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The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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From the opening scene, where married Leo Plumb shamelessly flirts with a nineteen year old Spanish waitress at a beach party in Long Island, and entices her into his Porsche, you know it’s not going to end well. And sure enough, high on cocaine, martini cocktails and distracted by Matilda attending to him in more ways than one, an SUV ploughs into them. The luckless waitress ends up having to have her foot amputated, Leo has to spends months in rehab. It’s a great inciting incident that starts the novel off with a literal bang.

The Nest of the title refers to a trust fund set up by the Plumb family’s late father, which was only ever intended to be a modest sum, to just ease the pressure off his four children. It will only pay out when the youngest, Melody, turns 40. But, thanks to the stock market, its value has rocketed and now each of the four siblings is relying on it: it has become the crutch, the fall back, the be all and end all to all their many problems.

Melody, living in upstate New York,  is overstretched on her mortgage, maxed out on her credit cards, and needs money for future tuition fees for her twin teenage daughters, Nora and Louisa. Obsessed with knowing where they are at all times, she keeps virtual tabs on them by tracking their phones. When she sees the blue blinking light moving around The American Museum of Natural History, she thinks all is well when in fact they are getting up to all sorts. Then there’s Jack married to husband Walker (he invited none of his family) who, after the crash of 2008, has had to secretly borrow against the value of their shared beach front property which may in turn jeopardise Walker’s business. Then there’s Bea – who has gained some success as a writer of short stories (although mostly off the back of Leo) waiting to hit the big rime with a novel that constantly eludes her.

The car accident means that the nest is severely depleted as Leo has had to pay out compensation to hush it up, and for a newly adapted apartment for the waitress. The remaining three siblings have seen the nest dwindle before their eyes and now want Leo to pay back what he owes them. Tensions and long held resentments. already barely disguised, break out and erupt.

Although none of them are particularly likeable, especially the reckless Leo, the others do rally and forge alliances in unexpected ways. I like the promotional video that is being used to market the book here where siblings talk about their relationships and what impact your place or birth order in your family can have.

The author, who lived in New York for over two decades, has a very clever, blackly comic touch – I’m sure I didn’t get many of the references and in jokes about particular parts of New York and colleges etc. The Plumbs are a certain rare set of people, although you can find their equivalent here of course. It’s fun to gawp at them through the windows of The Oyster Bar at Grand Central – whether you’d want to be one of them, is a whole different matter.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is out today in the UK published by Borough Press, an imprint of Harper Collins. Thanks to them via NetGalley for my review copy. Photos from my last trip including some of the places that feature in the book.

 

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Maggie in May

When I was little, my sister and I had one of those bedside lights in the shape of a globe. It had a vast expanse of pale blue sea, the countries marked in pink, yellow and green, and we’d spin it and spin it on its stand, see where it stopped and look at all the places we might go one day. Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, This Must Be The Place, is a little like that – dizzying but exhilarating. Even the beautiful artwork and endpapers remind me of that old globe.

This Must Be The Place, which is O’Farrell’s seventh novel, has all the hallmarks of her earlier ones (you can open any page of any of her books and instantly know it’s by her, I think) but also marks a departure in terms of style and structure.When I saw her speak at the Rooftop Book Club recently (@rooftopbookclub) to a packed audience who hung on her every word and hilarious anecdote (she can tell a really good anecdote) she said she had wanted to do something a bit more experimental, to ‘rip up the rule book’. After the confines of Instructions for a Heatwave where the events took place over 4 days with 4 narrators, she let loose. If the globe is spinning, she is in total control.

The novel starts with the story of Irish American Daniel O’Sullivan, a linguist, setting off from his remote farmhouse in Donegal. It’s so remote when a stranger comes, his wife, Claudette, comes out brandishing a shot gun, to see them off. Why is she so reclusive? On the radio in the car, he hears a voice from the past that will catapult him back twenty years and sets off a whole chain of events. From there on in, we zip around in time, crossing continents, time zones, going from San Francisco to China to New York and back, zooming into the heads of multifarious narrators young and old, male and female.

O’Farrell plays with every convention, telling us what is going to happen to characters before it does, using first person, third person narration, past, present, future. Some of this literary pyrotechnics can be at risk of removing the reader – but here, the emotional power is still very much there. I remember a reader’s review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (still my favourite one of hers ever) where the person complained they couldn’t follow it because she didn’t use speechmarks and was confused by the timeshifts but that was easy compared to this. It’s true you do need to concentrate, but what you get is layers upon layers; I found if I stopped worrying about who was who and what impact, if any, they were going to have on the story, and just listen to them, I could sit back and enjoy the journey. I could read a whole book on some of the periphery characters who come, say their piece, and vanish again.

The only reservation I had with the novel as a whole was the section of photographs – a vintage scarf, a hospital ID band, an ashtray in the shape of a star. Whilst fascinating in themselves I’m not sure they served the story but rather interrupted it. I loved Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts… where the entire book is done like this to illustrate the breakdown of a relationship, but here I can’t see what they add – but O’Farrell reportedly fought to keep them in. I don’t know – I’m open to persuasion.

When Maggie O’Farrell’s first book, After You’d Gone, came out 16 years ago, I remember being a bit sniffy about it to my eternal shame. I picked it up a few times in the book shop but there was something about those icy blue covers or something that put me off. And then on a Greek holiday someone had kindly left behind her next one My Lover’s Lover, a sort of modern Gothic psychological thriller with shades of Rebecca, and I devoured it. Then went back and read the first and I was hooked. And have been a fan ever since.

Her similes are always unusual, visually arresting, but spot on. There is a scene in My Lover’s Lover where a character cleans a floor with a mop and then watches the floor dry – and it is so beautifully described. She can write really good sex scenes, which is a rare skill. She can create characters that live and breathe so you go on to think about them long after the book has finished. The stories she creates always wield real emotional power, with endlessly fascinating sibling and family dynamics. At the heart of This Must Be The Place there is a marriage in freefall – will it survive? Where do we call home and what choices have led us there?

The news of a new Maggie O’Farrell novel starts with a whisper; the hint of a title, the tantalising glimpse of a cover, the release of a chapter, an extract. Through it all, the writer herself remains elusive – she famously doesn’t do social media and there is just the occasional sporadic update on her author Facebook page. It’s a strange dichotomy – I actually like the fact she remains elusive, fiercely guarding her family’s privacy and appearing to do a flurry of interviews and appearances on nationwide book tours then back to her real life. And at the same time I want to read everything, want to know everything, want to hear more and more and then have to wait. Until the next one.

This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell is out now published by Tinder Press. Thanks to them for my coveted review copy.

 

Here’s to the ladies who lunch – The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner

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There was a moment in The Bridge Ladies, a memoir by author Betsy Lerner, when I actually laughed out loud in recognition. This woman is in my mind. It’s the most astute, perceptive book about that notoriously tricksy mother-daughter relationship that I’ve read in a long time. I will lap up all fiction with a mother daughter relationship at its heart, but this is different.

The eponymous Bridge Ladies are a group of Jewish women who came over to the author’s house to play cards every Monday at noon for over fifty years. They were a source of endless fascination to the young Betsy with their matching accessories, perfectly groomed in hose and heels, their ‘hair frosted, patent leather pocketbooks with clasps as round as marbles.’ Young Betsy loves the ritual, helping to put away their coats, trying to sneak the candy from little glass dishes. She really captures the childlike wonder of looking into the adult world, the mystery of the score pad being like a riddle out of Alice in Wonderland. But as a teenager, feeling trapped in American suburbia, she grows scornful of them and their attitudes.

Grown up Betsy’s relationship with her now widowed mother, Roz, is complicated. It is fractious, Betsy thinking her mother is being constantly critical, knowing what buttons to press, never feeling good enough. The thought of moving to be nearer to her sends her into a frenzy.

may 011Once when Betsy was giving a dinner party, knowing her dinner service was tarnished, her mother shows up with a tub of silver polish and offers to clean it for her. She explodes, terrifying her daughter, and has to retire to bed in sobbing frustration. It wasn’t about the polish. When she later recounts it to her friend, expecting her to side with her, she says,’ God, I wish my mother would polish my silver.’

After Roz has surgery, Betsy helps care for her and the Bridge Ladies all turn up. Now all in their eighties, they visit her in rotation, never missing a slot, bringing brownies and cookies and meals. Betsy is taken aback by their loyalty; would her friends, far flung and connected sometimes by only the threads of social media, do the same for her? What makes these bonds so strong?

In a bid to understand, she endeavours to find more about them all – Bette, Bea, Jackie and Rhoda, these women she doesn’t really know. She joins them for lunch, eventually goes to their houses, has to take Bridge lessons to keep up, and ends up doing it for three years.

What follows is a portrait of each of the women, both individually and in a wider social context; what makes people who they are and how they end up where they are, what choices they make, the difference between generations’ expectations. It’s also a fascinating insight into a particular time of American history and within a particular group. She’s very funny at her attempts to play cards with these pros(once, cooped up on a rainy Scottish holiday with two other couples, one couple attempted to teach us all how to play. It was beyond me. My husband said I bid on too many suits I’d never make good.)

These women didn’t meet to talk and catch up on each other’s lives. They didn’t even talk as they played – just the sound of the slapping down of cards and the strange ‘Morse code’ of their talking about suits and tricks. Lerner contrasts their silence with her own friends constant chatter and sharing (on subjects as diverse as Lena Dunham, mammograms, what constitutes cheating). It was the culture to not share secrets, to not talk about things – the death of a sibling, a terrible scarring childhood. ‘Pain,’ she says,’ was a private matter.’

It doesn’t really matter if the particular relationship between Betsy and Roz chimes with you or not; some of my friends get it when we talk about what things our mothers have done to reduce us to tears of rage, others think I’m lucky to have one. Others miss theirs terribly. You choose what you share accordingly. And that is sort of the point. It is about trying to understand, a meeting in the middle, not apportioning blame. It is about trying not to repeat patterns with your own child. What she eventually gains is an insight and is closer to her mother as a result. It is a tender portrait, for anyone that has or has ever had a mother.

It is told with humour – that dry, wry self deprecating humour which I love – and beautiful detail. Most of all it is told with love.

The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner is out now, published in the UK by Pan Macmillan. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Rachel Joyce at the Isle of Wight Literary Festival

There are some authors who can, in the space of few seconds, make you cry hot tears and then make you roar with laughter. Rachel Joyce does this in her books and after seeing her for the first time in person, she can also do it in real life. As she walked into the room (which was packed) at the Isle of Wight Literary Festival, you could feel the warmth radiating towards her. Patrick Gale, the author, was asking the questions and they made a great double act full of laughter and wit, riffing brilliantly off each other.

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Although Joyce is on a book tour for The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, you can’t really talk about that book without first talking about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (a huge international bestseller and shortlisted for the Man Booker prize) It’s the story of a recently retired man – an ordinary man – who goes out one morning to post a letter to a woman he once knew (Queenie) who is in a hospice in Berwick Upon Tweed. He then decides, on impulse, to walk the hundreds and hundreds of miles to see her. It struck a chord with so many people, at all stages of their lives, and we took him to our hearts.

Joyce was writing something else when she kept thinking about Queenie. She felt she had to give her her story, to give her her life – so she stopped what she was working on and began to write about her instead. The book is a companion piece to Harold Fry – not, she stressed, a sequel. She laughed that if she had thought about it more first, she perhaps wouldn’t have done it like that – as she had hemmed herself in by knowing it had to be set in a hospice, that Queenie can’t talk (the cancer has taken her voice) and that the timeframe was going to have to mirror exactly that set out in Harold Fry. And it does – it dovetails beautifully.

I didn’t know that the story for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry had originally grown out of a radio play she wrote; Joyce has written many radio plays and also had a successful career as an actress before becoming a novelist. The actor Anton Rogers ( who I used to watch on TV in May to December as a child with my Dad) was Harold with Anna Massey and Niamh Cusack. She told some great stories about Rogers and his comic timing, how the noise of Harold walking through grass is made by swishing through brown tape, how he had phoned her up and said he was unable to do the naked swim. But it’s for radio! A film is still being talked about although the whole crowd roared when she said they had suggested John Travolta to be Harold. Jim Broadbent would be her choice although if it goes on much longer, she joked, she and her husband (also an actor) will be old enough to play the parts themselves.

She spoke about how to create tension punctured by comedy and how she was interested in putting ordinary people in situations they don’t know how to deal with, who then don’t say what needs to be said but will instead talk about, for instance, jam. She spoke movingly of her own father who was undergoing horrendous treatment for a tumour but would still, when she visited, be wearing a tie. He hated the water, was frightened of the water and couldn’t swim. but still wore yachting shoes. That set me off, the death of my own father so fresh and I could hear several people stifling sobs. A reading from the book which talked about telling your mother you love her before she dies had more people crying. But then she had everyone laughing again at an Amazon reviewer who had given the book 3* and she had been crushed, but had also, she found out, given 5* to a double bladed potato masher.

Everyone wanted to know when we could expect something new -and she spoke tantaslingly of a collection of short stories which are all set around Christmas leading up to New Year’s Eve – the first one featuring a mother on Christmas Eve not being able to cope with all the preparations (the sound of wry laughter from a lot of women) and then a minor character who was barely mentioned in that one takes centre stage in the next story- she loves the idea of passing the baton. Then there is a new novel which she is writing now.

I could have listened to her for hours – she is one of those people who are so engaging, self deprecating with great comic timing and a huge store of great anecdotes. She already has many loyal fans who can’t wait for her next book and will definitely have made a few more that day.

The Snow Garden is out November 5th

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The Isle of Wight Literary Festival

At the weekend I attended the Isle of Wight Literary Festival which is only a short hop, skip and a jump from where I live on the south coast in Brighton. The festival is now in its fourth year but this was the first time for me.

The festival was billed as ‘something for everyone’ and there really was a fantastic line up of everyone from Mary Berry and Alan Titchmarsh, Peter and Dan Snow, Michael Morpurgo, and Simon Callow to writers such as Sophie Hannah. S J Watson, Victoria Hislop, Jill Mansell, Matt Haig, and Cathy Rentzenbrink. The non-fiction part of the programme was put together by Maggie Hanbury of The Hanbury Agency and the fiction side by Georgina Moore – the Communications Director at Headline. At one point, judging by my Twitter feed, it seemed like half the London publishing industry was there.

The whole event was beautifully organised. There were plenty of people (all volunteers) guiding you as to where to go, a marquee and food court charmingly decorated with cosy snugs to chat, and jazz playing.

The main venue where the majority of the events took place was Northwood House, a Grade II listed manor house set in parkland. The events took place in elegant high ceilinged drawing rooms, all scarlet and Wedgwood blue, gilt and dark wood panelling. There were other venues dotted around Cowes too but all within easy reach and clearly signposted (always a plus for someone with absolutely no sense of direction like me).

I could quite happily have gone for the duration (Wednesday until Sunday) but sadly could only get there for the weekend. Even so there was dozens of authors I wanted to see – Rachel Joyce, Patrick Gale, Polly Samson, Kate Hamer and Sarah Leipciger to single a few out..In the coming days, I’ll write up a snapshot of those events. All I need now is the dates for next year’s festival to put in my diary.

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Some progress at last

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I finally, finally, finally seem to be making some progress on my novel. After what seems a long time of false starts, long fallow periods, going up blind alleys, I now seem to be on the right track.

Famous last words probably.

The impetus has come really from going to the York Festival of Writing which I went to a couple of weekends ago. I deliberated for a long time about whether to go or not – could I justify the money, it involved lots of complicated childcare arrangements, but in the end I registered and paid. No going back. I entered the Best Opening Chapter competition just before it closed (and made it to the final seven, which was brilliantly encouraging.) Having to pitch your book to agents face to face against the clock was nerve jangling but taught me so much.

The weekend was packed with things – so many things I’m still processing them – but I had several light bulb moments – a workshop on backstory, one on dialogue, and one on psychic distance stand out. What was best was meeting so many like minded people – I had so many conversations with writers grappling with the same things, the same insecurities and challenges of time and juggling other commitments, but all consumed by writing and loving it. I couldn’t wait to get back and get on with it. Having people now actually wanting to see it is giving me that real impetus not to squander my chance.

Since then, I have been editing relentlessly – getting up earlier, going to bed later, snatching moments from here, there and everywhere. I have rewritten huge swathes of dialogue, altered timelines, chopped up backstory and threaded it through instead.

I read masses over the Summer and rearranged my bookshelves (I blame Marie Kondo) and will do a little recap in the next post as to what I enjoyed but I’m finding other people’s novels are unduly influencing what I’m writing. Especially the brilliant Margaret Atwood. And the BBC adaptation of The Go Between to be shown this Sunday has just destroyed a whole section of my plot.

                                                    Mid Kondo

Mid Kondo

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer – book review

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Earlier this year I stayed in a high-rise hotel in a district of Manhattan, quite far off the tourist track. My window looked out onto a vast residential block. At dusk, a thousand lights came on. I wondered about them all in their little boxes stacked in lines.

This is the premise for Fishbowl, set in a 27 storey apartment block called the Seville on Roxy. It’s not specified where it is but it’s an archetypal block. The fishbowl of the title is also a literal fishbowl – Ian, a goldfish belonging to one of the residents, has taken a leap for freedom, plunging from his bowl, and as he falls towards the concrete sidewalk, he catches moments, freezeframed, in the lives of the various inhabitants. The reader needs to take a similar leap of faith and go with the fact that a goldfish is the novel’s main protagonist.

There is a grad student, and the owner of Ian, who is going to have to decide between his girlfriend and mistress, an agoraphobic phone sex worker, a pregnant woman on enforced bed rest who just wants the baby out so she can have an ice cream sandwich from her freezer and her construction worker boyfriend Danny, Jimenez the building’s stoical caretaker, Herman the homeschooled boy and Garth who is awaiting an important parcel. Each one of them is at a momentous point in their lives. Gradually we see all the little unexpected connections and interplays between them.

Whilst the narrative construction was very easy to follow, with very short chapters only advancing each characters story in tiny increments, as a device it is risky – if the reader is less invested in one particular story, you find yourself eager to get back to the one you are more interested in. And all the time Ian is falling (I liked the little picture of him on the margin of the text descending down the page like one of those flip books I had as a child).

Bradley’s Somer’s writing style is arch and mannered but it is suited to the tale ; he plays around with the authorial voice, telling you what’s going to happen and that Ian will hit the ground in Chapter 54. There are ruminations on time and space, philosophy and physics, risk and adventure. Overall, I was not really emotionally invested in any of the characters, but I’m not sure that matters. The whole literary device of the goldfish is distancing in itself but enables Somer to make some humorous but pertinent observations about life and death and everything in between.

Fishbowl is out now from Ebury Press. Thanks to them for my review copy. Follow Ian the goldfish on Twitter @goldfish_Ian

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