“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë

Jane EyreWhen my book group was assigned to read a modern-day take-off on Jane Eyre, I thought that perhaps I should spend some time with the original source material first. Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel is one of the many works of classic literature that I have never read—I’ve never even seen any of the movie adaptations. Because the basic outline of the plot is a pretty well-established part of pop culture, I did know more or less what happened to Jane, and that the famous line “Reader, I married him” figured in somewhere.

The edition of Jane Eyre that I borrowed from my local library is around 550 pages long, and at first, it was kind of tough going, since the writing is definitely not like what one encounters in today’s novels. (Brontë was a big fan of semicolons; almost every sentence in the book employs several of them; there are also some archaic words, but luckily, my edition had footnotes; eventually, I just got used to her style.)

Before long, though, I was really caught up in the book, which is incredibly plot-heavy. Brontë packs a ton of drama, romance and tragedy into Jane Eyre‘s pages. I’m going to assume most people reading this have already read the 170-year-old book or at least know what happens in it, so I’m not going to be as concerned about potential spoilers as I usually am.

One thing that struck me about Jane Eyre is that the brooding Mr. Rochester (who is 20 years Jane’s senior) is really not a very admirable hero. He plays a lot of tricks on Jane, from disguising himself as a “gipsy” fortune-teller in order to trick her into speaking openly about her feelings, to telling her that he’s going to marry the wealthy, beautiful Miss Ingram just to see what her reaction is. He also throws in the fact that she will have to leave Thornfield, Rochester’s estate where she is employed as a governess for his ward Adèle, and go to work for a family in Ireland. Jane’s reaction is to sob “convulsively,” at which point Mr. Rochester says, Psych! I’m actually in love with you. Let’s get married ASAP! Instead of running in the opposite direction, Jane is overcome with joy, thinking “only of the bliss given me to drink in so abundant a flow.”

However, it turns out Mr. Rochester is already married, and his “crazy” wife lives right above Jane’s room! But that’s a big secret (any noise coming from upstairs is blamed on the “seamstress,” Grace Poole, who is actually Bertha’s caretaker). Jane only finds out about her groom’s bigamy when they’re literally standing at the altar. Pretty much every single aspect of Mr. Rochester’s relationship with Bertha is highly problematic, even by 1847 standards, apparently, since mental illness was already being dealt with in more humane ways in the U.K. Even back then, Bertha’s windowless room and lack of company (except for the heavy-drinking Grace Poole) would have been considered unacceptable.

This beautifully-written piece from Harvard chaplain Vanessa Zoltan brings up yet another dicey issue: Bertha’s mixed-race heritage (she’s part-Creole). She calls Bertha “a real victim,” and measures her love of the novel against her discomfort with the harsh treatment of the “madwoman.” The passage she quotes, in which Rochester speculates how he would act toward Jane if she were mad (“Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat—your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me…”), does definitely indicate that there’s some big difference between the two women. Apparently a mentally-ill white orphan would be easier to love than one who is half-Creole and from a wealthy family. (Bertha’s plight has fascinated many other writers over the years, from Jean Rhys, who penned a “prequel” about Bertha called Wide Sargasso Sea, to feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, authors of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.)

Nevertheless, taken simply as a ripping tale, I found Jane Eyre to be very much worth my time. Jane is a strong heroine, and to her credit, Brontë goes out of her way to let us know that she’s not a beauty, meaning Mr. Rochester loves her for who she is: “To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts… to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break—at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent—I am ever tender and true.” When he’s making statements like that one, Mr. Rochester does, indeed, seem like an ideal romantic hero.

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“The Color of Fear” by Marcia Muller and “Seven Days of Us” by Francesca Hornak

Yesterday, I received an email from NetGalley, the service that provides me with some of my review copies, chock-full of Christmas fiction. Did I want to read Christmas at Two Love Lane? How about Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe or The Rancher’s Christmas Song (“Ella and Beckett come from two different worlds, and it might take a Christmas miracle to finally bring them together”)?

My theory is that these books, along with the ubiquitous Hallmark Channel Christmas movies like “A Bramble House Christmas” and “Snow Globe Wishes,” are so popular because most people’s holidays fall short of picture-perfect perfection, and cozying up with a seasonally appropriate book or movie is more fun than arguing with your Trump-loving uncle or rehashing old grievances with your siblings.

The Color of FearMarcia Muller’s The Color of Fear is only tangentially a Christmas book, but it does take place during the holiday week, and features lots of the conspicuous consumption that has made me a little bit fed up with this series lately. Between the Christmas shopping and obligatory references to Sharon McCone’s “buttery leather furnishings,” Muller’s long-running P.I. tackles a case that hits close to home: the seeming hate crime that has put her Native American father into a coma. The issue of racism in the liberal Bay Area has been in the news (the SF Weekly outed a San Francisco Klansman, while the so-called “alt-right” thinks this is a fun place to hold rallies), so this novel, though probably written in the pre-Trump era, is surprisingly timely.

I did enjoy The Color of Fear more than most recent entries in the McCone series—I’m always a sucker for “This time it’s personal!” narratives in mystery novels—but I do find myself missing the young, scrappy and hungry private eye of old. Still, even if half the text of future volumes is devoted to loving descriptions of Sharon and Hy’s rooftop garden and art collection, I’m never going to quit reading these books. McCone has been a part of my life for too long to give up on her now.

Seven Days of UsI read an advance copy of Seven Days of Us a couple of months ago when I was down with a cold and was looking for something easy and light. Despite the fact that it was July, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I’m sure it will be even more fun for readers who pick it up when it actually ’tis the season. A dysfunctional-family novel that is extremely heavy on coincidences, this Christmas romp is set in a British country estate and features a large cast of characters.

Olivia is a doctor who has been ordered to stay in quarantine due to her recent work in a disease-plagued African nation—and her whole family’s locked in with her. Phoebe, the antithesis of her serious physician sister, is obsessed with her upcoming wedding. Their parents, Emma and Andrew, have problems of their own, and no idea that a few family secrets are about to come to light and wreak havoc during their period of supposed isolation (naturally, not everyone in the family’s orbit manages to stay outside those four walls, despite the danger).

Seven Days of Us may sometimes strain credibility, but it’ll go down easy after a few glasses of eggnog. The ending may even coax a tear or two.

Note: Seven Days of Us will be published on Oct. 17, 2017. Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for the review copy.

“George & Lizzie” by Nancy Pearl and “Mrs. Saint and the Defectives” by Julie Lawson Timmer

George & Lizzie by Nancy PearlWhen I heard that the woman known as “America’s Librarian” had written a novel, I’ll admit I may have had a few preconceived notions. Nancy Pearl is famous for providing recommendations on NPR and as the model for the first-ever Librarian Action Figure. I assumed the 72-year-old Pearl’s fiction debut would be something genteel along the lines of a Seattle-based Anne Tyler. I would not have guessed it begins with a teenage girl resolving to have sex with every starter on her high school’s entire football team, and then following through. As a longtime listener to Dan Savage’s sex-advice podcast, it takes a lot to shock me, but… yeah, that’s not quite what I was expecting.

Lizzie Bultmann is the only child of two professors of psychology who view her as little more than a living case study. (When she discusses the sleep-with-the-team plan with her best friend, Lizzie states that rather than grounding her for life if they found out, her parents would “want to watch. Maybe they’d bring along a grad student or two to take notes.”) “She wanted them to be curious about her, to want to know what went on below her polished surface… Maybe if they did find out… it would wake them up enough to finally see her.”

As it turns out, Lizzie’s “Great Game” doesn’t much affect her relationship with her parents, but it does have a hugely negative effect on her psyche. In college, she falls madly in love with a fellow student named Jack, who finds out about her high school exploits through an article her parents wrote for Psychology Today. When he leaves town and she never hears from him again, Lizzie is obsessed with finding him, even after she marries a perfectly wonderful dentist named George. Every time she’s in a new town, she can’t help checking the phone books to see if Jack’s listed. (This habit makes a certain degree of sense in the early chapters of the book, set in the late 80s and early 90s, but for goodness’ sake, the Internet made it almost ridiculously easy to find people by the end of the century; Google was around in the late 90s, and Facebook by the mid-2000s.)

I can sympathize with the pessimistic, book-obsessed Lizzie—temperamentally, I’m quite a bit like her, while my own husband is more of a George—but by the end, which seemed awfully abrupt, I was somehow left wanting more. However, the book, with its many short chapters, is a quick and easy read, and I enjoyed the way that Pearl namedrops a lot of authors, poets and book titles throughout.


Mrs. Saint and the DefectivesFor some reason, I kept wanting to read the title of this book as Mrs. Saint and the Deplorables, but no, this is not a novel about a group of Trump supporters. Mrs. Saint is the next-door neighbor of Markie, a beleaguered mom trying to make a new start in a new town after splitting from her unfaithful husband (who, it turns out, had also driven the family deep into debt). Markie pulls her teenage son out of his fancy private school and moves into a modest rental home, hoping to keep her head down and recover from her emotional wounds. She definitely does not want to get to know her nosy neighbor, an elderly French-Canadian woman who serves as something of a den mother to a group of misfits whom she’s hired to do various odd jobs around her house.

While Markie constantly tries to tell Mrs. Saint that she wants to be left alone, the neighbor always seems to be popping up, offering a basket of muffins (burnt, since they were baked by her inept cook), or asking Markie if she can babysit the young daughter of another one of her “defectives.” Eventually, Markie grows curious about Mrs. Saint, who seems to be all up in everyone else’s business but is a rather mysterious figure herself. She’s apparently rich, and yet she lives in a smallish house, surrounded by people who seem to both help her out and also depend on her. If asked a personal question, she just pretends she didn’t hear it.

Naturally, by the end of the book, all will be revealed, lessons are learned, etc. This is a charming, life-affirming novel in the mold of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which also featured a curmudgeon whose life is changed by his neighbors (though in this case, the younger woman is the cranky loner).

“The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

the seven husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid“Who was the love of Evelyn’s life???” That’s the big question… Seven husbands. Which one did she love the best?

Monique Grant is a young journalist who manages to snag the story of a lifetime: a no-holds-barred interview with Evelyn Hugo, bombshell actress of the 50s and 60s who captivated millions with her beauty, talent (she’s an Oscar winner) and dramatic personal life. Now 79, Hugo has outlived all seven of her husbands and wants to tell the truth about what really happened behind the scenes.

Besides “who was her great love,” there’s one huge underlying mystery that is teased from the very beginning of this novel: why Monique? Out of all the journalists in the world, why insist on working with a relative newbie who has worked at Vivant (a Vanity Fair-type glossy magazine) for less than a year? By the end of this spectacularly juicy book, everything has been revealed.

When you think of gorgeous, multi-married Hollywood stars, of course Elizabeth Taylor is the first name that springs to mind, and Hugo may bear some resemblance to Liz, but only superficially. Reid has done a great job of constructing an alternate history of Hollywood, taking us from the old studio system to the French new wave, up through the sorts of family dramas that won Oscars in the 1980s.

The novel is divided into sections named after each of Hugo’s husbands; her first-person recollections are interspersed with chapters about Monique, who is herself in the process of splitting up from her spouse. Of course, compared to the goings-on in Hollywood, Monique’s own story is fairly tame, but the “what is her connection to Evelyn” question really helps power the narrative. (Lest you think it’s anything as prosaic as Evelyn being her long-lost mom, Reid sneaks in some dialogue between Monique and her mother early on that makes it clear that is not the case.)

Considering that we’re still in an era where women directors are vanishingly rare and actresses routinely make far less money than their male counterparts, I loved reading about a powerful, flawed-but-fascinating woman who controlled her own destiny every step of the way, even if that meant using each of those seven husbands to get something she wanted. “Do yourself a favor and learn how to grab life by the balls, dear,” Evelyn instructs Monique. “Don’t be so tied up trying to do the right thing when the smart thing is so painfully clear.”

“Mrs. Fletcher” by Tom Perrotta

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom PerrottaThe cover of Mrs. Fletcher depicts a woman alone in bed holding a smartphone, her face illuminated by the screen’s glare. If a copy of this book somehow managed to make its way back to the mid-2000s, the pre-iPhone era, it would seem almost inscrutable; it takes place in a world where people’s lives are ruled by their smartphones, the devices serving as a source of entertainment as well as vehicles for miscommunication and misunderstandings. The only way Mrs. Fletcher could be more up-to-the-minute would be if Tom Perrotta had somehow worked in a reference to Donald Trump’s Tweets. (The novel, presumably written pre-November 2016, takes place in a blessedly Trump-free universe.)

Ambitiously, Perrotta is trying to capture The Way We Live Now, from college students up to retirees. Stuck in the middle is Eve Fletcher, a divorced empty nester whose son Brandon is struggling to adapt to college life. Eve works as the executive director of a senior center, “a place where low-income seniors could come to eat a federally subsidized meal and then get their blood pressure checked by a nurse and their problem toenails trimmed by a kindhearted podiatrist.” She enjoys her job and is proud of the work she does, but at the same time, she feels bored and lonely and in desperate need of a change.

The book features rapidly shifting points of view, switching from third-person sections focusing on Eve and her colleagues and friends to first-person chapters narrated by Brandon. He is kind of a stereotypical teenage lunkhead, far more interested in partying and hooking up than he is in actually learning things or planning for his future. His roommate Zack’s arc is actually more compelling than his own, even though Zack is only a tertiary character in the novel.

As for Eve Fletcher herself, she finds herself in a strange situation—addicted to Internet porn—after an anonymous text pops up on her phone: “U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic!” Despite being indifferent to porn in the past, she now finds herself checking out MILF porn on Milfateria.com on a regular basis: “She disapproved of the site—she would have been horrified if she’d ever found anything like it on her son’s computer—and sincerely wished it didn’t exist. But she couldn’t stop looking at it.” (In the real world, Milfateria.com only exists as a parked domain at GoDaddy; it appears to have been registered by Steven Brykman, who has interviewed Perrotta in the past, so I’m guessing he’s a friend or acquaintance of the writer. I kind of wish they had done something fun with the domain, even if they’d only posted an image of Stifler’s Mom.)

Eve also goes back to college to take a gender-studies class, which leads her to make some new friends, though things ultimately go a little sideways, as Perrotta fans might expect. Like most of his novels, Mrs. Fletcher is an easy, breezy read, if perhaps a bit overstuffed with characters (the fact that two of the primary females in the book are named Amanda and Amber caused me a few moments of confusion). Now that the HBO series based on his 2011 novel The Leftovers has come to an end, I’m glad Perrotta has returned to chronicling the highs and lows of middle-class, middle-aged American life.

“Celine” by Peter Heller

CelineI read a lot of good books, but every year, there are a couple that I find myself enthusiastically recommending to people. The latest book added to my “You must read this!” list is Peter Heller’s Celine, a beautifully-written and engrossing novel featuring one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve encountered in a while.

Celine is in her late 60s, an old-money WASP who makes her living as a private eye. The only type of case she takes is reuniting parents and children. At her side is her doting and taciturn second husband, Pete, who adores Celine and yet finds her an endless source of mystery (just how did she become so proficient with firearms?).

Celine’s latest client is a young woman whose father disappeared many years before, leaving her an orphan (her mother drowned when she was very young). Supposedly, the man—a skilled photographer who often worked for National Geographic—had been fatally mauled by a bear, but his body was never found, just some smashed camera equipment, blood on a tree trunk, and a few discarded pieces of clothing. The client is convinced her father faked his own death, and if he is still alive, she wants him to meet his grandchild.

Because Celine’s own father disappeared from her life when she was quite young, after his divorce from her mother, she feels a particular connection to the case. She and Pete head for Yellowstone National Park, site of the alleged grizzly attack. In the meantime, Celine’s son Hank is conducting his own investigation into his mother’s teenage years, a time she does not like to speak about.

In lesser hands, Celine could have been cutesy or too precious, but Heller’s style is always sincere, wise and open-hearted, with a pronounced tinge of melancholy. Early in the book, we learn that Celine’s two sisters have recently passed away, and the book takes place in 2002, when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 (Celine is a New Yorker) have recently left their mark. As she and Pete walk down a street at night in a small town, under a starless sky, she reflects on her chosen career:

It occurred to her as they walked that they were looking for a father who had disappeared more than two decades ago, but that he had truly left his child’s life long before that, that the young woman had grown up for all intents and purposes fatherless. As she did. That finding him now might resolve something in the woman’s heart but would not change the essential sadness. And that was the business she was in. She had had to accept it long ago: that her job was enabling just such reunions. That though they could not change someone’s childhood, still—there was a great raw need in her clients to know their parents and to meet them again. There was something in that resolution that was very important. To the child, and often to the parent. She certainly knew about that. And sometimes they—the parent and the child—started again. Rarely did it work, but sometimes it did. And then a child would have a mother and a mother a daughter.

The saddest part was that parents would keep disappearing, and children would cry themselves to sleep night after night, for months, for years. And that mothers would have their babies taken from them before they had a chance to smell the tuft of soft hair, their ears, before they had a chance to say, “Oh how I love you! Forever and ever.” That the baby was taken before she had a chance to kiss her and wrap her properly in her arms.

There are a great many mysteries in Celine, some of which get resolved and a few of which don’t. It’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this book and not wishing they could spend more time with its fascinating heroine. Indeed, Heller has revealed in interviews that Celine is based on his late mother, Caroline. “When I started writing this book, I wrote with the hope to spend another year with her,” he said. His novel is an extraordinary tribute, and very much worth reading.

“Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall by Noah HawleyMy book group read Before the Fall a few months ago, but I was unable to attend that meeting—and when I saw that the book was about a plane crash, I decided to give it a miss. I can sometimes be a nervous flyer, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to read a novel on the subject shortly before I was due to embark on a 10-hour transatlantic flight.

When the book won this year’s Edgar Award for best novel, however, I figured I should check it out. Unlike every other mystery award, the Edgar is peer-reviewed, and the people on the committee read tons of books. As a result, the winning entry has to be interesting and different enough to captivate a group of readers who are accomplished writers themselves.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Before the Fall is how incredibly timely it feels, despite the fact that it was published a year ago and written well before that. The story deals with  the intersection of a couple of very wealthy families and a Fox News-type network, which is drumming up ratings by exploiting a family tragedy (shades of the Seth Rich story). I was half-expecting a politician with small hands and bad hair to show up.

The mysterious crash of the luxury private jet, which was flying from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City, killed nine people and left two survivors: four-year-old JJ Bateman and painter Scott Burroughs, who had been invited aboard the flight by JJ’s mom Maggie. The wife of David Bateman, head of the Fox-like network ALC News, Maggie had taken an interest in Scott’s art and impulsively asked if he’d like to join them when she found out he was heading to the city for some meetings.

Not quite a starving artist, but not a terribly successful one either, Scott was trying to turn his life around after recovering from alcoholism. He had painted a series of large-scale works depicting disasters—an oncoming tornado, a house on fire, and even a plane crash—before stepping aboard the doomed aircraft. Scott’s unlikely survival, and the motif of his paintings, make him an object of suspicion to ALC News’ O’Reilly-like news anchor, Bill Cunningham (“the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world”). Ironically, before he died, David Bateman had made moves to push Bill off the air, because he’d been caught tapping the phone of a rival broadcaster. Before he could get rid of him, David died, and Bill immediately turned his old boss into a martyr, promising every night that he would not rest until he got to the bottom of what had really happened to that flight.

Before the Fall is a dense 400-page novel, and it probably could have been cut by 50 pages if Hawley, writer and showrunner for FX’s acclaimed series “Fargo,” hadn’t spent quite so much time waxing philosophical. A random example: “We believe we have invented our machine world to benefit ourselves, but how do we know we aren’t here to serve it? A camera must be aimed to be a camera. To service a microphone, a question must be asked. Twenty-four hours a day, frame after frame, we feed the hungry beast, locked in perpetual motion as we race to film it all. Does television exist for us to watch, in other words, or do we exist to watch television?”

Because I read a lot of thrillers that are only trying to deliver the purest adrenaline rush possible, I actually appreciated a lot of Hawley’s flowery musings, but after a certain point, I just wanted to find out what had happened to the plane. But I’m guessing that willingness to grapple with The Big Questions is what made the committee select After the Fall for the award. Many years from now, this is the sort of book people will turn to in order to find out what life was like in this peculiar era.