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The three titles I picked for my December 2016 delivery were Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller (which was a Book Of The Month exclusive and will be released to the general public on February 7th, 2017), Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner and Siracusa by Delia Ephron. I loved Swimming Lessons, liked Missing, Presumed and I did not like Siracusa. Here are my reviews.
Published: February 7, 2017
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.
Twelve years later, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid.
What I Liked
The inclusion of Ingrid’s letters in the narrative. Since Flora and Nan’s mother Ingrid disappeared 10 years before the events of the novel, including her letters to her husband as part of the narrative brought her character to life despite her physical absence. Through Ingrid’s letters the reader learns about how Ingrid met and fell in love with Gil, and how their relationship changed after their marriage. Ingrid’s intelligent and strong personality comes through in her writing, but also her sadness and desperation at the choices she has made in her life. I particularly loved the detail of how Ingrid hid her letters to Gil inside Gil’s books, and how the topic of each book she chose to hide a particular letter connected in some way to the contents of the letter itself.
The complex handling of the topics of marriage and infidelity. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the book deals with infidelity – I’m pretty sure that’s been mentioned many times in other reviews from newspapers and critics. Not everyone is aware of the infidelity that occurred in Gil and Ingrid’s marriage, especially their youngest daughter Flora. I found it very interesting to see how Fuller wrote of the differences in the ways in which Flora and Nan viewed their father, based on their differing memories and knowledge of Gil’s relationship with Ingrid and of his behavior as they were growing up. I also was interested in the way in which Fuller treated Gil and Ingrid’s unsuccessful marriage as a trap that Ingrid initially fell into and had to sacrifice her independence and dreams to. Eventually, Ingrid is able to free herself from the trap (whether through suicide or simply by walking away), flouting socially acceptable notions that she should have remained for her children. There’s a feminist tone I appreciated to Fuller’s writing about Ingrid’s unfulfilled dreams, and how she became burdened with children that Gil wanted more than she did.
The different personalities of Flora and Nan and their relationship. Flora and Nan could not be more different one from the other – Nan took on the mothering role when Ingrid disappeared and grew into a responsible, cautious and controlling woman, while Flora had the benefit of an actual childhood and grew up to be flighty, unreliable and scared of commitment. Their interaction is very much like one between mother and daughter, but also in some ways like that of an older and wiser sister to a younger and more innocent one. I appreciated how Flora developed a better understanding of the origins of her sister’s personality throughout the novel, and a greater appreciation for the support and stability Nan provided as Flora was growing up. As a very methodical and organized person myself, it was hard for me to like or understand Flora, so I related much more strongly to Nan and really wanted her hard work and reliability to be acknowledged.
What I Didn’t Like
The inclusion of the character of Richard. Richard is a man who happens to be Flora’s most recent fling when she has to run home to help take care of her father at the beginning of the novel. He ends up joining Flora and Nan on the island where their father lives, and sticks around because apparently Gil has taken a liking to him. I just didn’t get the point of his character, aside from providing a sort of half-hearted attempt at showing that Flora was maybe starting to be able to mature and consider an actual romantic commitment. He was like a weird friend who shows up at your house unannounced and won’t take a hint that you want some alone time. Go home Richard.
A beautifully written book about different ways of being absent and present, and about how personal identity becomes blurred and changed by marriage and parenthood.
Published: June 28, 2016
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Mid-December, and Cambridgeshire is blanketed with snow. Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw tries to sleep after yet another soul-destroying Internet date – the low murmuring of her police radio her only solace.
Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.
Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?
What I Liked
A female detective protagonist I could actually relate to and like. I like thrillers but after reading and honestly hating The Trespasser, I was a little bit wary of reading another book that had a female detective as its protagonist. Steiner actually does a great job, however, of crafting the character of DS Manon Bradshaw. The issue with Antoinette – the female detective in The Trespasser – was that in an effort to portray her as strong and rough, Tana French created a caricature of an actual human being who was not believable and who came off as comically one-note. Steiner’s portrayal of DS Manon, instead, is much more nuanced. Manon is certainly rugged and coarse, but not in an overdone way. Her cursing is believably limited and her frosty demeanor is complicated by her yearning for companionship and love.
The way in which each chapter was told from a different character’s point of view. By Allowing a different character to give voice to each chapter, Steiner brought secondary characters like Edith’s parents and Manon’s partner Davy to life with greater depth than would have been possible if the entire book had been narrated from Manon’s point of view. I thought it was particularly interesting to read the chapters written from Miriam and Ian Hind’s (Edith’s parents) points of view to see how they were coping emotionally with their daughter’s disappearance. Ultimately I found some of the secondary characters like Miriam (Edith’s mom) and Helena (Edith’s best friend) even more interesting than the main character Manon herself.
What I Didn’t Like
The slow pace of the first three-fourths of the novel. Unlike other thrillers I’ve read that peppered pretty significant twists throughout the novel to keep the reader engaged, this one really only had one significant twist before the entire mystery was unraveled at the end. Though the writing is captivating and the character development that occurs in the first 320 pages or so is interesting, I wish that nearly all of the action hadn’t been relegated to the last 80 pages. It really seemed like the police had absolutely no clue what was going on until one element of evidence finally came to light that uncovered the entire truth. It would have been more engaging as a reader to have a more consistent buildup of action to the novel’s conclusion.
A few too many minor side characters. I did mention that I enjoyed some of the secondary characters even more than the main character. However, I also felt that within the police force, at least, there were a few minor characters whose names I kept forgetting. They seemed thrown in to flesh out the detective team (the press representative for example), but I kept forgetting their names and then getting confused when they were mentioned again, because their characters were just thrown in occasionally and not fleshed out.
A solid murder mystery with a well-constructed female detective protagonist and an unexpected twist at the end, though it dragged a bit in the middle.
by Delia Ephron
Published: July 12, 2016
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
New Yorkers Michael, a famous writer, and Lizzie, a journalist, travel to Italy with their friends from Maine—Finn, his wife Taylor, and their daughter Snow. “From the beginning,” says Taylor, “it was a conspiracy for Lizzie and Finn to be together.” Told Rashomon-style in alternating points of view, the characters expose and stumble upon lies and infidelities past and present. Snow, ten years old and precociously drawn into a far more adult drama, becomes the catalyst for catastrophe as the novel explores collusion and betrayal in marriage.
Ephron delivers a meditation on marriage, friendship, and the meaning of travel. Set on the sun-drenched coast of the Ionian Sea, Siracusa unfolds with the pacing of a psychological thriller and delivers an unexpected final act that none can see coming.
What I Liked
The description of the Italian settings, when realistic. Yes, even the one thing I liked about this book has a caveat. Ephron’s descriptions of Rome and Siracusa are in parts striking and beautifully written. She brings the history, architecture and people of the cities to life successfully in several different points in the novel, and I appreciated her efforts at making her descriptions of the food and locations realistic. Sometimes she still missed her mark, however. I think someone reading the book who was not Italian would not have noticed these small incorrect details, but I had to cringe at every one, from the caramel meringue ice cream flavor I’ve never heard of, to the idea that most Italian people can speak or even just understand French (nope), to a market that apparently had ‘mixtures of spices’ displayed named by the different pasta sauces they were supposedly used to season (Italian pasta sauces generally don’t have many spices in them – the differences in sauces are given by other non-spice ingredients). It was hard to ignore the cringing, because it was unfortunately frequent.
What I Didn’t Like
The unlikely premise of the story. When I first learned this book was about a group of people’s trip to Siracusa, I thought the characters would either be part of some sort of organized tourist group or connected to each other in some fundamentally true way. How believable is it that a controlling woman who is highly protective of her daughter would agree to embark on a two week long trip to Italy with a couple who is vaguely connected with her philandering husband and whom she barely knows? Not very believable. From the start, I just didn’t get the premise of this book. It seemed like a concoction the author came up with to throw this motley crew of caricatured characters together in the same place, so that they could implausibly interact with one another and wreak some havoc that would make for a semi-thrilling plot.
The unlikable characters. Lizzie is a struggling journalist who emotionally if not physically cheats on her husband with family man Finn and seems to have only negative things to say about the people around her. Lizzie’s husband Michael is supposed to be a charming and attractive man (though his description as bald and stocky in the book doesn’t help his case), but really he has a creepy interest in ten year old Snow and a more than wandering eye. Taylor has a stick up her you know what of gigantic proportions and treats her daughter as an appendage of herself in a way that is borderline psychotic. Taylor’s husband Finn takes every chance he can get to be away from his family and is desperate in his attempts at infidelity. Their teenage daughter Snow is a shadow of an actual human, like a mythical imp set into the plot to act as its otherwise unexplained source of evil. I think that’s about all I have to say.
The improbable ending. It’s going to be hard to get into this without any spoilers, but something happens at the end of the book which in actual life would have led without question to legal repercussions for the person or people involved. Instead, the characters simply slink back to their lives, definitely scarred from what they’ve experienced but free of actual consequences. I just couldn’t get past how unrealistic this was. With modern technology, everyone and everything is tracked, and people don’t just do something like what was done at the end of the book with impunity. The Italian police may have its flaws but they’re not completely incompetent, thank you very much.
Improbable plot premise, unlikable characters, hard-to-believe ending. Not something I would suggest you spend your precious reading time on.
Have you read Swimming Lessons, Missing, Presumed or Siracusa? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
Here’s my Instagram image from when I received my December 2016 delivery from Book Of The Month.
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