“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.

“The Long Firm” by Jake Arnott

The Long Firm by Jake ArnottThe Long Firm by Jake Arnott was first published in 1999, and while it’s available as an ebook in the U.K., it’s out of print in the U.S. That is a shame, because The Long Firm is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. I hope it will someday be rediscovered and given its due. (It was turned into a BBC miniseries a dozen years ago; it’s not on any of the streaming services, but parts of it seem to have been uploaded illegally to YouTube.)

This is Arnott’s first novel—he has since published a few others, which I look forward to reading—and what is most striking about this book is its colossal ambition. It is divided into five parts, each of which has a different narrator. The one thing they all have in common is their relationship to the gangster Harry Starks, who is in competition with the notorious Kray twins for the title of king of the London underworld. While Starks is Arnott’s fictional creation, the Krays, and several other characters, from Johnnie Ray to Joe Meek to Judy Garland, are real. One reason it took me almost a week to read The Long Firm is because I kept looking up things online to find out what was based in reality; Arnott was born in 1961, so he obviously has no first-hand knowledge of the period, but he must have done a tremendous amount of research.

The five narrators don’t have a lot in common—one is a member of the House of Lords, a couple are crooks, one’s a criminologist, and one is an actress who became a showgirl when work dried up. They all become sucked into Harry’s orbit, which, unsurprisingly, is not a particularly safe place to be. He may appear to be a generous soul, but the bill always comes due eventually, and being obligated to Harry Starks can be very dangerous indeed.

Besides Harry, another person we get to know through the eyes of the narrators is Detective Chief Inspector Mooney, a bent cop who frequently aids Starks and his compatriots by turning a blind eye to their criminal schemes or, in some cases, actively abetting them. It could be argued that Mooney is more of a villain than Harry, since at least the gangster isn’t making a show of serving and protecting the populace. Some antihero-loving readers may wish for Harry to get away with his crimes, but I doubt anyone will be rooting for Mooney.

As a homosexual and a Jew, Harry is an outsider, albeit one who knows which people to cultivate (Mooney, Lord Thursby) in order to gain access to the corridors of power. “He is fascinated by the world of privilege,” says Thursby. “A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose… He has a great admiration for upper-class men of action like Lawrence of Arabia or Gordon of Khartoum. Empire heroes and explorers he no doubt read of in picture books. And in his own way he sought to emulate them, to find some respectable and gentlemanly way to demand money with menaces. Some way of jumping the counter of middle classness straight into aristocracy.”

This is an exceptional literary thriller. As of this writing, used copies are available for under $4 (including shipping!) at ABEBooks.com—a real steal.

“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

commonwealthOne small decision can change everything, reverberating for decades to come. That is the central theme of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, her sprawling family saga which tracks the members of two different families that come together and fall apart, beginning in the early 1960s.

The fateful decision was made by Bert Cousins, a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. Wanting to escape from his own large family, he opts to crash a christening party he’d heard about in passing, bringing a large bottle of gin as a gift. The child in question belongs to Fix Keating, a cop, and his movie-star-gorgeous wife, Beverly. An encounter between Bert and Beverly leads to a kiss, and the next thing you know, Beverly and Bert have left their respective spouses for each other, complicating the lives of six young kids (her two, his four). There is a move to Virginia, the commonwealth of the title, and a death that shakes the families’ world.

There’s no denying that Commonwealth is a beautifully-written book, with lots of perceptive things to say about families, aging, love, and the randomness of life, but I sometimes found myself wishing I’d drawn a family tree as I read, because there are a lot of characters to keep track of: Fix and Beverly, Bert and his first wife Teresa, their offspring, plus a gaggle of spouses, in-laws, stepchildren and lovers. Did there really have to be so many children? I would mutter as I tried to remember which kid came from which parents. The book demands attentive reading, as it does not follow a linear timeline.

In the end, it just sort of stops (I was reading Commonwealth on an e-reader, so I was unaware of how many pages were left), and I had the sense that Patchett could have kept going for another hundred pages, filling in details of characters we hadn’t come to know as well as others. (Beverly’s eventual divorce from Bert and subsequent remarriage to her third husband is mentioned in passing fairly early on, but I had forgotten about it and was surprised to encounter that spouse in the book’s final chapter.) If you’re a Patchett fan and plan on reading this book, do so with a pen and paper next to you and create a list of characters; I’ll bet you’ll find yourself referring to it several times along the way.

“The Inseparables” by Stuart Nadler

The InseparablesIf you read a lot of modern literary fiction, as I do, you tend to read a lot of dysfunctional-family novels. But what are the odds that I’d happen to read two dysfunctional-family novels in a single year that both deal with the aftermath of the publication of an infamous book about sex? (The Position by Meg Wolitzer was the first.)

The sexy volume that’s continued to reverberate through the generations in Stuart Nadler’s The Inseparables is a novel that sounds like a combination of Fear of Flying and Valley of the Dolls—irresistibly trashy, in other words. Henrietta, now in her 70s, has spent most of her adult life trying to live down the notoriety of her book, which has remained a cult classic even as it’s fallen out of print. Finally, she has agreed to let the book be republished in a new edition, because after the death of her husband (whose failed restaurant left a mountain of debt in its wake), she desperately needs the money.

Henrietta’s daughter Oona is a workaholic surgeon whose marriage is falling apart; we also meet Oona’s teenage daughter Lydia, whose young life is being ruined by a topless selfie that’s been making the rounds online. Both of these storylines seemed less compelling to me than Henrietta’s (a chapter about the decline of her husband’s once-successful restaurant was particularly poignant); Oona falls into an affair with her couples therapist, which seems almost too over-the-top, and the indifference by authorities (by both police and school) to Lydia’s stolen photo, which is essentially child pornography, as she is underage, felt a little unrealistic. A few days after finishing The Inseparables, it is Henrietta’s story that has continued to linger in my mind.

“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The SympathizerFull disclosure: after finishing The Sympathizer, I decided not to review it. The reason is not because I had no opinions about it—I did—but I worried that my dislike for a book which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and was named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, meant that I was somehow not intelligent enough to appreciate it. However, my friend Vallery, who didn’t care for it either, convinced me to write it up anyway.

I can appreciate the fact that The Sympathizer is an important book, a worthy examination of the Vietnam war and its aftermath. But I found it a real slog to get through. (I read it for my book group, which is why I didn’t toss it aside a couple of chapters in.) For one thing, there are no quotation marks, an affectation I find extremely annoying. The last quarter of the book is an extended depiction of torture. A set piece satirizing the filming of “Apocalypse Now” seems oddly irrelevant to the rest of the plot. And then there’s the writing. For example, we have this lengthy meditation on—let’s be frank—boobs:

While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Men had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the opening and closing of a well-stuffed billfold. But whereas women could look at us as much as they wanted, and we would appreciate it, we were damned if we looked and hardly less damned if we didn’t. A woman with extraordinary cleavage would reasonably be insulted by a man whose eyes could resist the plunge, so, just to be polite, I cast a tasteful glance while reaching for another cigarette. In between those marvelous breasts bumped a gold crucifix on a gold chain, and for once I wished I were a true Christian so I could be nailed to that cross.

The Sympathizer is the second war novel in a row to win the Pulitzer, following Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which is set during WWII. All the Light is one of my top 10 favorite books of the past decade; it’s a big-hearted, beautiful story full of characters I cared deeply about. The Sympathizer, on the other hand, is the sort of book I wanted to keep at arm’s length (consider yourself lucky that I quoted the passage about cleavage and not the part where the narrator defiles a squid). Obviously a lot of people think this is a bona fide Great Book; I’m not among them, and I realize that may say more about me than it does about The Sympathizer.

“This Must Be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell

9780385349420The title of this book seems rather ironic, considering how This Must Be the Place tends to make the reader feel unmoored at every turn. The story begins with a first-person account of a man who is standing at the back door of his house in rural Ireland, rolling a cigarette, when he thinks he spots an intruder. (The house is very isolated, half a mile and 12 gates away from the nearest road.) We learn that the man is named Daniel and that his wife is an Oscar-winning actress who pulled one hell of a disappearing act; she makes Garbo look like Kim Kardashian by comparison. Has she finally been discovered?

After that set-up, Chapter Two drops us 20 years into the past, when the actress, Claudette, is just getting started, meeting the Swedish director who will become her collaborator and lover. There are 28 chapters in the book, and they move through time and space—one moment you’re in Fremont, California in 2010, the next you’re whisked away to Scotland in 1986, then it’s off to Dalsland, Sweden* in 2014 and Chengdu, China in 2003. Chapters are told from different points of view; besides Daniel and Claudette, there are also their children (both have them from previous relationships, as well as a couple of their own), various relatives and friends, and in one case even a tourist whom we haven’t seen before and won’t encounter again. It can be highly disorienting, and often left me flipping back through the book: “Now, who was Niall again?” I finally approached it more as a book of linked short stories, reading a couple of them each evening over the course of a couple of weeks.

O’Farrell writes beautiful prose, with a lot of empathy and insight about families and the way they are made and un-made. But in the end, I always felt at a bit of a remove, making This Must Be the Place a book I admired instead of adored.

* Footnote: my mom grew up in the province of Dalsland and it’s a rather sparsely populated place, so I was surprised and delighted to see that a chapter had been set there. Unfortunately, it’s one of the briefest chapters in the book and takes the form of an interview transcript between a journalist and Claudette’s former partner, so there isn’t a lot of local color on offer. We do hear the reporter describe it as “the middle of nowhere,” which sounds about right.

“The Portable Veblen” by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable VeblenVeblen Amundsen-Hova is an unusual young woman, and not just because she was named after Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen, best known today for coining the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and his still-relevant 1899 treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen Amundsen-Hova can communicate with squirrels. Considering Veblen’s dysfunctional childhood—a distant father she barely knew, a mother who is a narcissistic hypochondriac—it makes perfect sense that she would have found solace and friendship with Sciurus griseus.

As the novel opens, Veblen has just accepted a proposal of marriage from her boyfriend Paul, complete with an enormous diamond ring. Paul is a rising star in the field of medical research, studying brain trauma in war veterans. He has recently invented a device to treat battlefield head injuries that has piqued the interest of the Department of Defense as well as Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals, which believes the invention could be worth millions. Veblen, meanwhile, is a temp who earns just enough money to afford a humble rental and spends her spare time translating documents for the Norwegian Diaspora Project. (“Keeping a low overhead was part of her mind-set… She believed it was important to be fairly compensated for your time and work, but that it was also important not to earn a bunch of money just to play a predetermined role in the marketplace.”) Paul assumes that once he hits it big with his device, they’ll move into a suitably grand house and hobnob with his friends: “doctors, architects, financiers.” However, when he introduces Veblen to his crowd, they quickly lose interest in her: “when they found out she wasn’t on a notable career path, they seemed unable to synthesize her into their social tableau, as if Paul had chosen a mail-order bride.”

Elizabeth McKenzie deftly sets up the conflict between conspicuous consumption and the Veblenesque desire to live simply; Veblen even uses a manual typewriter. However, Paul’s status-seeking is ultimately revealed to be a rejection of his hippie parents’ chaotic, rural lifestyle, which we learn about in flashback. Perhaps an even more challenging obstacle to Paul and Veblen’s relationship is the fact that he hates squirrels. “It’s my stated goal to keep pests out of our lives,” he announces as he sets a trap to catch the critters running around Veblen’s attic and keeping him awake at night. Can true love overcome such seemingly intractable obstacles?

The Portable Veblen is so strange and marvelous and delightful—an off-kilter love story as well as a biting satire of the military-industrial complex—and McKenzie portrays her characters with boundless empathy and compassion, even the least-lovable among them, like Veblen’s difficult mother. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.