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‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ by Ramona Ausubel *****

I was so eager to read Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty that I ordered it directly from Washington state.  I adored her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published in 2012, and takes place in Romania during the Second World War.  The storyline of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is rather different, but no less compelling.

1024x1024Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which has been so wonderfully received, begins in Martha’s Vineyard on Labor Day, 1976, and spans generations and decades.  Fern and Edgar, who were high-school sweethearts, are holidaying with their three children.  Despite their ‘deeply professed anti-money ideals’, both have been living a ‘beautiful, comfortable life’ thanks to Fern’s recently deceased parents.  When Fern receives a phone call to inform her that all of the money, which she and her family have been so reliant upon, is gone, their ‘once-charmed’ life unravels immediately.

Fern and Edgar both leave the familial home on separate adventures, unaware that the other parent has also escaped, and their three children have been left completely alone, in the care of seven-year-old Cricket.  As their ‘paths divide and reunite, the characters must make crucial decisions about their own values, about the space they occupy in American history, and about the inner mould of their family.’  Ausubel poses questions regarding their situation, using them to explore the bigger issues of inherited wealth and privilege.  Perhaps the most striking of these is: ‘When you’ve worked for nothing, what do you owe?’

When surveying his family’s vacation house, Ausubel writes the following about Edgar: ‘He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them.  But money, old money, got all the press.’  His own parents are wealthy too, enjoying the profits of a successful steel business, which has even allowed them to purchase their own private island in the Caribbean.  He has repeatedly been offered a position in the company, which comes with a very healthy salary, but has so far turned it down; he sees himself, rather than a business operative, as an aspiring novelist, writing back against industry and inherited wealth.  ‘Being rich,’ writes Ausubel, ‘had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool.  So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.  No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface.’  Although the family protest about inherited money, when Fern tells Edgar of their wealth running out, ‘It was like announcing a death…  The money had lived its own life, like a relative.’

Ausubel writes with such clarity, and there is a wonderful depth to Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.  She notices and relays the most minute things back to the reader, making them astonishingly beautiful; for instance: ‘Fern had felt the very specific warmth of Edgar’s skin, different from anyone elses.  Suddenly, the car had slowed and they had both jolted forward.  The road ahead of them had turned all silver, shimmering and slippery, like mercury had spilled all over it.  It had melted like the sea.’  Ausubel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and she has a real understanding both for the adults and children whom she has created.  Cricket particularly is an endearing creature; she has been rendered vivid in both her actions and speech, and one warms to her immediately.  The family’s story plays out against important elements of social history – the Vietnam war, for example.

Whilst Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty has perhaps a more conformist feel to it than No One Is Here Except All of Us, it is no less beautiful.  Ausubel deftly and brilliantly evokes a once perfect relationship which soon becomes a troubled marriage, and explores such themes as belonging, trust, the notion of inheritance – both bodily and monetarily, and love.  Her prose is thoughtful throughout, and some passages incredibly sensual.  Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a deeply human novel, and I did not want it to end.

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‘Flesh of the Peach’ by Helen McClory ***

Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision.  Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’.  Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’

9781911332251Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne.  In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother.  She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with.  The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.

When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:

‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.

The question was vague because she herself was vague.  It becomes a lyric in a city like this one.  Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties.  Kennedy had been everything for a while there.

… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing.  Finally, after a slow dance with cancer.  And long after their relationship had died.’

She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.  You are outside and you can go no further.  And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’  Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.

Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences.  The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times.  These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange.  The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative.  This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.

The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her.  The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been.  There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.

Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms.  Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people.  With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together.  Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.

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One From the Archive: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote *****

It will come as no surprise, I am sure, to say that I have wanted to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences for such a long time, and my longing to do so was even higher after the Capote Readathon which Lizzi and I created last summer.  In Cold Blood is the fifth book upon my Classics Club list, and a fitting final read for my American Literature month. A lot of the information within this stunning piece of non-fiction was included in ‘Capote’, a film which I very much enjoyed.  The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

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One From the Archive: ‘Songs of Willow Frost’ by Jamie Ford ****

Songs of Willow Frost has been incredibly well reviewed; Helen Simonson, author of the marvellously entertaining Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, very much enjoyed it, and other critics have deemed it ‘dazzling’, ‘spellbinding’, ‘enchanting’ and ‘unforgettable’.

Published in 2013 and beginning in 1934, Songs of Willow Frost tells the story of William Eng, a young Chinese boy who resides at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle.  Whilst on an annual jaunt to the cinema to celebrate the given birthday of all of the boys who reside there, William is confronted by an image of an actress named Willow Frost, and is immediately convinced that she is his mother.  ‘The story of Willow Frost’, Ford tells us, ‘is far more complicated than any Hollywood fantasy’.  His mother, contrary to what he believes, is not dead; rather, she was placed into a ‘funny farm’ when he was small: ‘The lonely years had been easier to endure when he’d imagined his mother dead.  He hurt and he grieved, but that sorrow was less heartbreaking than the thought of his ah-ma alive and well, leaving him behind like a stray dog’.

The day on which we are introduced to our young protagonist is his twelfth birthday.  This is ‘a marvellous age’, he is told by Mother Angelini, ‘the precipice of adult responsibility’.  The room which William, the only Chinese boy in the orphanage, has to call home is perfectly evoked at the outset: ‘He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the bare feet of children, shuffling nervously on the cold wooden floor.  He heard the popping and billowing of sheets pulled back, like trade winds filling a canvas sail.  And so he ducked, on the favoring currents of his imagination, as he always did, to someplace else – anywhere but the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where the sisters inspected the linens every morning and began whipping the bed-wetters’.

Throughout, William’s own naivety and innocent ignorance of certain things is very touching indeed.  When the orphans are taken to the cinema, for example, he is made to sit in the ‘colored’ balcony, to which he has the following reaction: ‘Am I colored? William wondered.  And if so, what color am I?’  The social history of the period has been well evoked, and Ford encompasses such issues as the Great Depression and consequent spread of poverty; the state benefits in existence for orphans and the disabled; prohibition and its effects; and widespread racial prejudices.  Tired of the boundaries – both within the orphanage and society as a whole – which so tightly constrain him, William breaks free, setting out with his friend, a conscientious and caring blind girl named Charlotte, to find Willow Frost.

Songs of Willow Frost is both captivating and compelling, and holds a lot of interest from the very beginning.  Along with William’s story, we learn about Willow Frost’s past, and the mistakes which she is so determined not to repeat.  The writing within is sensual, and the third person perspective which Ford has chosen to use works wonderfully; it is not at all detached, as it can so often be, and the characters are followed in a manner which seems almost sensitive.  Songs of Willow Frost is at once literary in its style, and very easy to read.  The Chinese culture, along with all of its complexities, has been well exemplified.  The novel is reminiscent of Amy Tan’s work, in terms of the characterisation and the bridges both built and burnt between two such vastly different cultures.  There is much of interest within Songs of Willow Frost, and it is certainly a novel which I will be recommending.

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One From the Archive: ‘Young Hearts Crying’ by Richard Yates ****

I very much admire Richard Yates’ work.  Young Hearts Crying, published in 1984, is his penultimate novel, published eight years before his death.  The New Statesman describes his work as follows: ‘Bad couples, sad, sour marriages, young hopes corroded by suburban life’.

Here, Yates presents not just a married couple or a family to us, but a whole community; we are given a feel for how intrinsically individuals fit into a particular place or setting.  The protagonists of the piece, regardless, are a young married couple named Michael and Lucy Davenport.  The pair are very much in love at the beginning of the novel, yet cracks soon begin to appear within their marriage.  When Young Hearts Crying begins, Michael is a new Harvard graduate, who wants desperately to become a poet.  Rather than live upon Lucy’s sizeable trust fund, he is determined to make a living by himself; when he gets a job which he is not entirely satisfied with in New York, his friends and acquaintances begin to syphon off, doing bigger and better things.

As protagonists, Michael and Lucy are both well built.  Whilst Michael is not at all likeable (I would go as far to say that he is actually moderately awful in most of his thoughts and behaviour), Lucy is; the balance struck between the pair, augmented by their small daughter Laura, is pitch perfect.  One of Yates’ definite strengths here is the way in which he encompasses secondary characters from all walks of life, from the privileged to the poverty-stricken.  Young Hearts Crying is not overly heavy in its plot, and whilst one is able to guess what is going to happen as the story moves forward without any great effort, these elements do not make it any less compelling.

I always say this of Yates, but he is an incredibly aware and perceptive author.  Young Hearts Crying is so well written, and whilst it is not his strongest novel, it is a great, striking and relatively easy read nonetheless.

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Reading the World: America (Part Five)

The final part of our epic reading tour around America!  If you have any stateside-set books to recommend to me, please do.

97808606837591. The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (Mississippi)
‘The people of Mount Salus, Mississippi always felt good about Judge McKelva. He was a quiet, solid reassuring figure, just as a judge should be. Then, ten years after his first wife’s death, he marries the frivolous young Wanda Fay. No-one can understand his action, not least his beloved daughter, Laurel, who finds it hard to accept the new bride. It is only some years later, when circumstance brings her back to her childhood home, that Laurel stirs old memories and comes to understand the peculiarities of her upbringing, and the true relationship between her parents and herself.’

2. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (California)
‘On the eve of her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. All at once her cheerful, can-do mother tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes perilous. Anything can be revealed at any meal. Rose’s gift forces her to confront the truth behind her family’s emotions – her mother’s sadness, her father’s detachment and her brother’s clash with the world. But as Rose grows up, she learns that there are some secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.’

3. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields (Alabama) 9780805083194
‘After years of research, Charles J. Shields brings to life the warmhearted, high-spirited, and occasionally hardheaded woman who gave us two of American literature’s most unforgettable characters Atticus Finch and his daughter, Scout. At the center of Shields’s evocative, lively book is the story of Lee’s struggle to create her famous novel, but her colorful life contains many highlights her girlhood as a tomboy in overalls in tiny Monroeville, Alabama; the murder trial that made her beloved father’s reputation and inspired her great work; her journey to Kansas as Truman Capote’s ally and research assistant to help report the story of In Cold Blood. Mockingbird is unique, highly entertaining, filled with humor and heart is a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic portrait of a writer, her dream, and the place and people whom she made immortal.’

4. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Idaho)
Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans growing up in the small desolate town of Fingerbone in the vast northwest of America. Abandoned by a succession of relatives, the sisters find themselves in the care of Sylvie, the remote and enigmatic sister of their dead mother. Steeped in imagery of the bleak wintry landscape around them, the sisters’ struggle towards adulthood is powerfully portrayed in a novel about loss, loneliness and transience.’

97801410301425. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (Kentucky)
‘Families have secrets they hide even from themselves…It should have been an ordinary birth, the start of an ordinary happy family. But the night Dr David Henry delivers his wife’s twins is a night that will haunt five lives for ever. For though David’s son is a healthy boy, his daughter has Down’s syndrome. And, in a shocking act of betrayal whose consequences only time will reveal, he tells his wife their daughter died while secretly entrusting her care to a nurse. As grief quietly tears apart David’s family, so a little girl must make her own way in the world as best she can.’

6. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Vermont/Wisconsin)
‘Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage.’

7. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (Massachusetts) 9780006551805
‘ ‘When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…’ For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply BABY BOY GANGULI. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss…’

8. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Mississippi)
‘Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they’d be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell…’

97803305320139. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (California)
‘The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen, Victoria has nowhere to go, and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is discovered by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But it takes meeting a mysterious vendor at the flower market for her to realise what’s been missing in her own life, and as she starts to fall for him, she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, and decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.’

10. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Massachusetts)
‘We are beautiful, privileged and live a life of carefree luxury.We are cracked and broken. A story of love and romance.A tale of tragedy. Which are lies? Which is truth?’

 

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