For Those Who Enjoy Melancholy Stories

The Sunken Cathedral

By Kate Walbert

How to describe Walbert’s short novel of interlaced lives of people living in New York City under the pall of sad memories and impending doom? Something like being confined to a single room in gloaming caused by an unending rain storm seems about right. This isn’t to say the novel isn’t good, for it is in its own special way; it is to say the novel is not for everybody and certainly not for those who like a soupçon of joy in what they read.

Walbert opens with three elderly women–Helen, Simone, and Marie–seeking to occupy their time and share by participating in a painting class led by the disheveled and not very successful artist Sid Morris. In time, readers meet Elizabeth, a renter in Marie’s brownstone burdened with an incubus from her childhood, and her husband and teenage son. Later, along come the leaders of Progressive K-8, the school Elizabeth’s son attends, and then Jules, son of Marie, and his partner Larry. Periodically, readers also learn about the women’s deceased husbands and their lives together, much of this related in extensive footnotes. Not really ancillary to the stories but integral to understanding the melancholy of the women’s lives, these are an unusual and interesting but not always welcome way to expand upon the backstories of the characters. Death and longing play a large part in the stories, as does the fear of destructive natural forces.

In case you’re wondering, the title refers to the inspiration for Helen’s painting in Sid’s class, Claude Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie piano prelude, an impressionistic piece attempting to evoke the sense of the legend of the mythical city of Ys built off the coast of Brittany by King Gradlon. He built it for his daughter Dahut who ultimately opened the gates to flooding in a besotted fit of possession by the devil himself and destroyed it.

In fact, you might say, Walbert’s novel is much like Debussy’s aural attempt, except Walbert’s is an impressionistic piece in words of lives in a city that will eventually sink into the ocean. It may work for some but certainly not all of us. w/c

Do You Believe in Cheater Love?

The Arrangement

By Sarah Dunn

Hand it to Sarah Dunn. She knows how to grab your attention and hold it, whether you are on a beach or flying to one. The Arrangement deals in fantasy, the fantasy some couples may have after five, ten years of marriage, and kids, and responsibilities. What would it be like to shuck all that, to feel like a newly minted twenty-something, to be truly and passionately (as in sexually passionate) in love? Here’s one version, courtesy of Dunn, albeit laced with a strong cautionary. People, it seems, have other emotions in addition to love and these can be ugly and rear their heads to make the whole affair rather unpleasant.

Owen and Lucy have been married a while. They have traded their life in Brooklyn for the bucolic, and more affordable, life in Beekman, NY (ah, yes, know it well; went to Sylvan Lake, next door to Beekman, to swim as a youth). They try hard to have a child, eventually go the IVF route. Wyatt, their son, appears to be autistic and quite a handful. You can appreciate how the couple might like to have a break from the daily, trying routine. At a patio dinner with friends from the city, they learn about a married couple, gay men with children, who are experimenting with a six-month arrangement, complete with rules, allowing each to seek sex elsewhere.

It isn’t long before Owen and Lucy decide to give it a try. Owen hooks up first and quickly with Izzy, who turns possessive and hounding. Lucy’s friend Sally Bang, the only really interesting name in the book, puts Lucy in touch with a divorced acquaintance, Ben. He turns out to be something of an emotional dream. Owen is harassed; Lucy is in love. (Male readers may ask why Owen gets the nut and Lucy the bliss? Duh, how dense you are, sir.) You’ll never guess? You guessed, the landing is hard for both and their marriage.

Dunn tosses in a couple of other stories that only tangentially link to the main plot. There’s the kindergarten teacher, Mr. Lowell, who decides to transform into Mrs. Lowell. Consequences follow, but many readers will wonder where the heck do you even find a male kindergarten teacher? The other concerns billionaire Gordon Allen and his wife, his fourth, a former cocktail waitress, whom he married spontaneously, so quick that he plumb forgot to have her sign a prenup. Talk about fantasy! Perhaps there are lessons in these tangents? The Lowell’s marriage appears to not just survive the change but flourish, whereas Gordon’s does what you’d expect, except for something of a novel reason.

Not to be too hard on the novel, because Dunn never intended it to be deathless prose, it’s perfect for the summer. It moves as quick as a summer thunderstorm. It often is hilarious, at least in the first half. And for those with thoughts of straying, of testing if the grass is indeed greener on the other side, of harboring any ideas of a similar arrangement, it is a kernel of reality. w/c

No Woman’s Diet Is an Island

The Middlesteins

By Jami Attenberg

In Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne penned an immortal line in the heart of “Meditations XVII” that begins, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Or, in the instance of Edie Middlestein, no woman.

Thus, as Edie over the years seeks refuge and solace in food, in massive and indiscriminate quantities of anything and everything, as she withdraws into herself, shields herself with layers of drooping fat, impervious to the pleadings of those who reach to help her, including her husband Richard, she sets off disruption in the Middlestein clan. It erupts with Richard leaving her, causing himself to become the object of scorn, for how could someone married so long to Edie desert her in her hour of desperate need? (It is an unsavory act but one seen often in real life on our national stage.)

As Edie forks and spoons herself to death, in close third-person, author Attenberg takes us into the minds of her family, Richard, son Benny and daughter-in-law Rachelle, grandchildren Josh and Emily, daughter Robin and her boyfriend Daniel, and a cast of friends spread over Chicago’s northern suburbs. In short, everybody is neurotic, sort of like the cast of a Woody Allen film, and readers get full doses of their worries, concerns, feelings of inadequacies, and other forms of angst.

Attenberg’s tale serves to remind us that as clichéd as Donne’s words might seem today, the guy was right: when that clog drops into the abyss, everybody feels it.

What makes the novel particularly rewarding is the distinctive voice Attenberg employs. It’s familiar, friendly, a bit stereotypical, better though to put us firmly in the place of the characters, making them more like flesh and blood people. One flaw, however, occurs when Attenberg takes us to twins Josh and Emily’s b’nai mitzvah. She switches from the intimate voice of family to that of an unidentified couple. It’s jarring, though not nearly as problematic in pushing you out of the novel as the switch to distant third-person in The Help, also at a party.

(Incidentally, for perhaps the most riotous bar mitzvah put to paper, read Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. You’ll be glad you did.)

Recommended for reminding us that each thing we do, even if we don’t fully realize it, affects others near and wide. w/c

Your Past Never Leaves You

The New Neighbor

By Leah Stewart

In this thoughtful psychological drama, Leah Stewart examines the lives of two women who share at least one thing in common, despite the great disparity in their ages: both harbor a similar dark secret in their pasts, one that has affected how they live and their personalities. Over the course of the novel, the secrets emerge and the women react in very similar fashion that will leave readers who require neat resolution dissatisfied. Though marketed as a thriller, readers will enjoy the novel more if they disabuse themselves of that notion on page one and read it more as a melodrama with two mysteries intertwined. If Stewart’s novel has a message, it’s that the past is forever, and that no matter how much and far you flee it or how much life you toss on top of it, it remains to haunt you awake and asleep.

The setting is Sewanee, Tennessee, home of The University of the South, on the Cumberland Plateau, an area of outcroppings and bluffs that make appearances in the novel. Margaret Riley is ninety-one, a retired nurse and vp of nursing at a hospital. As a young woman, she served as a nurse in WWII, traveling with the troops from Normandy to Germany, witnessing and treating much carnage along the way. She also formed a strong bond of friendship that may have had more emotionality on her part than with the target of her caring, Kay. Therein lies the secret she has kept all these years. Considering her calling in life, it proves very dark indeed, and, no, you’ve not guessed it.

Jennifer Young is, yes, young by comparison, with a toddler son, Milo. She turns up in town one day and rents the house across the pond from Margaret’s. From the time we first meet Jennifer, we know she is fleeing something in her past, her dark secret that proves multifaceted, encompassing her family, of which there is more than just Milo and herself.

Margaret, never married and pretty much cut off from her family, except for one niece she says she likes, lives a life of isolation. She occupies herself with murder mysteries and derives her small pleasures from figuring out the killer ahead of the end. When she sees the new neighbor for the first time from her deck across the pond with Jennifer on her own deck, she senses something about the woman and sets out learning all she can about the woman’s past. In the process of extracting information from Jennifer and delving into her past in other ways, Margaret enlists her to write down the story of her own life as a wartime nurse. And it’s here where Margaret reveals her own secret while interfering in Jennifer’s life, with traumatic consequences.

To say more would reveal the secrets that drive the novel along, the propulsion being your curiosity about what each hides, if they reveal themselves, and what will happen when they do. Here, let’s add that if you are the type who must like a character to engage in a novel, you might want to pass up this one. You certainly will want to like Jennifer and Margaret. However, Jennifer is too tightly wound up in her own misery and Margaret is anything but the imagined sweet little old lady.

Finally, around the halfway point, you might imagine yourself picking up on an obliquely placed literary reference to none other than Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and recalling the final whispered exclamation of Kurtz, “The horror! The horror!” And then you might contemplate the two women’s different attitudes to what they did and what they are hiding. Each you’ll find horrible in its own way. w/c

Can a Woman Have It All?

A Window Opens

By Elisabeth Egan

Can a woman have it all? Perhaps not all, but maybe everything important to her, once she knows what those are, the point of Elisabeth Egan’s novel. It’s an especially good read because it feels real. It feels real because challenges and concerns besetting narrator Alice Pearse will ring familiar to many readers. That Egan writes with splashes of wit and no pretense whatsoever add to the enjoyment.

Alice and her husband Nicholas seem to have it all. They live in an upscale suburban New Jersey community. He’s a lawyer in a firm in New York City. She’s a stay-at-home mom with a part-time job. They have a nice home that needs work but is comfortable. They have three young children and a dog. The bit of heartache in Alice’s life concerns her father, who has had throat cancer but who seems to be doing well several years after onset and treatment.

Then their lives become undone. Nicholas, learning he will not make partner in his firm, reacts with anger, thus burning his bridges to other large firms. He decides to open his own law office in their suburban community. Since it will take time to build his practice, it falls to Alice to find a job with a good salary and benefits, which she does, with a company that seems to play to her strengths and interests: books and reading. It’s a demanding job, a 24/7/365 type, with offices in New York, so toss in commuting. As you can imagine, her work and home life clash, causing all kinds of conflicts and feelings of guilt. Add to the mix a recurrence of her father’s cancer and Nicholas’s combination of veiled resentment at her apparent success, his lackadaisical approach to building his business, and his retreat into the bottle, and you can see the stress faced by Alice.

Readers will identify more strongly with different aspects of the novel: home life, caring for a sick parent, demanding work. There’s something for everybody here. However, those working in this age of constant communication and marketing newspeak will find the work scenes particularly interesting. Alice can never leave her work behind; it’s always with her; it interferes with what really matters to her. In fact, it turns against some things she prizes highly.

In the end, she has to make decisions about her family, her husband, her work, and what she values most. Some may not be entirely pleased with how the novel resolves itself in the end, but at least Egan attempts to address concerns confronting families these days. Four stars might be a bit generous, but it is better than most of this type. w/c