Meredith McGuire

Every social sphere contains a few of those charmed and golden elite who seem to be forever sun-kissed and flashing white-toothed smiles. The few for whom, from a distance, life appears to be unfathomably perfect. And, however fleetingly, it is tempting to daydream about becoming one of them. But what is the price of such social royalty? In The Night Climbers, recent Cambridge graduate Ivo Stourton's debut novel, the answer is simple: &andpound;1 million.

Early on in his freshman year at Cambridge, James Walker makes a critical distinction: my world fell into two hemispheres like a neatly halved melon. . . . Those who were talked about and those who were not. Plagued by an overly acute sense of self-awareness, he seems fated to fade into the background until his key to the social elite literally climbs through his bedroom window and opens the door to the world of the beautiful and the rich. Once he enters, his starry-eyed imaginings are realized: secret societies, cocaine-fuelled galas, free-flowing champagne, fox hunts on country estates . . . and late night climbs up facades of the ancient architecture at Cambridge. Intoxicated by the energy and drama unique to the wealthy, beautiful and brilliant, James revels in his newly earned social cachet. More than eager to maintain his good standing, he becomes immersed in their world and, ultimately, an essential addition to their clique. The price of such inclusion, however, isn't fully apparent until years later when, echoing that fortuitous window entrance years ago, a friend from his past walks through his doorway and threatens to shatter everything.

The pace of The Night Climbers is quick, electric and endlessly engaging. Despite a few missteps that present momentary hiccups in an otherwise compelling story, Stourton knowingly encapsulates the world of the privileged, the devastatingly pretty and the eternally youthful. With it, he presents both the hubris that leads to their downfall and the magnetism that allows others to willfully leap after them. Meredith McGuire writes from San Francisco.

Every social sphere contains a few of those charmed and golden elite who seem to be forever sun-kissed and flashing white-toothed smiles. The few for whom, from a distance, life appears to be unfathomably perfect. And, however fleetingly, it is tempting to daydream about becoming one of them. But what is the price of such […]

At the age of 16, Eliza Tally finds herself pregnant, jilted by her husband and trying to make her way in the big city. To compound matters, the city in question is early 18th-century London and her employer is a mad apothecary with a staggering opium addiction. With this opening, The Nature of Monsters leaves no doubt as to author Clare Clark's ability to capture the imagination. The events that unfold thereafter, however, prove that Clark (The Great Stink) also possesses the powerful ability to maintain that hold.

In an attempt to avoid scandal after her unanticipated pregnancy, Eliza is forced to leave her village and take residence in an apothecary's house as his maid. Far from being the dutiful servant or glowing expectant mother, she bristles against the boundaries of her position, raging at the misfortunes that brought her there. In truth, one wonders momentarily whether Eliza is, in fact, the monster in question. However, as she gradually adjusts to her fate, it becomes increasingly apparent that the goings-on within the apothecary's house are far from usual: howling in the night, inexplicable nighttime apparitions, a revolving door of suspicious men and her master's veiled appearance. As events descend further into the absurd, Eliza discovers that her employer's scientific experiments are more than a little unsavory and that she and Mary, her fellow maid, have become unwitting participants. From here, the real story begins as Eliza sets about attempting to save them both.

In The Nature of Monsters, Clark sets the stage for a most intriguing and unusual drama, traveling from the back alleys of London's slums to the darkened attics of its more reputable houses. Alternating between brutally descriptive writing and the fanatical theories of a man obsessed, Clark explores the nature of the demons that plague us, and what happens when they are allowed to take hold. Meredith McGuire writes from San Francisco.

At the age of 16, Eliza Tally finds herself pregnant, jilted by her husband and trying to make her way in the big city. To compound matters, the city in question is early 18th-century London and her employer is a mad apothecary with a staggering opium addiction. With this opening, The Nature of Monsters leaves […]

The German occupation of Paris during World War II does not typically evoke scenes combining La Fontaine's Fables, a bookseller's daughter moonlighting as an exotic dancer and a German translator for the Gestapo recreationally masquerading as a Parisian. Nor does it seemingly lend itself as an ideal backdrop for a blossoming romance. Yet, in his novel April in Paris, Michael Wallner takes these unlikely strands and weaves them into a story that is at once romantic, brutal and heart-wrenching.

At the heart of Wallner's story is 21-year-old Cpl. Roth, a German solider whose flawless French leads to an assignment as translator for suspected members of the French Resistance. In an attempt to counteract his long days witnessing broken noses, dislocated fingers and casual torture at the hands of the Gestapo, Roth sheds his German identity after work. Stripped of his uniform, his hobnailed boots and all other German identifiers, he walks the streets of Paris as his French alter-ego, Antoine. As Antoine, he is able to stroll freely along the Pont Royal, abandon his despised role of Other among Parisian civilians and, most importantly, pursue the beautiful Chantal. The daughter of a local bookseller, Chantal instantly, but unknowingly, enchants the solider. In time, Antoine charms her as well and their unlikely romance takes hold. Despite their love, however, neither Antoine nor Chantal are quite who they appear. As a result, invisible lines are crossed that threaten everything both had previously valued.

Throughout the novel, Wallner's talent for both compelling storyline and impeccable details are skillfully displayed: A description of a bomb explosion is juxtaposed with what is left behind: fans, a lace coat, a stuffed poodle . . . perfume. April in Paris is a study of contrasts passionate romance set against wartime suspense, the surprise of polar opposites uniting, and, literally, love as a battlefield. For Roth and Chantal, it is both a fight that will determine their fate and the only fight that matters.

Meredith McGuire writes from San Francisco.

 

The German occupation of Paris during World War II does not typically evoke scenes combining La Fontaine's Fables, a bookseller's daughter moonlighting as an exotic dancer and a German translator for the Gestapo recreationally masquerading as a Parisian. Nor does it seemingly lend itself as an ideal backdrop for a blossoming romance. Yet, in his […]

At the beginning of Vendela Vida's second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, Clarissa Iverton's mother informs her that she was named Clarissa in order to rewrite history. Though it will be years until Clarissa fully comprehends this statement, Vida explores whether such a revision is, in fact, possible. Throughout the novel, she poses the question: Can we escape who we are? Her answer, quite simply, is yes, we can.

From the time her mother forever turns her back on her family during a holiday shopping trip to the mall, Clarissa views herself as the opposite of her mother's daughter. After years of trying to bask in the fickle spotlight of her mother's love, with her mother's absence Clarissa becomes caring, responsible and trustworthy in short, the antithesis of her mother. This idea, however, is abruptly shattered after the unexpected death of her father and a grief-fueled trip to Lapland. In the outer reaches of the Arctic Circle, she discovers not only that she shares similarities with her mother, but also that their lives are eerily parallel. Confronted with knowledge concerning both her mother's past and her own, Clarissa is faced with the option of correcting the mistakes of both. In doing so, she realizes that the sins of her mother are surprisingly easy to replicate or to avenge. It is up to Clarissa, however, to determine which path to choose.

An editor of the literary magazine The Believer (and wife of novelist and McSweeney's editor Dave Eggers), Vida has a clean and crisp writing style, almost staccato in the way it punctuates details and illuminates emotions. As she sweeps through different stages of Clarissa's life, Vida changes the narrative style, capturing both the warped logic of a teenager and the jaded attitude of an almost-30 woman with equal skill. Her language does not compete with her story, yet it is not rare to pause over a particularly well-crafted phrase or description and turn it over in one's mind with delighted approval. Through the stories of Clarissa and her mother, Vida explores the notion of how much of our past we are able to escape and how much we are burdened to repeat. Meredith McGuire writes from San Francisco.

At the beginning of Vendela Vida's second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, Clarissa Iverton's mother informs her that she was named Clarissa in order to rewrite history. Though it will be years until Clarissa fully comprehends this statement, Vida explores whether such a revision is, in fact, possible. Throughout the novel, she […]

The funny thing about the truth is that it always has more than one side, especially when one side makes a better story. In these instances, the truth can perform a series of permutations, creating multiple versions of itself, each equally accurate and equally flawed. In Believer editor Heidi Julavits' third novel, The Uses of Enchantment, Mary Veal is about to uncover these complexities and find that the truth is capable of taking on a life of its own. The only thing undisputed about 16-year-old Mary's disappearance after a high school field hockey game is that she did, in fact, disappear. The how, who, where and why, however, prove a bit trickier to unravel. Following her safe return, Mary claims that she does not recall the details of her month-long ordeal. Frustrated and somewhat fearful, her domineering mother turns her over to the care of psychologist Dr. Hammer. The ensuing therapy sessions are comprised of an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse between a recalcitrant teenager and an ambitious doctor anxious to make amends for his previous professional sins. As a result, the story of what actually happened to Mary Veal that November afternoon is ultimately cast aside.

What follows is a study of how much of our story we can lay claim to and how much, in sharing it, belongs to those who are listening. Through alternating chapters highlighting the perspectives of Dr. Hammer and Mary as both her present-day and 16-year-old self, the reader is introduced to a world where nothing is quite as it seems. Fifteen years after her disappearance, Mary finally sets about unraveling a story that she herself has begun to both doubt and forget. In The Uses of Enchantment, Julavits explores the boundaries of fantasy and reality and challenges the reader to identify what is real. Through her well-crafted story and intoxicating characters, she proves that doing so is never as easy as it appears. Meredith McGuire writes from San Francisco.

The funny thing about the truth is that it always has more than one side, especially when one side makes a better story. In these instances, the truth can perform a series of permutations, creating multiple versions of itself, each equally accurate and equally flawed. In Believer editor Heidi Julavits' third novel, The Uses of […]

After the 2003 publication of Nell Freudenberger's story collection Lucky Girls, young writers of her generation crafted the term schadenfreudenberger (only partly tongue-in-cheek) to convey the envy they felt toward the writer and her talent. With her debut novel, The Dissident, Freudenberger not only demonstrates that the envy was warranted, but raises the bar for her contemporaries to create a new word worthy of her accomplishment. Not only can she write exceedingly well, she also has a darn good story to tell.

The Dissident focuses on Cece Travers, a Beverly Hills mother of two struggling with the realization she might love her husband's brother, and Yuan Zhao, a controversial performance artist from China. Their two dissimilar worlds collide when the artist comes to stay with the Traverses as an artist-in-residence. Cece is anxious for the welcome distraction a houseguest will provide from her family life. Yuan Zhao is excited by the new experiences before him but haunted by a secret he left behind in China. And both will be forever changed by the events that transpire during the course of the visit.

Freudenberger is impressive both in the breadth of the topics she covers performance art in China's East Village, the Beverly Hills lifestyle, a 12th-century Chinese monk painter, the drama inherent to the female teenager and the meticulous detail and attention she pays to her subjects. When shifting focus from one character to the next, she dives completely and headlong into the story at hand. The result is a vibrant interplay of enthralling characters, such that when each reappears, the effect on the reader is simultaneously one of delighted rediscovery and recognition that this will be good. Throughout the book, Freudenberger explores how much of one's life is art. Or rather, how much of the life we show to the outside world is a creation we construct. If The Dissident is any indication, Freudenberger is a masterpiece.

Meredith McGuire writes from San Francisco.

After the 2003 publication of Nell Freudenberger's story collection Lucky Girls, young writers of her generation crafted the term schadenfreudenberger (only partly tongue-in-cheek) to convey the envy they felt toward the writer and her talent. With her debut novel, The Dissident, Freudenberger not only demonstrates that the envy was warranted, but raises the bar for […]

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