Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout

Amy is Isabelle’s daughter. She is stuck working in her mother’s office for the summer. Isabelle is secretary to the big boss, on whom she has a secret crush. Naturally, he’s married, but that’s another story. Well, no, it’s the same story, really. Isabelle has been living in this town and working at this place for years and still doesn’t have any friends. She is set apart from the other ladies. Really, she has set herself apart. She wanted to believe this would be a temporary stopover, but it turned out to be her life. Amy and Isabelle have had a falling out. In case you’re wondering, Amy is a teenager and Isabelle has pretty much ruined her life. (Typical.) They are barely speaking.

That is where the story begins. I’m sure I’ve made it sound just fascinating, but that’s how literary fiction is, isn’t it? The story is partly about the strained relationship between mother and daughter, but primarily about the women as individuals. Amy is just becoming a woman, or thinks she is, and Isabelle is discovering things about herself that she’s been denying (or avoiding knowing) since she moved to this not-so-temporary place. I was very engaged with the characters, and I especially liked the interactions between Isabelle and the other ladies in the office. I can tell that I’m old and have wasted my life because as messed up as Isabelle is, I totally sympathized with her. I liked this book a lot.

Washington Square by Henry James

I love to read Henry James in short bursts. “Short burst” is a relative term when you’re talking about Henry James, of course. I enjoy his short stories and his novellas, while his full-blown novels tend to make me a little bit…sleepy. Technically, the only one of his novels I’ve been able to finish is Portrait of a Lady, and I have mixed feelings about that book. I spent the first 400 pages thinking, “Man, I don’t get it,” the next couple hundred pages thinking, “Oh, yeah, I totally get it now,” and at the end of it I thought, “Huh. Maybe I didn’t get that.” But I’m getting off topic. I liked Washington Square–in no small part because it is much shorter than your average Henry James novel. A young woman stands to inherit a considerable fortune from her father, a prominent doctor, but she has nothing else to recommend her–not being especially pretty or clever or accomplished–so when a handsome, unambitious suitor starts wooing her, of course the father is suspicious of the young man’s motives. He threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries this good-for-nothing. You can imagine how the good-for-nothing feels about that. So there’s the story of how the father sabotages his own relationship with his daughter, and there’s the story of how the daughter matures and makes her own decisions.

Apparently, Henry James didn’t really care for this book, but I liked it. It was made into a movie twice–once in 1949 and again in 1997. I saw the 1997 version, which starred Jennifer Jason Leigh as the daughter and Albert Finney as the father, and it was very good. The book was also adapted for a play, The Heiress, which has a current revival on Broadway starring Jessica Chastain as the daughter (I wonder how they make her look plain), David Strathairn as her father and Dan Stevens as her suitor. I’m sure it’s also very good because ooh la la, Dan Stevens. Hmmmmmm. Sorry, got distracted for a minute there. On to the next review!

Our Husband and Whole Lotta Trouble by Stephanie Bond

I like how each of these books is billed as “a humorous romantic mystery.” I’m always amused when they make a special note of what kind of book it is you’re reading, like it’s almost an official subtitle. That makes it easier to shop, I guess. I don’t know. That’s something lit fic titles don’t do. Snow Falling on Cedars: A Paper-Thin Plot Wrapped in Beautiful Prose. Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yes. I remember Our Husband. Three women discover that they were all married to the same man, who is now dead. Married not as in they each took a turn, but all married to him simultaneously without realizing that they were sharing him. He was a traveling salesman, so he could pull that off. No, really. Anyway, it looks like somebody may have murdered the bigamist in question. The police suspect one of the wives. Actually, they suspect all of the wives. Who really did it? The wives will have to join forces and figure it out themselves if they want to save their skins. No, really. Meanwhile, one of them is getting wooed by a manly pawn broker. (It’s a long story.) I found this book reasonably entertaining for what it was. And it did not advertise itself falsely. It was humorous. It was a mystery. There was romance, paint-by-numbers as it was. It could be a good popcorn movie with the right cast. I suppose when a popcorn movie is a book, it’s called a beach book. I don’t know, I’ve never been able to read at the beach. I might start eating popcorn while reading, except I don’t want to get salt on my Kindle.

Whole Lotta Trouble I had to look up again because I couldn’t remember the plot to save my life. Actually, I’ve looked it up several times since plotting this book review, because I keep forgetting which one it is. It is the one where three women in the publishing industry plot revenge against a womanizing literary agent who is also a liar and a thief. It’s all fun and games until someone gets murdered. In this case, that would be the creepazoid literary agent. And guess what: all the women are potential suspects and must join forces to find the real killer. No, really. I can’t say this book didn’t amuse me. I can’t say it wasn’t a harmless diversion. But how much bang did I get for my buck (“buck” being defined as hours/minutes spent reading, since I borrowed this book from the library and didn’t have to pay a fine on it, thus rendering it “free”)? Eh, I don’t know. I could have been more amused. I could have been more diverted. But I have no regrets.

Kill You Twice by Chelsea Cain

As you may or may not recall, I love Chelsea Cain. If she wrote the phone book, I would read the phone book because the phone book would be interesting and probably make me laugh. Is it right when a book about a serial killer makes you laugh? I suppose it depends on your point of view. The serial-killing really isn’t funny, but the characters have good senses of humor. This is the fifth book in the Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series, Gretchen Lowell being the serial killer and Archie Sheridan being the detective who hunts her (and is hunted by her, actually). It should really be the Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell/Susan Ward series, since Susan Ward is the nosy journalist who keeps showing up and getting all up in Archie’s business (and occasionally Gretchen’s too). I like Archie and Susan. Gretchen is evil, so I don’t like her, but she is interesting, since she is a killer. This is one of those SECRET ORIGINS REVEALED books, which means you really need to read the first four to appreciate this fifth installment. I think it is the best of the bunch–at least the best since the original book, Heartsick. And although many things are resolved, there is room for a sixth book. No, really. I look forward to reading it, too.

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Well, that’s it for part two. Stay tuned for part three, wherein I shall discuss Chinese communism and Japanese war crimes, fat swimmers, eighteenth century debutantes, more killers and more Jews.

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