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The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Interestings

whatsheread, May 11, 2013

Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, The Interestings, explores the decades-long friendship of five friends and their lives both together and separate. Meeting in their teens at a liberal arts camp, the group stay connected through separate colleges and get even closer as they enter into long-term relationships, have families, and start careers. Their individual paths are not what any of them expected or dreamed, but they each find success in different ways. More importantly, they remain available for the highs and lows in each of their lives. This character drama plays out over the span of decades and explores the highs and lows of life.

The fault of The Interestings lies in little things that aggravate and annoy rather than in one big deficiency. For one, the group is too old to have fallen prey to the “everyone is a winner” mindset that is proving so difficult with Millennials in the business world, and yet, that is exactly how they act. Having come of age in the 1970s, this Gen X group would have been subjected to the same tough standards and competition that defines their generation. However, they act like the much younger Millennial generation when they each take their talent as a youth and consider it a given that they will be able to make careers out of it, when the chances of that happening are slim to none - as the story soon proves. The truly interesting part of all of this is that it is not the parents who are encouraging them to “live their dreams”; the parents are actually quite realistic about their chances. Yet, the parents are shown as harsh and judgmental. This interaction between parents and kids, and the whole idea of being able to turn a childhood talent into a successful career is just not generation-appropriate.

Also, there is a disturbing trend in fiction to use a character’s full name throughout a novel rather than just once or twice for character introductions. Even after decades of friendship, it is still Ash Wolf and Jonah Bay rather than just Ash and Jonah. After a book is two-thirds over, is a character’s last name truly that important? It is a slight thing but seriously annoying, and it serves no obvious purpose. This sort of description is happening though more often in novels, but that does not mean that it is a welcome trend.

Speaking of characters, there is something quite despicable about Jules and Ash. Jules’ blind worship of anything related to the Wolf family is disturbing. Ash is too full of herself to be taken seriously, and yet, that is exactly what everyone does. She has a power that is undeserved, unless it comes down to the power associated with a beautiful girl. Her feminist career path is hypocritical after the stance she takes towards her brother’s “transgression”, and for that reason it is difficult to take her seriously. While there is no doubt that she does love Ethan and Jules, there is still a false note in each of those relationships. Forcing her friends to take her brother’s side or else risk their friendship, failing to include her husband on one key element of her family history - they are terribly manipulative and make it difficult to accept her as is.

As for Jules, her hero worship of Ash is understandable at first but quickly devolves into the absurd as the years pass. Their adult friendship also strikes a false note, as Jules goes back to her apartment and mocks everything about Ash’s new life but accepts the free vacations and other perks associated with being friends with millionaires. At more than one point in the novel, a reader asks just why the two are friends, and it is very difficult to discern valid reasons for the relationship lasting as long as it does. Jules would definitely be happier if Ash were not such a prominent feature in her life. Both girls are meant to be tragic but come across as close-minded and bitter instead.

The true heart of the novel, and the stories that derive the most sympathy, are Jonah’s and Ethan’s. Jonah is the odd man out - the friend on the fringe - but by staying on the sidelines, he manages to be the most normal of the group. His childhood tragedy is just that, and it is easy to see why he steps away from his music. He finds a fulfilling job, relationships, and a modicum of success that most people aim to achieve. In other words, he is refreshingly ordinary in spite of his talent and his musical childhood. Ethan is similarly sympathetic and enjoyable. A reader has no doubts about the fact that he loves Jules and has always loved her, and this definitely makes him a tragic figure. His success is genuine, unlike Ash’s, and his initial discomfort at her newfound wealth is endearing…until Ash tells him that he needs to start spending money. One gets the feeling that without Ash’s influence, Ethan would have been the one friend to have changed the least. Again, like Jules and Ash, there is a ring of falseness surrounding his marriage to Ash that is disconcerting. There is nothing wrong with dislikable characters, but there are one too many characters that do not ring true, and in a character-driven novel, this makes it very difficult to enjoy the narrative.

Jen Tullock takes a no-nonsense approach to narrating The Interestings . Her delivery is very matter-of-fact and distant, and it takes a while for a listener to adjust to it. In a way, her delivery makes sense as the narrator truly is a disinterested third party. Still, leaving all of the emotional context to the dialogue of the characters can be very off-putting. As for her characterization, Ms. Tullock does a decent job. Some of her female characters sound a bit like valley girls and her male characterizations have that pseudo-bass note that all women trying to pose as men use. Given the rampant use of each character’s name, The Interestings is one novel where the use of different voices and tonalities is not necessary to keeping track of the dialogue, and her performance might have been stronger had she kept the use of different voices to a minimum. As such, the audio version of The Interestings doesn’t quite work. Ms. Tullock’s performance does nothing to enhance the story, and considering how unemotional her performance is and how little action there is in the story, one would be better served reading it in print versus listening to it.

The Interestings just does not live up to its name. The group of friends have all of youth’s pretentiousness when they meet, which is to be expected, but they sadly never lose this attribute as they age. They come across as snobs, and it is difficult for readers to feel anything other than slight contempt for them. The insertion of political issues into the narrative is distracting and does nothing to enhance the story. While the study of talent versus success is intriguing, there is a considered lack of realism in this that mars this particular plot element. Similarly, there is nothing to promote a strong reader-character connection, and the story tends to plod along as it focuses on the minutiae of the group’s everyday lives. The Interestings are just not that interesting.
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The Cuckoo's Calling by J. K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith
The Cuckoo's Calling

whatsheread, May 9, 2013

A famous model plunges to her death from her third-story flat, and the world mourns for a few frenzied weeks. Such is the life and death of a celebrity. To her family members though, the ruling of death by suicide does not sit well, prompting them to look up an old family friend cum private detective to search for the truth. Enter Cormoran Strike, former military police, wounded in Afghanistan, and now facing the sudden and volatile break-up with his long-time girlfriend. His business is failing, and now that his relationship is over, he has no home. What he does have is a careful attention to detail, a passion for justice, and the intellect necessary to use one to achieve the other. As he goes about his business searching for clues and hard proof to back up his suspicions, he is helped by his extremely competent and adorably innocent secretary, Robin. Together, they ferret out the truth and uncover a surprising plot for fame, money, and glory.

Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo's Calling is a true, old-fashioned murder mystery, albeit without the misogynistic, machismo tendencies such novels traditionally have. In true detective novel fashion, it is the characters that makes the story so enjoyable. Cormoran Strike is at once sympathetic and more than a bit scary. He is hairy, large, and extremely capable. There is a coldness to him, due to his past experiences in the military, that makes itself known in every little action and word. Yet, he is endearingly sweet, careful around his loved ones, and still very vulnerable thanks to his mental and physical wounds. It is this vulnerability onto which a reader will latch, as he struggles to pull his life back together while attempting to discern the truth. Similarly, Robin is a delightful counterpoint to Cormoran’s fumblings. She is exceedingly competent at her job, appears delicate but has a backbone of steel when needed, and has the type of caring attitude that her boss needs to further his healing. Moreover, she is intelligent and very good at thinking on her feet, something Cormoran appreciates, recognizes as a huge asset, and for which gives her credit. Robin is not the bimbo secretary there to take his calls and organize his schedule and files, nor does he treat her like one. Theirs is definitely a modern-day partnership, with all the respect and appreciation good working relationships generate.

The Cuckoo's Calling harkens back to old-school detective novels. Cormoran has all the modern-day sensitivities even if he is a man’s man with his massive bulk, his non-metrosexual body hair, military history and accolades, and intimidating demeanor. Robin, for all her tidiness and appearance of delicacy, is the perfect foil for Comoran, and together they make a great team. Also, the story itself is one of the few mysteries in recent months that actually remains a mystery until the very end. The use of well-hidden clues and plenty of red herrings excel at throwing readers off the scent of the truth. Mirroring Cormoran’s detective work, the novel is methodical and deliberate, and while there is little action, the resolution is as satisfactory as it is surprising because of the time Mr. Galbraith takes in developing his characters and establishing the plot. Because of the care Mr. Galbraith takes to establish his story, The Cuckoo's Calling is not meant for slapdash, quick reading. Instead, it requires the same deliberately slow reading pace used to set the tone of the novel. However, because the story is so careful and exactly in its details, a reader will not mind at all to spend a little more time with the adorable Robin and vulnerable yet daunting Cormoran Strike.
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The Night Rainbow by Claire King
The Night Rainbow

whatsheread, May 8, 2013

Pea and Margot are lonely. Their beloved Papa has died in a tragic accident, and Maman is exhausted with grief and with the extra exertion that comes in a woman’s final few months of pregnancy. The girls do everything possible to help their mother - stay out of the house, clean up, make meals, and take care of themselves while Maman sleeps - but her despair seems to grow. Rescue from their own growing despondency comes in the form of a mysterious man. He looks scary but is not and soon provides them the love and friendship they so desperately crave - not to mention nourishment and supervision. However, Claude has his own secrets, and others do not take quite as kindly to his help as Pea and Margot do. As Maman nears the end of her pregnancy, the girls find themselves immersed in an adult feud that they not only cannot understand but which frightens them. Claire King’s The Night Rainbow explores the girls’ search for happiness and understanding in a world left bereft after Papa’s death and Maman’s ongoing depression.

The synopsis of The Night Rainbow sounds incredibly depressing, but the story itself is surprisingly upbeat and cheerful. Pea is a delightful narrator. Her narrative is simple and age-appropriate, as she shares Margot’s and her thought processes on how they can help Maman feel good enough to get out of bed and take care of them. At age five, her grasp of the adult side of things is severely limited, yet her observation skills are excellent and she shares more with a reader than she realizes or comprehends. The childish sense of hope and faith never wavers even through Pea’s darker moments, making this very tragic story something wonderful to experience.

Ms. King’s prose is absolutely gorgeous. She captures the spectacular setting with clear and precise descriptions that evoke all five senses, but she does so in such a way that makes it obvious that the descriptions are from Pea’s viewpoint. She imbues the most innocuous things with a twinge of fear while she styles other things, that which adults might find uncomfortable, with wonder and astonishment. This not only confirms Pea’s place in the story but adds a large-than-life element to the entire setting that fits perfectly with the story at large.

The Night Rainbow is not flashy nor is it all that exciting. It is, however, an excellent study about the grieving process and an absolutely beautiful story about the preciousness of a child’s unwavering love and loyalty. The plot reveals itself slowly, in delicate layers that enhance the emotional upheaval Pea feels throughout the story. Speaking of Pea, she charms readers with her childhood innocence and desperate yearning. As each puzzle pieces fall into place, readers get the chance to understand everything that Pea cannot and the full picture is truly agonizing in its depths. Yet, Pea’s dogged optimism in light of the ongoing tragedy makes her the type of child character with whom readers fall in love and The Night Rainbow the type of novel that will haunt readers long after finishing it.
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The Program: The Complete Guide to Integrative Therapies by Suzanne Young
The Program: The Complete Guide to Integrative Therapies

whatsheread, May 8, 2013

In a not-so-distant future, teen suicides have reached epidemic proportions. The government’s response is The Program, a course of treatment that erases any depressing memories, thereby allowing patients to move on with their lives. To the parents, its track record of 100 percent recovery justifies any uncomfortableness surrounding it. To those who are in danger, it is a constant source of worry and tension as no one wants to lose their memories or worse. Sloane and James have managed to survive without becoming infected or drawing unwarranted, and unwanted, attention to them. However, it is still a long time until they are legal adults and out of the reaches of The Program, and the fight to appear calm and happy grows increasingly more difficult as they watch their friends succumb one at a time. It is just a matter of time before The Program comes for them, and their desperation is palpable. Suzanne Young’s The Program deftly weaves the emotional turmoil Sloane experiences and uses it to both confuse and entice readers, leaving them wondering just how good The Program really is.

While young adult romances have arguably been overdone, there is something about James and Sloane. The Program classifies their relationship as co-dependent and the reason why they both get sick, and it is a viable opinion. A reader can see how they feed off of one another and filled with survivor’s guilt. At the same time, though, a reader can also see the legitimacy of their feelings. Sloane is a different person when she is around James - happier, relaxed, comfortable. It is when they are apart that they succumb to the pressures of the near-constant surveillance. They may be young, but their bond is more than due to their mutual grief and guilt. Theirs is a relationship that grew over time, and Sloane’s memories prove that. Sloane and James are two bright spots of hope within a story that is bleak and clinical.

Those potential readers worried about reading yet another dystopian novel should have no fear. Actually, to classify The Program as a dystopian novel is to lump this clever story into a bloated, heavily diluted genre. There is nothing about the setting that indicates the fall of society. There is no group of people struggling to exist. There is no futuristic (or archaic) technology. The novel is better served when classified as an alternative reality-type novel, where the only thing that is different or otherworldly is the idea of depression as a contagious, and often terminal, infection.

Speaking of the infection, there are so many questions left unanswered about it, and therein lies some of the story’s power. The questions raised by Sloane and through a reader’s own curiosity hint at a more insidious plot than what The Program would have one believe. Yet, there is nothing concrete to confirm those hints. Is this depression really an infection to be cured, or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy created by the constant surveillance and pressure these teens face on a daily basis? How much is internal and how much of their sickness external? For that reason, The Program is incredibly intense. There is the underlying threat of danger that evokes a reader’s flight-or-fight response, but the truly interesting part is that this supposed danger could easily be explained as Sloane’s paranoia. A reader must decide whether Sloane’s suspicions and fears are over-the-top teen angst or truly deserved. The doubt - Sloane’s and the reader’s own - makes the story that much more compelling, as one tries to decipher if Sloane’s hatred of The Program is justified. A reader’s own uncertainties create a level of anxiety that only adds to the already heightened tension.

The Program should come with a warning label cautioning readers about elevated blood pressure and racing pulses. It is a natural reaction to this powerful story, where the truth might not be what it seems. Then again, it very well might be exactly what it seems. On the surface, the idea of a suicide epidemic is appalling, and it makes sense that the government would get involved in saving an entire generation. Then, The Program happens. Sloane’s experiences are heart-breaking in their cruelty, and watching her lose certain memories is very upsetting. Her struggle to get her life back after her return is just as agonizing. Just like Sloane, a reader has many unanswered questions, which leave one feeling unbalanced at all of the possibilities. Yet, these very same possibilities are 100 percent enticing and draw a reader further into the story’s web. The Program is a strong contender for one of the better releases this spring and definitely worth getting drawn into another series.
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Orphan Train: Novel by Christina Baker Kline
Orphan Train: Novel

whatsheread, May 2, 2013

During the late 1800s and into the 1900s, orphans from the major East coast cities were packed up and shipped off to the Midwest in hopes of finding them new families and opportunities that did not and would not exist for them had they remained on the streets. By most accounts, several hundred thousand children found themselves newly arrived in the Midwest through these orphan trains. Vivian Daly is one such orphan, having lost her family first through immigration from Ireland and then again in a tragic fire. Now, at the age of 91, with an attic filled with memories, she sets out to help another orphan who arrives at her doorstep in search of answers she doesn’t know she needs. Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train explores their extraordinary friendship and their stories that helped make them the women they are today.

The historical elements of Orphan Train are absolutely fascinating, and one wonders why more is not known or written about the real-life orphan trains. Vivian’s experiences bring to life the fears and challenges these orphans faced as they were shipped across the country in search of a better life. What she finds is not necessarily a surprise but still heartbreaking as it shows how unwanted these children were even in faraway states. The fact that so many of them were not only able to survive the bleak conditions they found but also thrive is a testament to their fortitude and survival skills, and more attention should be paid to this generation of children who lost everything but found themselves.

The writing within Orphan Train is simple but beautiful. There are no flashy descriptions, and Ms. Kline uses dialogue sparingly but effectively. While the story itself is predictable, there is an element of methodical tension that keeps a reader’s interest. The plot unfolds slowly and carefully, and this pacing only barely covers the emotional turmoil underlying Vivian’s and Molly’s stories. There is no doubt this is deliberate on the part of Ms. Kline but in no way feels manipulative but rather a careful choice to allow a reader to get to seen beneath the words and understand the truth. That is not to say that the words themselves are completely without emotion. On the contrary, there is a lot that is said, but it is what is not said that drives home both the girls’ plights.

Both Molly and Vivian make delightful heroines and complement each other perfectly, even though their friendship is a foregone conclusion before they even meet. Yet, even the predictability of their friendship and Molly’s transformation under Vivian’s subtle influence does nothing to detract from the enjoyment of their interactions. Vivian’s stories give Molly the strength to try to improve the situation in her current foster home but also the willingness to step out on her own when it doesn’t work. In reliving her past, Vivian highlights how important it is to rely on one’s own strengths and intelligence and not on others. It is an important message, not only for Molly but for the reader as well.

Orphan Train is not without its bit of controversy however. First, there is the idea of shipping hundreds of thousands of orphans westward itself. The goal was to prevent these children from slipping into lives of crime and intense impoverishment, but the reality was that the program’s directors were seeking to find anyone willing to take these children, and it didn’t matter the reasons why the adults wanted the kids. Without any sort of vetting process or protection services for the children, some found themselves in even worse straits than they were in the East, and the mere idea of this is absolutely horrifying in today’s age. In addition, some of Vivian’s actions are quite surprising and, depending on one’s viewpoint, could be highly upsetting to readers. Her biggest secret is a well-kept one, and most readers won’t pick up on it until the big reveal. The surprise and shock of her decision will stun readers and generate an intense debate as to the rightness or wrongness of her actions. It is truly a special book that can do this and still remain appealing.

Ms. Kline’s Orphan Train is a beautiful piece of historical fiction interwoven within a modern-day story. With elements of social commentary towards the modern foster system as well as an inside look at the orphan train system around the turn of the century, it is provides food for thought and educational points. In addition, both Vivian and Molly are equally strong, independent, and yet endearingly fragile, more than earning a reader’s sympathy and empathy. Between their two stories, one understands how far the country has come in its treatment of orphans and how far we still need to go in order to protect this vulnerable demographic. Because of the grace with which it educates and yet forces a reader to debate some its more surprising elements, Orphan Train is a worthy addition to the wealth of fabulous spring releases this year.
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