This installment: Winterson’s first autobiographical novel; a Nova Scotia novel about childbirth; interlocking stories from WWII in England; Oates at (perhaps) her darkest; post WWII in Canada; linked stories of betrayal by a movie star who can write.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Here’s her bizarre growing up in fictional form, written in 1985. (Her wonderful memoir came out recently.) An Evangelical mother who adopted her to be the Child of the Lord. Battling sin and demons at every turn, but the child turns out to be an “abomination” herself because she loves women. A mix of grotesque, earthy humor and stories with rueful fondness for her very weird mother and her community where, luckily, there were a few odd women who supported her covertly.
The Birth House by Anne McKay
Dora Dores has six older brothers in rural Nova Scotia. She hangs out with old Marie, a Cajun healer/midwife and is being groomed as her successor. But at 17 she’s of age, her family is poor, and she’s married off to rich, charming Archer, a brutal wastrel. It’s misery all around. Meanwhile scientific obstetrics rears its head—this is 1917—and the greedy, pompous Dr. Coming tries to discredit local ways and amass customers. Lots of drama in which our heroine takes herself to Boston while her fate is being sorted out and gets a taste of sophisticated Bohemian life. She’s a pacifist during WWII. The writer, in her author’s notes, likens much of the novel as quilting together fragments of history and lore. Ads, clippings, and old remedies add verisimilitude. A rip-roaring story.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
WWII in England with interlocking stories. Actually a tangled chain of them and the grand literary trick of starting in one year, backing up 3, backing up 3 again which finally reveals why everyone’s got their knickers in a twist, as it were. We start in ’47 with a couple, Helen and Julia, at odds. An eccentric isolated woman, K, lives above Mr. Monday. He’s a retired prison warden and a Christian Scientist who does vigils for the afflicted every evening (hence the book’s title). His lodger, who calls him uncle and tucks him into bed every night, is a haunted young man, Duncan. Duncan’s sister Viv, who works in a matchmaking bureau with Helen, is dating a married cad, Reggie. Everyone’s struggling with ill-fitting relationships, loneliness, and/or dark secrets. Rich and sad.
Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates
Oh does Oates love horrid themes, and you’d think I’d be in heaven with so much dark material. But what is it about this writer that is sometimes even too much for my ghoulish interests? The eponymous villain is a preacher/pedophile who abducts a young boy, Robbie. He’s part of a succession of victims who aged out and were “discarded” terminally. It’s hell for the parents, of course: drop your kid’s hand for one minute while distracted and look what happens. Oates lays out how the preacher keeps Robbie in thrall for years until he goes out to fetch a new young victim and essentially turns Robbie loose in the woods. As you can imagine, home-coming is fraught. The mom is haunted by guilt; the son is deeply damaged. Fascinating, but definitely not a feel-good read here.
The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
“Lily,” a WWII refugee, shows up in Montreal to meet her unknown husband to be, Sol. He takes one look at her and on a mysterious impulse decides she’s not for him. His brother Nathan marries her instead. Then Sol has regrets but marries young Elka, and the families are intertwined for years. However Lily disappears when their daughter is 3 months old. The secret she carries: she stole the identity of a dead girl and feels terminally hollow, so she flees to wild, empty country. Her daughter Sophie searches for clues to her mother’s whereabouts and finally connects way down the line. A journal in Yiddish, an uncut diamond, the birthday presents of beautiful rocks throughout the years are the only clues. Rich characterizations, and a good embedded mystery.
When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald
Initially I bypassed this because she’s a movie star and it got less than stellar reviews. But then I succumbed and am glad I did. Linked stories of betrayals with an LA family at their core. I was especially intrigued by the ones about a little boy who insists he’s a girl (a subject of constant fascination to me), a kids’ TV host let go for peccadilloes, infertility issues and what to do with all those frozen embryos when the couple split up. I had a little trouble with the title story, a litany of interior anguish, but really enjoyed the rest.
Back next Monday...