Monday, April 30, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking

A lot of people have been touched by Joan Didion's award-winning memoir of the year she coped not just with her husband's sudden death from massive cardiac arrest but her daughter's hospitalization for a flu that became a life threatening systemic infection. Though riveted by the author's minute self-observation of her precarious and shift states of mind, I also found it excruciating. Didion describes herself as a person unafraid of facts, who likes to be "right" and now finds herself in a situation where she is fibbing to herself. And she's courageously aware of her own coping mechanisms and their craziness, while she's invested in believing them. Of course that is the stance of many of Didion's fictional heroines, who pride themselves on not succumbing to self-deception. In Play it as it Lays, the fictional heroine's gimlet eye is deeply ironic and as seductive as Chandler's Marlowe. In The Year of Magical Thinking, that character has grown up and is analyzing and undergoing the experience of grief, which awakens new compassion for the fragility of our human psyche. She also paints well not just the loss of an intimate partner, but her dislocation in her world and in life. My only beef with this book, is how little we know about her daughter and her daughter's life. Much of the book is taken up with her feelings of helplessness and necessity as she works to keep her daughter alive from one crisis to another. In the end, as the daughter is finally able to resume some of her life, and Didion must find a way to rebuild her own, we root for both. Unfortunately, we have no portrait of this daughter, this other, as we do for her husband. And that's a pity in an otherwise very knowing book about the desolation of family and the self--two landscapes that profoundly intersect.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver's The Post Birthday World (Harper Collins) is a book that answers the eternal "what if" romantic question about choosing one partner over another. When Irina, an expat living in London, hangs inches from Ramsey Acton over his snooker table on his birthday, her fate hangs on a kiss. Whether she gives in to her desire or "goes to the loo" means a world of difference. Two parallel lives, her alternate futures, proceed from that fateful moment. In one she continues her comfortable life with her longtime mate, Lawrence, a wonk at a prestigious think tank. In the other, she's passionately involved with Ramsey, a rich and famous snooker player. Both men are honorable, yet radically different. Lawrence is an intellectual, who avoids the emotional side of life, while Ramsey runs on instinct and inspiration. Where Lawrence is thrifty and careful, Ramsey is impulsive and extravagant. She loves Lawrence for his predictability and nurturing of her own talent and career but she's besotted by Ramsey's understanding of her as a creature. His sensuality and perception ignite Irina's emotions. His touch is electric and she can no longer bear the tried and true... or does she resist that attraction and go on?

As the years progress, both courses downsides. Lawence's predictability and loyalty change, as do Ramsey's fortunes. Irina's career takes off but in one life she wins a prestigious award, in the other has a bestseller. As time affects both fates, the better choice is never clear. Shriver has wisdom in her method. The idiocy of romantic illusions is knowingly farcical yet poignantly moving. This is a book that goes for emotional honesty and yet has a laugh. I recommend it for any romantics, lost and found.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Review of Ines of My Soul, Isabel Allende

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ines of My Soul, Isabel Allende published by Harper Collins
From a provincial village in Spain, where young Ines marries her lover to avoid servitude to her grandfather, to Peru and Chile, where she joins conquistadors to carve empires from the jungle, this is an exciting read. Based on the life of Ines Suarez, Allende's imagination makes history come to life.

When her husband abandons her to search for gold in Peru, Ines decides to follow her own inclination for adventure in the New World. Working as a seamstress, cooking empanadas, and gaining doctoring skills, she pays her way and fate leads her to the future governor of Chile, the military genius responsible for the victory of the Spainards over the Indian tribes. She's with him until, like Pisarro, he succumbs to the corruption of power, including atrocities to the Indians.

Ines' honesty is searing. She sees through the hypocrisies of the church, the intrigues of kings and governors, the civility of the brutal conquistadors, the friendly ruses of Indian tribes, and her own subterfuges, when survival trumps her religious training. There is also her compelling observations of the mysterious Indian boy she raises, who turns out to be the one man capable of defeating the governor.

Ines treats epidemics, feeds multitudes, douses for water in deserts, creates homes, hospitals, schools, and mothers adopted children. Yet during a crucial battle with the Indians over the city of Santiago, she finally breaks and goes crazy. Her actions save the city at a huge personal price--the experience of her own brutality. The portrayal of Indians, from royalty to priests and warriors is sympathetically detailed. Friends and worthy enemies, she experiences with them the tragedy of empire. This book is at once an epic romance, military history, and a lusty exotic adventure.