Book Review: Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

About half way through this book I wasn’t sure what I would write when it came to reviewing it. Whether I even wanted to review it. There are so many books which we read and don’t review either because we don’t have time, or we just don’t have anything to say about it. We’ve never posted a review for a book we don’t like, not because we haven’t read boring books, but because why would we bother to share our dislike? What would we say? Reading is such a subjective thing, both Jody and I struggle regularly over books that are bestsellers, flaunted as the next great thing, the best thing you’ll read all year.

Sorry, tangent. The Swans of Fifth Avenue is an enjoyable enough read, but half way through I was thinking this is just another light, society novel where money and marriage is everything. The main character, Babe Paley, has been brought up as a society ‘swan’ and is the perfect wife to her detached, cheating husband. She plans his meals, dresses for dinner, puts on a face. Always, puts on a face. Smiling, smiling, while inside she battles low self-esteem and an inkling that maybe life shouldn’t be quite like this. She leads her friends like the 1950s style icon she is, but with a rare kindness and generosity – seen as a vulnerability by those around her.

Enter Truman Capote. The eccentric, narcissistic, eventual alcoholic who befriends and enthrals Babe Paley and her friends. Especially Babe, who finds Capote a confidant, a “True Heart”, a best friend. Someone who shares her vulnerabilities and seems to understand her. She opens her heart to him and Capote, the story teller, the infamous writer, does what comes naturally. He tells it to the world and Babe and her friends are betrayed.

The thing is – what really made me stop and think – is that there is a nice symmetry to this book. It’s a kind of non-fiction novel, in the same way Capote’s unfinished Answered Prayers was. The characters existed, the events seem largely constructed from well-documented happenings. The great Black and White Ball in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hall thrown by Capote in 1966 is legendary. Capote and Paley’s friendship is well documented.

Perhaps it’s just that the idea of being and doing everything for your husband and never knowing your true self is entirely objectionable to my feminist sensibilities. Perhaps it just made me think, so much of their lives is just a face. Constructed, created. So how much of it was genuine? Did they die with no regrets or did they wish, just a little bit, they had lived for themselves more. Loved for themselves more?

This book made me think about the value of these women’s lives and how such bright sparks were dulled by the era they grew up in. How much society lost because they weren’t able to grow into their full potential. It made me wonder – has it changed that much? Aren’t we all still fighting for equality and respect? Maybe the brightest message in this book is that we should present a face to the world that is genuine, and embrace who we are, whoever it is that we want to be. So that the world understands more that there is no perfect face. We are unique and flawed and that is okay. In fact, that is awesome.

Any novel that makes you reflect on that is worthy, in my book.

Amanda x

Book Review: Wood Green by Sean Rabin

I found Wood Green by Sean Rabin on the Readings 2016 New Australian Fiction Shortlist. I have enormous respect for Readings as a bookstore chain, and admire their perseverance and success in this digital age. They employ passionate readers and their recommendations reflect that. This year they even won International Bookstore of the Year at the London Book Fair. Congratulations!

The shortlist was my first encounter with Wood Green. It’s published by Giramondo, an Australian publisher whose work focusses on the innovative and adventurous. Books that might not find a place in mainstream publishing. This is way outside my comfort zone. I tend to stick to books I know I will likely like, published by large publishers, destined to be commercially popular. Life is too short, after all.

Still, I’ve been challenging myself lately, exploring more literary, experimental styles. Life is to be lived, after all. Wood Green is definitely an exemplar of this.

To be honest, I don’t really know all the critiquing lingo. Actually, I’m not sure I know any lingo. But for starters, there aren’t any quotation marks in this book. It reads like an internal monologue and that’s cool and very effective in some respects. I’m told that’s very Cormac McCarthy-esque. To me it was curiously quiet, but at times I felt it got out of hand:

You don’t mind do you? They kept asking if they could pay you a visit, said Michael. Mind? With meatballs like these? said Lucian. See, I told you he’d love them, said Paul. I just thought it might be too early in the day, said Penny. Let’s have some music, said Maureen. To mountain climbers everywhere, said Paul. Cheers, said Michael. Cheers, said Maureen.

 And on, and on, and on. The book was unrelenting in its exploration of technique and style and I was surprised to find how much I loved that.

The story is equally unrelenting though and meanders with little narrative structure. It’s hard to figure out whether this is a thing of beauty, or the opposite. Seriously. I know. I’m being very vague but I’m still getting my head around this novel and it’s like an eel, the point just keeps slipping away.

Basically the plot goes something like this; Michael, a wannabe writer with a fear of flying, flies from Sydney to Tasmania and moves into a B&B with a quirky proprietor whose story never really plays out. Michael takes the position of a kind of biographer for the infamous local author Lucien Clarke. They smoke pot and explore music together and all the while Lucien is slowly losing his memory while Michael is putting together the pieces of his past and regaling them back to him. There are a flock of minor characters, not enough to truly round out the story, but enough to keep your interest.

Michael’s fear of flying is never really explored. In fact, most of his backstory isn’t explored. He just kind of pops up like a daisy, fully formed and yet with some minor defects.

And then it gets weirder. Seriously. I have no idea what was going on towards the end. Only, after a beautiful, well-developed setting, an eerily strange but compelling cast of characters, a sense of mystery, a well-developed sense of well – nothingness – just regular, run-of-the-mill life, it suddenly gets all sci-fi on you. I know I use the word nothingness and that is pretty strange, but the loveliness of this novel actually lies in the nothingness. In the lack of plot. In the silence of the landscape depicted through language. In the averageness of the characters. It was beautiful, until the last few chapters when it got weird. Really weird.

I’m honestly still confused by it. Is this brilliance? Is this the new landscape of Australian writing? Or is it just odd. I’m leaning towards odd. But maybe that’s just me.  And maybe that’s just fine, who isn’t a little quirky after all?

Amanda

Book Review: Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Jody and I are self-confessed Liane Moriarty fans. We both think she’s a wonderful Australian author. She’s another on our list of fabulously, fantastic people. Her books are imbued with a certain Australianness, relaxed and humorous on the surface, with a deeper undercurrent lurking beneath. We have read all her books and followed her writing journey (along with her two very talented sisters) over the years.

Naturally, we were ridiculously excited when her new book came out. We were waiting and waiting and had the date marked in our calendars. We rushed into the bookstore and bought a copy each. That in itself is unusual these days. We’ve been making sure to read different books so we can write more reviews, but we decided this was an exception (well, neither of us were willing to say we wouldn’t read it and read something else instead hehe).

Right. Get to the point, you are screaming at me, I know. Get to the book!

It was great. Really, it was. When we started reading and there was a mention of libraries we quietly fist-punched the air. Yeah! Go libraries! Liane wrote about them as if she’d been in many, and we know she has (please come to ours next?). It’s her light, effortless style of writing that grabs you though, such a relief to read after heavy, heftier books that throw language and imagery in your face, flaunting their technical skills. Sometimes they just seem to try too hard.

Truly, Madly, Guilty is about an incident at a neighbourhood barbeque, but the nature of the incident isn’t revealed until later in the book, with the full details coming to light as the story progresses. There are six adults at the barbeque, each with a story of their own, each with their own guilt about the incident, each reacting to it and being affected by it in different ways. Their reactions draw from their back stories, their upbringing and on the degree of responsibility they feel.

Liane’s books are always very character driven and this one was no different. We found the two main female characters, Erika and Clementine, were harder to connect with this time compared to the characters in her previous stories. They have a fraught, rather forced friendship that was not as easy to identify with. On the other hand, the male characters are great, particularly Oliver and Vid. You completely get them, they came alive in your mind immediately and made you think, yeah, I know these people.

About halfway through we really started to engage with the story, really wanted to know how the characters resolved their feelings over the incident. From then on we were flipping the pages and texting and chatting about it. The characters became a bit more nuanced as their back-stories came to light and their relationships built to a climax.

This is certainly a Liane Moriarty read, she is developing a very distinctive formula, a distinctive voice and personality to her writing. The worry for us is whether she can continue to do so without becoming formulaic, if that makes sense.

All in all, it’s not our favourite Liane Moriarty book (if you want to know about her other books, you can read this review from earlier in the year). We are still debating about our favourite (mine I think is Big Little Lies, Jody’s is What Alice Forgot) But Truly, Madly, Guilty is still an engaging, enjoyable read.

Amanda & Jody

 

 

 

 

On A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

Okay. I am happy to admit I bought this book purely on the cover. It’s really simple and eye catching and has a quote from Liane Moriarty on the front. Liane. Moriarty. Usually I don’t pay much attention to the testimonials but geez. How could I not pick it up?

A Window Open is the story of Alice Pearse, New Jersey mother of three, whose husband leaves his job, forcing her into full time employment. It is a classic modern family drama, a debate over life at home with the kids or a high-profile career. Which must be sacrificed? Is it possible to have both? It’s also a reminder that it’s so easy to work 24-7 these days, our devices are always switched on, emails are being checked. But when we do this, are we truly working to live? Before you know it a year has passed and you’ve barely stopped to notice the seasons change.

Alice juggles her three children, a career that she becomes increasingly uncertain about, her husband’s mid-life crisis and differences of opinion between friends, before the inevitable happens and she is forced to take a step back and revaluate her priorities. The plot line is a tad predictable, but the story written in a relaxed, engaging style and you find yourself turning the pages quickly.

Egan also addresses the issues of technology versus tradition, eBooks versus print books, local versus global. Is it possible that they can survive side-by-side? She made me wonder – how are the traditional bookstores closest to you faring? In Australia they seem to have survived the threat of eBooks for now and most are thriving when I visit, but perhaps there is more going on beneath the surface. Many stores have expanded and developed what they sell. Some have incorporated cafes and other complimentary side-businesses to survive. Is this the case where you are?

I can see why the publishers have used Liane as a selling point for Elisabeth Egan’s book. There are definite similarities in their writing styles, but for me the humour in A Window Opens falls a little short. There are bleak undertones which place a heavy burden on the story, and the lighter moments struggle to shine through. This wasn’t a difficult read though and I certainly enjoyed it for the most part (what book-lover wouldn’t enjoy a novel about another book-lover!).

Overall, I suggest you make a cup of peppermint tea and take A Window Opens out to read in your garden or on a balcony. This book is perfect for a quiet moment in the sunshine.

Amanda x