Barkskins is the ambitious saga of two families, descended from two French emigrants to what was now New France, aka Canada, in the 17th century. The story follows the families into the present and travels to China, New Zealand, and Europe as the descendants seem to be very eager to explore new lands (and poor enough that sometimes they ave no other choices. At 700 pages, this is not for the faint of heart but the massive historical research behind the book and the variety of characters kept my interest. There is too much preaching about clearcutting to my taste when the story itself could tell the tale, and although I always love strong women the presence of so many in centuries where opportunities for women were limited is a little suspect — but still a massive achievement.
The author of Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, fled hurriedly after high school, leaving behind its boredom and conventionality, and flocked back to it, kids in tow, to raise them in the boring, conventional town that seemed to her to be the perfect place to raise a family.
Minus the heroic early American history, this sounds like the town where I live, deserted by anyone between the ages of 18 and 35, taken over by mansions replacing humbler abodes, and ruled by a coterie of stay-home moms who have given up high-powered jobs to push their progeny into prestigious colleges. It’s half interesting to see the same pattern described in this book, but it really isn’t that interesting, nor are the author’s travails with her credit card balances as she overspends on her house(s), or the descriptions of the various writers who made Concord famous. What is interesting is the description of her 70s childhood and (somewhat) that of her children’s upbringing. Not enough to make the book worth reading, for me at least.
In The Why of Things, a family arrives at their summer home in a New England seaside resort to find that a man has apparently dived to his death in their backyard. Since the family is mourning the death of its oldest daughter, also to suicide, all kinds of emotions bubble up from the parents and both remaining daughters. The story is told from the points of views of the family members, who seem to be spending their time leading mostly parallel lives (and doing a great job of never talking about their feelings!), and told with exquisite details and with great care. But there are some unexplained circumstances, chief of which is how a middle-class family can spend weeks on vacation without any job pressures of any kind (maybe if one has to ask, one does not understand how the rich live, but they don’t seem that rich…) And how could the oldest daughter have kept a boyfriend at the summer house?
Norumbega Park starts with the interesting premise of a socially ambitious man who decides to buy a stately house in an upper-class suburb, a house that’s too expensive in a town that’s too exclusive to embrace him and his family. So he struggles, and his family struggles, and his children disappoint him in various ways, but they seem fine, at least his son, who fails to go to college but seems to do better that the daughter who, having become a nun, finds the vows of obedience too limiting.
So here we are, at the end, with grand children and failed marriages and nothing much interesting having happened. The best part of the book, for me, was the early part of the story, when the hero was wronged in a political cabal at work despite his astute assistant (who should have been running the place, in my mind, but that was not to be for a female in the sixties). The rest left me bored.
Note to self: borrow only one book at a time from a given author and return for more only if satisfied.
Actually. I enjoyed Beet much more than Lapham Rising.It, too, is a madcap story but I thought it worked much better. This time we are in a small private college in New England that charges expensive tuition fees to hand out diplomas in vapid, if creative majors such as “Dominican and Video Game Studies”. (There’s no word on what employment prospects await the students and it may be a good thing.) Unfortunately the college is going bankrupt, or so it seems, and Peace Porterfield, an eager English professor, is asked to put together a new curriculum to save the college. It’s unlikely that the ad-hoc committee will provide any help, and meanwhile students are ineptly trying to sabotage his efforts — just as soon as they can come up with some demands.
To be clear, the students are quite colorless, the reasons for the bankruptcy scare ridiculously contrived, and the bad chairman so evil he could not possibly have survived more than a few days without being exposed, but I found myself rooting for Professor Porterfield, always a good sign of reader engagement.
I should probably stay away from New England doomed love stories that feature supernatural phenomena (see here.) But I tried again and despite Brunonia Barry’s best efforts (isn’t this a spectacular first name?) I just could not get into The Lace Readeror the heads of people who believe they can read the future in lace. Lace! I’ve heard of crystal balls and coffee grounds but lace?
The mannerist Lace Reader Manual excerpted in the headers of each chapter rubbed me the wrong way for each new chapter, reminding me of the inaneness of the whole idea. So I had little patience for the disturbed woman searching for the past of her mysterious twin in her dead not-quite-grandmother’s house. Not that the novel is devoid of promising characters. The wife-beater turned fundamentalist preacher, while evil, provides a variety of evil doings from coast to coast. And the good cop who tries to bring order to Salem, Massachusetts, with its fake witches and tourism dependent on said witches is perfectly sketched in his ordinary, level-headed behavior. But that was not enough to save the novel for me.