Karen Ann Cullotta

Journalist Connie Schultz won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, stories that “provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged.” So it should come as no surprise that her debut novel, The Daughters of Erietown, is a plain-spoken elegy to small-town, working-class women with big stories to tell.

The novel opens with a prologue set in 1975, as college-bound Samantha “Sam” McGinty is leaving behind her hometown, Erietown, but carrying plenty of emotional baggage along with her vintage suitcase. On the road trip to Kent State, she’s accompanied by her parents, Brick and Ellie, and younger brother, Reilly. It’s a trip that hints at Sam’s childhood scars even before the story begins to unfold through a series of flashbacks, starting in 1944.

After being abandoned by her ne’er-do-well parents, Ellie is raised by her grandparents, kind and decent folks whose old age has been interrupted by the demands of another round of child rearing. The youngest of 12 children, Brick grows up with a violent, alcoholic father, who is mourning the death of his favorite son, killed in the war, and a loving mother, who is also a victim of the patriarch’s wrath. By the time Ellie and Brick are teenagers—she’s a cheerleader, he’s the captain of the basketball team—the young lovers are inseparable and looking forward to college, careers and eventually marriage and a family.

But those dreams are dashed by an unplanned pregnancy, a quickie marriage and a move to a dilapidated rental house near the electric plant where Brick finds employment. Before long, the young couple and their baby, Sam, have settled into a routine, with Ellie raising their child and visiting with friends, and Brick turning to a corner tavern and womanizing—with catastrophic consequences.

While Schultz’s compelling narrative and realistic characters will keep readers turning pages into the night, her eye and ear for real-life details set this novel apart from other domestic sagas. Part tragic love story, part powerful testament to shifting cultural norms and the evolution of the women’s movement, The Daughters of Erietown is an impressive first novel with a big heart.

Journalist Connie Schultz won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, stories that “provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged.” So it should come as no surprise that her debut novel, The Daughters of Erietown, is a plain-spoken elegy to small-town, working-class women with big stories to tell.

For young Ben and his posse at Bailey Academy, most of the grown-ups in their lives are either dead, dying or dysfunctional. But despite the bleak subject matter of Ann Beattie’s latest novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ben’s adolescent angst and ensuing quarter-life crisis is riven with hope and humor.

The story begins when the bucolic bubble encompassing Ben’s posh New Hampshire boarding school is burst by news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, propelling the students further into the thrall of their Svengali-like teacher Pierre LaVerdere, whose role as their charismatic mentor and in loco parentis is solidified.

Beattie’s novel moves from the abrupt conclusion of Ben and his friends’ boarding school days straight into young adulthood, giving only a cursory mention of their college days. Wealthy and smart, Ben and company were admitted to the likes of Cornell and Stanford, but their elite pedigrees have not prepared them for the indignities of the early aughts. Struggling to hold a steady job and even harder to maintain a relationship, Ben pivots between his devotion to a sex-crazed narcissist and his obsession with an old boarding school crush.

When Ben escapes Manhattan and buys a house in the Hudson Valley’s idyllic Rhinebeck, he finds a kind of family in the warm embrace of his new neighbors, Steve, Ginny and their young daughter, Maude. Beattie’s belief in Ben’s inherent decency is most evident in these passages, as our brooding antihero discovers friendship, camaraderie and a sense of belonging. Alas, without spoiling the ending, LaVerdere arrives back on the scene, delivering a shocking revelation that brings Ben—and readers—into the heart of Beattie’s postmodernist Greek tragedy, where the luck of these self-absorbed scions of the so-called “1 percent” is not nearly as wonderful as one might think.

Beattie serves up an unflinchingly bleak—albeit sometimes laugh-out-loud humorous—serving of millennial malaise. It’s almost entirely character-driven, with plot far less important than dialogue, reflecting Beattie’s keen ear for not only what is said but also what is left unsaid, often with tragic consequences.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Ann Beattie for A Wonderful Stroke of Luck.

For young Ben and his posse at Bailey Academy, most of the grown-ups in their lives are either dead, dying or dysfunctional. But despite the bleak subject matter of Ann Beattie’s latest novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ben’s adolescent angst and ensuing quarter-life crisis is riven with hope and humor.

Ann Beattie discusses her new novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, about a group of millennial boarding school students who grow up in the shadow of 9/11—and under the wing of a manipulative teacher.

Ben and his friends at Bailey Academy reminded me of orphans in many ways, as they all have dysfunctional families or have lost a parent to cancer, or in Jaspar’s case, the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Overall, the theme of loss and abandonment is overwhelming. Are you sympathetic to these kids?
I’m an only child and was shy and pretty much a loner until I got to college. Your calling them “orphans in many ways” certainly gets the sense of it, though that way of looking at things might be surprising to them. Kids tend to accept as reality the world around them, including their parents—so it was an interesting age at which to begin the book. They might have technically left home, being at Bailey, but their parents don’t seem uncaring to me, just adults muddling along, at least the majority of them trying to do their best. And then all of this is eclipsed by an event of a different magnitude, of course, which changes not just their families, but the world they live in.

As a writer, I’ve visited many schools. One of my former students teaches at an all-boys school, and when I was having dinner with the students there, one of the teenagers told me that he was at the school because his father had remarried and didn’t have time for him. He said it bluntly and very matter-of-factly, and of course there was nothing I could say because he certainly might have been right. That stuck with me. As a writer, though, I’d also have to try to understand the situation from the POV of the parent. But you know what? I didn’t want to, nor did I think of myself as a writer in that moment.

We learn that Ben was sent to a school for troubled kids with mental health issues, although he was pretty much a normal teenager. Did this odd placement by his father end up being a benefit or a disadvantage?
Well, Ben was overpowered, or outmaneuvered, or however you want to say it. He does sometimes speak as though he was a real participant in the decision (for example, asking a friend what kid wants to live with his parents in a boring place, rather than being away from home), but either some or all of that is bravado. As the reader learns, his father is not at all acting merely on his son’s behalf. I wasn’t trying to have the real circumstances of Ben’s being at Bailey be ambiguous; rather, some truth—because it’s there, somewhere—has been withheld, at least according to LaVerdere. The wrinkle is whether LaVerdere has finally been worn down by the adult Ben, or whether he, himself, is warping the truth. Who’s the authority figure—merely the person who grabs authority?

I kept holding my breath, fearing that Pierre LaVerdere was going to sexually abuse one of his students, most likely Ben. But it never happens, and LaVerdere’s abuse is primarily his power over his young students. Do you view LaVerdere as evil, or do you see him as simply an arrogant academic who enjoyed his role as Master of the Universe to the kids at Bailey?
I assumed, because of the world we live in, that the reader would assume LaVerdere quite probably abused Ben and/or others. But no: Sometimes even terrible scenarios are trumped by different—and more insidious—forms of abuse.

There is a scene early in your novel when I sensed this tension between “town and gown,” when Ben and LouLou hitch their ill-fated ride to a concert. As a reader, I was terrified this guy was going to turn out to be an ax murderer, but it all ended harmlessly enough. But it seemed to me that the driver might have been a symbol of the socioeconomic divide between the wealth and advantages of the kids at Bailey and the poverty and lack of opportunity for folks in the surrounding rural areas. Was that your intention?
Right. (Though I wouldn’t say that there was no harm done; clearly, psychic damage was done, and LouLou ends up in tears, even in the moment.) Again, this lurking danger is related to your question above, and (ultimately) to reversed expectations. You’re right in your reading: Jasper is calculating; he writes a paper about trees and how they’re taken care of in the poor community outside Bailey where and when they become damaged, vs. the trees on the grounds of the school. Binnie and Tessie also figure in. There are many dynamics involving the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

I noticed that Ben’s friends, unlike him, have some very unusual names: Arly, LouLou and Aqua, for example. In some ways, these kids seemed like pets to their families, but I’m not sure if that was your intent. Do you see these millennials from wealthy families in some regard like “trophies” for their baby boomer parents?
I like the question, and sometimes things emerge that aren’t the direct intention of the writer, but I wouldn’t say they’re trophies. However painful, there seem to be real connections between Jasper and both of his parents, and Akemi’s father (while we sense not in agreement with his wife) wants his daughter to have more age-appropriate experiences, rather than starting college at such a young age. Elin, however neurotic, is on her stepson’s side. These people have what’s synonymous with real life, to me: real limitations.

A prevailing theme of cultural touchstones—the Kennedy assassination and 9/11—is present throughout your book. When you were writing your novel, did you see these events as bookends? And do you see the conclusion of the Camelot years and the post-9/11 early aughts as having similarities in terms of the end of innocence?
“Camelot” turns out not to have been exactly Camelot. I’m not sure “innocent” is the word I’d pick. Maybe militantly oblivious, in many cases, and, as a nation, very self-congratulatory. I’m glad you notice the bracketing: presidential portraits that will be recontextualized by the reader, even in the moment of reading. In a larger sense, the novel covertly and repeatedly questions the relationship between how a thing looks (or how we speak of it, whether “Camelot” or “The Peaceable Kingdom”) and what it really is or was.

The village of Rhinebeck is presented as a Hudson Valley utopia for the wealthy on the surface, with a litany of alcohol-fueled sorrows and secrets unfolding behind closed doors. What was your motivation in creating this picture of upper-middle class despair? And will Ben ever find happiness?
Any time you go behind closed doors, anywhere, you find (among other things) secrets unfolding, sorrow, and, right—often alcohol. But obviously, writers won’t get anywhere if they stop just because a door is closed. As for Ben finding happiness, he has found some things—things of value—by the time the novel concludes, hasn’t he?

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck.

Author photo by Lincoln Perry

Ann Beattie discusses her new novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, about a group of millennial boarding school students who grow up in the shadow of 9/11—and under the wing of a manipulative teacher.

Considering that author Louise Miller (The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living) is a Boston-based pastry chef, it should come as no surprise that her second novel, The Late Bloomers’ Club, includes a recipe for Burnt Sugar Cake with Maple Icing.

The heroine of Miller’s second novel, Nora, the owner of the Miss Guthrie Diner, makes her living serving up comfort food to locals and visitors alike in a small town in rural Vermont that finds itself at the crossroads of preserving tradition and embracing economic development. Peppered with a cast of characters that includes Nora’s younger sister Kit, Kit’s significant other (both aspiring filmmakers) and an assortment of working-class heroes, the novel unfolds after the town’s beloved “cake lady,” Peggy Johnson, dies in a car crash. Peggy, whose property is targeted for a big-box development, has left behind a will designating Nora as the beneficiary of her estate—a gesture that proves both a boon and a burden to the cash-strapped Nora, who soon finds herself torn between loyalty to the residents of Guthrie and the prospect of financial freedom.

As Nora navigates between searching for Peggy’s lost dog, Freckles, who fled after the crash, and sidestepping her ex-husband’s overtures and dalliances, she finds herself alternately attracted to and angered by none other than the big-box developer, Elliot.

Readers with a sweet tooth and a passion for dogs are sure to enjoy The Late Bloomers’ Club. It’s a charming tale of life in a small town populated by good people struggling to make ends meet and refusing to relinquish the pastoral beauty of their rural hometown.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Considering that author Louise Miller (The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living) is a Boston-based pastry chef, it should come as no surprise that her second novel, The Late Bloomers’ Club, includes a recipe for Burnt Sugar Cake with Maple Icing.

With the exceedingly rare exception of literary genius, a first novel from even the most gifted short story writer is a risky effort, and not always successful. This is why Jane Delury is deserving of recognition: With immense storytelling gifts and spare but luminous prose, she is one of the few writers whose debut will have readers begging for a second novel.

The Balcony unfolds in 10 nonchronological chapters—each of which could be a perfect short story—that introduce a cast of characters spanning several generations from 1890 to 2009. From great loves and fleeting lust to hunger and genocide, each character’s story is connected to a once lavish estate (including a servants’ cottage, a manor and, of course, a balcony) in the French countryside. Families appear, then reappear in later chapters: “A Place in the Country” introduces the Havres, whose descendants and lasting heartbreak thread throughout several other sections. The actions of a World War II resistance hero affect the lives of his grandsons, whose own children continue to bear the weight of choices made before them.

The Balcony beckons readers to abandon preconceptions about generational legacies, motherhood and the ideal, pastoral French village. Benneville, the fictional setting of Delury’s novel, was nearly destroyed by bombs during World War II and, a generation later, is a hardscrabble, industrial exurb of Paris in the midst of gentrification. As Delury describes, it’s far from charming: “This was not exactly the country—Benneville had grown since Jacques was a boy, moving closer to Paris on a wave of concrete.”

The final chapter of The Balcony is written in a dramatically different freeform style, and some readers will wish for a more satisfying ending without Delury’s sudden embrace of a quirky, unconventional structure. However, this is a small concern, and readers are more likely to lament that the novel has come to a close, leaving them longing for more.

Delury is sure to win the hearts of all those who appreciate a smart, elegantly written story.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

With the exceedingly rare exception of literary genius, a first novel from even the most gifted short story writer is a risky effort, and not always successful. This is why Jane Delury is deserving of recognition: With immense storytelling gifts and spare but luminous prose, she is one of the few writers whose debut will have readers begging for a second novel.

If there were a literary recipe for bestselling author Lauren Willig’s novel The English Wife, it would include blending equal parts historical fiction and British murder mystery, a dash of “Downton Abbey” and a pinch of Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age.

That’s not to say The English Wife is cliché or formulaic; on the contrary, readers will be alternately delighted and shocked by this page-turner that features a dual narrative tethered to the social caste systems that straddled the pond in the late 19th century.

One of the novel’s two heroines, Georgie, is a former English showgirl and the wife of the wealthy American Bayard Van Duyvil—a blueblood from a distinguished, albeit dysfunctional, New York family. This unlikely match is kindled in London, where Bayard rescues Georgie from a life of poverty and hardship and brings her to New York, much to the chagrin of his mother, the formidable matriarch Mrs. Van Duyvil.

The tale begins with what appears to be a double murder at a New York society gala, and then unfolds in flashbacks, moving from late 19th-century London’s mean streets, where Georgie works as an actress, to the storied banks of the Hudson, where the Van Duyvil’s gracious manse is a hub for the old Dutch Knickerbocker society, which includes the Astors and Vanderbilts.

When Bayard’s sister, Janie, encounters an ambitious New York journalist determined to crack the case of the so-called Knickerbocker society murders, their working relationship evolves into a wary friendship, with the heartbroken heiress and cynical reporter both determined to uncover the truth.

This elegantly written tale will keep readers guessing until the final chapter.

If there were a literary recipe for bestselling author Lauren Willig’s novel The English Wife, it would include blending equal parts historical fiction and British murder mystery, a dash of “Downton Abbey” and a pinch of Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age.

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