Olive, Again“Olive Again” is Elizabeth Strout’s follow up to her highly acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge. Similar to the original novel, Olive Again is 13 interrelated short stories, with similar themes.

In the first story, Arrested, we meet Jack Kennison, a slightly disgraced retired Harvard professor. Jack is 74, widowed and in the beginning stages of a romantic relationship with Olive. Jack reflects all of the book’s themes.  He is questioning many of his life decisions and wondering who he really is. This sense of regret and questioning of the individual’s very essence are themes throughout the stories. Jack has an adult daughter who is a lesbian and he has trouble accepting her. The tension between parent and child is also a theme of the book. Jack’s first marriage was fraught and both he and his wife had extramarital affairs. Dysfunction between husband and wife is also a theme of the book. Finally, Jack has not aged well and aging is a theme of the book.

In Cleaning, Kayley Callaghan is an 8th grader living in Crosby, Maine, the location for most of the stories. She comes from a poor single family household and makes money cleaning the house of widow Bertha Babcock. Kayley’s teacher, Mrs. Ringrose, asks Kayley to clean her house as well. While cleaning the Ringrose house, Kayley has some rather peculiar interactions with the elderly Mr. Ringrose. Kayley has an elderly friend, Miss Minnie, who lives in a depressing nursing home. She visits her periodically and her visits are also depressing. Mr. Ringrose ends up in the same nursing home.

Throughout each of the stories Olive has a presence. Some of the stories are specifically about Olive. Olive has a son Christopher who lives in New York City with his wife, her two children from prior relationships and their two children together. Christopher and Olive had not seen each other for 3 years when she invites him to come visit. Christopher’s wife is difficult, the children are unpleasant and the visit does not go well. Olive tells her son she is marrying Jack and he does not take it well.

At the beginning of the novel Olive is 73 and living independently and by the end of the book Olive is 83 years old and living in an adult community. The novel is extraordinarily depressing, focused almost exclusively on the loneliness and regrets in every stage of life, aging and the inevitable end. In one story, two brothers reconnect and they really should be happy. Although their wives do not get along they are a close family. And yet, one of the brothers sort of sums up the entire depressing point of the novel when he says: “And it came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from the gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”

The book is beautifully put together, some of the stories are incredibly creative and yet, I am just not convinced that it had to leave the reader with such a sense of hopelessness. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Grand Central StationMy friend Val lives in Westchester and travels to the city each day for work. She has been describing to me the dystopian feel of her days. An empty ghostlike grand central station, fearful commuters and anxious parents are just a few of her observations. Below is her as yet unpublished COVID-2019  Lament (NYC/March 2020)

 

The cavernous Grand Central is virtually empty

save for those few who trudge through.

Heads down, almost sheepish they go,

to offices that echo with loneliness.

The streets fare better, bikers and walkers

Afraid of the air and surfaces below.

Children on their way to school

Blissfully unaware of the threat.

Parents hold their hands, their only way

to try and keep them safe.

Workers at home, locked in,

Protected against what is out there.

For how long do we burrow,

closets teeming with supplies.

Spring may come and go without notice,

but we can’t

Girl, Woman, OtherGirl, Woman, Other is a wonderful novel about all the different kinds of people in the world and their commonality. The novel tells the story of 12 different women all of whom have a common connection—some obvious and some less so.

The story begins with an introduction to Amma. When we first meet her, Amma is 50 years old and preparing for the opening of her play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, at the National Theatre in London. In her earlier years, Amma was quite radical and Amma and her glamorous friend Dominique started their own theatre company, Bush Women Theatre, which lasted for only a very short time. In those days, Amma and Dominique had a ”reputation for heckling shows that offended their political sensibilities.” But of course things change, and so did Amma, who had “spent decades on the fringe…until the mainstream began to absorb what once was radical and she found herself hopeful of joining it.”

Amma and Dominique, both lesbians and both with mixed ancestry, were never romantic but remained the closest of friends. Amma, who has many romantic partners, has a daughter (Yazz) with her gay friend, Roland. Dominiue ultimately leaves London and moves to America. She returns for Amma’s opening.

Carole is a poor child made good. Or so it seems. After an extraordinarily difficult childhood, Carole is mentored by a teacher in her high school and ultimately goes off to Oxford, where “there are very few dark skinned students.” Carole becomes a highly successful banker, marries a white man named Freddy and is greatly resentful that her former teacher, Mrs. King, takes credit for Carole’s success. Carole’s mother, Bummi, is from Nigeria, and Bummi and her husband, Augustine have a hard time finding success in England. Augustine dies and ultimately, after a deep relationship with a woman from her church, Bummi marries a widower named Kofi. Bummi did not realize that Carole’s success would cause Carole to reject her culture.

Carole’s teacher, Mrs. King, is actually Amma’s first childhood friend. Shirley King became a history teacher at Peckham School for Boys and Girls right out of school. She is energetic and passionate at the start but that enthusiasm slowly wanes. Between being black and being a woman she receives very little respect from her peers. “Shirley felt the pressure was now on to be a great teacher and an ambassador for every black person in the world.” One of the other teachers at the school, Penelope, is dismissive of Shirley and rude. As time goes by, however, Penelope and Shirley become friends. Penelope, who is white, was adopted as a child and the desire to know her natural parents has followed her through her life.

Hattie, also known as GG, is 93 years old when we meet her. We learn about her history, her children, her grandchildren and her great grandchildren. One of her great grandchildren is Megan, who chooses to go by Morgan and is in a relationship with Bibi, formerly a man who transitioned to a woman. Despite her age and some difficulty understanding her great granddaughter, Hattie accepts Morgan and Bibi and becomes close to both of them.

At the end of the novel everything (and everyone) comes together in a believable and brilliant manner. Through the stories of all of these diverse people, the novel explains that no matter who we are, no matter our background, our color, our religion or our sexual orientation, we all have commonality and ultimately we are all people with emotions, loves, families and histories. The book is just fabulous and so deserving of the 2019 Booker Prize. You can reserve Girl, Woman, Other at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

“I lived a life where I had less than what I desired. So instead of wanting more, sometimes I just made myself want less. Sometimes I made myself believe that I wanted nothing, not even food or air. And if I wanted nothing, I’d just turn into a ghost. And that would be the end of it.” This is Lillian Breaker.

Lillian is 28 years old and “working two cashier jobs at competing grocery stores, smoking weed in the attic of my mother’s house” when she receives a letter from an old friend asking for help. The friend, Madison Billings Roberts, is extraordinarily beautiful, comes from a wealthy family and is married to an older man who is a Senator from the state of Tennessee. Lillian comes from a poor single parent family.

Lillian and Madison met when they were high school freshman at the exclusive Iron Mountain Girls Prepatory School, where they were roommates. Lillian was able to attend on a scholarship and the two became close friends. They both did well in school and played on the school basketball team. Madison was extremely ambitious. She told Lillian that “I want to be powerful. I want to be the person who makes big things happen, where people owe me so many favors that they can never pay me back.” However, in connection with an incident involving cocaine, Madison’s father and Lillian’s mother, Lillian was unjustly expelled from the school. Although the two continued to write letters to each other, they had not seen each other before Lillian received the request for help.

Lillian gets on a bus and is met in the Nashville bus station by Carl, who “looked like a man who was really into watches.” Carl drives Lillian to the estate where Madison lives with her husband, Jasper and son, Timothy in a mansion with servants. Timothy is quiet and awkward and Madison is as beautiful as ever. Carl is the family fixer and is involved in every part of the story.

After some pleasantries, Madison explains what she needs. Jasper has two children, Bessie and Roland, from a prior marriage and his former wife has recently died. He needs to take the children but he is concerned that they will hinder his political ambitions because, when they are stressed, they simply spontaneously combust. Lillian, who has absolutely no experience with children, agrees to take care of the kids, and she, Bessie and Roland live in a separate fireproofed structure on the mansion grounds. Jasper is not a particularly attentive father or a particularly likable person. Lillian cannot tolerate Jasper but she seems to have a blind spot for her manipulative childhood friend.

Madison and Lillian see each other periodically and have a memorable one on one basketball game in front of the children, including Timothy, who begins to become acquainted with his half siblings. Predictably, Lillian grows very attached to Bessie and Roland. When Jasper is offered the position of Secretary of State he decides that the children must be sent away. At that point, all hell breaks loose and I will let you read the story to find out what happens.

The book is a light easy read with a little bit of a moral attached to it, focused on the issues of privilege, power and decency. The book is dedicated to Ann Patchett and Julie Barer (literary agent). Anything with Ann Patchett associated with it has to be good. That said, this is not great literature but a fun and quirky read. You can reserve Nothing to See Here at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Night Boat to Tangier is a beautifully written story about the criminally complex and intertwined lives of two haggard gentlemen, Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne. Both men are from Ireland and we meet them in October of 2018, sitting in the terminal at the port of Algecirus, hoping to spot Maurice’s estranged 23 year old daughter Dilly, either coming or going. Charlie, early 50s, walks with a pronounced limp and Maurice, 51 years old, has a bad eye.  The injuries are the result of hard lived lives.

As the two men sit and wait, they see a young man, dressed in combat gear, with dreadlocks and a dog. They approach him and begin to question him about his knowledge of Dilly. They find his answers less than satisfactory and there is some violence. Ultimately the young man escapes but the episode provides the reader with a hint of the men’s history. The men continue to wait in the terminal, looking for Dilly and reminiscing about their lives. The unidentified narrator fills in the gaps.

The story moves back and forth from the terminal in 2018 and the earlier years of their lives beginning in 1994. As a young man, Maurice finds his calling in the drug trade. His introduction is initiated by a woman named Kadima, who moves in and out of Maurice’s story throughout the book. Charlie joins him in the business and keeps potential trouble at bay simply by his unpredictable nature. “The thing about Charlie was that you took him into a room and they knew. One look and they f——- knew. A single glance into the soulful eyes of Charlie Redmond and they knew that this could go in any direction.”

The money comes and goes. Maurice makes investments, is flush and then he’s broke. He meets Cynthia, falls in love, marries and Dilly is born. Cynthia is wary of Charlie. “She said the most important thing is to maintain a distance from Charlie Redmond.” Maurice cheats on Cynthia and Cynthia grows close to Charlie, despite her misgivings. Ultimately Cynthia and Maurice fall apart, Maurice ends his friendship with Charlie and Maurice leaves Ireland and travels, mostly in Spain. He connects with Kadima for a time, but ultimately he returns to Ireland.

During Maurice’s childhood, his father suffered from mental illness and ended up in a hospital. Upon his return to Ireland, Maurice suffers from the same or similar ailments and ends up hospitalized. Shockingly, Charlie, with whom he had fallen out, ends up in the same hospital room and they reconnect. Cynthia dies and Dilly takes off. Charlie and Maurice end up looking for her at the terminal in Algecirus, where we meet them in 2018.

Among their reminiscences, Maurice is constantly missing Cynthia. “And now from the vantage of his years, a terrible swoon comes down on him; Cynthia, for a moment, descends all the way through him. This is not a rare occurrence…Hate is not the answer to love; death is its answer.”

At the end, someone like Dilly enters the terminal, but the men do not believe it is her and they never speak.

The novel is beautiful and lyrical in its prose, almost visual, and the dialogue is brilliant. This is a short must read for anyone who appreciates brilliant writing and a unique and enchanting gangster novel with a twist. The novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Trust ExerciseTrust Exercise is ostensibly the story of artistic, talented high school students and the performing arts school where they all come together, Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA). We do not know exactly where the school is located, other than in a hot southern city. The group of students that is the focus of this story are not ordinary high schoolers, if there is such a thing. “They were all children who had previously failed to fit in, or had failed, to the point of acute misery, to feel satisfied, and they had seized on creative impulse in the hope of salvation.” This is the baseline for the story.

The story revolves around 15 year olds Sarah and David, whose romantic relationship is intense and strong…until it isn’t. And then the story focuses on the failure of that love affair. But there are so many other things going on. Mr. Kingsley, their gay beloved theater teacher has them engaging in a variety of trust exercises, including crawling along on the floor in the pitch dark (where maybe trust doesn’t work so well if you are a 15 year old girl), sitting in a circle and speaking the truth about each other, as well as more traditional trust exercises.

Sarah has a best friend Joelle and a distant friend Karen. As the story unfolds and Sarah (who is said to be very beautiful) is grieving over the loss of David, her friends distance themselves from her. There are other characters in the story with various talents both real and imagined.

Sarah has a close relationship with Mr. Kingsley and a distant relationship with her mother. Sarah works early mornings in a bakery to earn money to buy a car. Mr. Kingsley inexplicably calls Sarah’s mother and tells her that Sarah should not be working so hard. Sarah’s mother, whom Sarah treats horribly and who is actually quite sympathetic, agrees but is concerned about the teacher’s intrusion. Mr. Kingsley’s intrusion does not end there and his relationship with Sarah  is quite puzzling. Suddenly, the relationship ends.

A significant part of the story involves a British performing troupe from a high school in Bournemouth that comes to visit and to perform what turns out to be a borderline pornographic version of Candide. The troupe includes two older men, one a teacher and the other a performer and a number of male and female students. The members of the troupe stay in the student’s homes and there are a lot of parties. Everyone seems to pair off for the visit including the two older men, with long term consequences.

The book is broken into three parts, each part bringing new meaning and perspective to the section before it. The last two parts deal with some of the characters many years after high school graduation. We learn what the first part of the book meant, how high school affected them and their ongoing heartbreaks and successes. The book is actually quite sobering about the long term impacts of high school life and sexual abuse from teachers and trusted advisors.

Despite the disturbing themes of the book, it is brilliantly conceived and written. It won the 2019 National Book Award and is an excellent, if not slightly dark, read. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Fleishman is in Trouble“And in our laughter we heard our youth, and it is not not a dangerous thing to be at the doorstep of middle age and at an impasse in your life and to suddenly be hearing sounds from your youth.” This passage summarizes the 373 pages of Fleishman Is In Trouble.

Toby Fleishman is a 41 year old hepatologist going through a divorce with his wildly successful talent agent wife Rachel. The Fleishman’s live in Manhattan, send their two children, Solly and Hannah, to private school and live a life of privilege, albeit constant striving. Toby is considered to be on the low end of the social scale as a mere doctor, while their wealthy friends who are investment professionals seem to be on the high end. At 5 foot 5 Toby is very self-conscious about his height and as a young man was not successful with women.

Toby meets Rachel during his first year of medical school at New York University. Rachel is an English major at Hunter College when they meet. “She was everything he thought a girl should be.” Rachel was raised by her grandmother after her father abandoned the family and her mother died of cancer. Rachel’s grandmother was not a loving person and Rachel was originally drawn to Toby because of his love for her.

Rachel is very ambitious and as their marriage progresses she pushes Toby to be more ambitious. Toby resists moving beyond being a practicing physician, because he “wanted to be a doctor to cure illness…giving solace and peace and healing to someone who needed it.” Rachel starts her own talent agency and books up and coming clients and becomes very successful, earning a lot of money. She is constantly striving to make connections with people wealthier and more connected than she. After having two children and trying to maintain her professional life, Rachel becomes stretched thin and stressed. She is discouraged about Toby’s lack of ambition and finally the marriage bond breaks.

Toby and Rachel reach a tentative agreement about child custody but Rachel suddenly disappears leaving Toby with sole custody of the children. At the end of the book we understand why. Throughout the story we learn about “hook-up” apps (probably more than we need but Toby is constantly participating) and about one of Toby’s patients, Karen Cooper, with Wilson’s disease.

As a result of the divorce, Toby reconnects with two college friends with whom he spent a year abroad in Israel, Seth and Elizabeth. Seth is extremely good looking and wealthy and has not married. Elizabeth was a writer for a men’s magazine and decided to quit to take care of her husband and two children in New Jersey. Elizabeth is the book’s narrator and is also writing the story.

The book focuses on the trauma of middle age and divorce but is also an analysis of the difficulties women encounter in American culture. Both Rachel and Elizabeth struggle with the double standard imposed on them, on their professional lives and the expectations placed on them as mothers and wives. And both struggle with middle age, the resulting changes in their appearances and how society responds to those changes. “The men hadn’t had any external troubles. They didn’t have a fear that they didn’t belong…They said all the things I wasn’t allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or self-centered or conceited or narcissistic.” This is not to say that the men in the book are not also struggling with middle age, but the struggle is different.

And finally, the book addresses the role of extreme wealth and how it affects people’s expectations and entitlements. ”It was not just about owning the city. It was about owning everything beneath and above and behind the city, too.”

The book starts out strong, bogs down in the middle and ends somewhere in between. It is not exactly an uplifting portrait of middle age and marriage. All that said, I am glad I read it but am not quite sure I can recommend it to anyone who has not passed through this phase of life. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Dutch HouseThe Dutch House is a marvelously moving novel about a house, its inhabitants, their lives and the impact of the house on everything. “The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park and Jenkintown and Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred not to the house’s architecture but to its inhabitants. The Dutch House was the place where those Dutch people with the unpronounceable name lived. Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on….The house complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”

The Dutch House is a grand mansion that had been owned by the wealthy VanHoebeek family until their fortunes turned. The last VanHoebeek died in 1945 and the house went back to the bank, although Fluffy, the daughter of the previous caretakers stayed behind. There were portraits of Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek over the mantel in the drawing room and  portraits of lesser VanHoebeeks throughout the house.

In 1946, Cyril Conroy bought the house as a surprise for his wife Elna. At the time, Cyril and Elna were living in a little house on a military base and were seemingly poor. Fluffy came with the house. So did the portraits.

In addition to Fluffy, sisters Jocelyn and Sandy also helped run the household. Elna had no interest in a mansion. Her interests were directed toward helping the poor. The house, its portraits and all of the domestic help made Elna feel anxious and uncomfortable

Cyril and Elna had two children, Maeve and Danny. Danny, 7 years younger than Maeve, narrates the story. When Danny was 3 years old and Maeve 10, Elna disappeared from their lives and from the Dutch House. Elna’s absence caused Maeve to become extremely ill and she is diagnosed with diabetes which follows her through her life. Danny and Maeve are effectively raised by Fluffy (until she hits Danny with a wooden spoon and is fired) and the two sisters, Jocelyn and Sandy. Maeve and Danny are extremely close, while their father, Cyril, is extremely distant. Cyril is a real estate magnate. Periodically he takes Danny with him to collect rents and scrutinize buildings, which makes Danny feel closer to his father.

One day Cyril brings home a significantly younger (18 years) woman, Andrea, who is completely obsessed with the Dutch House. That obsession is not lost on Maeve and Danny, who view her as an insignificant, intermittent presence. “After her first appearance at the Dutch House, Andrea lingered like a virus. As soon as we were sure we’d seen the last of her and months would go by without a mention of her name, there’d she be at the dining room table again.” Ultimately, Cyril marries her and she moves in with her two daughters, Norma and Bright.

Maeve goes off to Barnard and while she is away Andrea gives Maeve’s room to her daughter Norma and moves Maeve into the attic. Maeve loves Norma and Bright so she takes the change in stride, but limits her trips home.

After Maeve graduates from college she gets her own tiny apartment and goes to work for Otterson’s frozen foods in accounting, where she remains throughout her career.   When Danny is 15 and a sophomore in high school, his father suddenly dies of a heart attack. Andrea throws Danny out of the Dutch House and Danny and Maeve learn that their father has left everything to Andrea. The only exception is an education trust established for Danny, Norma and Bright, excluding Maeve. “He thought if she went to graduate school she’d only get married halfway through and quit what she’d started.”

Maeve decides that Danny, as the oldest of the three (and in need of someplace to live other than on her couch), should immediately start to use the trust fund and he finishes his high school education at Choate. He then goes on to college and medical school at Columbia (he has no desire to be a doctor but they view this as a good way to use up the trust assets). While traveling on the train from New York to Philadelphia, Danny meets Celeste, who he ultimately marries. Celeste and Maeve do not like each other. Danny observes that “everything Celeste didn’t like about me was Maeve’s fault, because being mad at your husband’s sister was infinitely easier than being mad at your husband.” Danny and Celeste have two children, May and Kevin.

Lots of things happen in this book. Maeve and Danny periodically sit in their car across from the Dutch House just to look at it. Elna suddenly shows up, Fluffy comes back into the picture and somehow Andrea, Norma and the Dutch House reenter their lives.

”There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.” A lot of “The Dutch House” finds its protagonists in this position.

In The Dutch House, Ann Patchett creates places, people and circumstances that tug at the reader’s reality. Her story seems simple and straight forward, yet subtly relays a sense of complexity, bringing you close to understanding the world around you. As Danny observes at one point in the book, “Maeve and I were forever under the impression that we were moments away from cracking the code on our life…”. But of course, events always get in the way.

The Dutch House is about perspective. It is a story about how things look and feel to us as we are living them and taking them for granted, while at the same time recognizing how different those same things appear from a different vantage. And of course the story is told with Ann Patchett’s signature humor.

My only disappointment is that I do not get the pleasure of reading this book for the first time. It is simply great. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Most Fun We Ever HadThe Most Fun We Ever had is a family saga, moving back and forth from 1975 to 2017. The story chronicles the ever growing Sorenson family.

Marilyn Connolly and David Sorenson meet in 1975 at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where Marilyn is an undergraduate and David is a medical student. Marilyn is very outspoken and experienced and David is a little more reserved and a lot less experienced. They fall in love and David gets a residency in Iowa. They leave Chicago, move to Iowa and Marilyn almost immediately becomes pregnant. She never finishes college.

The first daughter, Wendy, is a handful and the second daughter, Violet, is born a year later. Ultimately, Marilyn’s father dies and they inherit his house in Chicago and move back. Marilyn has a third child, Liza, and a number of years later they decide to have a fourth, Grace. Grace’s birth almost kills Marilyn.  Grace is significantly younger than the other girls.

Wendy is crazy, even as an adult. She has self-image issues (she is beautiful of course), food issues, drug issues and mean girl issues. She marries a significantly older man with whom she is madly in love and who happens to be a billionaire. He also has the nerve to die after about 14 years of marriage, and Wendy, who has already suffered tragedy, is devastated. But she continues to show strength throughout the story.

Violet is a serious student and is also beautiful. She goes to law school and meets Matt and they marry. After practicing law for a time, Violet has her first child, Wyatt, and she decides to stay at home. She has a second child, Eli. Although Violet’s life seems stable, we learn that she had a child in 2001, Jonah, who she put up for adoption. This child shows up in the story 15 years after his birth and becomes a part of this crazy family.

Liza becomes a tenured professor at UIC and lives in a romantic relationship with Ryan. Ryan is clinically depressed and unable to function at the most basic levels much of the time. Liza becomes pregnant with Ryan’s child and then cheats on him. When Ryan finds out, he leaves her and she is on her own during the pregnancy with family support.  she has mixed feelings about the loss of Ryan.

Grace is living a destitute life in Oregon. She had wanted to go to law school but scored so poorly on the law school admissions test that she was rejected by each school she applied to. She has told her family, however, that she actually is going to law school in Oregon.

Of course at the end everything works out.

The story had promise, but the description of David and Marilyn’s relationship was too idyllic and at times felt a little saccharine. I was bothered by the fact that no one seemed to have friends outside the family and that this lack of external relationships did not seem to bother anybody. Finally, the book could have used some editing—it is too long and too repetitive but more importantly, the length worked against instilling empathy for the characters or their lives. I do think that this is an author to watch and as she matures she will do great things. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Testaments“There’s been a coup, here in the United States, just as in times past in so many other countries. Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated.”

The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale. The story takes place in the country known as Gilead; the United States no longer exists, although California and Texas are their own countries (hmmm, a little too realistic?). The time frame is unclear, although the story is unfolding after Gilead has become a historical anomaly and is being studied by academics. In the Handmaid’s Tale, the story of life in Gilead was told from the perspective of a Handmaid. In The Testaments, the story is told from the perspectives of a very powerful “Aunt” and two young women, one growing up in Gilead and one growing up in the more democratic country of Canada. Writings documenting each woman’s experience have been discovered by a historical association and are being studied and discussed in the year 2197.

The “Aunts” are very powerful, making “policy” and working with the “Eyes” to keep control over the female population. One of the first things that occurred after the coup was that all of the professional women were rounded up, some were killed and others were assigned roles. Women were no longer permitted to learn to read (except the Aunts) and were not permitted to work. Women were either Handmaids, Aunts or wives, and they could become wives at the tender age of 13. Of course in general, particularly the daughters of powerful men, the women were not free to choose their own husbands

Aunt Lydia, the most powerful Aunt, had been a Judge when the coup took place. After a number of meetings with the evil Commander Judd, and a stint in solitary confinement, she agrees to the role of Aunt. “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.” She is very shrewd and finds a way to surpass more senior women and accede to a role of power. Lydia and her group of aunts are housed in Adria Hall and Aunt Lydia’s story is told from there. She arranges marriages, she punishes adversaries and she rules in support of the philosophy of Gilead with an iron hand. But of course, things are not always as they seem.

Agnes is a child growing up in Gilead when we are first introduced to her. She has a loving mother, Tabitha and a distant father, Commander Kyle. Tabitha tells Agnes that she went for a walk in the forest, came across an enchanted castle and rescued Agnes. Agnes’s childhood is  privileged. The family has three “Marthas” (domestic help, but deemed so insignificant as to not be worthy of individualization). Agnes goes to school where they learn things like embroidery and are told about the tragedy of Baby Nicole, who was whisked away by terrorists to Canada and is considered a national tragedy. Agnes loves Tabitha but unfortunately, Tabitha dies of a mysterious illness when Agnes is 8 or 9. Commander Kyle quickly thereafter marries the evil Widow Paula. Once Paula arrives, her sole goal is to get Agnes out of the house. They determine to marry off the then 13 year old Agnes to the elderly Commander Judd, whose numerous prior wives have all died under suspicious circumstances. Aunt Lydia saves her and brings her into Adria Hall as an Aunt in training. Agnes’s story is Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A.

The third story involves Daisy. Daisy is living what the readers would consider a normal life in Canada with her parents Neil and Melanie. Neil and Melanie run a used clothing store called the Clothing Hound. They do not allow Daisy out of their sight. Neil is obsessed with old cameras and Melanie donates some of the clothing in the store to her friend Ada for charity. Periodically Pearl Girls” stop by the store to drop off brochures. The Pearl Girls are effectively missionaries for Gilead, attempting to convince Canadian women that Gilead can offer them a better life. Daisy’s life is a good one until both the Clothing Hound and her parents are blown up in a car explosion.

After the explosion, Daisy gets involved with a resistance movement and finds herself at Adria Hall where she meets Agnes. Things move quickly from there and not in a good way for Gilead. You need to read the story for the detail.

The book is a fun quirky read, although if you are looking for subtlety, you will not find it here. The story very clearly describes the connection between a religious state and the subjugation of women and the concept that power breeds corruption. Despite its lack of subtlety the book is well written and offers some thoughts and warnings for some of our current day behaviors. If you would like to read this novel you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.