To my great dismay we have been talking on the internet this month about who is really the good person and who is really the bad person in a real-life story about a couple of writers. I hate the discourse, truly (I deeply deeply apologize for even REFERRING to this, a discourse I wish would never have happened in the first place and which I do not in any way want to prolong and if you don't know what I'm talking about please just appreciate that you are blessed) but what I hate about it the most is the way that we all so enjoy acting like we are some ultimate arbiter of morality, of what is good and what is bad. That we insist our take is the one true take is hilarious, that so many people who read and write fiction are doing it is even more so, given how much fiction there is about how impossible it is to be a good person and also whether anyone is actually good at all and also whether you can really know another person.
Most of the stories we are given, particularly in movies and tv, have a specific set of ideas about what makes a person good. And I find that specific set of ideas to be bullshit. I may find characters interesting but I don't find them to be good. I am hard on people, and I am only getting harder in our present moment where it feels like it is more and more difficult to find the most basic shreds of decency.
One of this week's new releases is Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. It is a companion book to My Name Is Lucy Barton, which was quite popular in 2016 and which I pointedly ignored at that time. I didn't like the title and I didn't like the cover and I had forgotten (not for the first time) that I like Strout a lot. Sometimes it takes a while for a writer to stick in my head, especially one that I first encountered before I was doing all this book blogging.
I finally read My Name Is Lucy Barton earlier this year when I heard that this book was coming and I thought, "Okay fine, if you're going to keep writing about this character then I suppose I will read it." I still think the title and the cover are bad, but that book was a big fat emotional wallop of the kind I didn't know I needed. Sometimes, especially in pandemic times, I need something that hits so deeply that it becomes a kind of cathartic experience to engage with it. Even if it isn't about your traumas or emotions, just feeling some kind of feelings, they don't even have to be your own feelings but sympathetic feelings towards a character, can activate something in you when you've been trying so hard not to feel your feelings so you can get through the day.
That was what happened to me with Lucy Barton. There were a few things I couldn't stop thinking about after I read it. Above all I was deeply aware of how kind and generous of a character Lucy is. The novel is mostly about her relationship with her mother, a woman who was complicit in a whole pile of deep traumas from Lucy's childhood, and Lucy is mostly forgiving towards her. I would not have been so kind.
I can't tell how much of this is a generational divide and how much of it is just me being petty and unforgiving. The new book, as I'll note below, is also about lingering traumas, though this time they belong to William, Lucy's ex-husband. They are not nothing, but they are not nearly so difficult as Lucy's. I was a little relieved when I realized it wouldn't be quite as much of an emotional workout.
On the other hand, I was once again so taken by how Lucy is so kind to her (terrible!) ex-husband. Especially because Lucy is not one of those people who has overlooked his faults. She knows them and she still shows such care towards him. Like the first book, I was moved but I was also angry on Lucy's behalf. I wanted to go give William a good punch on the nose several times so that my beloved Lucy could direct her sympathies elsewhere.
I am still thinking months later--as I think about what it means to be a good person, how I am being a good person, etc--about how good Lucy is. And about how rare it is to read about a character who I would actually describe as "good" without the character feeling flat or shallow. I do not know how Strout does this, though I suspect it is something about how vulnerable Lucy makes herself to the reader. But I have learned my lesson for good, she is now a Read Everything Writer for me. Lucy doesn't make me want to be a better person, exactly, but she makes me think a lot about goodness, and it is because she is Good rather than because she is Bad and that does not happen all that much anymore.
What's New October 19th
My Name Is Lucy Barton was about class and generational trauma and the difficulties that come from having been raised in poverty, and having been raised by parents who were neglectful and abusive. This time we are focused on William, Lucy's ex-husband, and it's set many years later when their children are adults.
William's upbringing at first appears drastically different. There is the shady story of his parents' background, his mother left behind a husband to run away with William's father, a German POW. But this story has been framed as romantic and ideal, as has William's inheritance of money likely made from war profiteering from his father's German family. William is the kind of man who can turn any of these stories into a narrative where he comes out looking good. He is about 70, successful, with his much-younger third wife. He and Lucy are now friendly, the rancor of their divorce far behind them.
But over the course of the novel William's present circumstances change. And then, on top of that, he discovers that the story of his family and where he came from is not what he thought it was. And this, for Lucy, answers some of the questions she's had for a long time about who William is to her, why she was able to become who she is. It is once again about mothers and the long shadow they can cast on their children, even when they are long dead and the child himself is an old man.
Like the previous Lucy novel, this is also written as a "memoir" by the fictional Lucy, and while it's not absolutely required to read Lucy before this novel, I would recommend it. You won't have the same investment and understanding of who everyone is without that background. And many of the themes of Lucy come back here, though now our primary vehicle isn't Lucy but her first husband William. Why start with him when you can start with her instead?
Lucy is such a fascinating narrator and I wish someone could explain to me how Strout's prose around her is so seemingly plain, and yet how it packs such a punch, how it is so addictively readable. I read this book in one sitting, and the emotions of it washed over me like rain. Lucy is curious and thoughtful, she is sympathetic to William although she has not forgotten the ways he mistreated her. She is hard on herself, still bearing much of the responsibility for the divorce on her own shoulders. (She has also had a long, and apparently deeply loving second marriage, which is a balm because poor Lucy certainly deserves it.) She is gentle with William, gentler than I would be, the title coming from her frequent pronouncement, whenever she encounters him being suddenly confronted with some rather obvious conclusion that baffles him. William is often baffled, he is often unwilling to acknowledge the truth even when it's right in front of him.
Even if I don't always understand Lucy, I enjoy spending time with her, I enjoy her patience. At first I wasn't sure I wanted another book from her and certainly not one about her first husband but I'm so happy to have had it.
One of my favorite Horror's of the year. This cover will haunt your dreams and I was delighted to find that the book really deserves it. This is a haunted house novella that is going way beyond your plain old haunted houses, it has a 1,000+ year old Japanese mansion. It is going big. Ghosts are swimming through every sentence.
It also has one of my favorite setups: the group of friends who are like "hey we're so tight and everything is good between us!" when actually everything is definitely not good between them and there's a lot under the surface that is going unsaid but it's gonna be said when it all goes to hell!
A lot of horror struggles to sustain the creepiness or the tone or the story, it tends to start falling apart by the end. This was a great reminder of the power of keeping it tight, at just 128 pages it doesn't have a single word more than it needs to.
What I'm Reading
It was a slow week, barely scraped out two books. Been a little restless, which never helps, and in the middle of a very long audiobook, a double whammy. But I'm actually only going to give you one of them because the other one is out next week and it seems silly to cover it two weeks in a row. While I do most of my advanced copy reading on a kind of schedule (currently reading January 2022 except release dates keep changing so I keep accidentally reading not-January 2022) sometimes if I missed one for some reason I'll get it at or even after release, and that's where we are. Anyway here is my one upcoming book for you.
Release Date: February 15, 2022
The marketing copy is correct (good job!!) to call this psychological suspense. I have shelved this as a mystery because those elements certainly exist, it's not quite high stakes enough to be a thriller, but it's also got a lot of domestic thriller elements. Dives more deeply into character but ultimately this is a novel about marriage and keeping secrets, which many domestic thrillers are, it's just not one where the whole thing is about murder. The prose, the foreign travel elements, the built in Ripley homage, and the twists reminded me of novels like TANGERINE and WHO IS MAUD DIXON? as well.
For me, not fitting neatly into one box isn't a mark against the novel at all. We start off with a married couple, Duncan and Gina, a composer and a dancer, relaxing in Switzerland after Gina had a head injury that has impacted her memory, causing her to forget much of the previous year. This, of course, makes us suspicious that Gina has forgotten Very Important Things. And Gina starts to wonder if Duncan is keeping things from her.
From there we go backwards and forwards, getting piece by piece the story of this couple, moving closer to the crucial missing months. It also jumps between Duncan and Gina's perspective (though in the third person), which makes it much more of a tightrope walk to maintain the suspense, particularly in the final third of the novel. (Structurally I like the end very much, though it throws a little too much too quickly for me, particularly compared to the nice slow rollout of the rest, but you know how picky I am.)
Because the central focus is on the characters themselves, in helping us understand why and how their history is the way it is and why they're acting the way they are now, sometimes you can forget that it's a suspense novel because you're so wrapped up in them. It's also one of those good stories about how well you can know another person, which we get to see in real time as we move from the perspective of Gina guessing what Duncan feels to Duncan's actual point of view.
We are nearing the end of book release season, and despite delays it looks like we'll have a funny November (more releases than usual but less releases than I originally anticipated). December is similar though right now I have only one book I read with a December release date. So new book content here will likely end on 11/9 (with a big Higashino-shaped exception in December) and that is likely when I will start my Best of the Year lists. I had already seen one in SEPTEMBER so I will not apologize for starting in November, which is utterly reasonable. But I like putting my lists together. Gonna be fun.
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