picture is these shows have introduced me to two writers with whose work I’ve become enamored; Liliane Moriarity and Celeste Ng. Moriarity has more of a backlist than Ng, who only has published two novels; I’m working my way through Moriarty as of yet, and loving her work, but Celeste Ng is a whole other story.

Little Fires Everywhere was a terrific novel, and I was holding off on reading her debut, Everything I Never Told You, primarily because I didn’t want to run out of work by Celeste Ng to read (one of my weird predilections; I never want to run out of books by writers I love). But during the aftermath of Ida and with no power, I picked it up, started reading, and didn’t put it down until hours later, when I’d finished.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s Physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackle of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”

Upstairs, Marilyn opens her daughter’s door and sees the bed unslept in: neat hospital corners still pleated beneath the comforter, pillow still fluffed and convex. Nothing seems out of place. Mustard-colored corduroys tangled on the floor, a single rainbow-striped sock. A row of science fair ribbons on the wall, a postcard of Einstein. Lydia’s duffel bag crumpled on the floor of her closet. Lydia’s green bookbag slouched against her desk. Lydia’s bottle of Baby Soft atop the dresser, a sweet, powdery, loved-baby scent still in the air. But no Lydia.

One of the things that strikes me as curious about Ng’s work is that it’s set in the past; Little Fires Everywhere was set in the 90’s, and this, her debut, is set in 1977. Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with writing stories set in the past, mind you, it’s just an observation. But the two books have very strong themes and look at the roles of women in the society in which they were born; that entire thing about “having it all” (which is mythology, of course; no one is superhuman enough to “have it all”) and the bitter reality that a woman cannot, ever, no matter how hard she works and no matter how much effort she puts into it, achieve this mysteriously, vaguely defined “all” she is theoretically able to have. It’s still a problem for women in our current time; the inability for gender roles to be completely redefined, for one, despite the fact that society and culture have dramatically changed and shifted over the last few decades (four or five of them, at the very least).

Anyway, I digress.

The Lee family, who live in a small college town near Dayton in Ohio, are a typical American family. Dad teaches at the university, Mom is a housewife and mom, and their two eldest children are academic stars at the local high school. The youngest child is a mere afterthought, an asterisk, to whom no one really pays much attention. Both parents are completely wrapped up in Lydia, their second child; much to the detriment of the oldest, Nathan (Nath). Lydia is soon found when they drag the nearby lake; whether she committed suicide, it was an accident, or foul play is pretty much up in the air–although they did find her things in a small rowboat floating out in the middle of the water, so accident or suicide is most likely, but Mom Marilyn refuses to believe her child could or would do such a thing and therefore it must be murder!

This is, of course, a classic set-up for a crime novel or a novel about families; the twist here is that James, the husband/father, is Chinese-American (his parents were immigrants) and Marilyn the mom, is white and from Virginia.; therefore their children are bi-racial, and this was still kind of a “thing” in the 1970’s (not that it isn’t still, of course; progress has been made but it’s also been rather on the slow side, really). When James and Marilyn marry, miscegenation laws are still on the books; Marilyn’s own mother is such a racist bitch she says horrible things to Marilyn on her wedding day–which is the last time Marilyn sees or speaks to her mother. They are the only Asians in their little college town, which also impacts the kids and how they see, not only their parents, but the world. Marilyn is also a frustrated feminist; she wanted to be a doctor, took Science classes against the advise of teachers and advisors, and only gives up on her dreams when she becomes pregnant and marries James, becomes a wife and mother….and channels all her frustrated hopes and dreams onto her daughter, Lydia–who has a lot of trouble, as we see over the course of the book, living up to those hopes and dreams. There are no villains or heroes in this book; just complicated human beings doing their best to get through their lives–and how the things unsaid to each other, for whatever reason…and as we get to know each character and their own foibles and flaws and dreams, they become fully realized, and the reader cannot help but love and empathize with them. The story structure, after the present day opening with Lydia dead, flashes back and forth between the present and the past, as we learn the story of the Lees and their broken hopes and dreams; watch them deal with the horrific and completely inexcusable casual racism of their white neighbors and classmates; as Marilyn meets women who followed their dreams and envies them, wonders how they managed to do it; and there’s also a queer subtext/plot thread that is handled delicately and beautifully–if perhaps not realistically for small town Ohio in the 1970’s; whatever issues I may have with the realism of the story in the time in which it is said can easily be set aside because of how beautifully Ng does it as an author.

Everything I Never Told You is an absolute gem of a novel, and I can highly recommend it.

Our House

..in the middle of our street.

We will not be discussing the embarrassment that was last night’s LSU “game.”

Friends are in town, and we had lunch with them at Commander’s Palace yesterday, which was lovely. I didn’t read the menu carefully and got something that had fried eggs on the top–which ran with yolk when you broke it; shudder–but I simply pushed them away with my fork and ate everything else. I was very tired after that, and came home, worked for a little while, and then curled up with Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret. I had read Big Little Lies concurrently with watching the HBO series, and enjoyed both the book and the show, so wanted to read another one of her novels. I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting with this one–the jacket blurb mentioned that a wife finds a sealed envelope addressed to her from her husband, with the words To be opened only in the event of my death.

I would have opened it immediately, of course.

the husband's secret

It was all because of the Berlin Wall.

If it weren’t for the Berline Wall, Cecilia would never have found the letter, and then she wouldn’t be sitting here, at the kitchen table, willing herself not to rip it open.

The envelope was gray with a fine layer of dust. The words on the front were written in a scratchy blue ballpoint pen, the handwriting as familiar as her own. She turned it over. It was sealed with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. When was it written? It felt old, like it was written years ago, but there was no way  of knowing for sure.

She wasn’t going to open it. It was absolutely clear that she should not open it. She was the most decisive person she knew, and she’d already decided not to open the letter, so there was nothing more to think about.

Although, honestly, if she did open it, what would be the big deal? Any woman would open it like a shot. She listed all her friends and what their responses would be if she were to ring them up right now and ask what they thought.

Liane Moriarty is compulsively readable. And that’s not a quality in an author that should be dismissed lightlyAs I mentioned the other day with Louise Penny, it’s hard to classify Moriarty’s work; there’s a crime involved, but is it really crime fiction? I’m not sure it’s marketed that way; this book has a jacket blurb from Anne Lamott, for example, rather than Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky. She is an enormous bestseller; which is no small feat for an Australian writer to accomplish in the United States, particularly when she is writing about Australia (although Colleen McCullough was quite successful in the US with The Thorn Birds, before she turned to ancient Rome). She structures her books around three women as the main characters; and she writes about the issues that concern women–I suppose, in a way, her novels could be classified as modern domestic suspense. Like the previous masters of domestic suspense (a classification title I am still not entirely convinced I like), she writes about every day women thrust into extraordinary situations, and she also shoehorns in some brilliant social commentary along with social issues, like Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong and Dorothy B. Hughes did. The books are, as I said, compulsively readable and hard to set aside until you’ve reached the end.

Women writers, no matter their success, are rarely taken as seriously as male writers. I’m not sure if it’s because women writers tend to focus on women and issues that affect them while men, in theory, tackle larger themes. Male characters written by men are off saving the world in genre fiction, bedding fabulous babes and getting into fistfights, surviving by their skills or because their masculinity is superior to that of the bad guys. Or the male characters are finding dissatisfaction and misery in their maleness (I’m looking at you, literary fiction), prisoners of societal expectations of manliness and resenting putting aside their fantasy of what their life should be and having to settle for something that is less than that fantasy. Rarely do you find male characters (I’m not saying they don’t exist, so don’t come after me; I am fully cognizant of the fact that these are all incredibly broad generalizations) who are struggling with the work/home balance, juggling having to have a career and an income with finding time to be participants in their children’s lives or even, for that matter, simply helping around the house.

Men do not drive the story in Liane Moriarty’s novels, but they do impact it. They serve as catalysts for her stories, but her books are about the women whose lives are impacted by the men in them.

The Husband’s Secret,  like Big Little Lies, tells the story of three women whose lives intersect due to a private grammar school, St. Agatha’s in Sydney. Rachel is the aging part-time school secretary, widowed and haunted by the unsolved murder of her teenaged daughter many years before. The loss of her daughter has embittered her, and the only thing she basically has to live for is her grandson. Her story is set into motion when the perfect daughter-in-law she doesn’t much like and her son tell her that Lauren, the daughter-in-law, is being sent by her company to New York for two years, taking the only thing in her life she cares about–the grandson–away from her; just as her daughter was taken from her some twenty-five years or so earlier.

Tess’ world has just been ripped apart by the announcement by her husband and her best friend/first cousin that they are in love and want to be together–but out of respect for her having consummated the relationship. Her cousin, Felicity, is like a sister to her; their mothers were twins and they were born within days of each other. Felicity also used to be overweight; over the past year she has lost weight and become beautiful. Tess, betrayed and hurt, uses her mother’s recent accident in which she broke her ankle as an excuse to grab her son Liam and leave Melbourne, returning to Sydney to sort out her life and her future–enrolling young Liam in St. Agatha’s.

Cecilia, the third woman, is like Madeline in Big Little Lies; married, highly competent and efficient, the organizer that winds up running everything and basically being Supermom. She married a handsome rich man, and they have three daughters together. She’s hardly as confident as she seems; it’s a veneer to protect her and hide her own insecurities as she ruthlessly organizes her life and tries to put the world in order–one of those people who are basically exhausting to talk to; who leave you tired and drained when you finish speaking with them and you aren’t sure why.

Their lives intersect primarily because of the letter Cecilia finds in her attic, although Tess is less involved with the other two women, only peripherally floating into their orbit through the school, but the book’s theme is grief and motherhood and how these three different and incredibly complex women deal with both. What sacrifices do mothers have to make for their children, and what do they owe themselves? What is too far, too much, and where do you draw the line? Rachel’s life was decimated by her daughter’s murder and the lack of a conclusion to the story; to the extent that she walled herself up away from the rest of her family, and her relationship with her son has suffered–it is only through the events of this book that she finally realizes that her son is suffering not only from the loss of his sister and the loss of his father but from the loss of his mother. What does Tess owe to her young son in the wake of the apparent end of her marriage, and the horrific betrayal by her husband and her cousin? Does she try to ride out this love affair, rise above her own hurt and anger and put her child first? Is it better for Liam if she ends the marriage or tries to get past everything and forgive him, if that’s the option? She also is forced to take a long hard look at her own life at who she is and who has become as a person, and who does she want to become?

Cecilia’s journey is, of course, the most shattering. Her husband’s secret, contained in the letter, turns her world upside down and inside out; nothing is what she thought it was, what she believed, and she too is faced with a horrible choice: any decision she makes is going to be incredibly difficult to live with–but what can she live with for the sake of her daughters?

There is some reader manipulation; it’s important for the narrative that Cecilia not read the letter until a certain point, and when she does, the chapter ends with her starting to read–which felt unfair, particularly as the book shifted to another viewpoint in the next chapter. It would have been just as effective, I thought, for the text of the letter to appear and not show Cecilia’s reaction before shifting to the other viewpoint; that’s the editorial and/or authorial I would have made. It just kind of felt manipulative.

The book is very clever, certainly smart–I enjoy the way Moriarty writes, and she has a great way of finding the word rhythm that works, slightly altering those patterns as she shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint to give the reader a stronger sense of the character and their voice; a nice hat trick which is not easy to pull off. The decisions the women make–all affected by the letter Cecilia finds–may not be happily ever afters, but are all things they can, they find, live with. They can go on, they can endure, they can survive.

And maybe that is a happily ever after, after all.

After finishing this, I started reading Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, which immediately grabbed my interest; it was hard to put it down in order to get sleep.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Aquarius/Let the Sunshine

I stayed up late last night reading, and as such slept through my morning. When I got home from running errands yesterday I couldn’t find my copy of Peaches and Scream, which meant I either left it somewhere yesterday (the horror! It was signed) or I left it in the car–which I will check shortly–but while I was cleaning and doing laundry and all of that yesterday, I decided not to walk back out to the car but to just pick up another book–the next on the TBR pile–and I got very caught up in it, caught up so much that I wanted to see how it ended.

The book was Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.

“That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night,” said Mrs. Patty Ponder to Marie Antoinette. “That sounds like a riot.”

The cat didn’t respond. She was dozing on the couch and found school trivia nights to be trivial.

“Not interested, eh? Let them eat cake! Is that what you’re thinking? They do eat a lot of cake, don’t they? All those cake stalls. Goodness me. Although I don’t think any of the mothers actually eat them. They’re all so sleek and skinny, aren’t they? Like you.”

Marie Antoinette sneered at the compliment. The “let them eat cake” thing had grown old a long time ago, and she’d recently heard one of Mrs. Ponder’s grandchildren say it was mean to be “let them eat brioche” and also that Marie Antoinette never said it in the first place.

Mrs. Ponder picked up her television remote and turned down the volume on Dancing with the Stars. She’d turned it up loud earlier because of the sound of the heavy rain, but the downpour had eased now.

She could hear people shouting. Angry hollers crashed through the quiet, cold night air. It was somehow hurtful for Mrs. Ponder to hear, as if all that rage was directed at her. (Mrs. Ponder had grown up with an angry mother.)

I’ll be completely honest: I would have never heard of this book were it not for the HBO show, which Paul and I are watching. I primarily focus, when it comes to fiction, first on crime novels, followed by young adult, then horror, and finally queer fiction; as my reading time is relatively limited I can barely keep up with what’s au courant in crime, let alone anything else. Liane Moriarty, an enormously successful Australian novelist, is classified as chick lit, a term I’ve always found to be, at the very least, demeaning–not just to those who write it but to those who read it.

And there are a LOT of readers in this particular field.

The primary problems–which I will address now, before moving on to the things I really enjoyed–I had with this novel really are all about me, rather than the book itself. As someone who writes crime fiction, and therefore reads a lot of it, has edited a lot of it, has judged it for awards, Big Little Lies actually can be considered a crime novel, particularly if you look at the definition of the genre from Mystery Writers of America; because the book is about a crime, in a way; and the way the book is structured is a very much a crime trope: from the very beginning we know some kind of crime has happened, but we don’t know who or what or how. The book unspools by giving us all the backstory leading up to the commission of the crime, exposing all the secrets and lies involving a trio of three women, connected by having a child in kindergarten at one particular school, and then it gives us the crime itself, and it’s aftermath. There’s kind of a Greek chorus of voices at the end of each chapter, snippets from police or newspaper interviews, from various other characters but not the main ones, and Moriarty uses this device to not only build suspense but keep the reader hooked and intrigued and turning the page. The problem, of course, is that if you are a regular reader of crime fiction, many of the big surprises and twists to the plot…well, they aren’t shocking and surprising; in fact, I predicted every single one of them many chapters before the reveals. But I didn’t know who the victim would be, or how it would happen, or who would actually do it; Moriarty does an excellent job of juggling all the little threads and making you guess how it would all come down when you finally reach the climax of the novel, which kept me turning the page.

Those quibbles aside, Big Little Lies is compulsively readable. Moriarty does an excellent job of creating characters the reader can not only identify with but sympathize with, and there is also a lot of wit and sly social commentary in the book as well. As I mentioned earlier, the three main characters–Jane, Celeste, Madeline–are all connected by having a child in kindergarten. On the morning of kindergarten orientation, Madeline gets out of her car to lecture the teenaged driver of the car in front of her at a stoplight about texting and driving, only to turn her ankle on her way back to her car. Jane, new to the area, is in the car behind her and gets out to help her, and a friendship is born. Celeste is eventually drawn into their orbit, and we get to know these three women very well–as well as their secrets. Celeste is filthy rich, Celeste middle class, Jane borderline poor; Moriarty does an excellent job of showing the contrasts in their lifestyles as well as how those differences affect their behavior as well as their relationships. She also does an excellent job at showing the sensitivities and competitiveness between the moms who stay at home and the moms who work; Moriarty takes us into the world of women as mothers of young children and is very sly about the modern world of the helicopter parent; particularly on that first day of kindergarten orientation, when one of the children has been bullied and accuses Jane’s son of doing it, and how that accusation splits the school into two warring factions; of what it’s like to have your child accused of something heinous and the worry that comes along with that; the fierce desire to protect your child even if it means calling another child a liar; the terror that there is something psychologically wrong with your child. Moriarty is excellent at this; this women are incredibly real and fully developed and realized. She also writes with wit and flair and clever use of language; she has an innate ability to hook her reader and keep them reading.

It’s easy to see why she is an international bestseller.

I can highly recommend the book, despite the slight problems I had with it; it’s a great, enjoyable ride, and like I said to begin with, I stayed up until almost two in the morning reading it, and the first thing I did when I got up this morning, rather than messing about on-line and answering emails and reading social media, was get my cup of coffee and get back in my easy chair to finish reading it.

And that says a lot about Liane Moriarty as a writer. I do intend to read more of her work.