Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

This book is actually a collection of short stories. Although all the stories take place in the same town and characters are connected through genealogy - each chapter is its own entity.

Moving chronologically through time, The Red Garden, begins with the founding of Blackwell, Massachusetts and moves up to the present. Each chapter (or story) jumps forward in time so as you meet new characters, you watch the town of Blackwell develop. That is actually the most fascinating aspect of this collection - how the town grows and changes as the book goes on. You see how real events become town folklore as time goes by, how names of places change over time, and how events that felt so significant in the moment fade from generation to generation.

I liked the town better than most of the people in it. I found some characters simply uninteresting and wasn't vested in their stories. At times I felt the stranger aspects of the stories (because nothing is totally simple with a Hoffman character) to be forced and uncomfortable. The narrative gets a little inconsistent too as we move into modern times. The greatest character is, in fact, the red garden itself, which sits in the back of the Founders' House and survives throughout the entire arc of time. The garden seems to hold some magic infused into it by the heavy emotions, Hallie, one of the founders, experienced while living there. Characters' interactions with the garden felt the most powerful.

Mostly, this was an interesting book about all that one town can survive - tragedies, heartaches, miracles, love, and families - and for that this is a pretty good book.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman

Let me start off by saying I really liked this book. Despite the fact that all the characters are sad and/or distraught, despite the fact that a horrifically tragic event takes place - the writing is simply amazing. The book is so vivid without being wordy. Sentences are expertly strung together to create a completely engaging story even while you cringe through the scenes.

I say all this first so the plot won't dissuade you from reading this book. Don't miss out because you're worried about the story being a downer.

The book begins in the middle of Emilia's story. She's already ended a marriage in order to create her own love story, becoming the hated step-mother in the process. Once a successful lawyer, Emilia is now an aimless soul who has just lost her own daughter to SIDS. In heavy mourning, Emilia is struggling to re-center herself while trying to connect with her five-year-old stepson. Not an easy thing to do when being around children plummets her deeper into the well of depression.

So, I wasn't kidding about this being a sad book, but it's not a depressing book. Emilia is just lost. She has too much to process and lacks the confidence to face it all head-on. This all makes Emilia feel human, feel real. It's not hard to connect on some level with her. Actually, all Waldman's characters are like this. Even William, the overly-informative stepson is described so clearly that you're able to get into this head just a little.

This is a book about compassion rather than despair and I really liked how reading it made me feel.

As a side note, Waldman is married to another amazing writer, Michael Chabon. If you've never read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay run, don't walk, and get a copy NOW!