Review: The Paying Guests

July is almost over, but the books go on and on. Anyone else feel like their TBR is impossibly long? I’m afraid I won’t get to them all before I die. But I’m forging ahead, and now I can cross a book by Sarah Waters off my list–The Paying Guests.

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I had such an odd experience with this book. When I came across the title online, I read the blurb and was so excited to check out this historical fiction book that I took it home from the library almost immediately. But for some reason, between getting it home and opening the cover a few days later, I wasn’t so eager. I read about 20 pages the first day just to get a feel for it, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the writing drew me in and how quickly I was getting through it. But the next 300 pages drug on and on. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to finish, but when I reached Part 3, the pace changed entirely, almost as if it were a whole new story. I thought I was coming around to love it after all–but then the ending disappointed, and still I’m left with mixed opinions.

About the book: The first World War has just ended, leaving Frances and her mother alone in their prestigious (but slowly crumbling) London home in the 1920’s. The men of the family have died, the women have little money left, the maid has been let go, and Frances feels it is her duty to stay on and look after her mother and the house–their home and reputation as upper-class women the only things they have left. All of Frances’ time is devoted to cleaning and repairing things around the house, a shabby life her mother is embarrassed by, but Frances doesn’t mind the grubby chores. What she does mind is the life of possibilities she’s given up to be there, and how narrow her world has become. When the money can’t be stretched any further, Frances and her mother must stoop to the necessity of renting out the rooms on the upper floor to a couple of “paying guests,” or “lodgers,” the only polite way to refer to the situation. Both Frances and her mother are wary of sharing their home with strangers, but the Barbers seem friendly enough. What begins as politeness develops into cautious friendship, and even romance. The devotion is severely tested, however, when a criminal case ties Frances and Mrs. Barber together, but also muddles the purity of their relationship. Frances must consider her past choices, her options for the future, and her very essence and conscience:

“Braving the tilt of the bed, she carefully lowered herself back down. But there was no ease, no relief, to be found in any position; no possibility of escape from herself.”

Death always leaves people reevaluating their lives. It makes them do strange or crazy things. Frances is a highly introspective character who gives miles of depth to every word and gesture. She is the voice of reason when it seems everything has been derailed, and even through the confusion of a complicated death she can find rationale and restore order:

“Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response. You know that, don’t you?”

The most interesting aspect of this book for me was its division into three parts. Each one is so distinct and has its own close focus. The first: a bit of history–how Frances’ family is coping with the aftermath of the war, how they live, who they are, what they must do to survive. The second: a romance–Frances finds she has a crush on Lilian Barber, and though she tries to pass it off as a friendship, Lilian surprises her by acting as though she returns the affection. The third: a murder, a bit of mystery, a fast-paced police inquiry that leads to a trial. There’s no break in the story between the sections, so even though the switch seemed drastic, it wasn’t jarring or annoying. And one thing remained constant through each part–Frances’ fascination with Lilian. The progression of their relationship is the main point of the story, and it certainly has its ups and downs to keep the reader guessing. With Frances as our narrator, the reader has a clear sense of her personality and trustworthiness, but Lilian is quite another character. Even though we see Lilian through Frances’ skewed and loving perspective, Lilian’s words and mannerisms come across as odd and sometimes suspicious. She brings out all sorts of emotions in Frances:

“Would she return to her old life, her loveless, Lilianless life, like a snake having to fit itself back into a desiccated skin? The idea made her panic, and the panic itself dismayed her. For was that all, she though bleakly, that love ever was? Something that saved one from loneliness? A sort of insurance policy against not counting? How real was the passion she had with Lilian, after all?”

Worst part: the plot lags at points. It becomes so bogged down with Frances’ repetitive worries and the minutia of life on Champion Hill that I did believe the book could be written to the same–or even better–effect, with a careful culling equivalent of maybe a hundred pages. That being said…

Best part: The language of this book is so beautiful. Even at the slowest parts of the plot when I debated shelving the book until I was ready to try again, the language drew me in. There are so many marvelous metaphors, and Frances’ commentary on life and morals as a woman in the 1920s is adept and intriguing. Descriptions of people, places, and even objects are captivating and undeniably entertaining. The range of Frances’ emotions in The Paying Guests takes the language from light to dark and everything in between. The comparisons are superb:

“The walk took her to another set of padded benches, with a lot of unhappy-looking people on them, also nibbling at sandwiches. She realised that the people had come from another court, with another trial going on in it, with its own judge, its own jury, its own clerks and barristers; and that there was another court beyond that. And she had a vision of the building with its veined marble walls as a sort of stone monster into which crimes, guilts, griefs were continually being fed, in which they were even now being digested, and from which all too soon they would be revoltingly expelled.”

About the ending: The finale fell a little flat. Throughout the book, Frances struck me as the kind of character who was not afraid of taking chances and acting on her impulses, but then she became so determined just to “wait and see.” The end of the trial had Frances poised for all kinds of life changes, and the reader is left with the impression that she does intend to pursue the lifestyle she wanted, but that’s not shown. Frances does very little at the end of the book, which disappointed me both in terms of where the plot could have gone for maximum effect, and of Frances’ bravery diminishing when she seemed to have so much potential to stand up for herself and try to make right the things that she thought had gone wrong. I did appreciate that the reader was left with the possibility of a hopeful future for Frances, but frankly, after so much suspense surrounding the death in this book, I thought it wrapped up a little too conveniently. thepayingguests2

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It’s not that I disliked this book, I just didn’t like it, either. I am glad I read it; it’s a unique and interesting book, but even while I was glad I’d given it a fair chance, I was also annoyed that I put off new books from my July book haul to finish this library book now. The slowness of the plot–despite its solidity–detracted from the experience for me, but the writing style made up for that. If the ending had been as impressive as I was hoping, I’d have liked the book more overall. It wasn’t a bad book, it just wasn’t the book for me. I’d love to hear how other readers deal with books they just don’t love as much as they expected–do you finish? Do you quit in the middle? Does anyone else feel bad leaving a book half-read?

Further Recommendations:

  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt would be great if you like the idea of reading about a character who knows more about a suspicious death that he/she admits. Ordinary details of dealing with death become haunting when one may have been closely involved with the death and/or the killer(s). To learn more, check out my review of The Secret History here.
  2. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train would be a great choice if you’re interested in a faster-paced version of a mysterious London death. This one uses a more modern setting, but again the death hits close to home for the main character and she’s involved in the investigation. To learn more, check out my review of The Girl on the Train here.

Coming up next: Stay tuned for a review of Ruth Ware’s debut thriller, In A Dark, Dark Wood. Main character Nora is staying deep in the woods with friends she quickly realizes are all but strangers, but she’s stuck with them as they discover they are not alone in the woods. When she wakes up, all she can remember is that someone is dead. Until then,

Try to avoid murders. They’re always messy, in one way or another.

The Literary Elephant

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Top 25 Favorite Books of All Time

I couldn’t possibly name one single book as my favorite. There are too many great books I’d hate to betray that way. So each year I reflect on my reading by choosing a Top 25 based on new books I’ve read and previous lists. There are, of course, many more books that I’ve loved over the years, and only a couple have remained on the list since the very beginning. Putting them in order of favoritism is just as impossible as listing only one, so I organize them roughly in order of when I read the books, rather than which ones I love most.

This is the list I made in February. Since I was just starting my blog and I was on the fence about what I wanted to include, I put it off; now I’ve decided to try posting some other things between book reviews, and this list was one of the first things I wanted to share. By this time, I could already make a few changes because it’s been a rich reading year so far, but I’m a traditionalist and I learned early on that great books can get pushed out by temporary loves if I update too often. In the interest of keeping the most accurate lists possible, I update only in February. So without further ado, here’s my unaltered list of Top 25 Favorite Books of All Time, 2016 edition.

1. The Magician’s Nephew, by C. S. Lewis

What it’s about: A young boy and girl find a way to travel to different worlds, discovering all sorts of chaos and adventure before finding their way back home. Without quite intending to, they free a powerful sorceress from a ruined world and bring her to one that’s just beginning–Narnia. Even if they escape with their lives, their actions set all sorts of consequences in motion.

Why I love it: This is the first book of middle grade fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, which I began reading at age eight or so. The Magician’s Nephew is the prequel to the series, and has always been my personal favorite because it’s the least political and shows multiple worlds, adding depth and background for the most-known book of the series, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. C. S. Lewis is a great writer, and even though this series was written for children it’s one of those timeless works that I still enjoy picking up as an adult.

2. The Truth About Forever, by Sarah Dessen

What it’s about: A high school girl watches her father die, loses her boyfriend, and puts up with her mother trying to run her life. When Macy helps a catering company at one of her mother’s parties, she begins to accept that life doesn’t always go the way you planned, and applies for a job with them. As she grows closer with the caterers–especially Wes–she goes against her mother’s wishes, giving up perfectionism and finding her own way to grieve and move forward.

Why I love it: This was the first YA novel that I enjoyed enough to read over and over. It shows that perfection is impossible, that horrible events can lead to the best times, and that it’s not how well you plan but how well you deal with the unexpected. I was attracted to the concept that forever could be a finite length of time, and that for better or worse a person needs to make his/her own choices. Sarah Dessen has several popular books–I liked her writing enough to read them all–but this one stood out to me.

3. Hawksong, by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

What it’s about: The shape-shifting leader of the Avians has known nothing but war with the neighboring clan of the Serpiente, and she’s sick of it. Everyone wants peace, but no one trusts each other enough to lay their weapons down. When Danica is advised to take the first trusting step by pledging allegiance to cobra king Zane, and naming him as her mate, the idea sounds absurd and impossibly dangerous. She has to overcome assassins, disapproval on all sides, and a lingering romance with her childhood sweetheart and protector.

Why I loved it: I’m really not sure. This was the first YA book that sparked an obsession in me, even though it wasn’t my usual type. There’s a mild romance, the avian/serpiente war is brutal and political, and the characters of this world are so vivid and tragic that I still can’t forget about them years later.

4. Burned by Ellen Hopkins

What it’s about: Pattyn is the oldest girl in a Mormon household, and she’s accustomed to a lot of rules and responsibilities from her abusive, alcoholic father and submissive mother. When Pattyn realizes just how firmly under their thumbs she’s been pinned and determines to follow her own beliefs rather than be squashed down by the men in her life,. She is sent away to live with her Aunt J. Far from home, she finally glimpses goodness in the world just in time for her parents to step in again and try to put out the hope she can see for her future.

Why I loved it: Ellen Hopkins writes powerful books about scary, real teen problems in beautiful prose poetry. The stories she narrates are completely captivating and eye-opening, and her visually aesthetic pages keep readers engrossed not only in her tales but in the way she tells them. Burned is the best of the best, shocking, addicting, beautiful and heart-breaking.

5. Looking for Alaska by John Green

What it’s about: In John Green’s first YA novel, Miles, who has a fascination with last words, goes off to boarding school for his junior year of high school. There he meets the enigmatic Alaska, among other new friends. Despite how close the two become, it seems that Miles is destined never to have her, and spends his year learning to appreciate her through the complications of their friendship. In the love, the grief, and the pranks, Miles seeks a Great Perhaps.

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Why I loved it: John Green is a renowned YA writer for good reason. He creates characters that seem so realistic and relatable, all a little quirky but equally unique. Although he’s well-known for his most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, his first book holds a special place in the hearts of many who follow possibilities down unexpected paths. Tragedy is not always a disappointment–Looking for Alaska reminds readers to view death as something to grow from, rather than get stuck on.

 

6. Atonement by Ian McEwan

What it’s about: Young story-loving Briony is always looking for a tale to tell and a dramatic way to present it. When she catches her sister and their neighbor partaking in indecent acts in the library, she cries rape in front of their families and changes the lives of the budding romantics. When she realizes years later that she’s caused irreparable damage, she writes a happier ending to their story to atone for rash actions in her childhood.

Why I loved it: This was the first example of metafiction that I read and understood what it was, and I was fascinated by that concept. Also, I’m a sucker for a good romance/tragedy combination, and this novel is spot on in that regard.

7. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchel

What it’s about: Scarlett O’Hara is the oldest of three daughters on the southern plantation Tara, and struggles to find a way to ensure the survival of herself, her family, and her home at Tara through the Civil War. Though she’s not exactly beautiful, she is charming, and uses that asset to full advantage in securing husbands, money, and favors that she needs to stay afloat. When the war comes straight to her door time and again and collapses her entire way of life, Scarlett must adapt and prove herself stronger than all of those failing acquaintances around her, perhaps at the cost of accepting true love.

Why I love it: This was not only the first (adult) classic that I read, but also my first historical fiction novel. Additionally, it was the first book I was enamored with despite a dislike for many of the main characters–though not always likable, the characters are certainly strong and captivating. The role of women in this time is especially fascinating to me. In any case, the easy readability of this novel opened all sorts of literary doors for me, on top of being a phenomenal story.

8. 1st to Die by James Patterson

What it’s about: SFPD inspector Lindsay Boxer faces a potentially deadly disease just as her career is heating up. She’s on the hunt to catch the culprit of the Honeymoon Murders with her new partner, Chris, but it’s a lot for Boxer to handle at once. The deaths tally up, treatments for her disease wear her down, possible feelings for Chris confuse her, but she’s determined to succeed and put the killer behind bars.

Why I love it: When it comes to crime novels, James Patterson books are the way to go. There’s a great mix of personal and professional challenges for Lindsay Boxer throughout the years, and the first book of this series is definitely one of the best. Every chapter is short and to the point, each story is suspenseful and wonderfully executed, and interest in the characters’ lives keeps the reader coming back for more. Patterson has many great novels and series, but The Women’s Murder Club books have been favorites since I picked the first one up on a whim and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it.

9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What it’s about: Nick has moved to Long Island, where he’s studying up for a job on Wall Street. Across the bay he can see his (married) cousin Daisy’s house, and soon discovers that his neighbor, the rich and enigmatic Gatsby has been watching her house, too. Nick quickly becomes a go-between in one of the strangest love stories, and is so affected by everything that transpires that summer that he does indeed write it all down in the book that will be called The Great Gatsby.

Why I love it: A love story with a tragic twist, who could resist? The book takes place in New York in the 1920’s, where life seems like one big party–except Gatsby’s parties are a ruse. Also, it’s a great example of metafiction, and the narrator is unreliable. Everything about this book drew me in: classic historical fiction romance with a surprise ending.

10. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

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What it’s about: Several distinguished families in a high fantasy world are caught up in a political battle for power in the Seven Kingdoms. There are deadly feuds, applications of  magic, and secrets around every corner. As the struggle continues, the fate of the entire world seems to be on the edge between prospering and collapsing, but no matter who will win the throne, nothing will ever be the same again.

Why I love it: This series is told from many perspectives in a well-constructed magical world full of complex characters. Everything about this story and the way it is told is intriguing, but I’m especially drawn to the characterization. Martin makes his readers fall in love with characters just in time for them to die, or turn to the dark side, or make the gravest possible error. There are infinite twists and turns, and nothing is black and white though everyone has an opinion. The suspense is never-ending.

11. 11/22/63 by Stephen King

What it’s about: A young man who teaches high school and is somewhat dissatisfied with his lot is told a life-changing secret by someone he would barely have considered a friend. The secret involves a time portal and a plot to change the course of history by preventing the death of John F Kennedy. Many things happen along the way, however, to make Jake doubt whether killing Oswald is the right course to take, and whether changing history is worth giving up the better life he’s forged for himself in the past.

Why I love it: Although Stephen King is great with horror stories, this sci-fi infused work of historical fiction is actually my favorite of his novels because of the wonderful characters in this book. Jake is an honorable, fascinating man, Sadie is perfectly awkward and realistic, and even Oswald is more interesting than I’ve ever found him in real history stories. I often have difficulty finding characters I feel any connection to in King’s books, though the plots are superb, but 11/22/63 was easy to becomw invested in. Also, I’m fascinated by books that manipulate time.

Check out my review of 11/22/63 here for more information!

12. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

What it’s about: Carrie has grown up in a fairly secluded household where her future looks small and unexciting. Her dreams are bigger than that, though, and she moves to Chicago to stay with relatives and move up in the world. The world, however, seems destined to keep her in her place. Carrie is set on making money and becoming fabulous any way she can, no matter the cost, and makes more changes in her life to reach her goals in New York, no matter who she may hurt along the way.

Why I love it: This story has great commentary on ambition and greed that makes for a cautionary tale. The characters aren’t always likeable, but they are strong, and it’s impossible to look away from the destruction that lies in their wake as money changes the very essence of their beings. It’s one of the few books I read for college that I thoroughly enjoyed having been assigned.

13. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

What it’s about: Two families that are slightly intertwined have very different experiences with marriage. Anna is determined to have the man she wants even if it means ruining her marriage and reputation. Levin has been forced to accept that he can’t have the woman he wants, but continues to hold her in his heart, a tactic that pays off quite well for him when he encounters the girl and tries again. The two love stories run opposite to each other, both with their challenges, but vastly different in outcome.

Why I love it: The parallels of the two stories are intriguing. Levin was actually my favorite character throughout the book, but Anna, as the title character, is also captivating and I did keep hoping her life would turn around. She seems perpetually at a turning point, but can never quite get going in the right direction. It’s a mix of love and tragedy based not on fate or unalterable circumstances, but on human nature itself.

14. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

What it’s about: A woman’s life begins as she slowly descends into madness while interning for a magazine in New York. Her experiences in the city are not what she expected and her confused reactions seem very different than those of the other girls she lives near and spends her time with. She spends some time in a hospital and returns home a very changed person, unable to find an occupation for her time and worrying about many things, including motherhood and her career.

Why I love it: The changes that mental illness bring to an otherwise ordinary life make this novel darkly beautiful and enigmatic. Even at her lowest points, Esther’s thoughts are profoundly moving and, at times, strangely relatable. This book is almost entirely focused on psychological aspects, and is both frightening and encouraging. It was a delightfully chilling summer read.

15. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

set3What it’s about: Aspiring scientist Frankenstein sets out to answer the mystery of restoring life to something dead. Although he is initially proud of his creation, he soon sees it for what it is–a monster. Between the scientist and his creation, irreparable damage is done to Frankenstein’s family, and the two become enemies who must attempt to best each other to preserve or destroy the renewed life.

Why I love it: On top of the fascinating implications of restoring life to persons dead, the commentary on human nature and responsibility is still relevant today. The literal story is interesting in itself, and the reader is made to sympathize with Frankenstein’s monster in a way that draws attention to real life prejudices. The gothic nature of the narration makes the story both creepy and compelling. It’s a classic that’ll change the way readers look at the world around them.

16. Lying by Lauren Slater

What it’s about: This book is a memoir in which the narrator readily admits to fabricating many of her own statements presented as truths. An aspiring writer with an epileptic condition–or a metaphorical one–that changes the way people perceive her before they even know her endeavors not just to find her place in the world, but to force herself into the space whether she’ll fit or not.

Why I love it: I am irresistibly drawn to works that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, and this is the best example I’ve found of that. A memoir is, by necessity, a work of nonfiction, but the narrator of this one repeatedly claims that she exaggerates and can’t be trusted. This is a book that left me constantly wondering what to believe, a puzzle with a hundred different solutions. It’s unpredictable and unique, simultaneously infuriating and endearing.

17. Sula by Toni Morrison

What it’s about: Two childhood friends from opposing backgrounds are deeply affected by an accidental death they witness and partially cause. As the girls grow up, both follow their family’s footsteps: Nel marries and settles down in a stable family, and Sula leaves to have affairs and cause a stir. When she returns, the community is in shambles, but turning against Sula allows them to unite and live in peace with each other, though Sula looses her only friend in the process.

Why I love it: Everything about this story is odd and surprising. Parts of the narration are provided out of chronological order, some elements of the story seem too bizarre to be possible, and the characters are like no one you’ve ever met. This is another book I read for college that I ended up loving, in this case for the quirky story and the phenomenal way it’s told.

18. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

What it’s about: A small-time newspaper reporter returns to her hometown against her instincts to cover a recent murder story there. She becomes closer to her mother and half-sister while she investigates the case with an attractive detective looking for an in. Soon she realizes the murderer may be closer to home than she’d like, and the new deaths may have something to do with the death of her other younger sister.

Why I love it: This is a mystery/thriller from the author of Gone Girl with great twists and turns. Crime novels often become predictable and routine, but this one had the sort danger personally attached to the narrator that gives it an extra spark, and unique unpredictability. It’s dark and haunting.

19. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

What it’s about: A young man who’s just lost his parents and the veterinary practice he was planning to acquire after his college graduation runs away with the circus. There he learns the dangers of circus hierarchy for humans and animals, falls in love, and forges a home for himself with a troupe on the brink of collapse.

Why I love it: It’s historical fiction story told retrospectively as our narrator sits in a nursing home, waiting for one of his children to take him to the circus while it’s in town. It’s hard to decide which narrator to like better–the young man who makes an adventure of his grief, or the crotchety old man in the nursing home who still has tricks up his sleeve. All of the characters are bright and wily, and this novel shows a view of the circus far more entertaining than a front row seat to the show.

20. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

What it’s about: This nonfiction tale combines the architectural challenges behind the assembly of the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800s and the uprise of a prosperous serial killer moving to the area around the same time, taking advantage of the influx of people to the city.set4

Why I love it: A doctor/murderer and an architect may seem like an unlikely pairing, but they fit together marvelously here. Also, the invention of the Ferris Wheel is a remarkable account. This book reads like a novel but conveys real history, including fires, floods, mysterious deaths, and for many, the Fair of a lifetime. The cover of this book so drew me in that I didn’t even realize it was a nonfiction book until I’d begun, but quickly discovered it was worth the read even though it wasn’t what I’d been expecting.

21. Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

What it’s about: Four lives in New York in the late 19th century are set on course for collision by a fatal fire at a Coney Island side show and an abandoned baby. Follow two performers, a street worker, and a potential new mother into underground tunnels, an asylum, and the dirtiest corners of the city as they each seek something lost that leads them to each other.

Why I love it: Told from four perspectives, this novel is a wild ride through historical New York City, where no one is quite as they seem and justice may be impossible to grasp. It’s a powerful story of love, grief, and identity full of oddities and surprises.

Check out my review of Church of Marvels here for more information!

22. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

What it’s about: In a not-too-distant dystopian world, economic collapse has left many middle class workers suddenly in dire circumstances, including our main characters, a young married couple. They try living out of their car, holding undesirable jobs that pay too little, and they’re sinking into poverty. So when they hear about a new program where volunteers are provided nice homes, stable jobs, and safety from the now-dangerous homeless population, they jump at the chance for a better life, even though it means living in a prison for six months each year. When they break the rules and make contact with the couple who share their house during those other six months, there are surprisingly drastic consequences.

Why I love it: People volunteer to be prisoners half of the year. That, in itself, was intriguing enough for me to pick up this book, and it did not disappoint. Additionally, Margaret Atwood is an incredible writer who creates completely unpredictable characters and crazy situations that are too bizarre to believe but too plausible to dismiss.

23. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

What it’s about: Our fallible narrator is a woman down on her luck, having lost her job, her husband, and her sobriety. She takes the train into London every day to keep up the ruse of employment for her kindly roommate’s sake, and becomes fascinated with the lives taking place on her old street. When she witnesses something suspicious and a woman turns up dead, Rachel becomes ensnared in a deadly investigation that turns suspicion toward her and even reveals something shocking about her marriage.

Why I love it: This is a narrator who has faults and makes mistakes, which makes the story seem so much more realistic. It’s an exciting mystery that leaves readers suspicious of every character and then reveals a truth that hits much closer to home for our narrator than she ever could have expected.

Check out my review of The Girl on the Train here for more information!

24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

What it’s about: A popular celeb falls to her death from the balcony of her apartment, and several months after the case has been officially closed as a suicide, private detective Cormoran Strike is approached by the girl’s brother to prove that she was murdered. Robin, Strike’s new secretary, is happily engaged, but can’t resist the chance to learn more about investigative work and proves to be an invaluable aid to Strike in keeping the floundering business afloat and piecing together the mystery of the girl’s sudden demise.

Why I love it: It’s an out-of-the-norm crime novel with characters that feel real and lovable. Strike and Robin have a great relationship that’s just on the edge between platonic and romantic, and their efforts to track down the killer are both suspenseful and introspective. There’s a personal aspect in the mystery for Strike, which makes the novel even more exciting. Of course, as usual for J. K. Rowling, the story is irresistibly entertaining.

Check out my review of The Cuckoo’s Calling (and the rest of the series) here for more information!

25. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

What it’s about: An ex-combat nurse takes a trip to Scotland with her husband after the end of WWII and falls through time. About 200 years earlier, she stands up from where she’s fallen and is instantly dragged off into 1740’s excitement. After Claire is “rescued” by a clan of Scotsmen, she can’t get back to her time portal easily and is molded into a functioning member of this new/old society before she has a chance to return to her own time. When her opportunity arises, however, she may be less willing to leave, despite the cruel threats of her husband’s ancestor who takes special interest in Claire and her new family.

Why I love it: This one’s a guilty pleasure. I actually had a lot of complaints while I was reading, but the story is very addicting and I consumed the entire series pretty quickly because I was so interested in the characters. I will definitely be picking up the next book in this series when it finally comes out, but I don’t anticipate this book staying on my list very long. I really enjoy stories that manipulate time, and the characterization is superb, but now that I’ve read all that there is I suspect the excitement will begin to wear down. It’s a temporary love, but a love nonetheless.

Check out my review set5of Outlander (and the rest of the series) here for more information!

Postscript: I realize the Harry Potter series is not on my list this year. It usually is, but I had too many other good books to name this time around and I feel like by this point it’s a given–if you’ve read it it’s probably a favorite, and if you haven’t, you probably should. Also, I don’t like to include multiple books by the same author in my list, and I wanted to reflect how much I’d enjoyed Galbraith/Rowling’s other series this past year.

What are your favorite books? Are any of mine on your lists? Do you have titles you think I should read? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy reading,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Invention of Wings

It’s a great day to read a book! Today I want to talk about Sue Monk Kidd’s newest novel, The Invention of Wings. This one’s been on my TBR list for months, and as I’ve made it my mission this year to catch up on books I’ve been putting off, I decided it was the perfect time to pick this one up.

Before I go further, I’d like to point out that I prefer two kinds of summer reading: light stories that are perfect for relaxing and recharging in the sun, and stories with more serious implications that are perfect for keeping your brain from turning to mush from all that relaxing. The Invention of Wings belongs to the latter group; it’ll make you think about your place in the world, and the progress of equality.

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About the book: Sarah Grimke is a middle child in a wealthy, white Charleston family in the early 1800’s. Sarah is a plain girl, and would go largely unnoticed amongst her many siblings if it wasn’t for her unusual ideas: the most prominent of which is her aversion to slavery. When she is given her own slave as a hand maid for her eleventh birthday, Sarah tries to give the ten year-old servant girl back to her mother, and when that fails, she writes up the document that would free Hetty “Handful”, only to find it torn up outside her door the next morning. Handful’s mother coaxes Sarah to vow that she will find a way to free Handful from slavery, and Sarah adds this to her list of impossible dreams, which begins with her desire to become a lawyer–a profession closed against females at the time. Years pass as Sarah and Handful both attempt to forge better futures for themselves and also to make peace with pasts and people they can’t change. The story is told through alternating sections of Sarah’s and Handful’s lives that allow readers to see multiple perspectives and keep an eye on all parts of the story.

This is a story about two women’s desires to end slavery and to find their proper place in America, but it is also a story about the relationships these women have with their parents. In Handful’s case, her mother’s determination to prove she belongs to herself more than anyone else gives her strength. Handful’s mother dreams of freedom and impresses its importance on her daughter. She won’t give up her efforts to buy her own and Handful’s freedom, but that’s a long endeavor; in the meantime, she makes sure the Grimkes know who will have the final say in her life, and Handful pays attention:

“I was about asleep when she said, ‘I should’ve sewed that green silk inside a quilt and she never would’ve found it. I ain’t sorry for stealing it, just for getting caught.’ ‘How come you took it?’ ‘Cause,’ she said. ‘Cause I could.’ Those words  stuck with me. Mauma didn’t want that cloth, she just wanted to make some trouble. She couldn’t get free and she couldn’t pop missus on the back of her head with a cane, but she could take her silk. You do your rebellions any way you can.”

Handful and her mother are very close and help each other in every way they can. Sarah’s relationship with her mother and father is more complicated. Her father is a lawyer, and seems to favor Sarah’s quick mind and radical ideas from a young age, which leaves Sarah wanting to follow in his footsteps and study the law. As she grows older, however, and her parents realize how serious she is about persuing this unusual path, they make every effort to squash her dreams and mold her into a proper young lady who is seen rather than heard, and doesn’t rock the boat of tradition. Her father’s sudden and public rejection may hurt the most initially, but it is her mother’s continued remarks and efforts that lead Sarah to doubt herself and her abilities.

” ‘Every girl comes into the world with varying degrees of ambition,’ she said, ‘even if it’s only the hope of not belonging body and soul to her husband. I was a girl once, believe it or not.’ She seemed a stranger, a woman without all the wounds and armature the years bring, but then she went on, and it was Mother again. ‘The truth,’ she said, ‘is that every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for her own good. You are unusual only in your determination to fight what is inevitable. You resisted and so it came to this, to being broken like a horse.’ “

Sarah does find a friend and intellectual companion, however, in the youngest of her sisters, Nina. Nina is full of action where Sarah is full of ideas, and as a pair the two become unstoppable. Still, even with someone on her side, Sarah is met at every turn by efforts–especially from her parents–to silence her voice and put her back in her place as a woman–behind the man she belongs to. Whether that be a husband, father, or brother, Sarah is constantly reminded that her words carry less weight than a man’s, which impedes her abilities to fight for abolition. She may be a free white, but she’s oppressed nonetheless, and her closest confidants, Nina and Handful, know that best:

Be careful, you can get enslaved twice, once in your body and once in your mind. I tried to tell her that. I said, ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you it’s the other way round.’ “

Still, Sarah refuses to give up. Her dreams may change shape, but they never go away. Even at her lowest points, swamped in despair, Sarah refuses to change who she is or ignore her conscience, which is remarkable considering how low some of her depressions take her.

“They say in extreme moments time will slow, returning to its unmoving core, and standing there, it seemed as if everything stopped. Within the stillness, I felt the old, irrepressible ache to know what my point in the world might be. I felt the longing more solemnly that anything I’d ever felt, even more than my old innate loneliness.”

I’ve got to be honest: I was a little worried about how much I would like this book before I began. Writing about slavery in the early 1800’s is difficult: historically, events are already set, and clearly a well-received book won’t possibly be promoting slavery–therefore, I was worried that it would be too predictable. The main character would oppose slavery in a time when that was a minority opinion in the south, and after years of struggle, our well-known abolitionists would step in to lend a hand, the Civil War would begin, and justice would begin to triumph. Historically, the story is already set.

Luckily, that’s not how The Invention of Wings goes. Sue Monk Kidd stuns her readers with an awing tale of minority empowerment, twining the quest for racial equality with that of gender equality and doing it through lesser-known historical figures who really did fight to make these changes in America. When I began, I thought the name Sarah Grimke sounded vaguely familiar, but high school history lessons are fuzzy in my memory at best. What really made this story stand out for me was the Author’s Note at the end of the book which informs the reader that much of the background information of The Invention of Wings is true to the life of the real Sarah Grimke, who really did spend her life arguing for abolition and equality. Sue Monk Kidd’s book is indeed a work of fiction, but many of the characters, places, and events of the story are real or speculated based on fact. This is exactly the kind of wonderful historical fiction that sparks further interest in real details of the past that have been forgotten or overlooked. Sarah Grimke is an inspiring character, and all the moreso because her name, at least, if not her personality, can be found in history books.

My reaction: 4.5 out of 5 stars. This is a captivating story written expertly. It did feel a little slow at times, but the sections were short enough that a slow one here or there was no trouble to pass through. I loved the symbolism in the book, and especially the title, which serves as a reminder that when one needs to fly away, one needs only to look to him- or herself for the means with which to do it. I also appreciated that there were characters and events throughout the book which serve to remind the reader that not every chapter in life has a happy ending, and some things cannot be forgiven or forgotten, no matter what happens next. There are things worth remembering.

Further recommendations:

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe would be a great follow-up to The Invention of Wings if you’re interested in reading more on the quest for abolition in America. Sue Monk Kidd mentions in her Author’s Note that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was inspired by a powerful essay written by the real Sarah Grimke; this book further demonstrates the state of America leading up to the Civil War.
  2. If you’re interested in seeing where racism stands in a more modern setting, try Jesmyn Ward’s beautifully impactful memoir, Me We Reaped, about her family’s struggle to survive and thrive in rural Mississippi. (This one’s nonfiction, but not at all difficult to read.)
  3. If you love Sue Monk Kidd’s writing and want to try another of her stories, The Secret Life of Bees is a fantastic book and would be a great place to start.
  4. Last but not least, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is the perfect place to begin if you want to read more fiction about the plight for female equality worldwide. Centered around the lives of two women in Afghanistan, this novel demonstrates fatal results of the power gap between men and women there, while highlighting the strength and perseverance of the main female characters.

What’s next: I’m reading Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, another historical fiction tale with a strong female lead. This one’s set in 1920’s postwar London, and features a romance, a murder, and  a whole lot more.

Free your mind. Make a difference.

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Secret History

Salutations, my fellow bibliophiles. School may be the last thing you want to think about in the middle of summer, but reading about someone else’s school days is quite another story. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History will keep your brain sharp without making you feel as though you’re going through extra classes yourself. If you’re interested in reading about the most bizarre college experience ever, check out The Secret History.

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About the book: Richard Papen spent the first twenty years of his life in a small Californian town that left him perpetually miserable, but his life certainly became more interesting when he transferred to a new school in Hampden, Vermont. The book opens with Richard looking back on his college experience from the future–on one particular event, actually. Richard claims that he helped his friends murder their fellow Greek student, Bunny, then spends the rest of the book explaining how such a terrible situation came to be and what further horrors it led to.

” ‘Henry, my God,’ I said at last. “What have you done?’ He raised an eyebrow and said nothing, empty glass in hand, face half in shadow. I looked at him. ‘My God,’ I said. ‘What have you done?’ “

Generally I dislike books that describe the outcome before the causes, but in this book the occasional reminders that Bunny’s closest friends are about to kill him makes every interaction and conversation infinitely more engrossing. It all seems so normal–maybe these Greek students are slightly eccentric, but isn’t everyone a little strange in one way or another?–and yet they’re about to do the craziest thing they can imagine: they’re not killing just anyone, but one of their best friends! And they think they’ll get away with it! It all seems just a bit beyond realistic, but these characters and their lives inhabit the ordinary world so naturally that the believability of it all can’t be easily dismissed. The immense level of detail provides this modern classic such a lifelike feel that Bunny’s death is more shiver-inducing than many fictions with far more grotesque murders or killings on a larger scale. The Secret History is a surreal, psychological masterpiece in which the death itself is much less frightening than the people who’ve caused it. Even Richard, who’s taken part in this scheme, loses trust in his friends and struggles to explain or even comprehend what has happened.

“Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things–naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror–are too terrible to really ever grasp at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself–quite to one’s surprise–in an entirely different world.”

The most frustrating part of the book for me is that Richard seems to be narrating this story with the purpose of explaining how and why the exclusive Greek class decided to kill one of its six members, but largely fails to complete that task. We know from the prologue, before the book proper even begins, that Bunny Corcoran, at the hands of his friends, fell into a steep ravine and broke his neck. Before we know who the characters are, we know that they conspired to cause Bunny’s death and then afterward, left him there alone and drove back home to resume their regular routines. They take part in the search for Bunny’s body, attend his funeral, comfort his family, and spread the lies that confuse local, state, and federal investigations into the matter. And yet, with all of the details and anecdotes and background information Richard provides, he still says:

“I recognize attempts at analysis are largely useless. I don’t know why we did it. I’m not entirely sure that, circumstances demanding, we wouldn’t do it again. And if I’m sorry, in a way, that probably doesn’t make much difference.”

And yet, there’s something so familiar and human in Richard’s attempt to explain the inexplicable. Whether any of the Greek students, with all their study of famed ancient philosphers and intimate knowledge of each others’ lives, can provide any sort of rationale for Bunny’s death, it is a remarkable tale that will leave readers wondering who to trust, and whether anyone is safe. It is the kind of story that makes the reader question human nature, searching for any plausible grounds on which to deny that murdering a best friend in cold blood is impossible, and coming up empty.

My Reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Although this book started out a little slow for me, and despite skepticism for the story arc after learning about Bunny’s death in the prologue, I couldn’t help falling in love with this book. Tartt navigates the reader through this work of art with the skill of a literary architect. It’s the kind of book that only grows richer the more times you read it.

Further recommendations:

  1. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye features a much different sort of college student, but I think it has the same sort of exploratory feel–a new school, odd encounters with students and professors, finding one’s place in the world. If you like Richard’s narrative voice, you may like Holden’s as well, despite their vastly differing experiences with education.
  2.  Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is the book to read if you find yourself agreeing on any level that killing Bunny was the right thing to do. Sometimes saving the one(s) with the best chance(s) means making difficult choices about others’ futures. If you like that aspect of The Secret History–the playing God aspect–check this one out.
  3. Another book that The Secret History reminded me of was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There’s a lot of drinking and drugs involved in Tartt’s tale as well as Fitzgerald’s, but the aspect that really resonated in both of these book for me was the narrative voice of a man on the outer edges of the action. Both Richard and Nick are swept up in others’ fateful schemes, both apart from the main action and also acting as the glue that holds the rest of the characters together. If you like Richard’s character, you’ll like Nick’s in The Great Gatsby.
  4. One more: check out my review of e. lockhart’s We Were Liars, which is another great summer read featuring sort-of rich kids who try to get away with more than they can handle. This one also has an unreliable narrator, which is always a fun wild card. This one’s a YA read, for anyone who loves The Secret History but not it’s length, or isn’t as interested in delving further into the classics.

What’s next: I’m taking a foray back into my current favorite genre, historical fiction, with Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This one is narrated by two girls who live in the early 1800’s of South Carolina–one a child in a wealthy family chasing impossible dreams, and the other her personal slave, bent on freedom at any cost. Both girls’ mothers are temperamental and dangerous, struggling to control the uncontrollable. Stay tuned for more details, and until then,

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer–because you’ll never know when you’ll need someone standing between you and your “friends.”

The Literary Elephant

Review: Room

Summer is great for easy reads, but every now and then it’s good to pick up something really thought-provoking; Emma Donoghue’s Room is a perfect choice for that.

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I’d been meaning to read this book for years, and finally I walked past it on the library shelf and decided it was time to pick it up. It’s so captivating that I read it in three days even though there were several times I had to put the book down just to take it all in. Room is definitely the sort of book that leaves you wondering about the state of humanity and the strength that people can summon to cope with the impossible. As kids, we’re warned about Stranger Danger, but it never seems like something that could happen to you–but then there are stories like Room that remind us anything can happen, to anyone.

About the book: Five year-old Jack has lived all of his life locked in the single room of an old garden shed with his mother, who was kidnapped from college about seven years before the book’s opening. The room is soundproofed, has a single skylight, is lined with cork squares, and was built with lengths of chain link fencing inside the walls and even under the floor. Their captor is a mean, selfish man who abuses Jack’s mother, spends very little money on their care, and overpowers them easily. Jack’s Ma allows very little contact between Jack and the kidnapper Jack refers to as Old Nick–it’s the one thing she asks, to keep Jack to herself. She and Jack spend their days keeping their one room tidy, exercising their bodies and minds as much as possible, and telling stories. When Jack turns five, his mother decides it’s time to share the most important story of all with him: the truth about the outside world.

” ‘I told you, it’s not TV. It’s the real world, you wouldn’t believe how big it is.’ Her arms shoot out, she’s pointing at all the walls. ‘Room’s only a tiny stinky piece of it.’… ‘I wouldn’t lie to you about this,’ Ma says while I’m slurping the juice. ‘I couldn’t tell you before, because you were too small to understand, so I guess I was sort of lying to you then. But now you’re five, I think you can understand.’ “

Jack has a hard time understanding and believing in the outside world. All he’s ever known is life between the four walls of Room where he shares everything with his mother and hides at night in Wardrobe from Old Nick, the only visitor he’s ever known.

Narrated by the young Jack, Room is described as a home, a safe place. Outside, everything is unknown and scary. Everything in Room has a name and a story, including Meltedy Spoon, Spaghetti Mobile, and Rug. Jack was born on Rug, so that’s one of his favorites. Sometimes Jack’s perspective is too limited, but dialogue fills in the gaps. He’s a smart child, with a million questions and an adorable thought process:

“The sea’s real, I’m just remembering. It’s all real in Outside, everything there is, because I saw the airplane in the blue between the clouds. Ma and me can’t go there because we don’t know the secret code, but it’s real all the same. Before I didn’t even know to be mad that we can’t open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it. When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”

Through Jack’s eyes, we see his mother’s story, as well. She’s very open and honest with him about her life, and she’s been his sole companion for so long that he’s finely attuned to her mannerisms and knows all of her stories by heart. He’s her sounding board, her reason to keep going, and everything else. Because this is primarily Jack’s story, his mother remains unnamed, referred to only as Ma by her son, who is shocked to learn that she has other names, as well. Even when he finally hears about her life before Room, she is first and foremost Jack’s mother.

” ‘Listen, Jack. Are you listening?’ / ‘I’m always listening.’ / ‘We have to get out of here.’ / I stare at her. / ‘And we have to do it all by ourselves.’ / But she said we were like in a book, how do people in a book escape from it? / ‘We need to figure out a plan.’ Her voice is all high. / ‘Like what?’ / ‘I don’t know, do I? I’ve been trying to think of one for seven years.’ “

For Jack’s mother, escape is vital. She feels caged, helpless, and claustrophobic. She knows Jack would be better off growing up outside, but she will need his help to escape and she needs to time her attempt so that he’s not too young to understand but not too old that he’ll be irreversibly damaged from the years he’s lost inside Room. Being captives keeps them close, but has no other benefits–and yet, perhaps it’s Outside that poses the greatest threats to Jack. Having never been exposed to ordinary aspects of life, like weather, animals, other children, or fire, the world is a dangerous place for him. He’s never even had a pair of shoes. Maybe he doesn’t even want to escape.

Something I didn’t like: The door to Room is locked with a key code which only Old Nick knows. Jack mentions once that he and his mother play a game that involves pushing random numbers into the keypad, but this only comes up once and Jack and his mother seem to spend very little time trying to guess the code. They try screaming toward the skylight to attract attention, and Jack’s mother switches the lamp on and off in the dead of night to try sending an SOS signal, but for as badly as she wants to escape it’s hard to believe she hasn’t spent every one of those seven days fiddling with the keypad, watching Old Nick’s hand when he presses the buttons, and counting the number of digits he enters. The keypad is the obstacle between her and freedom, but the only times she talks about it are to say she doesn’t know the code and can’t convince Old Nick to tell her. A ton of combinations could be tried in the space of seven years. Even if she tries every day and still can’t figure it out, it’s a little disappointing that the keypad isn’t mentioned more often or with more significance.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Room is an incredibly powerful story about coping in times of distress, raising a child, and fighting against the odds. It leaves the reader thinking about the pros and cons of modern culture, the often-overlooked dangers of our world, and the choices and challenges of motherhood. I wished Donoghue had spent more of the book describing regular days in Room–even after all of its features and routines had been laid out, I think the writing could have been used to convey the sense of monotony and claustrophobia that must plague Jack’s mother to add even more tension to her desire and plans to escape. A certain amount of the horror and difficulty of captivity in a small locked room is inherent in the very idea of the story’s premise, and Jack isn’t the one who feels the urge to flee, but Jack must be able to see how uncomfortable his mother is in Room and make a greater point of it. Still, even with the full impact of Room reserved for the end of the story, it’s a bone-chilling feeling to imagine what being kidnapped might feel like, and this book definitely makes an impact.

Further recommendations:

  1. Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews is an even-creepier book about captivity. In this one, there are four children who are locked away by their mother and grandmother, presumably to keep them safe and help secure funds for their futures, but months pass and they discover horrible secrets about the family that leave them dying to escape.
  2. If reading from the stalker’s perspective interests you, check out Caroline Kepnes’ novel, You, which you can find my review of here. Joe is a young man with a skewed view of reality, but you may occasionally find yourself sympathizing with him against all odds.

What’s next: I’m currently reading The Secret History by Donna Tart. It’s a great book about a young man who goes off to college and gets mixed up in an elite society when he tries to sign up for a Greek class. The other five students in the Greek program become his close friends, but Richard soon learns that they’re keeping a terrible secret, and something even worse looms ahead–and this time, Richard will be involved. Stay tuned to learn more about the mysterious lives of the strangest Greek class to ever exist.

Books are the only acceptable captors. Stay safe,

The Literary Elephant

Review: We Were Liars

Hey summer readers, grab some shades and a sunny chair, because this book is all about summer, and you should make it part of yours. If you like YA books with private islands and unreliable narrators, this one’s for you.

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I remember being terrified that I would grow up but never grow out of YA books. I don’t know why, exactly, but my teenage self thought that perusing the YA shelves as an adult was an awful prospect. It turned out not to matter much, because the adult fiction section is also pretty great and I transitioned out of YA pretty naturally. I still have a lot of respect for the genre, though, so when a YA book really stands out, I do still venture back to those shelves to keep from missing something great. That’s what We Were Liars was for me–I heard so many good things about it that I had to check it out for myself, and I am so glad that I did.

About the book: Cady is one of four kids the same age who spend their summers with the Sinclair family on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. Cady’s grandparents are rich–wealthy enough to support their three struggling daughters through their divorces and cover the expenses of bringing all three generations of the family to the four personalized houses on the island for the entire summer. Time is running out, though, to settle the elder Sinclairs’ estate, and the disputes about money are driving them all apart. The parents use their children as leverage to get the money they want while their trust funds start to run dry–Cady is the oldest grandchild, but she’s a girl. Johnny’s only three weeks younger, and he’ll carry on the Sinclair name, but he’s not very smart. Mirren is book smart, but she’s afraid to take risks. And then there’s Gat, Johnny’s almost stepbrother, who is both smart and savvy, ambitious and hard-working, but he wasn’t born a Sinclair at all, and will never quite fit in. There are the littles, of course, the young siblings, but it’ll be one of the eldest to inherit. From the outside, the family’s perfect, but the four Liars can see the cracks, and they spend summer fifteen trying to wedge the pieces apart to see if the family and their precious summers can last. Cady is in love with Gat, but even more in love with the idea of removing the powerful grip that the family money holds in all of their lives. Something happens at the end of summer fifteen to change everything, but Cady can’t remember what. She was sent away for summer sixteen, and now, in summer seventeen, is trying to piece it all back together, to heal, and be one of the Liars again before it all changes forever.

“My third week on-island is ticking by and a migraine takes me out for two days. Or maybe three. I can’t even tell. The pills in my bottle are getting low, though I filled my prescription before we left home. I wonder if Mummy is taking them. Maybe she has always been taking them. Or maybe the twins have been coming in my room again, lifting things they don’t need. Maybe they’re users. Or maybe I am taking more than I know. Popping extra in a haze of pain. Forgetting my last dose.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of this story for me is the use of an unreliable narrator. The excerpt above is just one reason not to trust her–she’s on heavy medication and she’s not entirely sure how much she’s taking or how it’s affecting her. She also opens the story by admitting that her family puts on a false show of perfection for the public, and even amongst her family members she and her friends are referred to as the Liars, a name they don’t refute. The central focus of this book is Cady’s attempt to uncover a truth so terrible she’s hiding it from herself, and the only way to piece it together is to sort through years of lies. It’s a play on reality that keeps the reader constantly wondering who to trust and what to believe. There are additional layers of fiction woven in by Cady’s inclusion of fairy tales that both fantasize her family and shed new light on their personalities. It’s easy to imagine the entire story as one emassed fairy tale that Cady creates for the fun of it–except some truths can’t be denied, even in the ficitons she spins.

Another thing I loved about this book was the style of the prose. The whole book is quick and easy to read, sharply lyrical, verging toward poetry at points. Lockhart calls attention to certain events and emotions with vivid imagery as Cady exaggerates the world and her reactions to it:

“My father put a last suitcase into the backseat of the Mercedes (he was leaving Mummy with only the Saab), and started the engine. / Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a flower bed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound, / then from my eyes, / my ears, / my mouth. / It tasted like salt and failure.  The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of the path, the steps to the porch. My heart spasmed among the peonies like a trout. / Mummy snapped. She said to get hold of myself.”

This is a great example of Cady fusing her feelings into her version of reality, almost so seamlessly the reader is left to wonder whether she even understands that she’s lying at all. Certainly she makes no effort in her narration to distinguish between fact and exaggeration. She often describes physical death when something emotionally difficult happens to her in this book. The line breaks (indicated with a “/”) also add emphasis to the imagery and control the pacing of the narration in order to indicate emotion. Here’s another example of the poetic nature of the prose in We Were Liars:

“And maybe, / just maybe, / he’d come back one day, / and burn that / [stupid] / palace / to the ground.”

A warning: The book is essentially about a family of rich snobs that all think they know best. They don’t know the names of their staff, they’re destructive and wasteful, and money is always a top concern. Even the ones who are aware of it act entitled. Cady is a spoiled girl who seems to understand that her mother and aunts will be in trouble when their trust funds run out, but she isn’t at all concerned about what that could mean for her personally or how it might affect her life if she and her mother don’t inherit the Sinclair estate. She’s a teenager who understands that fighting over the money is driving her family apart, but she’s not accustomed to worrying about consequences. Then again, these factors open the world of possibilities that make this story possible. The lies and lyricism of the prose were enough to balance it out for me, but if you can’t cope with the rich snobbiness, the arguments over embroidered tablecloths and ivory figurines, this may not be the book for you. Cady isn’t exactly a detestable character, but her familiarity with a lifetime of wealth is something to be aware of with this book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was a surprise favorite; I had heard that it was a great summer read about rich kids on the beach of their private island, but it was the tragedy of the story that I loved. I wanted to write more about the beautiful, tragic irony of this book in more detail, but I didn’t want to spoil the ending. I must note, though, that the incredible dark twist was my favorite part, and brought all of the characters’ actions and personalities together for me. Even though they were rich and entitled, their problems weren’t completely negligible; the Liars were worried about their family and the threat the fighting posed to time that they spent together as friends in the summer. Even though it’s told through a haze of money, We Were Liars is a story about love, loss, and responsibility; it’s about growing up, and learning that there are things you can’t change about who you are.

Further recommendations:

  1. John Green’s Looking for Alaska is another YA book about self-discovery, love and loss. It’s an emotional book about adventure and growing up, another great choice to take poolside and enjoy with some sun.
  2. For something a little heavier but still perfect for summer, experience the other end of the money spectrum with Virginia Wolff’s Make Lemonade. Two teenaged girls struggling to make lift their families out of poverty come up against the harsh realities of an unfair world and fight for a better fate.

What’s next: Told from the perspective of one small boy who’s been locked in a soundproofed room with his mother for five years, Emma Donoghue’s Room is a masterpiece about family, freedom, and time. With everything at stake, five year-old Jack must be willing to brave the outside world to save himself and his mother from the captivity to which he’s become accustomed. Stay tuned to find out more!

As you set sail on summer reading adventures, I say,

Bon Voyage!

The Literary Elephant