What I’m Reviewing

Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible

Ariel Levy, The Rules do Not Apply

Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Helen Oyeyemi, What is Not Yours is Not Yours

V. E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic

Lisa Damour, Untangled

Anthony Marra, The Tsar of Love and Techno

Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Some characters get under your skin, if not into your heart. Elizabeth Strout’s formidable Olive Kitterege of Maine is one such character; Lucy Barton, of Amgash, Illinois, is another.

Readers of Strout’s unforgettable fiction know Lucy from the tremendous My Name is Lucy Barton, published in 2016. In that slender book, Lucy tells a mostly sanitized version of her childhood in Amgash, where she and her family lived in terrible poverty. Like Jeanette Walls in The Glass Castle, Lucy and her siblings withstand indignities, confusion and isolation growing up with an inappropriate father and a cold mother who struggled to provide more than a roof above their heads.

In Anything is Possible, Strout widens her lens to include a number of other characters who lived near, but did not socialize with, the Bartons in Amgash when Lucy was growing up. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these chapters come together to add vibrant color and luminous detail to what was a sketchy image of the town of Amgash in My Name is Lucy Barton. And while Lucy was certainly one of the most neglected children in the community, she was not the only one raised on insufficient food, education, and love.

Strout never fails to breathe truth and wisdom into her work, no matter how tough some revelations are: people are not all good or all bad, but some combination of both, all the time; everyone who is unkind to someone is sad or broken in some way that explains, if not justifies, his or her hurtful actions; people take care of each other to the best of their abilities. Lucy, who hasn’t been home in nearly twenty years, gives money to her sister, Vicky. Tommy, the school janitor, asks Pete Barton to work with him in a soup kitchen once a week, just to get Pete out of the house. Charlie, a war veteran who betrays his wife, accepts the love of the guidance counselor, Patty, who helps Lucy’s prickly niece apply to college. When Lucy has a panic attack after visiting her siblings Pete and Vicky at the end of the book, they drive her back to Chicago so she can resume her life without them.

Because the people in Strout’s powerful fictions are fully complex, anything – connection, redemption, happiness – is possible, if not always probable.

 

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

“Do you ever talk to yourself?” Ariel Levy asks on page one of her mesmerizing new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply.

“I do it all the time,” she continues.  “We do it, I should say, because that’s how it sounds in my head. We’re going to turn right on Vicolo del Leopardo, go past the bar with the mosaic tiles, and then we know where we are. My competent self is doing the talking; my bewildered self is being addressed. We’re going to go over to the phone now and call for help with one hand and hold the baby with the other.”

Levy’s self-talk is likely a big part of how she has gotten through different life experiences including the tragedy she suffered while on assignment in Mongolia, where she miscarried in her hotel room and nearly bled to death. After her placenta erupted, she told herself, “This can’t be good.” It wasn’t.

Levy first wrote about the harrowing experience of losing her son in an award-winning New Yorker essay entitled “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Readers were stunned by her brave description of birthing her son, taking a picture of him with her phone, and then being saved by Mongolian EMTs and a doctor from South Africa stationed in Ulaanbaatar.

Before this story catapulted her to fame, Levy was writing essays about unconventional women for whom the rules do not appear to apply, women like South African runner Caster Semenya and Edith Windsor, the 84 year-old plaintiff who helped to legalize same-sex marriage. Levy contextualizes this story in her memoir and invites readers to understand it as a chapter in a life lived bravely in the face of rules and conventions.

Levy’s interest in people who don’t follow the beaten path in life comes from an authentic place. An only child, she grew up with her mother, her father, and a frequent houseguest she later learned was her mother’s lover. Levy herself got “gay married” in 2005, living for many years with her spouse before deciding to have a child with help from a wealthy man whose identity she has kept confidential.

The Rules do Not Apply is a meditation on 21st century women’s lives, on the rules we are and are not bound by, and the importance of listening to that inner voice that tells us where we are, what we need to do, and how to survive. Levy’s story reveals that whether we like it or not, different rules apply to all of us at different times, and the work of our lives is to discern, accept, or resist those rules.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

A bottle of gin. A gun. A tablet of Benadryl. A book.

In Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, these everyday objects take on resonant meanings for the blended family that is born in the wake of an adulterous kiss at a gin-and-orange soaked party.

Fix and Beverley Keating are picture perfect, for a few pages, at least. He is a police detective in LA and she is a beautiful housewife. They are raising two children in the 1960’s when, out of nowhere, a handsome lawyer avoiding his own family decides to pay his respects and join the celebration of little Franny Keating’s christening.

Bert Cousins is no friend of Fix Keating’s, and although Bert has not come to the Keating house to claim Fix’s wife, Beverley, that’s precisely what happens. The chemistry between Bert and Beverley is electric, and in the twenty-five minutes that Fix is absent, having gone to fetch ice and tonic to mix with the gin that Bert has brought as a gift, Bert and Beverley have fallen in love. Shortly thereafter, the Cousins-Keating children’s lives are completely upended when they each lose a parent and gain new siblings.

Bert and Beverley, who get custody of all six children for a few weeks each summer, are more keepers than parents, leaving them to entertain themselves and in some ways to raise themselves. When Cal, Bert’s oldest child by his first wife, Teresa, dies in an accident involving the other Keating and Cousins kids, the fallout is even more extensive than the impact of Bert and Beverley’s illicit kiss in the kitchen years before.

Things take an interesting turn when Franny Keating, the little girl whose christening was the backdrop for the kiss and the subsequent divorces, as a grown woman catalyzes further events by telling her family’s story to a famous author with writer’s block, Leon Posen, who writes it all down to great acclaim in his novel titled Commonwealth.

Patchett, author of so many amazing books including Bel Canto and State of Wonder, calls Comonwealth her “first autobiographical novel.” In an NPR interview, Patchett said, “What I’ve realized is that all of my books have been the same book. I write a book that is about a group of people who are pulled out of one family or situation and dropped into another one in which they are not familiar, and then I see how communities are formed.”

Commonwealth, a novel about the spontaneous communities that sprout up around the most chance of happenings, gathers readers in a tight embrace and doesn’t let go. Like all great books, it reminds us that our actions and words contribute always to the lives and experiences of others – that we are all in a commonwealth with one another, all of the time.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Did you love The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its quirky characters and old world charmDo you like stories about small physical spaces made large by imagination and the resilient characters inhabiting them? Do you think it’s interesting to watch an aristocrat come down in the world while also moving up in a spiritual, if not a literal, sense? Are you a fan of Russian history?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then Amor Towles’ captivating A Gentleman in Moscow will be one of your favorite books this year. With lavish details and good pacing, this novel is a balm for whatever ails you.

Count Alexander Rostov, the eponymous gentleman, is a relic from another time, a wealthy man about town who cherishes the finer things in life and feels no shame in his privilege. He enjoys his food and his drink, appreciates arts and literature, pays attention to what others wear and how he dresses, and makes and keeps friends easily. From young girls wanting to know about what it’s really like to be a princess, to actresses wanting to know what it’s like to be a Count’s lover, this gentleman draws people to him like a magnet—despite the fact that he has essentially been sentenced to life in prison.

Perhaps that’s because his prison is Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, where he once lived in spacious quarters, but now must make due with a gilded cage on the top floor. On the face of things, the good Count is locked away for writing a poem in 1913 that the new government takes issue with. But Rostov’s real crime is being a relic of czarist Russia. During his “trial” in 1922, it is clear that the interrogating officer finds it offensive that Rostov doesn’t do anything purposeful with his life, but instead spends his days “Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole.” This list of un-workmanlike diversions displeases the Party, which sentences him to live out his life in the opulent hotel that was his temporary home.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the narrator’s wise and witty voice when he shares his observations about the imprisoned aristocrat’s experience. We watch as Count Rostov sorts his belongings in an effort to choose the few things that will fit in his new and much smaller lodgings in the hotel: “We come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance.” The Count then slips his deceased sister’s scissors into his pocket – a useful object that has both aesthetic and symbolic value for him.

The book doesn’t ignore Russian history exactly; the narrator provides footnotes explaining events and people of historical significance from time to time, and the people who come and go from the hotel bring stories with them from the outside, where communism marches on. But overall, the book offers an insight into what it might feel like to be a bug in amber or a fixture in a museum while time, political movements, and social norms move forward.

In an age where Fear of Missing Out is a motivator for many, this book clearly shows that being set aside and forgotten can bring its own blessings. Count Rostov creates an alternate and arguably safer world within the walls of the Hotel Metropole, a world that will draw you in and fill you with delight.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

It’s true. What is not yours is not yours. No matter how much you want it, you can’t have it, if it isn’t yours.

Helen Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories, What is Not Yours is Not Yours, explores the longing we all have for the things and people that are not ours despite our best (and worst) efforts.

Oyeyemi has made a name for herself since her first book, Icarus Girl, was published while she was an undergraduate at Oxford. Her critically acclaimed fourth book, Boy, Snow, Bird, is one of the most interesting retellings of Snow White out there and is often taught in English classrooms where global perspectives are explored.

Her latest book is even more compelling. A master of her craft, Oyeyemi’s prose is lively, humorous, creative, and disciplined at every turn, mixing magical realism and the real world in a way that truly surprises the reader. When puppets and ghosts interact with human beings, we are more than willing to suspend disbelief. Hers is a kind of “Multicultural Uncanny,” as Porochista Khakpour wrote in a New York Times book review in 2014.

The opening story in the collection, “Books and Roses,” introduces readers to Montse, who as a newborn was left at a church in Catalonia, Spain, with a gold key around her neck and instructions that read, “Wait for me.” An orphan raised by monks, Montse makes her way in the world by doing laundry at a large estate called La Perdrera, where she meets Lucy, “a painter with eyes like daybreak.” Lucy also wears a key around her neck. “I suppose we’re all waiting for someone,” she tells Montse before launching into her story of love, abandonment, and mysterious roses that kill.

In another story, “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” a young girl finds it hard to forgive and forget when the celebrity she is in love with, Matyas Fust, commits an act of violence against a woman that is captured on video and shared online. Despite his apology, the child, Aisha, can’t let go and colludes with Tyche, a woman with presumably magical powers, to conjure the mythological Hecate. Hecate haunts Matyas, who begs forgiveness, to no avail. Only Aisha can release him, but at the story’s end, she is still weighing what to do. Oyeyemi writes, “She reckons Fust is getting closer to identifying his mistake, and says he should keep trying.”

Oyeyemi plants keys and locks into each of her carefully plotted stories, suggesting again and again that when things we think are beyond our grasp, all we need to do is look harder or in a different way. She’s comfortable with the idea, too, that key and lock may not always make their way to each other. It’s the journey and the search that she’s interested in, and more often than not, what is not ours remains just outside our reach. These fascinating interconnected short stories, however, become ours through reading.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

The few times I have been in London, I have felt a sense of magic in the air. Maybe it was due to the fact that my head is full of English folklore and my favorite stories belong to England – Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, Susannah Clarke’s masterful Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and of course, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

It was my love for London and English fairy tales caused me to pick up V. E. Schwab’s delightful A Darker Shade of Magic when I was at my favorite independent book store a couple of weeks ago. I was immediately drawn to the eye-catching red, white and black book design showing a person stepping from one world to another, his red cape flowing upwards behind him. And once I began reading, I couldn’t put the book down. I was spellbound.

A Darker Shade of Magic tells the story of four parallel Londons – Red, Grey, White, and Black. Magic is plentiful and life is good in Red London, home to Kell, who is one of the last Antari, or travelers with a special ability to move between the worlds connected by the city of London.

Things are not so rosy in Grey London, home to Lila, an orphan and a thief who doesn’t hesitate to do whatever it takes to survive. Living in a London without much magic left, Lila dreams of adventure and of commanding her own pirate ship. All she needs is some luck and an ally.

Then there’s White London, a sparkling, cold place where power is held by two despotic twin regents, and Black London, a forbidden place that no one dares to visit or mention.  At one point in time, these four worlds were open to ordinary travelers, but due to a terrible event in the past, now only the magical Antari can pass through the secret doors that connect the Londons.

Kell is an endearing character, one who tries to serve his royal family with the loyalty and contentedness of a well-paid employee – but he wants to be free to roam, much like Lila. The plot picks up pace when Kell’s secret collection of artifacts from the other Londons jeopardizes the safety and peace of Red London and brings him together with Lila.

As one who loves nothing more than to wander up and down London’s storied streets, and to read England’s magical stories, this was the perfect great new book to add to my library. If you like books about scrappy young people, enchantments, and battles between good and evil, you will love A Darker Shade of Magic.

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour

My grandmother liked things to be neat. When she saw my long hair in knots, she would bribe me to sit still so she could run a comb through it. I really didn’t want to stop playing to get pretty, but the promise of chocolate was sufficient enough incentive for me to sit, relatively happily, through that and other unofficial lessons in what was expected of girls.

I thought about this experience when I read Lisa Damour’s Untangled, a great new book about girls’ development. Damour works at Case Western and at Laurel School in Ohio, a leader in secondary girls’ education and home of the Center for Research on Girls.

In her book, Damour describes seven stages in a girl’s life: parting with childhood; joining a new tribe; harnessing emotions; contending with adult authority; planning for the future; entering the romantic world; and caring for herself. Each stage is brought to life through research, anecdotes and analysis.

Damour’s thesis is simple and powerful: the majority of what girls say and do as they are becoming adults is not only normal, but necessary to their becoming independent and successful. For example, when a girl who is sweet and loving to her parent one moment and then suddenly responds as if that same parent is as lowly as an unwanted Brussels sprout, she is well within the bounds of normal, if unfriendly, behavior.

Although “it’s deeply painful to become a Brussels sprout,” it’s not bad or wrong for girls to express emotions that may shift on a dime. Damour tells readers that they can and should respond to that unanticipated chilliness with an “ouch” or “wow” – but shouldn’t ascribe ill motives or character traits to the one who isn’t sure how she feels about things.

Another key observation Damour offers is this: “like teenage boys, [girls] often want privacy for its own sake.” However, as a default or a rule, adults tend to deny them that privilege because, essentially, we believe they shouldn’t want privacy the way that boys do. Girls, argues Damour, don’t need to have any more reason than boys may have to want their own space, place, and time.

Damour is no Pollyanna, however. At the end of every chapter, she outlines some of the behaviors that are, in fact, quite worrisome. These behaviors include self-harm, bullying, substance abuse, and something she calls the “female Peter Pan,” or an extended immaturity in an adolescent girl’s outlook and attachments.

I loved and appreciated the wisdom in Damour’s book. I think about it nearly every night because one of my own daughters has thick, beautiful hair that is often quite a mess. She loves to wear it long and tangled. I do my best to refrain from remarking on it, not to mention trying to brush it out for her.

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno is my favorite book so far this year. If you like historical fiction with interlocking plot lines and poetic turns of phrase, this is the book for you.

The Tsar of Love and Techno is an admittedly opaque title for a collection of interconnected short stories about Stalinist Russia, the USSR, and the modern conflict in Chechnya. But don’t let that put you off. Marra is a brilliant storyteller who brings characters and places to life like no other.

The Tsar in the book’s title is a figment rather than a person. Readers shouldn’t look for him, even in the story by the same name featuring Alexei, a young man who lives to go to dance clubs and get lost in the music. Alexei is no more the Tsar than his older brother, Kolya, a sensitive thug who is captured in Chechnya and spends his days planting seeds in a heavily mined hillside that once was the inspiration for a famous painting by the Chechen painter, Pyyotr Zakharov-Chechenets. Neither is the painter, nor the correction artist who adds a picture of a Communist party boss to the painting.

Marra’s stories are affecting tales of individuals whose seemingly small acts nonetheless have lasting impact. For example, Roman Markin is a government censor who erases enemies of the state from photographs and paintings in WWII-era Leningrad. A skilled painter, he is excellent at his job of removing people from the historical record. In their place, he secretly adds images of his brother, who believed in heaven and was convicted of religious radicalism and later executed.

Markin stages another small rebellion when he erases all but the hand of a ballerina deemed an enemy and slated for historical oblivion. Many years later, Nadya, a restoration artist and scholar, writes articles about Markin without ever knowing his name, cataloguing his handiwork left in ample evidence despite his own disappearance. In this interwoven plot, Marra makes a powerful argument that legacy is indelible despite the fact that names and faces may be forgotten.

Each story has its own depth of detail and its own devastating revelation while also connecting with the other stories. My favorite is probably “Granddaughters,” told from the collective perspective of a group of six girls who grow up in Kirovsk, a heavily polluted city in Siberia where Kolya and many other characters originate. These girls manage their jealousy of Galina, the pretty one who wins a rigged Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant, and their grief and acceptance when friend number seven, Lydia, is murdered for being a snitch.

The women speak in one voice, powerfully summarizing the victory in their intentionally underwhelming parenting in an area of the world where individualism has often resulted in punishment: “We’ve given [our children] all we can, but our greatest gift has been to imprint upon them our own ordinariness. They may begrudge us, may think us unambitious and narrow-minded, but someday they will realize that what makes them unremarkable is what keeps them alive.”

Without a doubt, this is a kind of love. In fact the whole book is inflected with deeply moving love stories. Love for a woman who has been scarred and blinded in a bombing. Love for a nephew without a father. Love for a brother who wanted to be an astronaut but turned out to be a murderer. Love for a painting that is plain but poignant. Love for a story that a fellow prisoner of war tells over and over again, a story that was always assumed to be true but was always a fiction.

Like Marra’s incredible book.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff 

Books about marriage always make me feel one of a few ways – grateful for the one I have, anxious about the one I don’t, and curious about what would have happened to me had I never married in the first place. Lauren Groff’s unputdownable Fates and Furies made me feel all of these things and more, revealing in glittering detail how marriage can bring out the best, the banal, and the absolute worst in each of us.

Mathilde and Lotto meet just before graduating from Vassar. He is a handsome actor from a wealthy but broken family. She is an enigma, a beautiful stranger to everyone at school, including Lotto, until he sets eyes on her, falls instantly in love, and swims to her like a Greek hero to a siren.

The first half of the book is told through Lotto’s perspective. Although he was sexually voracious from the time he was a teenager until the moment he met Mathilde, he is completely faithful to her, at least in body, throughout their subsequent relationship. He obsesses over the idea that she is too good for him by far and will leave him.

For the first years of their marriage, he gives her ample reason – he earns nothing, drinks to excess, gets few acting roles, is disinherited by his mother. He is needy, egotistical, brilliant, daft. He is the star of the show, the author of the play, the life of the party, the god clad in everyday clothes, the narcissist, the depressive. And at every turn, there is Mathilde, loving him unconditionally, picking him up when he has fallen down, inspiring his next move, and celebrating his success.

In Part I of the novel, Mathilde makes women both look good and feel bad. But questions start to nag the reader as Lotto’s story comes to a close – who is this perfect wife? Where did she come from? How did she become so selfless? And why are there no children in this sexually robust, passionate marriage despite the fact that Lotto continually expresses his desire for offspring?

Part II of the novel paints a stunning and often shocking picture of what darkness lies beneath this gorgeous exterior. To tell Mathilde’s story for her in this review would be to rob the reader of the unsettling pleasure of reading Groff’s work. Definitely for a mature audience, Fates and Furies is a memorable book that will undoubtedly set tongues wagging.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

One of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson is about grief. It’s not the subject of grief that I particularly like, but the way she compares it to different things that steal from us without our consent. Grief is a mouse that burrows into our hearts; grief is a thief that we catch in the act of taking what isn’t his; grief is a juggler, and we are his props being tossed against our will.

In Helen Macdonald’s beautiful H is for Hawk, grief is all that and more. But the good news is that there is an antidote to grief, although it is a rough remedy—the goshawk, what Macdonald calls “the birdwatchers’ dark grail.”

Macdonald was a professor at Cambridge in 2007 when her father, a photographer, died suddenly, catalyzing a renewed passion for the activity he had taught her to love: training hawks. In H is for Hawk, the goshawk, or “gos,” takes on a host of symbolic and literal meanings. She is a misunderstood female intentionally mastered because of her innate power. She is a criminal, a murderous predator without mercy. She is a mirror, showing those who try to master her who they really are.

Throughout the book, Macdonald shares fascinating details about falconry, English history, and her own biography. In addition, Macdonald tells readers about T. H. White, the author of The Sword in the Stone as well as a book on goshawks that Macdonald read throughout her experience training Mabel, the hawk she acquired after her father passed away. White’s story is nearly as compelling at Macdonald’s, and allows her to give us an even deeper understanding of what human revelations can come of close proximity to nature.

Macdonald’s writing is tightly packed with beautiful phrases and images, much like the feathers of a hawk’s wing. She writes about the baffling nature of grief, yes, but also about the beauty and mystery of nature and natural things: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”

I didn’t know anything about this unique hawk before reading this book, but now that I do, I hope to see one at some point in my life. Because they are wild hunters that live in the forest, it’s not too likely, though, a fact that makes me both happy and sad. Happy that there is still something out there so wild that we can’t easily find or control, and sad because I am no Helen Macdonald, bravely facing all the difficulties in and outside of my life.

The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

I was a faithful diary-keeper. I wrote in it every day and I thought some of my words were profound. But in my 30s, when my parents moved out of my childhood home and delivered my diaries back to me, I cringed as I turned the pages. Worse, perhaps, I didn’t even remember some of the events that I once spent pages detailing. As I placed the books into the trash, I wondered, Who wrote these diaries? If it was me, it wasn’t me any longer, and I wanted to be rid of them all.

Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment and The Vanishers to name two of my favorites, is known for creating just such disquieting experiences for her fictional characters. In a Julavits novel, a woman’s life exists on a kind of continuum of possibility and confusion. Female characters seek and almost find their doubles, their origins, their true homes. Along their journeys, they are challenged in unexpected and unsettling ways.

Her new book, The Folded Clock, is a compulsive read featuring the supposed diary entries of Heidi Julavits. Each entry is a carefully constructed essay camouflaged as a spontaneous entry beginning with a specific date and the word, “Today…” While it can’t possibly be Julavits’ real diary, these entries are nearly as authentic as a diarist (or reader of someone else’s diary) could wish: they are insightful, detailed, embarrassing, banal, honest, funny and haunting, but not all at once, and in no particular order.

It’s easy to become envious of or enamored with Julavits’ life as presented in this diary. She has a professorship at Columbia, fame as a published author, and a seemingly endless level of support and humor from her also-famous writer-husband. She has an adventurous life in the sense that she seems to always be in a different place. Her entries are written not only from New York and Maine but also from Germany, London, Italy. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know when or how she got to those places, or even why. She is one who must, she says, be on the move. “I am always thinking: where I am is not as good as where I could be.”

Heidi Julavits is preoccupied with objects, lost and found. She writes of a water tap handle that she found inside the wall of her home. It nags at her; although she has this thing in her possession, she neither understands it nor feels it is hers. She draws it and writes about it, wanting to capture and possess this thing, to make it hers through habit. She feels the same about words on a page. “If I underline a sentence, I temporarily own it,” she writes. “It’s mine. I have bought real estate in this book, laid down stakes, moved in. This does not mean I remember where I live. I turn the page. I lose my place.” To gain a greater sense of comfort in a disquieting world, she visits both psychics and libraries.

Julavits is also preoccupied with time, how it loops backward and forward in such a way that we can almost see our futures and almost grasp our pasts. Hers is a folded clock, keeping time in accordion-like pockets that can be enlarged or compressed. From the vantage point of middle age, she feels the compression of time and marvels at how long a single day used to feel when she was younger. She writes in the opening diary entry from June 21 of no particular year, “Today I wondered what is the worth of a day? Once, a day was long…days were ages… I would think, Will this day never end? Not anymore. The ‘day’ no longer exists. The smallest unit of time I experience is the week. But in recent years the week, like the penny, has also become a uselessly small currency.” Pennies do add up, but to Julavits, an individual penny is little more than a novelty.

Although The Folded Clock can be read as a single narrative, it is best in smaller doses, an entry or two a day. But it’s hard to put this book down precisely because we are never quite sure how much of it is fact and how much fiction, and there is always the promise of something unexpected on the next page.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Anyone who has ever had and tried to keep kept a best friend from early childhood knows that there are good days and bad.

There’s the initial spark of attraction followed by days, decades and months of joyful connection and jealous retreat, of recalibration and reevaluation. Questions and longings nag both parties often at different times: Who calls the shots? Who is happier? Who needs whom more?

I have read many books about female friendship, but none has ever made me as uncomfortable or as gratified as Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in the “Neopolitan” trilogy.

My Brilliant Friend is itself broken into three parts – Prologue, Childhood (The Story of Don Achille) and Adolescence (The Story of the Shoes). The story is told from the perspective of Elena in her sixties and begins with the apparent disappearance of her friend, Lina. Elena vows to restore the lines to Lina’s and her own existences through writing. “We’ll see who wins this time,” she says to herself as she turns on her computer

From the start, then, the reader grasps the degree to which Elena competes with Lina to control not only their lives but also their story. The girls grow up in a poor community in Naples, a community characterized by hard work, vaguely understood desire, and rage. There are shocking episodes of violence that are accepted as normal, even impressive. Men beat women and children; children beat each other; men kill men.

Amidst the bruises and tears is a mesmerizing story about the relationship between two dynamic girls whose relationship propels them to act and react in all manner of ways, together and alone. Lina’s schemes, words and deeds cause Elena to constantly feel tortured and insecure, but also more alive. And at a critical point in the novel, we realize that Elena spurs Lina along in similar ways.

Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and no one is certain of her true identity, or whether she is really a she at all. But the author’s ability to capture so well the fascination these women have with one another – not only as adults but during their childhood, as well – strongly suggests a female author.

I loved this book for many reasons, not least of which was because like all good books it filled me with questions both philosophical and personal: What is true loyalty? Who needs school? How is success measured? Where is the line between affection and obsession? What is more powerful, authorship or disappearance? 

Into a literary canon made up of stories about hardscrabble boys like Huck Finn, Ferrante’s novel about two tough and brilliant girls is a distinctly familiar yet disruptive addition – and a marvelous read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *