Gone So Long – by Andre Dubus III

“Gone So Long” tells the story of a family, mainly Susan and her grandmother Lois, dealing with the lifelong impact of the murder of Susan’s mother/Lois’s daughter—Linda Dubie Ahearn. Linda was murdered by her own husband, Daniel Ahearn, in front of their then three year old daughter, Susan. Daniel served 15 years in prison for his crime.

The novel begins with Susan flashing back to a small diner in Massachusetts, across the street from the office of her father’s parole officer, where she is waiting to catch a glimpse of the father she has not seen in so many years. The flashback is a part of the book she has begun to write.

Daniel has been out of prison for 25 years and is dying from what appears to be prostate cancer. He decides it is time to find and see his daughter, so he writes her a rambling letter about the man he was and the man he is now. He then commences to travel cross country, from Massachusetts to Florida, to see Susan.

In the meantime, Susan, 43 years old and married, is struggling with her life and leaves her unbelievably loyal husband, Bobby, to temporarily stay with her grandmother, Lois, whom she calls Noni (except when she is upset with her). While staying with Noni, Susan continues working on her book and we learn about her struggles, in particular with men and with her grandmother. Susan’s mother, Linda, had been beautiful and Susan is described as even more beautiful than her mother. Her beauty has only brought her trouble.

Lois runs a very successful antiques store, but she is hard and harsh and has a difficult time with people. Marianne helps her run the store and apparently has the patience of Job because no matter how abusive Lois is, Marianne is always helpful and forgiving.

When Daniel’s letter finally reaches Susan, all hell breaks loose. He is on his way to Florida and Lois decides she is going to kill him. Although it sounds mildly amusing, there is not a hint of humor in this book, which details the ongoing inner turmoil of being the survivor of a murdered family member. At times Lois struggles with Susan “because seeing Susan at 43 was never having seen Linda at that age.” And Susan is perpetually frustrated with Lois because of Lois’s efforts to control her life, arising from her fear of someone doing her harm.

During Daniel’s interminable drive to Florida we are subjected to his innermost thoughts and excruciating details of his physical ailments. I believe we are supposed to feel some element of compassion for him as he has become something of an old man and has lived a life of humility and austerity since being released from prison (with a few moments of unbearable violence).

In the end, Daniel sees his daughter, who with mixed emotions throws him out of her house and everyone (maybe not Daniel) ultimately finds some peace.

There are aspects of this book which are very good—the writing and the concept of the story. That said, it is way too long, way too repetitive and some of the characters (Bobby and Marianne in particular), seem to have come out of a fairy tale. The novel does a good job of making the reader feel the long shadow of grief that follows the survivors day and night, darkening their days and haunting their nights, but loses some of its impact with its utter lack of subtlety. You can decide what you think when the novel comes out later this month. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Transcription – by Kate Atkinson

“Transcription” is a very enjoyable novel about spies and counter spies in England during World War II. The story is full of surprises.

The lead character, Juliet Armstrong, had wanted to join one of the women’s armed forces. But when war was declared she was summoned to an interview and found herself part of the Security Services. After a patently absurd interview, where she lied in response to virtually every question, and where apparently her interviewer was aware that she was lying, Juliet was deemed sufficiently satisfactory to join M15.

On her first day she is placed on a bus with other women and dropped off at an old prison. Her functions in the facility were predominantly clerical. Juliet became good friends with Clarissa, also recruited to M15, who just happened to be the daughter of a Duke and the two spent a lot of time together.

After a short period of time at the “Scrubs”, Juliet is recruited for a specific operation, working with Peregrine Gibbons. The job takes place in an apartment building, where a British spy has convinced treasonous British citizens that he is working for the Gestapo. The traitors meet him in his apartment where there is sophisticated equipment intended to record all of their meetings and Juliet’s job is to transcribe the conversations.

Later, Juliet is placed “in the field”, where she infiltrates the life of a wealthy Nazi sympathizer, Mrs. Scaife, ultimately ending up in Mrs. Scaife’s arrest. There are many twists and turns in the book including an unfortunate death or two, as well as counter espionage, Communist sympathizers, romance and other intrigue.

After the war Juliet goes to work for the BBC as a producer of a radio show called “Past Lives.” Unfortunately for Juliet, her past life as a spy continues to pop up and periodically she is asked to serve as a safe house for one person or another, until she manages to lose a very valuable man named Pavel. During the 1950s, people from her M15 days suddenly start to show up and she goes on a tour of her own to track down her past. She finds herself in some serious trouble and escapes London and lives in Italy for 30 years. The book actually begins in 1981 with Juliet back in London, having been hit by a car. The story then alternates between the spy days of the 1940s and the BBC days of 1950.

The book is a lot of fun and portrays British spies as sort of a fumbling lot. There are many twists and turns and a lot of dry humor. Although not the masterpiece that “Life After Life” was, this is still an enjoyable and worthwhile read. You can reserve the book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Mars Room – by Rachel Kushner

“A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out…And if someone did remember [certain people]…that person’s account would make them less real, because my memory of them would have to be corrected by facts, which are never considerate of what makes an impression…”

The Mars Room takes you into a world that most of us cannot even imagine. The world of prisons, the world of conflicting perspectives, and most unbearably, the world of hopelessness and isolation. And the actual facts trivialize the impression.

The novel begins on a prison bus where a group of women prisoners are being moved from a jail to a prison. The storyteller is Romy Leslie Hall, who is serving two consecutive life sentences plus six months for murder and child endangerment (the child was present at the time of the murder). Romy is telling her story to the reader.

Romy was a lap dancer at the Mars Room in San Francisco. Kurt Kennedy, one of her regulars, was obsessed with Romy and followed her throughout the city, sat outside her apartment and was a card carrying stalker. He was also a war veteran and disabled. Romy left San Francisco, with her son Jackson, to get away from Kennedy, and moved to Los Angeles. When Kennedy showed up at her home in LA it was more than she could take and she beat him to death with a tire iron.

Romy’s perspective: “Kennedy had fixated. He had made it his life’s work to be outside my apartment building. To be in the garage where I parked my car. To lurk in the cramped aisles of my corner market. To follow me on foot and on his motorcycle…He had a habit of calling me thirty times in a row. I changed my number. He got the new number….But the prosecutor convinced the judge that the victim’s behavior was irrelevant.”

One of the brilliant aspects of The Mars Room is that while Kushner indulges the prisoner’s story she also flips and lets the victim describe his or her perspective. Needless to say, Kennedy’s perspective is not at all that of a stalker and his shock at being beaten is sympathetic. “One night Kurt Kennedy followed [Romy] as she left The Mars Room. He wasn’t any kind of creep. He was just so attached to her that he needed to be sure she was getting home safe…Boy did he miss her. He really missed her. He tried to tell her. All he could do was keep trying.”

Romy talks about her life, including her early sexual and drug experiences, describing a background that is only imaginable in nightmares. She makes friends in prison and we learn about some other prisoners. She thinks constantly about her son, Jackson.

One of the more interesting characters is Betty LaFrance, a wealthy former leg model on death row for hiring a variety of hit men to kill a variety of people. Her last hit man and romantic relationship was a dirty cop, known as Doc. He tells his story too.

In addition to the prisoner’s stories is the story of Gordon Hauser. Gordon was teaching literature in a woman’s prison when he acquired an unhealthy infatuation with an inmate who accused him of inappropriate behavior. He was then moved to Stanville Woman’s Correctional Facility, “where no one but no one wanted to work.” This is the facility where Romy and Betty are incarcerated.

Stanville Woman’s Correctional Facility is in the middle of nowhere. Gordon rents an isolated cabin in the woods that is close to the facility. In part as a joke, his best friend gave him a Ted Kuczynski reader. Portions of the manifesto are interspersed throughout the novel.

The novel is compelling in its description of prison life and the desperation, mental illness and violence in people’s lives (the things that most of us do not experience), that lead to crime and incarceration. Kushner’s writing takes the reader right into the heart of the hopelessness and isolation that the characters are experiencing. The book is a great read but don’t expect a happy ending. You can reserve The Mars Room at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Home Fire – by Kamila Shamsie

“Home Fire” is a 21st century tragedy. The novel speaks to the unintended consequences of intolerance, isolation, extremism, radicalization and bigotry. Many months ago I reviewed the memoir “They Told Me to Come Alone.” Home Fire seems to me to be the fictional companion to Souad Mekhennet’s memoir.

Home Fire focuses on the Muslim Pasha family of London and the political Lone family, also of London. The story begins with Isma Pasha’s detention at Heathrow airport as she is attempting to make her way to Amherst Massachusetts where she has a scholarship in a PhD program in sociology. “Isma was going to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded, because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room.”

Isma and her sister, Aneeka, had practiced interrogation responses in anticipation of Isma’s trip. Aneeka, 9 years younger than Isma, was studying law at a university in London. While in detention at Heathrow, Isma mused that Aneeka, not quite 19 years old, “knew everything about her rights and nothing about the fragility of her place in the world.” This truth about her sister brings about the most compelling pieces of the story.

Aneeka has a twin brother, Parvaiz, to whom she is extremely close. The family’s absent father was a terrorist who died being taken to Guantanamo. The family rarely acknowledges his identity or existence. Aneeka, Parvaiz and Isma’s mother and grandmother died when the twins were twelve years old and Isma, with the help of Aunty Naseem, raised the twins.

Isma ultimately makes it to Massachusetts and while in Amherst, she meets a fellow Londoner, Eamonn Lone, son of a formerly Muslim father and Irish American mother. Eamonn’s father happens to be a well-known British politician and after the two meet, his father, Karamat Lone, becomes Home Secretary.

Parvaiz is directionless and becomes a target of terrorist recruiters. The methods of manipulation used to recruit him are heart wrenching. The main recruiter, Farooq, plays on all of Parvaiz’s weaknesses and becomes a father figure to him. Early in the recruitment process, Parvaiz is in Farooq’s apartment looking around and contemplating their relationship. “The Urdu word came closer than ‘friend’ to explaining how he thought of Farooq. Or even better, jigari dost—a friendship so deep it was lodged within you, could not be cut out without leaving a profound, perhaps fatal, wound.” Isma and Aneeka have no knowledge of Parvaiz’s relationship with Farooq and mistake his secrecy for a difficult romance. Ultimately Parvaiz is broken and leaves London with Farooq for Raqqa. He tells his sisters that he is going to Karachi to visit family, although they ultimately discover the truth

Eamonn returns to London and delivers a package of M&Ms from Isma to Aunty Naseem and meets the beautiful Aneeka. Aneeka and Eamonn begin a romantic relationship which grows deep and meaningful. However, Aneeka has an agenda and when Eamonn’s father, the Home Secretary learns of the relationship things turn very dangerous very fast.

The novel is a page turner and it is a warning. Intolerance has unintended consequences, the impacts of which are not just limited to the targets of the intolerance. Although the first portion of the book is a little choppy in setting out the foundation, the novel rapidly moves to a category of  hard to put down. Home Fire won the 2018 Women’s Prize and is an enjoyable, thought provoking worthwhile read. You can reserve a copy from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Clock Dance – by Anne Tyler

Clock Dance is the story of Willa and her clock dance through life. Willa first learns the concept of clock dance when she is 61 years old. But that part of the story comes later in this review. The novel is broken down into life stages.

We first meet Willa in 1967 when she is 11 years old. Willa and her friend Sonya were unsuccessfully selling candy door to door as part of an orchestra fundraiser. When Willa arrives home she discovers that her mother is gone and has taken the family’s only car. Willa is left to take care of her six year old sister Elaine and their kind but befuddled father. During this phase of Willa’s life we learn that her mother is both physically and emotionally abusive, setting the stage for both Elaine and Willa’s future. At one point at school, while pondering her problems at home and observing her classmates, Willa wonders, “Did all these kids come from perfectly happy families? Weren’t any of them hiding something that was going on at home?…They didn’t seem to have a thing on their minds but lunch and friends and lipstick.”

The next chapter in Willa’s life is 10 years later when she is a linguistics student in her junior year at a college in Illinois. She is on her way home for Easter break to introduce her parents to her boyfriend Derek. It is the first time she has been on an airplane. At the airport Derek, a senior getting ready to graduate, asks Willa to marry him. But he wants her to move to California with him, where he already has a job, before she finishes college (where she has a full scholarship).Willa’s preference is to get engaged and marry after she finishes college.

On the airplane Willa is seated in a center seat and a gaunt and whiskery man sits next to her, jabbing a gun into her side. After a while Derek suggests they switch seats and that is the end of the gun incident. When Willa tells Derek about the gun after they land, he does not really believe her. This incident follows her throughout the book.

Willa’s parents are polite with Derek but when he announces that they are getting married (without Willa’s participation in the announcement), her parents are not pleased, expressing concern for Willa’s academic future. Willa’s mother is particularly nonplussed when Derek announces that he hopes to “talk her around” about marrying him before she graduates. Her mother’s disapproval is all it takes for Willa to decide to marry Derek and move to California before she graduates. She never completes her degree.

In 1997, Willa and Derek are driving to a party when Derek cuts off another car.  The car strikes them and Derek is killed. Willa is 41 years old and left with two sons, Ian (16 years old) and Sean (18).

In 2017 Willa is living in Tucson with her husband Peter. She receives a telephone call from a neighbor of her son Sean’s ex-girlfriend, Denise. Denise has been shot in the leg and the neighbor is looking for someone to come care for Denise’s 8 or 9 year old daughter Cheryl and their dog Airplane. Although Sean and Denise have been broken up for some time, Willa decides to go and Peter (11 years her senior), grudgingly agrees to join her. Willa immediately becomes immersed in the lives of Denise, Cheryl and Airplane, as well as their neighborhood and day to day activities. She has dinner with Sean who is living in Baltimore with another woman and realizes how detached she has become from the lives of her own sons.

One afternoon she sees Cheryl and her two friends playing a game, all with their arms extended, moving in “stiff, stop and start arcs in time to the clicking sound” in the music they are listening to. This is their clock dance.

Peter ultimately returns to Arizona in disgust. I won’t tell you what Willa does, but toward the end of the novel she thinks that if she were to invent a clock dance it “would feature a woman racing across the stage from left to right, all the while madly whirling so that the audience saw only a spinning blur of color before she vanished into the wings, pouf! Just like that. Gone.”

The book is pure Anne Tyler. Seemingly simple writing and straight forward characters overlaying the complexities of life’s stages, yearnings and realities. I loved the book but am still pondering the meaning of the ending. Maybe you can help me figure it out. You can reserve the book  at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, by clicking here.

Warlight – by Michael Ondaatje

“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Warlight is a story of intrigue during World War II. The narrator of the story (Nathaniel) is 14 years old when his parents announce that they are leaving for a year to go to Singapore for his father’s job at Unilever. The narrator’s sister, Rachel, is 16 at the time.

The father leaves first and the mother, Rose, stays for a while to prepare her children for boarding school. During their week-ends and holidays the children will return to the London house on Ruvigny Gardens and be cared for by the family’s border, whom they have nicknamed “The Moth” (Walter). During this short period of time prior to the start of boarding school, their mother makes a big production of packing her steamer trunk and discussing the need for various items for her trip to Singapore. After their parents leave, Rachel and Nathaniel fail miserably at boarding school and return to Ruvigny Gardens to live full time with The Moth.

“At the end of our first winter, while we were living with The Moth, Rachel made me follow her down to the basement, and there, under a tarpaulin and several boxes she had pulled away, was our mother’s steamer trunk.” Thus begins the mystery of their parents whereabouts.

The Moth has a number of interesting friends who spend time at Ruvigny Gardens. The first of these friends, and the one with the most lasting impact on Nathaniel is Norman Marshall, nicknamed the Pimlico Darter due to has boxing past. When the Moth is out for more than a day, the Darter drives by and checks on Nathaniel and Rachel. “…the tensions we felt whenever The Moth left home were the result not of our guardian’s absence but of the knowledge that The Darter had permission to oversee us with grudging, uninterested concern.”

Nathaniel finds a job in a restaurant where he meets his romantic interest, Agnes. The two have numerous romantic interludes in empty houses that her brother is attempting to sell. The first such house is on Agnes street and thus she adopts the name Agnes. Nathaniel can never remember her real name. Nathaniel begins working with the Darter transporting Greyhounds for racing and later transporting something less known and more nefarious, along the Thames. He introduces The Darter to Agnes as his father and Agnes and the Darter get along well.

The Darter brings a number of his romantic interests to Ruvigny Gardens.   Olive Lawrence, one of The Darter’s women, is a geographer and ethnographer. She takes a particular interest in Rachel and Nathaniel and has a lasting impact on them even after she leaves.

At one point, Agnes and Nathaniel believe they are being followed and successfully elude the man at issue. One night in a lift on the underground, Nathaniel finds himself isolated with the same man he believed had been following him. When the man shatters the light bulb and pulls the emergency lever, Nathaniel is able to restart the elevator and escape. One of The Moth’s friends, Arthur McCash, shows particular interest in this incident.

As you can probably tell at this point, Rose was a spy and most of the house guests were somehow associated with her and looking after her children. Father’s role and location is never quite clear. Although a lot goes on in this book (much more than I have told you), it is at the same time sort of slow and plodding. The first half is in fact a bit dull, although the book definitely picks up in the second half. Nathaniel is telling the story from his vantage point of having felt abandoned and betrayed by his mother’s secret life and some of the secrets he continues to uncover as he grows older.

If you are interested in a World War II story told from a different angle, with a bit of intrigue and a bit of neurosis, give this book a try. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Library by clicking here.

The Return—Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between – by Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar, an American born British-Libyan author, is an acclaimed novelist and essayist. The Return—Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, is a memoir about his 2012 return to Libya and attempt to come to terms with the unfathomable loss of his father, Jaballa Matar.

Jaballa Matar was a wealthy Libyan, having made a small fortune importing Japanese and Western goods to the Middle East. He had been a Libyan army officer when Myanmar Qaddafi overthrew King Idris. Jaballa had been on business in London at the time and rushed back to Libya where he was immediately arrested. He was released five months later, stripped of his rank and given an administrative role in Libya’s Mission to the United Nations in New York. He had high hopes for the Qaddafi regime but after a couple of years he resigned and returned to Libya to work with the opposition. In the 1970s the family lived in Tripoli but in 1980 the family moved to Cairo.

In March of 1990, Jaballa was kidnapped from his Cairo apartment and at roughly the same time, Jaballa’s brother and other relatives were arrested and imprisoned at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. They were initially unaware of each other’s presence there but over time became able to communicate through a complex system. Jaballa was frequently heard reciting poetry. Hisham puzzles over his uncle and cousin’s initial inability to recognize his father’s voice. After a prison uprising in June of 1996, prison officials executed 1270 prisoners.

Hisham searches for his father and begins direct communication with Qaddafi’s son, Seif. Seif tries to befriend Hisham and arranges for the release of some of his relatives in 2011. However, Seif forces them to sign an apology “for having opposed the Great Leader.” Shortly thereafter, all of the prisoners were liberated. Men had spent 21 years in prison simply for opposing the regime.  Hisham observes that  “You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination.”

Throughout the memoir we learn a little of the history of Libya, including the Italian influence, Egyptian collusion and British opportunism. We learn of the importance of art, literature and poetry and of course the amazing story of human cruelty and survival. Although disjointed at times, the memoir is beautifully written and won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The book can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Asymmetry – by Lisa Halliday

“asymmetry a·sym·me·try (ā-sĭm’ĭ-trē)
n. 
Disproportion between two or more like parts;
lack of symmetry.” Dictionary.com

“Asymmetry” is three interlocking yet seemingly unrelated stories revolving around writing.

Alice, a 25 year old editorial assistant, meets Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Ezra Blazer at a park where she is reading a manuscript. Ezra is 65 years old when they meet. Throughout the first story a relationship develops between the two which very quickly becomes romantic. Ezra had been married previously but the marriage ended because he did not want children. Ezra gives Alice little presents and sometimes gifts of money. Alice is completely enamored with Ezra and slowly they get to know each other. Together they watch baseball, talk politics and literature.

They stay together for a number of years but as he ages and becomes more infirm she realizes that the age difference is too much and they part.

The second segment is the story of an Iraqi American, Amar Jaafari, who is detained at Heathrow airport and prevented from visiting England. Through the questions he is asked during his detention, and his own reminiscences, we learn about his family, his life and his experiences. We also come to realize that he had been one of the many people called to jury duty at the same time Alice was called to jury duty.

The third segment of the book is a radio interview with a much older Ezra Blazer. The interviewer is a young woman and Ezra is quite flirtatious. The interview revolves around Ezra’s favorite musical pieces and slowly the interviewer discloses certain unknown aspects of Ezra’s life. During the interview, Ezra makes an oblique reference to Alice and a novel she has written. It is very clear how much he misses her.

The book is well written and creative. I enjoyed it but have to admit that I did not understand the connectivity among the three stories until my friends at the Cuyahoga County Public Library explained to me a key point that I had completely missed! You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

An American Marriage – by Tayari Jones

“An American Marriage” is a story about resilience in the face of conflicting emotions and frustrated expectations. An American Marriage is about rising above racial inequity and social injustice. And finally, An American Marriage is about coincidence and how life’s twists and turns are sometimes beyond our control.

The novel starts with an introduction to Roy and his reflections on his wife Celestial and their life together. Roy grew up in Eloe, Louisiana, the son of Olive and big Roy Hamilton. Roy’s full name is Roy Othaniel Hamilton. Olive had Roy when she was 16 years old. Olive was strong willed and worked at a local grocery. Big Roy worked at a sporting goods store and was a handyman in his spare time. The family made do but was not wealthy.

Celestial, on the other hand, came from a wealthy Atlanta family and as a wedding gift, her parents gave Roy and Celestial a house in Atlanta. Roy and Celestial met when Roy was a student at Morehouse and Celestial was a student at Spelman. Roy was a textbook salesman and Celestial an artist, creating dolls which sold for as much as $5000 a piece. Life was good for the couple, if not perfect because of Roy’s intermittent philandering.

After about a year and a half of marriage, Roy and Celestial decide to visit Roy’s parents in Eloe. The visit is not comfortable due to the tension between Celestial and Olive and in anticipation of that tension, Roy arranged for them to stay in a local motel, the Piney Woods Inn. At the Inn, Roy tells Celestial that Big Roy is not his biological father and she is furious that he had not told her sooner. He walks around the Inn while Celestial cools off, and he meets an older woman with an arm in a sling, whom he helps with some issues in her room. In the meantime, Celestial calls her friend Andre to vent.

When Roy returns to the room all has been forgiven and they spend a romantic evening together. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night the police arrive and arrest Roy for rape—an accusation from the woman he had helped earlier in the evening. He is convicted and sentenced to 12 years. This part of the story is told by Celestial and Roy in alternating chapters.

While Roy is in prison, Celestial and Roy write letters back and forth. Through these letters we learn that Roy’s cell mate is an older career criminal named Walter Jenkins, who protects Roy while he is there. There are appeals and ultimately the conviction is thrown out, but not until Roy has spent 5 years in prison.

A lot happens during that five years, and when Roy is released Celestial has moved on with Andre. Roy, as you can imagine, is not happy and there are some tussles, but ultimately everyone gets on with their lives in different ways.

At one point in the book, looking back on everything, Celestial observes that “Much of life is timing and circumstance…But how you feel love and understand love are two different things…Human emotion is beyond comprehension and smooth and uninterrupted like an orb made of blown glass.”

My initial reaction to the book was that it was too simplistic and light. However, by the end I appreciated the depth of thought and insight, and the forgiving approach to a truly tragic event. Rather than ending with anger and frustration, the novel has a sort of hopefulness to it that could not have been easy to conceive. The book is worth a read and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Only Story – Julian Barnes

“Everyone has their love story. Everyone.  It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have all been in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real.”  “The Only Story” is Paul’s love story.  Only it is really much more than that.  It is a story of youth from the perspective of the aged.  It is a story of mistakes made and the  lifelong impacts of those mistakes.  It is the story of relationships made and squandered.  It is not a happy story.

19 year old Paul is home for the summer, living with his parents in a perpetual state of boredom and teenage superiority.   Paul’s mother convinces him to join a tennis club, hoping he might meet an appropriate type of girl, one he derisively refers to as a Caroline (the counterpart of whom he refers to as a Hugo).  He is haphazardly matched with Mrs. MacLeod as his mixed doubles partner.  Mrs. MacLeod is 48 years old, an excellent tennis player, mother of two and unhappily married to Gordon, whom she, in rather juvenile fashion,  refers to as EP–Elephant Pants.  Apparently he is a tad overweight.

Paul and Susan MacLeod develop a close friendship which inevitably becomes a romance. It turns out that Susan has not slept with her husband for 20 years and he is physically and mentally abusive.  Paul is hopelessly in love.  In a telling conversation early in their relationship, Susan says to Paul:  “…at some point everyone wants to run away from their life.  It’s about the only thing human beings have in common.”  Two years later, Paul and Susan run away together and make a home in London.  Paul goes on to law school.

Although they stay together for about 10 years, things begin to fall apart early on. Susan becomes an alcoholic and chemically dependent and deteriorates into someone Paul no longer knows.  Ultimately, he “gives her back” to one of her daughters.

Throughout the book Susan’s friend Joan plays a significant role. Joan is the sister of Susan’s first love, who died young from cancer.  Joan has her own tragic past and failed loves and is living alone with her dogs and her gin.  She is rough around the edges but Paul goes to her when he is seeking reassurance.

The story is being told by Paul 50 years later. He muses about his differing perspectives now compared to his perspectives at 19 and what has become of his life .  “He knew that no one can truly hold their life in balance, not even when in calm contemplation of it.  He knew there was always a pull, sometimes amounting to an oscillation, between complacency on one side and regret on the other.”

The book is beautifully written, as you would expect from Julian Barnes, but it is also depressing and leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. It is, however,  blessedly short.  If you want to read it, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

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