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Book Reviews for May and June

Human Croquet, Kate Atkinson

I LOVE Kate Atkinson’s books.  I’ve read three and her work is pitched just exactly where I like it, if you know what I mean.  Her characters are usually cynical teenage girls or young women with family problems, set in England in the 20th century (generally around the ‘50s or ‘60s when I imagine Atkinson was a teen herself).  The emotional thrust of the work is always subtle and realistic but she includes these nods to fantasy, or even magical realism.  Supernatural elements or fantasy elements are sparingly sprinkled throughout the plot just enough to make you say, “Wait, what?”  This is perfect for me, because I like a little bit of unreality (as long as I’m reading, why the hell not?) but I hate that whole fantasy/sci-fi process they call worldbuilding.  I don’t need new civilizations and societies, I don’t need complex descriptions of how and why improbable things came to be.  I just like a story about an average girl who is occasionally displaced from time, and thinks it’s even weirder than I do.

Anyway, this is her second novel—not quite as amazing as her first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum—but still quite worthwhile.  The character is a girl, Isobel, growing up in a family with a fractured past.  She thinks that her best friend may have birthed a baby in secret and given it to a neighbor, and her stepmother is slowly going mad.  She’s collecting clues about her mother, who disappeared long ago.  And occasionally, Isobel takes a step and finds she’s been transported back to the Regency or some such nonsense.  Just for a second, and just often enough to make herself feel like she’s out of control in some way—like she’s on the cusp of something important.

Isobel is a bit of a snot, but wistful, romantic but sensible.  She’s loads of fun, and the way the mysterious elements compound as the story goes on really gives the narrative some urgency.  The novel kind of loses it at the end, admittedly; the explanation for events is ultimately a bit prosaic.  Not that it wasn’t foreshadowed—I looked back, and, yeah, I probably would’ve known, but I was just reading too fast, too absorbed by the characters.  Certainly not something worth complaining about.

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

A work of literary non-fiction—I like to call them non-fiction novels—dramatizing the events surrounding the planning and excecution of the Chicago World’s Fair (AKA World’s Columbian Exposition) in 1893.  In a parallel narrative, a pharmacist called H.H. Holmes sets up shop in the Chicago suburbs, where he proceeds to prey on the “naïve young woman” population.  He kills them, dissects them, and finally sells their skeletons to medical schools for educational purposes.  He’s been called America’s first serial killer, and he got lots of publicity, happening upon the country just a couple years after Jack the Ripper spread his magic over urban England.  Maybe it was the proof of our (America’s) civilization—we can do anything England can do!

Of those two narratives, both were successful for me.  As much as I liked the murder stuff—I confess to having a penchant for reading about crime—I was also incredibly interested in the building of the fair.  The architects and engineers who got together, campaigned for the rights to the fair, found the land, had to figure out how to build on it (it was a swamp onto which they wanted to build these massive, impressive  structures), faced insane obstacles and setbacks with the construction of the buildings and still managed to pull the thing off.  I love business narratives—rise-to-power stories, stories of impossible tasks with high stakes, and this was a first-rate version of that.  Larson also does a great job of reinforcing the cultural significance of the fair, the way Americans set out to compete with Europe (we have culture too!) and the way the best and worst of humanity was on full display at the largest public gathering the adolescent country had ever put together.

It was a little less successful as a portrait of a killer—the book didn’t really get to the heart of Holmes, possibly because he was cold and soulless.  Or possibly just because that wasn’t Larson’s objective.  The scenes devoted to Holmes were not hard to picture, however: he was described as being short and boyish, but incredibly handsome with stunning blue eyes.  My imagination cast him as Tom Cruise, which really worked.

The Women, T.C. Boyle

I finished The Women and moved on to the Atkinson (see Human Croquet, above), and the difference in tone was quite striking.  Which is not to say that Boyle’s narrative style is unengaging, but it feels more somber, more reverent.  I don’t know if this is typical of Boyle, or if it was a stylistic choice meant to signal the reserve of the narrator, one of Wright’s assistants speaking through his own Japanese-to-English ghostwriter.  It definitely gave me a sense of the character’s respect for Wright as well as reinforcing the public/private dichotomy that dogged Wright throughout his fame.  We’re on the inside of the relationship with Frank and Olga (or Miriam, or Mamah), but we’re also removed a step.  The narrator is not Frank or Olga or Miriam or Mamah, so we have to take every detail with a grain of salt.  The choice works really well for a piece of historical fiction, which is based so much in history but which also is completely Boyle’s interpretation.

I’m fond of narratives that screw with chronology, though sometimes I think it’s just being done for the hell of it.  In the first section (about Wright’s third wife), I thought that’s what was happening here, too.  But then, as I read the second section (about Wright’s second wife), I saw interesting connections.  Every relationship Wright had informed the relationships that came after.  By the third and final section, on Frank’s first mistress Mamah, I was sold: it had the narrative force of a train barreling down the tracks, largely because I was already spoiled as to how Mamah will meet her end.  Logically, knowing what’s coming should take away suspense, but, on the contrary, every little piece of dialogue, every plot change was a portent of evil to come.

Definitely an undertaking—this is not a book even I could surf through in a weekend—but an amazing achievement.  Big and sprawling and complicated like one of Wright’s many legendary houses.

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