Jessie Burton

Three New Books

Last week, our public library’s hold shelf held the mother lode for me… a whole bunch of new books that I had reserved and been anticipating for weeks. I’ve read three of them, and here is what I think.

The first one I read, Lucky Us by Amy Bloom, is the one I was most excited about. I’d read a couple of reviews and was very much looking forward to it.

Lucky Us wasn’t quite what I was hoping it would be. Maybe those glowing reviews raised my hopes up to unrealistic heights. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very interesting story. It’s not just another book set during the Depression and World War II. The tales of Iris, the adventurous aspiring actress, are original and fresh. The physical details of some (not all) of the settings are lush and add a lot to the narrative.

I think where this book falls flat, though, is in the first-person voice of the sidekick sister, Eva. Even though I would expect to know her best of all because she is the narrator in alternating chapters, there is a definite distance there. She just seems to drift along, an outsider in her own story. She’s surrounded by these charismatic characters and interesting plot lines, but none of them ever seems to reach her at a deep level. It kind of makes me wonder if the stories in this novel would function better as short stories, eliminating the flat narration of the character who is outside looking in, and is literally left with the baby as other characters pursue their ambitions.

Also, I didn’t like the ending at all. The pacing was forced, and I could not believe in the relationships that came together at the end of the book. Flipping back and experiencing the energy of the earlier scenes in the novel, it makes me sad that that energy wasn’t sustained until the end for me.  You should still read it. It’s different from any other book I’ve read that’s set in this era, and that’s an important distinction.

After this mild disappointment, I was set to dive into The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. And, oh, what a luscious dive it was. Complicated characters, fascinating setting, ambiguous plot line… yes, I loved the story of young Nella arriving from her small village in Delft, poised to experience the bustling, international flavor of Amsterdam. Yes, I could see the major complication in her marriage coming from about five miles away, but watching the drama unfold seemed to make up for that. It’s interesting to watch an author create a setting in historical fiction that deals with social issues that would not have been spoken about at the time. If ambiguity bothers you, this book will truly drive you crazy. I loved trying and failing to figure out what on earth was going on in this book. I am definitely going to read it again, and you should read it too.

I wasn’t so sure I knew where I wanted to go from here, so I chose the book I thought I should return to the library sooner rather than later because it had a long reserve list. This book is The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. This is a book I never would have chosen for myself, but I applied for a job at a library that was holding a book discussion based on this novel, and I thought if I made the interview it would look really good that I had read it. At this point, I’m doubting I made the cut for the job interview, but I’m certainly glad I read this book.

This book has been described as a romantic comedy, and I guess the story fits that description. But it’s so much more than that. The narrator, Don Tillman, could be described as someone who is on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum, but he never quite is, even though there are some hints. When I realized where the hints were leading, I groaned inside.  I hated Al Capone Does My Shirts. I hated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. When this story was being set up as yet another plot line with an autistic protagonist, I prepared myself to hate it too. Not that I have a problem with an autistic protagonist. I don’t. I have a problem with unsuccessful attempts to work with this kind of character in fiction, and in my view neither of the other books were successful. They were stilted, stumbling, and stereotypical.

However, this author succeeds where the other ones failed me. Don misses social cues, fixates on details, and is rigid in his routines, all of which we’ve seen in other characters in other books. I’m trying to figure out why this story is different. I think it’s because Don has figured out how to successfully navigate the world around him. He’s not being protected from it by other characters. His actual problems, job satisfaction and his love life, are universal to the human condition. I love it that the lobster vendor is waiting for him every Tuesday and that he’s earned special privileges as an airplane passenger. Also, Don is able to let go of his rigid plans when it is most important to do so. This book is funny and a real roller-coaster ride. The other characters are strong, amusing, and well-drawn. I think that whoever the librarian is who chose this for a book discussion is very, very good at her job. It’s a feel-good book that also feels like something wholly new. You should read this one, too, and suggest it to your book club if you’re in one.

I’ve still got some books in my new stack. Can’t wait to get to them.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy