Maude McDaniel

Atmospheric, moody and evocative—these words describe Alice Hoffman’s latest achievement, The Marriage of Opposites. And that is no accident, because they also accurately describe the 19th-century artistic movement known as Impressionism, founded by Camille Pissarro, the third son Rachel Pomié bore to her second husband, Frédérick. (Altogether, Rachel had nine children, an accomplishment for any heroine, but Rachel is a strong character.)

Hoffman tells the story of the painter’s life through the drama of his mother’s concerns. The story takes place first on the island of St. Thomas, where Rachel is caught up in the drama of her scandalous second marriage and the troubles facing her best friend, Jestine. Later, the family (or some of it) returns to their home country of France, a long-held dream for these French-Jewish exiles. 

One would think that after 30-odd books, Hoffman might have exhausted her glossary, but The Marriage of Opposites is a treasure trove of expression, color on color and emotion on emotion. Fittingly for a book about an artist, color is never far from the spotlight. Pissarro is “greedy for all the color in the world,” and remembers November on the island, when “the dusk sifted down like black powder.” Nature claims its fair share of the vocabulary—trees and birds and hills—and Hoffman seems always up to the task of freshly describing the latest artistic excitement.

Doing justice to the individuals in her tale is harder to accomplish—being real people, they must be unmistakably specific, sometimes in off-putting ways. Still, somehow Hoffman manages this as well, spinning a fresh tale of human error and achievement. This subject has found the right author at the right time, and no one who reads this story will forget it.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Atmospheric, moody and evocative—these words describe Alice Hoffman’s latest achievement, The Marriage of Opposites. And that is no accident, because they also accurately describe the 19th-century artistic movement known as Impressionism, founded by Camille Pissarro, the third son Rachel Pomié bore to her second husband, Frédérick.

The Jane Austen we know is delicious enough on her own, but Austen filtered through the mind of Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) could be the best of both possible worlds.

Smith’s Emma: A Modern Retelling is the latest installment in “The Austen Project,” which drafted six contemporary authors to retell Austen’s complete works. Here, he co-opts Austen’s titular heroine and introduces her to a modern setting, complete with the same plot turns and many of the same characters present in one form or another. Certainly unmistakable is Emma, Austen’s heroine, a born controller who believes (with unshakable certainty in both books) that other people’s happiness can be arranged for them and that she is just the one to do it. In his version, Smith adds a greater understanding of how Emma gained her certitude about her own ability to make her friends' decisions on their own behalf.

Smith assumes some of Austen’s tone here, and his fans might miss his singular voice. Still, the plot is surefire (and tested), and somewhere along the way, the reader embraces the concept in its own right.  This rewarding read is a fascinating pastiche of two of the most enjoyable writers in the British tradition.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The Jane Austen we know is delicious enough on her own, but Austen filtered through the mind of Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) could be the best of both possible worlds.

Amanda Filipacchi’s fourth novel is a matchless satire that manages to make a point or two along with the fun. It follows a memorable cast of characters, led by Barb, a costume designer and world-class beauty with the kindest of hearts. Convinced of the sheer uselessness and even destructiveness of beauty after a spurned lover kills himself over her, Barb hides her looks under a fat suit.

By contrast, Barb’s best friend, Lily, is ugly but plays the piano like a dream, to the point where she can inspire listeners to see her as incredibly beautiful—as long as her music goes on. And there’s Penelope, whose pottery store is filled with merchandise designed to crack when lifted by a customer. (This brings in a steady income, thanks to the store’s “you break it, you buy it” policy.) The three are part of an artsy community, the Knights of Creation, where they help each other achieve their various creative goals.

The story is both daunting and haunting, as Lily and Barb face the deaths of friends (which one of their fellow Knights may be involved in) and the threats of needy fellow members.

Obviously, total realism is not Filipacchi’s specialty, but no reader would want it otherwise. A novel of deliberate contrariness, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty takes on some thorny issues and speaks to both the mind and heart at the same time. Not to mention the funny bone.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Amanda Filipacchi’s fourth novel is a matchless satire that manages to make a point or two along with the fun. It follows a memorable cast of characters, led by Barb, a costume designer and world-class beauty with the kindest of hearts. Convinced of the sheer uselessness and even destructiveness of beauty after a spurned lover kills himself over her, Barb hides her looks under a fat suit.

Five years after retiring due to health problems, Father Tim Kavanagh is still reeling. What he sees at first as the "yawning indifference" of his church family is hurtful, but time has passed and an exciting trip to Ireland with his wife, Cynthia, has served to cushion the blow. Still, he finds the idea "to withdraw someplace for the sake of seclusion"—and to stay there—far too inviting.

But Mitford is up to its usual tricks—something interesting happening every hour on the hour. So when Hope Murphy, the owner of the local bookstore, has to spend the rest of her pregnancy on bedrest, he volunteers to keep the store open one day a week, and several other friends fill up most of the others. Variations on the theme ensue—and Karon does it once more—makes small-town affairs interesting enough to entertain readers all over again. And again.

Life never slows down, though Father Tim feels he has, and he sensibly declines to take back the parish after his successor creates a scandal. As in all the Mitford books, Father Tim delves into the seriousness of his as well as others' faith, and finds new answers—hard-won wisdom that settles old questions in satisfying ways.

Karon has written nine previous Mitford books, and a few other related titles. Not counting her reckless way with pronouns, they seem only to get better. Although readers should know better by now, her humor is always unexpected and sly, of the smile-out-loud variety, and surely makes the story more palatable for non-religious readers. The rest of us are simply grateful for her ability to home in unerringly on the light spots that make the heavy going of life easier for us all.

It is hard to imagine that there is much more that can be said about Father Tim and his gang, yet Karon keeps finding new fodder. Unexpected opportunities open here for his relationships with his adopted son's family, and Karon has already demonstrated that she can make a rich meal out of unpromising ingredients.

"No two persons ever read the same book," as Karon quotes Edmund Wilson. (The wealth of trenchant quotes about books included here alone make Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good worth reading.) Perhaps Karon's readers are all reading different books, but every one of them is worth the trouble.

 

RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Jan Karon about this book.

Five years after retirement due to health, Father Tim Kavanagh is still reeling. What he sees at first as the "yawning indifference" of his church family is hurtful, but time has passed and an exciting trip to Ireland with his wife Cynthia has served to cushion the blow. Still, he finds the idea "to withdraw someplace for the sake of seclusion"—and to stay there—far too inviting.

Chestnut Street in Dublin, Ireland, is shaped like a horseshoe, with a “big bit of grass in the middle beside some chestnut trees,” and “thirty small houses in a semicircle.” These houses are inhabited by scores of fascinating human beings, however ordinary, who figure in these stories by Maeve Binchy, written between novels. Now, after her death in 2012 at 72, they are finally being published. Most use old-fashioned O. Henry endings to resolve problems or clarify situations in unexpected ways—illuminating the lives of the people involved and, incidentally, warming the hearts of readers.

Even though they share the world of Chestnut Street, each family lives a life of its own, occasionally bouncing off one another as neighbors. In my favorite story, “Ivy,” a lonely, old-fashioned girl who wishes people would write letters instead of email, wins a computer. On a local bulletin board she asks for someone to give her computer lessons in exchange for cooking lessons. “By far the best” offer comes from a 12-year-old boy named Sandy, who lives with his grandfather. The outcome is short and sweet and cuts off a story you would prefer to hear more of, but that is how it is with these little gems: The ending is the point, not anything that comes before.

Though many of these little slices of life are too short for nuance, they are all undemanding and delightful. The more you read, the more you want to read, which makes the fact that Chestnut Street is Binchy’s final collection as poignant an ending as any in her oeuvre.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Chestnut Street in Dublin, Ireland, is shaped like a horseshoe, with a “big bit of grass in the middle beside some chestnut trees,” and “thirty small houses in a semicircle.” These houses are inhabited by scores of fascinating human beings, however ordinary, who figure in these stories by Maeve Binchy, written between novels. Now, after her death in 2012 at 72, they are finally being published.

Irish-born author Emma Donoghue returns to historical fiction with her first novel since the 2010 runaway bestseller Room. Frog Music was inspired by a real-life unsolved murder in 1876 San Francisco, a good three decades after the Gold Rush. Cross-dressing Jenny, a voice of surprising common sense amid the wild culture of the time, was shot in cold blood at her friend Blanche’s house, and the murderer was never found.

It is evident that history is the star of this show. Blanche, a French dancer who supports her boyfriend, injured trapeze artist Arthur, by imaginative prostitution, gets in over her head when she invests in a block of apartments and finds herself unable to stay on top of the wave. When her child, whom she had imagined to be safe and cared for outside her life, surfaces in trouble, suddenly a more respectable life begins to exert its appeal.

Jenny makes a living by catching frogs to meet the considerable local restaurant traffic’s high demand, and she and Blanche cement their new friendship during expeditions out into the swamps and streams of the backcountry. Or do the two only know each other for a few hours before disaster strikes? The story is never quite clear, but the reader who is willing to live with ambiguity will find this book endlessly intriguing. Donoghue brings the setting, a smallpox-stricken summer, almost too vividly to life: The unwilling but fascinated reader will be transfixed by her descriptions of the disease’s “opalescent slime” and “dimpled red pearls . . . all across what used to be his lovely face.” References to some 30 songs of the time, many of them familiar (“How Can I Keep From Singing?” “Somebody’s Darlin’”) add to its period allure.

The French (“Frog”) connection may be strong, but this engrossing, truth-bending story is all American. You’ll find yourself enraptured by the intricate plot developments that will keep you revising your version of the action from one hour to the next.

Irish-born author Emma Donoghue returns to historical fiction with her first novel since the 2010 runaway bestseller Room. Frog Music was inspired by a real-life unsolved murder in 1876 San Francisco, a good three decades after the Gold Rush. Cross-dressing Jenny, a voice of surprising common sense amid the wild culture of the time, was shot in cold blood at her friend Blanche’s house, and the murderer was never found.

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