“Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi

Trust ExerciseWhen I was in high school, the tests in my English classes were given to make sure that we’d actually read the books on our assigned-reading lists. The questions were all about the characters and plot. As a result, when I got to college and was asked to analyze texts, I felt completely at sea. Suddenly, I was expected to have original thoughts and ideas about the great novels we were reading (at least one book every week! Imagine that). Used to simply parroting back the who, what and where, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the why.

Those old sensations came rushing back to me as I read Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, which left me feeling confused and, yes, a little bit stupid. As regular readers of this blog are aware, I mainly read and review crime fiction, but I do dip into literary fiction from time to time. Trust Exercise is certainly one of the most lauded books of the year so far, with the Boston Globe calling it “piercingly intelligent, engrossingly entertaining” and Publishers Weekly raving, “Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic.”

I might have given up on it after the first 30-40 pages had it not been from the blurb on the back by one of my favorite authors, Tom Perrotta, who described it as “an uncanny evocation of the not-so-distant past that turns into a meditation on the slipperiness of memory and the ethics of storytelling.” The book starts out by telling the story of a romance between two high school freshmen, Sarah and David, who attend a performing-arts school with a theater department that is led by a highly charismatic teacher. Sarah and David have a lot of sex, described in a way that is almost repulsive, which may be appropriate, since who wants to get turned on by reading about two 15-year-olds?

Some of the writing seems pretty bad, especially when a troupe of performers from the U.K. come to Sarah and David’s school in order to present a run of “Candide.” The British characters’ speech patterns struck me as particularly fake, kind of like an “oi, guvnor” parody. But eventually, I figured, something would turn, as Perrotta’s quote promised. And it finally does, about halfway through, when we are presented with a new narrator who informs us that everything we’ve read up to now is from a novel written by “Sarah,” looking back on her high school experiences. An untrustworthy narrator, as it were. But is the person narrating part 2 any more reliable?

What really made my head hurt, though, was the book’s brief third part, which upends almost everything we’ve read about in parts one and two. If I’d been assigned to write a term paper about what it all meant, I’d have given up in frustration. But luckily, there’s Google, and I searched for “Trust Exercise ending.” That led me to this brilliant review by a college professor, who just goes ahead and lays out her whole theory of what happens in the book and what it all means. (Spoiler alert, obviously.) I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading the novel, but Adriel Trott’s review made so many things click into place that I felt at least I finally understood what the author was getting at.

So while Trust Exercise isn’t a particularly fun or entertaining book to sit and read by yourself, I do think it would be an interesting book to discuss. I wasn’t sure I wanted to review it, since admitting that your first thoughts upon closing a novel are “What did I just read? What just happened?” is kind of embarrassing. But there can be value in getting out of your comfort zone, right? Still, I think the next book I read will be something a little more straightforward.

“Lake Success” by Gary Shteyngart

Lake SuccessI was such a fan of Gary Shteyngart’s last novel, Super Sad True Love Story, that I decided to read his new Lake Success without looking at any reviews—or even the jacket copy. If I hadn’t gone into Lake Success completely cold, to be honest, I’m not sure I would have picked it up at all. Why? The protagonist is the sort of person I, and many other Americans, most assuredly do not want to read a novel about: a rich white Manhattan hedge fund manager married to a much-younger wife. Even if things do not go well for him, my reserves of empathy for one-percenters who self-identify as Republicans are at rock-bottom levels right now.

And yet, as with last week’s book, I wound up finishing it. I truly hope the next book I pick up is one I am actually enthusiastic about reading all the way to the end.

Shteyngart is such a brilliant writer, and what he’s trying to do with Lake Success—present a portrait of Trump-era America (most of it is set in the run-up to the 2016 election)—ensures that the book will be studied years from now as a document of Manhattan life in the mid-2010s in the same way that Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is an ur-text of the “greed is good” 1980s. Barry Cohen presides over a hedge fund called This Side of Capital (a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald), which has recently put him in some legal difficulty (he’s being investigated by the SEC for insider trading). His wife Seema left her law career and now devotes her time to caring for their severely autistic son, albeit with the help of a full-time nanny and plenty of therapists on call. Barry collects very expensive watches and is the type of person who, upon learning that he’s going to be having dinner with a writer, checks both the author’s Amazon ranking and the Zillow Zestimate of his condo.

Eventually, everything gets to be just too much and Barry abandons his wife and child and sets off on a Greyhound bus, mainly to prove a point of what a Man of the People he truly is, to find a long-lost love who now lives in El Paso. So this is mainly a road novel, though every other chapter, we check in with Seema and find out what she’s up to. (She’s a patient, caring mother, thank goodness; her marriage to Barry was on the verge of falling apart, so she doesn’t seem too upset by his unexplained absence.)

The upshot of the novel—and one which definitely separates it from Bonfire—is that the Barrys of the world may be brought low, but they always come out on top in the end. That is a message that seems very of the moment, but it might make for easier reading someday in the distant future, when, I sincerely hope, the horrors of the current era are far behind us.

“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan BeachJennifer Egan’s last novel, 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, was such an unabashedly postmodern work, with its shifting narratives and unconventional storytelling (one large chunk of the book takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation), that many readers no doubt wondered whether her follow-up would be even more experimental. Instead, Egan has written a historical novel set during World War II, which is more conventional but no less ambitious.

According to a New Yorker profile, Egan had been working on Manhattan Beach for 15 years before it was finally published. The book displays a prodigious amount of research, albeit the kind that is seamlessly integrated into the plot, and into Egan’s lyrical prose. Here, for example, is a paragraph describing protagonist Anna Kerrigan’s solitary walk through midtown Manhattan:

“She decided to head back home. Walking toward the IND on Sixth Avenue, she passed a flea circus, a chow-meinery, a sign advertising lectures on what killed Rudolph Valentino. Gradually she began to notice other solitary figures lingering in doorways and under awnings: people with no obvious place they needed to be. Through the plate-glass window of Grant’s at the corner of Sixth, she saw soldiers and sailors eating alone, even a girl or two. Anna watched them through the glass while, behind her, newspaper vendors bawled out the evening headlines: ‘Tripoli falls!’ ‘Russians gaining on Rostov!’ ‘Nazis say the Reich is threatened!’ To Anna, these sounded like captions to the solitary diners. The war had shaken people loose. These isolated people in Grant’s had been shaken loose. And now she, too, had been shaken loose. She sensed how easily she might slide into a cranny of the dimmed-out city and vanish. The possibility touched her physically, like the faint coaxing suction of an undertow. It frightened her, and she hurried toward the subway entrance.”

We first meet Anna at the age of 12 when she accompanies her father Eddie on a visit to the lavish seaside home of Dexter Styles, whose own pampered daughter has more toys than Anna could ever dream of. The need to provide for his younger daughter, severely disabled Lydia, ultimately drives Eddie to work for some dangerous men. A couple years later, Eddie disappears, leaving his wife to care for Lydia on her own.

At the age of 19, Anna goes to work in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting parts. Bored with her work, Anna dreams of becoming a diver, working underwater to repair ships. But that is not a job open to women. Anna decides to fight for the position, despite the dismissive attitude of the officer in charge of hiring divers. She also has a chance encounter with Dexter Styles, whom she remembers clearly from the day she visited his home, and wonders if he might possibly know what happened to her father.

We eventually learn much more about Styles and his background, and as his story begins to intersect with Anna’s, she is finally allowed to dive. While the individual pieces seem like they may be ones we’ve encountered before—mobsters, World War II, New York in the 1940s, grief, survival in the face of great odds—Egan’s skill is that she has combined them into a tale that is unique and beautifully told.

“The Female Persuasion” by Meg Wolitzer

The Female PersuasionI read a lot of books that are primarily plot-driven, but I read Meg Wolitzer’s books because they’re character-driven: she writes so brilliantly about people and what makes them tick. Her 2013 novel The Interestings followed a group of six teenagers who meet at a summer camp, taking them from youth to middle age. The main character in The Female Persuasion, Greer Kadetsky, is only in her early 30s when the book ends, but her mentor, feminist icon Faith Frank, is nearing 80, and the trajectory of Faith’s life may serve as a preview of the difficult choices, sacrifices and compromises which will eventually be faced by Greer.

Greer is a college freshman when a chance encounter with Faith changes the course of her life. After graduation, she goes to work for Faith’s new foundation, Loci, which is well-funded by a venture capitalist. Faith (and Greer) hope they can use the money to help struggling women around the world, but the people who hold the purse strings are more concerned with providing feel-good workshops to affluent Americans. (The descriptions of Loci’s leadership summits sounded like a cross between Oprah’s Super Soul Sessions and Gwyneth Paltrow’s In Goop Health festival.)

Along with Faith and Greer, Wolitzer also pays exquisite attention to the lives of Greer’s boyfriend Cody, her best friend Zee, and Emmett Shrader, the billionaire pumping money into Loci. But the heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Greer and Faith, which is inevitably somewhat one-sided given how famous and beloved Faith is. Looking at a box of gifts given to her over the years by fans, Emmett ponders: “All of these women had needed a connection with Faith. She was plasma to them. Maybe it was a mommy thing, he thought, but maybe it was also: I want to be you. There were so many of these women, just so many. But there was only one Faith.”

In the final chapter of The Female Persuasion, a character refers to “the big terribleness,” a time when “indignity after indignity had taken place, constant hammerstrikes against everything they cared about.” What a tonic it is to read a novel about two strong female characters, with all their flaws and faults, both working toward a world where women “could feel capable and safe and free.”

“White Houses” by Amy Bloom

White Houses by Amy BloomDid they or didn’t they? The question of whether or not Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok were more than friends has been a hot topic ever since their passionate letters were made public in the late 1970s. While historian Doris Kearns Goodwin declared that “whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs” can never be known, others find the correspondence makes a convincing claim for Roosevelt’s queerness. Here’s an article featuring excerpts from a number of their more romantic letters. Sample: “Hick darling, I just talked to you, darling, it was so good to hear your voice. If I just could take you in my arms… Someday perhaps fate will be kind & let us arrange a life more to our liking.”

The Hick/Roosevelt relationship has been explored in books like Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, as well as a play, “Hick: A Love Story.” Now comes Amy Bloom with a fictionalized account of their relationship, which definitely comes down on the “yep, they were lovers” side of the equation. (Franklin Roosevelt, in this telling, is having a long-term affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, another allegedly-romantic pairing which has been debated by historians.)

Bloom’s novel is narrated by Hickok, who describes her rough upbringing—her mother died when she was quite young, and she left home at the age of 14, escaping her abusive father. She eventually became a successful journalist, the first woman to have a byline in the New York Times. Assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after Franklin had been elected governor of New York, Hickok found herself drawn to her subject. She began covering Eleanor full-time during Franklin’s first presidential campaign. Their relationship heated up when Hickok accompanied Eleanor on a train trip; by the time FDR was in office, it became increasingly clear that Hickok could not cover the administration objectively, so she quit her job with the Associated Press. At times, Hickok even lived in the White House, but in Bloom’s telling, loving Eleanor was not easy—the beloved First Lady always had many demands on her attention. Hickok describes herself as “the brave and battered little dinghy” to Eleanor’s “lighthouse.”

While most of the people in White Houses are historical figures, I’m pretty sure that the Roosevelt cousin Parker Fiske, a key character in the book, is fictional. Fiske is a career diplomat and closeted gay man who is not above using a little blackmail to gain protection for himself; he pops up from time to time to beg Eleanor for a favor or threaten Hickok of the potential consequences if her relationship with the First Lady became public. “People didn’t see his homosexual self coming (unlike yours truly) and that bothered them. He didn’t look at all like that type of man, so everyone who liked him—smart and charming and so good at his job—pretended it didn’t happen, or that somehow it had happened but only due to a mix of bourbon and misunderstanding.” By today’s standards, the fact that Eleanor and Hickok were not able to live openly as lovers does seem sad, but Fiske’s story is ultimately far more tragic, a way for the author to shine a light on the genuine dangers of being gay in an earlier era.

White Houses is obviously not meant to be the final word on the subject, but it offers an interesting and poignant perspective on a relationship that continues to intrigue.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George

The ImmortalistsHaving a good airplane book is something I take very seriously. My library copy of Chloe Benjamin’s novel The Immortalists came in a couple days before I headed out on a cross-country trip. I read the first few chapters, and was sufficiently entranced to buy the ebook version for my flight. (I travel light, so I didn’t want to drag along a library hardcover.) It was a wise investment; I was so absorbed by the book that I didn’t even check my watch every 10-15 minutes, which I have an unfortunate habit of doing on long flights.

The Immortalists tells the story of the four Gold children, who sneak out of their Lower East Side apartment one fateful day in 1969 to consult a psychic. It’s summertime, and the siblings are bored; little do they know that what she tells them will have reverberations down through the decades.

Each of the children meets with the psychic individually, and she reveals to each of them the date of their death. The reader only follows one child, Varya, into the room; she is told that she’ll die on Jan. 21, 2044, when she’s 88. When she emerges, her siblings, who have already spoken to the seer, seem badly shaken by what they’ve heard.

After this prologue, we follow each of the Golds, starting with Simon, the youngest. He moves with his sister Klara to San Francisco in the late 1970s. Simon is gay, and you probably don’t need to be psychic yourself to figure out his ultimate fate. Then we focus on Klara, a budding magician; Daniel, a doctor who determines whether or not young military recruits are fit to go to war; and finally Varya, a researcher who works with primates to try to unlock the secrets of the human lifespan.

I probably enjoyed Klara’s section the most, since I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in becoming a successful stage magician, but each of the four segments is unique and moving in its own way. The Immortalists is a triumph of both character and plot.

The Little Paris bookshop by Nina GeorgeWhile waiting for a connecting flight, I spotted a woman who was just starting to read The Little Paris Bookshop. I was half-tempted to dissuade her, but while it wasn’t my particular cup of tea—I found it overly sentimental, not to mention at least 50 pages too long—it’s a book other readers have obviously enjoyed. The Little Paris Bookshop made the New York Times bestseller list in 2015, and has been published around the world (the author is German, and the book was translated into English by Simon Pare.)

Bookseller Jean Perdu (the French word for “lost”—because he’s a lost soul!) sells his wares from a barge in the Seine. His specialty is matching people with their ideal book, “prescribing” certain volumes to his customers: “A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.” Naturally, the one person whose affliction Perdu cannot cure with a tome is… himself.

The 50-year-old bookseller has been miserable for 21 years, ever since his lover Manon left him. He even blocked the entrance to a room in his apartment, concealing it behind a bookshelf, because it was where he had spent time with her. When a new tenant with no furniture at all moves into his building, Perdu is persuaded to give her the wooden table from the hidden room. The table’s new owner discovers a letter hidden in a drawer—one sent by Manon after her departure, which Perdu had refused to open and then forgotten about. Of course, he finally does open it, and the contents of that 21-year-old missive change his life forever.

Manon was the kind of free spirit who rode horses naked (as someone who has ridden fully clothed, I can’t begin to imagine how painful that must be) and said things like, “Who knows, Jean, you and I might be made of the dust from one and the same star, and maybe we recognized each other by its light. We were searching for each other. We are star seekers.” Most of the characters in this book share her impetuous spirit; another woman we meet later on jumps into a canal during a raging storm because she wanted to know “if my fear would tell me something important.” In fact, everyone seems to make crazy spur-of-the-moment decisions that somehow work out beautifully.

I certainly hope that the woman I spotted at the airport is far less cynical than I, and that she decided it was her destiny at work when she chose The Little Paris Bookshop to take on her flight. Personally, if I’d been reading it on a plane, I’d probably have tossed it aside and chosen instead to solve the Sudoku puzzles in the airline magazine.

“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.