“The Cactus” by Sarah Haywood and “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert

The CactusI’ll say one thing about Sarah Haywood, she is nothing if not self-aware. In The Cactus, her main character, Susan, has lent a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to her neighbor Kate. “I quite liked it,” Kate says to Susan as she returns the novel, “but I didn’t get Miss Brodie. She didn’t seem very likable. I can’t enjoy a book if I don’t warm to the main character.”

“I disagree,” Susan responds. “I’d rather read about someone interesting than someone who’s just nice.”

That passage is definitely delivered with a wink on the part of the author, because Susan could certainly be considered an unsympathetic heroine. As the title suggests, she cultivates cacti, which are prickly, just like her—again, very on the nose. But I really enjoyed The Cactus, which does a superb job of gradually rolling out Susan’s backstory and giving some insight as to why she became the way she is: an extremely self-contained control freak, the very definition of that British expression, “she keeps herself to herself.”

Susan, a Londoner in her mid-40s, has led a very well-ordered life, avoiding other people as much as possible. She’s the kind of person who is super-competent at her job but never wants to socialize with her co-workers, or even spare a couple minutes for a chat. Naturally, she avoids romantic entanglements, too, though for 12 years, she’s enjoyed a no-strings-attached relationship with a writer named Richard, whom she meets every Wednesday for an evening at the theater or the opera followed by a sexual encounter. It’s a satisfying arrangement, until one fateful day when Susan discovers that she’s pregnant. (“I’d always assumed that barriers methods were foolproof, but I’ve learned to my cost that they aren’t.”)

Susan decides to have the baby, which, of course, changes her life in a myriad of ways. As the book progresses, she is forced to renegotiate her relationships with a multitude of people, including her brother, Edward, with whom she has had an increasingly fraught relationship ever since their mother died and left him the family home. Susan vows to challenge her mother’s will, causing an even greater rift between the siblings. Despite that complication, her world starts to expand little by little, preparing her for the chaos that is destined to descend on the day she finally meets the most unpredictable person of all: her own child.

City of GirlsWas there ever a more glamorous era than New York City in the pre-war 1940s? Elizabeth Gilbert takes readers back to that heady time in City of Girls, a book that starts out as light and fizzy as a champagne cocktail but gradually becomes darker and more poignant. Vivian Morris, freshly dismissed from Vassar (“on account of never having attended classes and thereby failing every single one of my freshman exams”), is sent by her disappointed parents to spend the summer with her Aunt Peg. Peg owns a run-down theater called the Lily Playhouse, which serves its working-class audience by presenting escapist fare featuring corny jokes and glamorous showgirls. Vivian, thanks to her talent for sewing, soon becomes a crucial part of the Lily Playhouse ecosystem, but everything changes—and not always for the better—when the theater actually manages to score a massive hit show, “City of Girls.”

The novel’s first-person narrative is by a much-older Vivian, looking back at her life and addressing a younger woman named Angela. What is their relationship? That isn’t revealed until much later in the book, but along the way, it’s such a delight to just sit back and enjoy the ride, savoring the pleasure of spending a few hours in a long-ago world of Manhattan showbiz.

“The View from Alameda Island” by Robyn Carr

The View from Alameda IslandThe very pretty illustration on the cover of The View from Alameda Island does not, in fact, depict the view from Alameda Island. It looks more like the view from a different island—Alcatraz. Also, I can state with some authority (as a resident of 10+ years) that absolutely no one who lives there ever refers to it as “Alameda Island.”

Nitpicks aside, however, I was very eager to read this book, despite the fact that I wasn’t familiar with Robyn Carr. She’s a popular author of women’s fiction, a genre I enjoy, and I was hoping that she’d spent some time soaking up local color to include in the novel. The possibilities are endless: romantic strolls on Crown Beach! Picnics at Crab Cove! Mai tais at Forbidden Island! Maybe her characters would shop for collectibles at the monthly antiques fair, catch a show at Altarena Playhouse, or check out the famous Fourth of July Parade.

Alas, I was very disappointed at the lack of local references; except for some mentions of Alameda’s famous Victorian homes, and the ferry to San Francisco, it could have taken place anywhere. The characters frequent an unnamed pub, but the description is so vague that it didn’t seem to be a stand-in for any actual location (though I guess it could have been the Churchward).

As for the story itself, I found it slightly rough going. The writing is pedestrian, and the main characters are either purely good (the protagonist, Lauren, and her love interest, Beau) or totally evil (Lauren and Beau’s exes). I will admit that I may have enjoyed it more had I not read it immediately after Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything, which is such an ambitious, thoughtful and nuanced work. Lauren never felt real to me, and neither, sadly, did Carr’s depiction of Alameda.

“Mrs. Everything” by Jennifer Weiner

Mrs. EverythingIt’s been a long wait for fans of Jennifer Weiner, whose last novel for adults was published in 2015. It turns out that, like many of us, Weiner was thrown for a loop by the 2016 presidential election; she told Bustle that she spent a year and a half working on a dark, dystopian novel about “a world in which abortion and contraception became illegal.” That book didn’t work out, so she set it aside and wrote Mrs. Everything, a historical novel covering the past 70 years through the eyes of two Baby Boomer sisters whose lives turn out very differently.

Bethie is the perfect, pretty sister who can do no wrong in the eyes of the girls’ mother, whereas Jo is always getting into trouble. You’d expect Bethie to get married and have babies, but instead, she gets caught up in the 60s counterculture, while Jo—who realized early on that she was attracted to women—winds up with the more traditional life. Between them, they cover all the bases of mid- to late-20th-century formative Boomer experiences: Woodstock, an illegal pre-Roe v. Wade abortion, protests against the Vietnam War and for civil rights, consciousness-raising, Jane Fonda-style workout videos, Diane Keaton-in-“Baby Boom” homespun female entrepreneurship… the list goes on.

However, it was only in retrospect that I realized how many of those beats Weiner had hit, because as I was reading the book, I was so caught up in the lives of Bethie and Jo that it truly felt it was a story about real people, not two-dimensional avatars of the Female Experience. It also struck me what an important book this is—Weiner has readers of all ages, and the younger ones absolutely need to know what their foremothers went through (and where we could go back, if we’re not mindful of our rights). This is a moving, beautifully-written and deeply researched novel that pulls off the neat trick of being both extremely entertaining and a statement about how women’s lives have changed over the past few decades.

The author Roxane Gay once said that “Anytime I write a story about a women’s experience I am committing a political act.” That is certainly true of Jennifer Weiner, whose previous books were all too frequently dismissed as “chick lit” (a term that has, fortunately, become passé in recent years, in no small part due to Weiner’s own brave outspokenness about the literary establishment’s dismissal of novels written by and mostly for women). With Mrs. Everything, she has reached a new peak in her already-impressive 20-year-long career.

“Evvie Drake Starts Over” by Linda Holmes

Evvie Drake Starts OverEvvie Drake Starts Over is Linda Holmes’ first novel, but Holmes is not your average debut novelist. Thanks to her prominent role as the host of NPR’s popular podcast “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” she already has a built-in audience, and no doubt a lot of people are eager to find out how her warm, wry, witty voice translates to fiction.

Evvie Drake does drop a few familiar names, from “Survivor” to Hallmark Channel movies, but the novel takes place in Maine, not exactly the center of the pop culture universe; in fact, its very remoteness is an important factor in the plot. Evvie Drake is preparing to leave her emotionally abusive husband when she suddenly gets a phone call stating that he’s been killed in a car accident. After several guilt-ridden months, Evvie’s friend Andy asks if his childhood pal Dean can move into the empty apartment attached to her home for a while. Needing help with her bills—Evvie works as a transcriber; her late husband, a doctor, earned far more money than she did—she agrees.

Dean, it turns out, is no ordinary tenant. He’s trying to get away from New York after his major-league pitching career imploded; one day, he simply found himself unable to throw (a real-life condition known as “the yips”). “He says he can’t get a cup of coffee without somebody taking his picture,” says Andy. “He wants to get out of the city for a while, and I told him I thought up here, people would leave him alone.”

This is a gentle novel about two quirky, damaged people who find each other—it reminded me a little bit of early Anne Tyler. Evvie and Dean are both very likable characters, though I wasn’t entirely convinced that a former New York Yankee would be quite so down-to-earth. If he was a star pitcher for several years, he must have been a multimillionaire; some bad investments he made are referred to in passing, but he still has to be sitting on a giant pile of cash, which tends to have an effect on even the nicest of guys. (Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, for instance, has a “haberdasher-like closet, where tennis shoes are presented like jewels” in his palatial home, as well as a Rolls-Royce Phantom.)

It’s an enjoyable book, though, just what you’d expect from someone whose signature podcast feature is a weekly segment called “What’s Making Us Happy.”

“The Unhoneymooners” by Christina Lauren and “The Austen Playbook” by Lucy Parker

The UnhoneymoonersDoes anybody ever actually fall in love with their worst enemy? The “enemies to lovers” is a ridiculously common trope in romance novels, but when I think of my own personal nemeses, the idea of cuddling up to them is utterly repulsive. But sure, let’s suspend disbelief. Christina Lauren’s The Unhoneymooners requires a lot of that anyway, since the plot relies on a couple of whopping coincidences.

Olive and Ami Torres are identical twins, but while Ami seems to enjoy a never-ending run of good luck, nothing ever seems to go Olive’s way. However, when Ami’s picture-perfect wedding ends in chaos—the seafood buffet makes all the guests, save the two who didn’t partake, violently ill—she demands Olive go on the all-expenses-paid honeymoon to Maui (a sweepstakes prize that can’t be rescheduled) in her stead. The only other person who didn’t get sick, besides the allergic-to-seafood Olive, is Ethan Thomas, the brother of the groom. (He’s always felt buffets were unsanitary, so he’d opted for the chicken plate.)

Olive and Ethan’s relationship got off on the wrong foot when they first met, though of course both of them are ridiculously attractive, so it seems inevitable that putting them in close proximity on a romantic 10-day trip to Hawaii will cause sparks to fly. However, there are a couple of complications. First, Olive’s new boss and his wife just happen to be staying at the same resort (she’s starting a new job right after the trip), so immediately Olive and Ethan have to pretend they’re actually a couple. And then it turns out Ethan’s ex-girlfriend is also there, along with her new boyfriend. (Shades of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives”!)

I read most of The Unhoneymooners in the wee hours of the morning during a bout of jet lag, and it was really the ideal light, uncomplicated read for that particular circumstance. It’s a fun book if you can roll your eyes and get past the big coincidences.

The Austen PlaybookWhen I saw that Lucy Parker’s latest “London Celebrities” novel, The Austen Playbook, featured a theater critic and an actress as its protagonists, I thought I was in for another “enemies falling in love” storyline, but fortunately, that’s not really the case here. Granted, James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has penned some caustic critiques of Freddy Carlton, but he’s basically a nice guy and romance blooms fairly early on in the book. No, this book is all about the plot, and it’s a doozy. Freddy is starring in a “choose-your-own-adventure” murder-mystery-themed adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that is set to air in the U.K., with TV viewers voting via app how they want the story to proceed. It’s being staged in a theater on the Surrey estate belonging to Griff’s family, which it turns out has some rather interesting historic ties to Freddy’s family, and… well, Griff and Freddy soon learn that both of their families are harboring all sorts of deep, dark, long-buried secrets.

I found myself wishing that The Austen Playbook was a crime novel instead of a romance, because there were times that it would have been very plausible for one of the supporting characters to be knocked off. But the only murder is one that happens in the TV-show-within-the-book. Still, I love novels where scandalous historical goings-on affect the present day, and of course the theatrical backdrop of this series is enormously appealing to me as well. It was also nice to see Leo Magasiva, the hedgehog-owning protagonist of last year’s Making Up, in a cameo appearance.

“The Liar’s Girl” by Catherine Ryan Howard

The Liar's GirlThe Liar’s Girl is another 2019 Best Novel Edgar nominee, and another one I may not have picked up otherwise. The jacket copy begins: “Will Hurley was an attractive, charming, and impressive student at Dublin’s elite St. John’s College—and Ireland’s most prolific serial killer.” Usually the words “serial killer” make a book an automatic “nope!” for me, but The Liar’s Girl takes that trope and gives it a far more interesting spin.

The novel focuses on Alison Smith, a young woman who left her sleepy hometown of Cork behind to attend St. John’s College, along with her best friend, Liz. During her freshman year, Alison meets Will Hurley, and falls madly in love: “I’d never felt that way about any other person. It was like the world had been dim and flat and now suddenly it was in Technicolor 3-D.” Liz often seems like a (resentful) third wheel in their relationship, but everything is fine until girls at their college start winding up dead, drowned in the Grand Canal near campus. Then Liz becomes a victim, Will is arrested, and all hell breaks loose.

Alison drops out of school, moves to the Netherlands and tries to recover from the unbelievable trauma of finding out that your boyfriend killed your best friend and a bunch of other women as well. Ten years later, with Will still behind bars, female St. John’s students once again start turning up dead in the canal. An Irish policeman arrives on her doorstep one day, telling Alison that Will claims to have information about the new spate of murders, but he will only share it with her. So she goes back to Ireland for the first time in a decade, and is forced to confront her past.

The Liar’s Girl is a genuine page-turner, which is probably why it scored that Edgar nomination—if you’re a fan of thrillers, this is the type of book which will keep you up late until every last question has been answered. My main caveat is that the book does contain “inside the mind of the serial killer” chapters (something I’m never a fan of; can’t we just assume they’re terrible people and keep them at arm’s length, instead of trying to discern a psychological motive for their killings?). Other than those parts, though, I did enjoy reading this book.

“Stay Up with Hugo Best” by Erin Somers

Stay Up with Hugo BestOne of my favorite genres is the celebrity roman à clef, in which a writer creates fictional characters who are obviously based on real-life famous people. It’s like gossip without the guilt. Combined with my longstanding interest in late-night TV talk shows—I’ve kept up a website about them since the prehistoric days of the Internet—I’m basically the target audience for Stay Up with Hugo Best, which features a character who is 2/3 David Letterman, 1/3 Jay Leno.

Hugo Best was once America’s hippest, most popular talk show host, but at the age of 65 (well, 68 if you happen to glimpse his driver’s license), the network is pushing him out and replacing him with a younger man. 29-year-old June Bloom, who grew up idolizing Hugo, is a writers’ assistant on the show, having worked her way up from page. In the massive ecosystem that is a late night talk show, June is a nobody, an aspiring stand-up comic who has to keep moving around New York as her neighborhoods become gentrified (and thus unaffordable for someone earning poverty wages). On the day the very last episode of “Stay Up with Hugo Best” is taped, June escapes the after-work employee party and goes to a run-down comedy club to perform a set for a nearly-empty room. Once she’s offstage, she finds that Hugo was lurking in the hallway, reliving his own early days on the stand-up circuit.

Hugo, who barely noticed June during his show’s run (“We’ve met here and there,” June informs him, despite the fact that they “had encountered each other hundreds of times, if not thousands”), impulsively invites her to spend Memorial Day weekend with him at his home in Connecticut. She impulsively says yes, and thus begins the sort of experience which has the hazy tinge of nostalgia even as it’s happening in the moment.

June and Hugo take a spin in one of his classic cars; hang out with a Howard Stern-type shock jock; deal with Hugo’s spoiled 17-year-old son, Spencer; talk about comedy and life. Making June 29 years old was such a perfect choice, because she’s not naive enough to be completely swept away by Hugo’s charm and moneyed lifestyle, but she’s still young enough to be working out what she plans to do with the rest of her life. “I wanted his fame and hated that I wanted it. I thought I deserved it. Some remote part of me even thought I’d get it. one day, eventually, with zero supporting evidence. I knew fame was dumb and empty. Hugo did too, probably. He must have. Everyone did. And yet.”

I loved June’s voice in this book, both jaded and hopeful, and the peek behind the showbiz curtain, which rang true to me (as a non-showbizzy civilian). Anyone who’s ever obsessed over a late-night talk show will not want to miss this book.