Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All , Coverage

All Women's Fiction Coverage

Behind the Book by

When is a series not a series? The easy answer is . . . when I write it. But the real answer is more complicated. Now, they say that a sequel for a writer is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But it’s not a sequel when the primary character is—well, when she has to share the stage.

Far more accomplished writers than I (Louise Erdrich and William Faulkner, to whom I’m not comparing myself) have written books that didn’t so much continue the history of one or two people but dipped into a familiar universe for the next story. That’s what I’ve done with my new novel, No Time to Wave Goodbye.

It does, in fact, take up where my first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, left off, 13 years ago. But it begins a series of new events, not a new take on old ones.

What I learned from No Time to Wave Goodbye, other than that I could do this with dignity, was that I had the time of my life. I didn’t realize how vital these ancient characters still were. I didn’t recognize the places they inhabit in my writer’s heart.

And so, perhaps not so surprisingly, I’m back in that universe for the novel I’m currently writing, to be published in 2010.

There’ll be new people with new stories and old faces turned toward new complexities. Turns out, I have a crush on my own Yokapanowtha County—Chicago’s Italian neighborhood at Taylor and Racine Streets and the exurbs beyond.

In fact, The Deep End of the Ocean started with a crush. I thought it was a crush on a boy. Back when I was a young widow with four young kids, pushing 40 and ever so alone, I began to dream at night of my high-school sweetheart, taking refuge in the endless summer nights we shared, lying on a quilt on the hood of his grandpa’s Bonneville, smoking and stroking skin that would never be so soft again.

My honey and I were plumbers’ children, but still privileged. While we had to work, it was only after school. Before our dates, we girls dropped by the cologne counter at Marshall Fields—as one of my pals put it, “renting to own” our cosmetics. Four guys once serenaded me under the window of our apartment, singing “Jackie” instead of “My Girl” in the refrain.

Yet, there were stains on that place and time, just as there were for Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A mile from our apartment, a friend parked his car on the railroad tracks until an eastbound train dragged him and his 15-year-old girlfriend away. She was already dead, from an overdose. Mr. Curry beat his wife so badly he put out her eye and didn’t go to jail. Our great-uncle raped my first cousin. What I felt wasn’t really a crush on a boy, but on the past— particularly the sweet and profane world in which I grew up.

When I wrote Deep End, I keened my own grief through the grief of another mother, Beth Cappadora. My children’s blunt suffering became the blunt suffering of Vincent Cappadora about his little brother’s kidnapping.

The book was a hit and a triumph.

I put away my west-side Chicago youth.

Or so I thought.

Last year, I had another book ready to go—one day to be published. But I found myself writing (around the edges) about the Cappadoras. Finally, it was clear I had the answer to the question that so many readers had asked me since the publication of my first novel: what ever happened to Vincent and the rest of the Cappadoras?

Back to the beginning I went with a purpose. I rewrote and followed the strands. The book bloomed into No Time to Wave Goodbye. Not everyone who read it will have read The Deep End of the Ocean. That’s not necessary. This new story didn’t come from the previous story.

It came from that great interlaced weave of lace and chain link that is my place, my locative past. And as soon as I finished it, I wanted to go there again, because the further we get from the life we once lived, the clearer the details. Why keep that universe under lock and key?

Of course I hope readers like revisiting people whom they once considered beloved, as I did. But more than that, I turn to those streets and those nights to find myself. I walk down a block of two flats, and a dog barks. A passing car trails the ribbon of a Frankie Valli song under the viaduct. Under the light in a kitchen window, a girl opens her books. Her hair is mayonnaised with Dippity-Do and wound on rollers the size of a car’s tail pipes.

I know her. I am her.

When is a series not a series? The easy answer is . . . when I write it. But the real answer is more complicated. Now, they say that a sequel for a writer is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But it’s not a sequel when the primary character is—well, when she has to […]
Behind the Book by

My entry into tango was as convoluted as the steps I would eventually learn.
 
Having grown up in Italy, I was obsessed with America, cowboys and Indians, tepees and corrals, and dreamt to be able to two-step. Several years after my move to New York, I finally enrolled in evening classes at the aptly called Shall-We-Dance studio and began my formal instruction. Since Seven Brides for Seven Brothers had been one of my favorite childhood movies (yes, it dates me terribly), wearing boots and stomping around a fake barn to the sound of a banjo and a steel-guitar, seemed like a fabulous option.
 
Nothing came easily to me: not the steps, the pirouettes, or the arm movements. I felt like an orangutan let loose in a room full of mirrors. I bumped into everything and everyone, terrified by turns, afraid to drag my partner into such inelegant, senseless dancing. Beet-red after each of my mistakes, I’d burst into tears at the thought of my evident inadequacy. Doggedly, I continued to suffer through all those intricate patterns: Pretzel, Basket, Weave, Whip, Flip Flop, Lasso, Turning Crossbow, Barrel Roll, Wagon Wheel, Double-overhead Loop, Starburst and then Wrap, Cuddle, Hammerlock, Sweetheart, Skater’s lock, Killer Duck. The names alone were horrifyingly incomprehensible; imagine trying to remember the 180 degrees spin my feet were supposed to make in order to propel my legs (and the rest of my body) into a passable turn!
 
Two-step was followed by salsa and cha-cha, swing and rumba, waltz and the obscure Peabody and Balboa. As the months went by, I finally got it and began to feel omnivorous and hungry about dancing, any kind of dancing. I tried everything.
 
Then one day John, my teacher, played a song. He took me into his arms and suddenly that was it. Somehow the music of my youth, the notes so often played on Italian radio and never before registered, had seeped into my bones and asserted their power over my heart and brain. It was my first tango. And it would last.
 
I traveled to Buenos Aires, I took classes with the best teachers. I bought a ballet-bar and put it in my dining room to practice my moves. I studied videos of the greatest. I listened to everyone’s advice. “Tango is natural, just walk . . .” In total disbelief I would watch those fabulous performers imparting their simple teachings while their legs, seemingly completely detached from their torsos, whipped the air with incredible arabesques. “Where is your weight?” My weight? Panicking I would try to concentrate on this esoteric question. I had no idea.
 
The very first tango class I ever took in Argentina was at the beautiful Confiteria Ideal. The teacher showed a simple pattern and called me up to demonstrate. Horrified I slowly moved toward him, a sacrificial sheep about to be immolated. And then something happened, I still don’t know what came to my mind, but the moment he took me into his arms I swiftly unloaded a kick. Right at his balls . . .
 
Yes, I’m afraid I did. I had seen too many videos and thought that this was what was expected of me so I went for the first opening. I saw a knee bend, a thigh raise and BAM! My foot, size 10, was there. At full force.
 
I immediately hoped the earth would open under my feet, or a pyre would engulf me in flames, incinerating me quickly before Daniel’s fury unleashed on me. Let go like the pariah I was, I slowly, painfully (never as painfully as poor Daniel, naturally) walked back to the group and metamorphosed into a statue of salt.
 
Thankfully hours, days, months and years went by.
 
I learned to tango—but I will never forget the day I started.
 
A former model, Patrizia Chen used her passion for tango to inspire It Takes Two, a charming debut novel that chronicles a woman’s midlife escape from a dead-end marriage. Chen and her husband divide their time between New York City and Todi, Italy.
 

Author photo by Elisabetta Catalano

My entry into tango was as convoluted as the steps I would eventually learn.   Having grown up in Italy, I was obsessed with America, cowboys and Indians, tepees and corrals, and dreamt to be able to two-step. Several years after my move to New York, I finally enrolled in evening classes at the aptly […]
Review by

Perhaps it’s best to tell the reader right off the bat that the feisty Viola Price, matriarch of Terry McMillan’s latest novel A Day Late and a Dollar Short, dies halfway through the book. McMillan etches the character so vividly that when she passes away, the reader grieves, and indeed the loss of Viola’s robust, irritated, comical voice leaves an empty spot in the narrative. In terms of the book’s overall appeal, however, it hardly matters.

One of McMillan’s greatest strengths is her spot-on characterization of people and situations you recognize, especially if you’re an African-American woman. Yes, that’s my mother, one mutters, shaking one’s head ruefully. Or that’s my Aunt So and So, or Cousin Ditz, or my best friend or that numbskull I used to date. Once in a while one will be even tempted to admit, yes, that’s me, but don’t tell anybody.

McMillan’s latest novel opens with Viola in the hospital for one of her asthma attacks, contemplating her wayward children. They are the perfectionist Paris, a successful caterer still chafing under the burden of being the oldest child; the prickly Charlotte, who still believes, a la Tommy Smothers, that her mother liked Paris best; Lewis, the loser with the genius level IQ who can’t seem to stay out of trouble even if he tries; and Janelle, the dingbat whose lifelong flightiness is stopped only by an outrageous crime committed against her adolescent daughter. There’s also Viola’s estranged husband, Cecil, jheri-curled and polyester clad, who has taken up with a young welfare mom. As with most of McMillan’s books, the narrative voice is straightforward, with an acerbic humor like a bite into a not quite ripe persimmon. We can tell the players apart immediately; eventually we can recognize children and even fractious spouses and ex-spouses. In McMillan’s capable hands, even peripheral folks like Viola’s kindly next-door neighbor and her strange, waspish sisters are clearly drawn.

In the McMillan tradition the adult men, Lewis, Cecil and the sisters’ husbands and ex-husbands, are not what they ought to be. This isn’t man-bashing on McMillan’s part, but her conveyance of the truth that a lot of men are dogs, or dogs in training, and her ongoing examination of the mystery of why smart women hook up with them. Perhaps another part of McMillan’s popularity stems from the mistaken belief by many of her readers that, with their own nutty families and eye-popping messes, they, too, could have written Waiting to Exhale, or Stella or Mama if they only had the time!

All in all, A Day Late and a Dollar Short is more a snapshot of a critical moment in the ongoing travails of a particular family than a deep, analytical opus. Even momentous events like multiple pregnancies are kept subordinate to the main action of bickering kinfolk dealing with the death of their mother. In the end we regain something of Viola’s voice when the Prices gather after her funeral to read the letters she sent to each of them, and we realize we miss this stubborn, opinionated, funny lady. Not as much as her children, who come late to the realization that they did love one another after all.

Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.

Perhaps it’s best to tell the reader right off the bat that the feisty Viola Price, matriarch of Terry McMillan’s latest novel A Day Late and a Dollar Short, dies halfway through the book. McMillan etches the character so vividly that when she passes away, the reader grieves, and indeed the loss of Viola’s robust, […]
Review by

There is a conspiracy afoot. The publicity material accompanying Joanna Trollope’s splendid new novel, The Best of Friends, tries to present Trollope as merely a woman’s novelist, risking the condescension such categories imply. It describes her books as a “secret pleasure” and a “guilty delight.” Wherein lies the secrecy and guilt is not explained.

Do not be fooled by this marketing ploy. Joanna Trollope’s novels are not feverish little romances. Just remember that years before Trollope was catching on in the U.S. (she is practically a household name in England), all sorts of critics were praising her sensitivity to social nuance and strength of characterization. She is a genuine writer, a worthy descendant of Frances and Anthony.

If you haven’t read a Trollope novel yet, you may have seen one of them adapted on PBS perhaps the popular The Rector’s Wife. If not, The Best of Friends is a wonderful place to start. Like her other contemporary novels, it describes a cross-section of a community, particularly a couple of families and the shifting alliances between them.

Trollope excells at bringing to life several generations and allowing their varied perspectives to illuminate each other. She documents the confusions and frustrations of teenagers with the same precision and empathy that animates her elderly characters. What is most impressive about her writing is that she performs this legerdemain with the lightest touch, as if it were nothing special, as if anyone could do it. And she does so with an ironic, Olympean sense of humor reminiscent of Jane Austen’s.

No doubt it is the easy accessibility and familiar domestic plots that invite comparison to category fiction. But Trollope, while an optimist who writes about people faced with situations that demand their best efforts, eschews easy answers and forced happy endings. There are few villains in her books, although there is no shortage of unpleasantness. Mostly there are confused or embittered people who don’t mean to be behaving as badly as they sometimes do. The Best of Friends is the story of Gina, whose husband suddenly abandons her and their teenage daughter Sophy; of Sophy’s own coming-of-age; of Gina’s longtime friend Laurence, who ultimately falls in love with her; and of Laurence’s wife, Hilary, and their own children. We meet Gina’s mother Vi, who at 80 is cautiously discovering love again in her retirement community, and Hilary and Laurence’s son Gus, who at 14 is hopelessly infatuated with Sophy. Trollope makes these sad, ordinary events seem new and fresh. If you enjoy The Best of Friends, turn to earlier volumes. Especially recommended are The Men and the Girls and A Passionate Man. Like most serious writers, Trollope has chosen to explore the oldest subject the ancient human muddle of desire and yearning for a better life. There are no original stories; only individual visions, fresh candor, and a signature style. Joanna Trollope offers all three.

Reviewed by Michael Sims.

There is a conspiracy afoot. The publicity material accompanying Joanna Trollope’s splendid new novel, The Best of Friends, tries to present Trollope as merely a woman’s novelist, risking the condescension such categories imply. It describes her books as a “secret pleasure” and a “guilty delight.” Wherein lies the secrecy and guilt is not explained. Do […]
Review by

It all began with the idea of writing a story about a school assignment. It blossomed into the remarkable novel Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde, an extraordinary tale that, like its young protagonist, just might change the world. When social studies teacher Reuben St. Clair writes on the blackboard, Think of an idea for world change, and put it into action, 12-year-old Trevor McKinney takes the assignment seriously and comes up with the concept of Paying Forward. His plan is fairly simple: He’ll do something really good for three people who, instead of paying him back, will be asked to pay it forward by aiding three more. Hard as he tries, Trevor’s initial attempts seem to fail. Time after time, the recipients of his good deeds let him down. But just when Trevor thinks his entire project has been for naught, things take a turn for the better and his efforts slowly snowball into a national phenomenon. Pay It Forward is Hyde’s second novel and, 20 years in the making, it is truly a labor of love. Telling the story of Trevor’s remarkable project from the alternating perspectives of Trevor’s diary and the people who are touched by the young boy’s vision, Hyde grabs the reader’s attention and never lets go until the novel’s passionate surprise ending.

Big things are expected of this book (there was already a movie deal in the works before its release), and with good reason. Pay It Forward is a delightfully uplifting, moving, and inspiring modern fable that has the power to change the world as we know it which would be a wonderful phenomenon indeed.

Sharon Galligar Chance is the senior book reviewer for the Times Record News in Wichita Falls, Texas.

It all began with the idea of writing a story about a school assignment. It blossomed into the remarkable novel Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde, an extraordinary tale that, like its young protagonist, just might change the world. When social studies teacher Reuben St. Clair writes on the blackboard, Think of an idea […]
Behind the Book by

Theater writer Laura Harrington based her debut novel, Alice Bliss, on a one-woman, one-act musical she wrote that she couldn't get out of her head. Her desire to dramatize the experience of military families was due to her belief that the story of the war at home and its effect on children, families and communities was one that needed to be told—but it also resonated on a personal level. In a behind-the-book essay, Harrington explains how her family history informed her moving and memorable story of a girl's coming-of-age while her father is deployed in the Middle East.

 

My father was a navigator/ bombardier in WWII, flying missions into Germany from his air base just north of Paris. Both my brothers enlisted in the Air Force in 1966, at the height of the Viet Nam war, directly out of high school and college, respectively. Even though I don’t have a family member serving in the current war, my family has been deeply impacted by war.

My father suffered from what was then called battle fatigue following WWII, a time he would never talk about directly. Nor would he talk about the experiences during the war that had so devastated him. The silence surrounding my father’s war experiences has probably been the single greatest mystery and inspiration in my life. I believe that my fascination with war grows out of my need to understand these experiences and to bear witness to this silent suffering.

I think that making the war personal is important. Telling the stories of those who have a loved one deployed is important.

 

I chose to write about the family of a soldier in the Reserves in 2006 because in my research I learned that Reservists make up 63% of our armed forces. For the families of Reservists a sense of isolation can be especially acute. They often live in communities where few, if any, of their friends and neighbors are in the military or deployed. Not only do Reservists’ children feel that no one knows their story, they often feel that no one even knows they exist.

There are more than 1.7 million military children and teens scattered across the country. Most of us have the luxury of thinking the war is distant; these children do not. They live with this war, day in and day out; they wake up with it, they fall asleep with it; it is woven into the daily fabric of their lives. They are expected to carry on at home and at school, to pretend that they do not have a parent who is risking his or her life, that they are not consumed with worry, that their daily life is not affected by this absence.

How should this sacrifice, borne by less than 1% of our population, affect the rest of us, the lucky 99% of us? What is our responsibility? Most of us have the luxury to blithely choose to remain ignorant of the war, or simply not pay attention. We can turn the page; we can change the channel. There is decadence in that choice and, I would suggest, a sense of shame, a moral disquiet.

I think that making the war personal is important. Telling the stories of those left behind, illuminating the lives of spouses and partners and children who have a loved one deployed is important.

Stories have the unique power to open our eyes and our hearts to people and to worlds and to experiences that we would not otherwise know. I wanted to find a way to tell the story of this endless war, to shed light on these struggles, and most importantly, I wanted to hear these voices.

I hope that Alice Bliss can help us begin to see this war one child at a time, one soldier at a time, one missing father at a time.

Read an excerpt from Alice Bliss on Harrington's website.

 

 

Theater writer Laura Harrington based her debut novel, Alice Bliss, on a one-woman, one-act musical she wrote that she couldn't get out of her head. Her desire to dramatize the experience of military families was due to her belief that the story of the war at home and its effect on children, families and communities […]
Behind the Book by

Paola Calvetti is an Italian novelist and journalist. P.O. Box Love, translated by Anne Milano Appel, is her first novel to be published in the United States. Told in letters, it is the story of high school sweethearts (and star-crossed lovers) Emma and Frederico, who get a second chance at love 30 years later.

P.O. Box Love is a story that I had been pondering for years. I wanted to write about lovers of all ages, something for people who believe in “second chances” and are looking for a “feel good” experience (on the page!). I also wanted to write about an independent bookstore. This is what I had in mind when I sat down to start the novel.

From that day on, the novel literally came to me, page after page. And every time I came against an obstacle, or a doubt, something would happen to dissolve it and convince me to go one with the next chapter!

It was a truly incredible experience.

Walking around Milan, I found this tiny little card shop and thought, "That's it! That is how Emma's bookstore would be!" A bookstore that would sell only love stories because ultimately the entire history of literature is one long, continuous love story.

I didn't know what profession to give Federico, though. I knew that he had to be Emma's age (50), because they were classmates in high school, but he had to live far away so that it made sense for them to write each other long letters. Then one day I woke up and thought: an architect. I knew nothing about architecture though, and that frightened me a bit (I always try to write about what I know). So I started to research architecture and the very first article I found was on the revival of the Morgan Library in New York, which the architect Renzo Piano had just finished. It occurred to me that even though I had been to New York many times, I had never seen the Morgan Library. The article was fascinating, and while I was reading it I thought: now that is where Federico will work. I wrote a long letter (by hand of course!) to the architect Renzo Piano, telling him about my intent to set a part of my novel against the construction of the library and asking whether he would talk to me. He answered in the kindest way, inviting me to speak to his right-hand man, Giorgio Bianchi, who could tell me all I needed to know about the preparation and the five-year process of the rebuilding. I knew then that I was on the right track.

Then I began to look to mythology for a little-known love story to use as an archetype. I didn't know any offhand. Which country has given the world legends to love and build on? Brittany!

That area of what is now France is full of mysteries and legends like King Arthur, Merlin the Wizard and Morgan the Fairy. It was July and all the hotels and houses were booked though. I couldn't find any place to sleep there. I called a friend who had a house in Brittany, and asked him if he knew of a place I could rent for July and August. He answered with one word "Impossible." Of course I told him that nothing was impossible. Ten minutes later he called me back . . . an English couple cancelled their reservation on a house in Concarneau! I packed my bags and left immediately!

Then I had to find a legend. It was a cloudy afternoon and I was visiting the town. I stopped for a cup of tea and began wandering along the cobblestone alleys. I happened to enter an old second-hand bookstore run by an elderly man. I found the courage to ask him if he had any books about Britanny's legends . . . maybe a love legend.

"Of course,” he answered, “Jean and Jeanne!” He stared at me, surprised I didn’t know the legend of the two menhirs, or statues, in the small and beautiful island Belle-Ile-en-mer. Once a year the two stones are transformed from stone into flesh so they can love each other.

So I went there by boat and fell literally in love with the legend . . .  I had found my archetype. Then I decided that Emma and Federico would meet once a year on the island Belle Ile, just as Jean and Jeanne do. On April 10.

The next summer I spent a month on the island doing research. The book started materializing and I was impelled from discovery to discovery, coincidence to coincidence . . .

Which was the only book by Jane Austen which I was allowed to see during my visit to the Morgan Library?

em>Lady Susan, which was written between 1793 and 1794, acquired for the Morgan by Belle da Costa in 1947. As chance would have it, it is an epistolary novel. 

I couldn't find anything on Belle da Costa in June of 2007, but while I was in New York, the first biography of her was published!
When my U.S. publisher asked if there was any high-profile person who might be willing to give me a quote, I immediately thought of the Italian actress Isabella Rossellini. That same night, August of last year, a friend of mine invited me to dinner and who was there?   
Isabella Rossellini.
A coincidence??

 

 

Paola Calvetti is an Italian novelist and journalist. P.O. Box Love, translated by Anne Milano Appel, is her first novel to be published in the United States. Told in letters, it is the story of high school sweethearts (and star-crossed lovers) Emma and Frederico, who get a second chance at love 30 years later. P.O. Box […]
Review by

Islands are magical places, no doubt about it. Whether you live on one, as I do, vacation on one, or read about them, islands stir some deep core of fantasy. Island Justice is a satisfying island book. Elizabeth Winthrop understands and better still, makes us understand the feeling of a close-knit community that knows everyone else’s business and personal life, that pulls together when it needs to.

When Maggie Hammond’s godmother, Nan, dies and leaves her island home to Maggie, a sophisticated world traveler, a furniture conservator who works with museums in London, Madrid, Amsterdam, and Prague, Maggie sets about selling the cluttered Victorian house. The task of getting the house ready for sale takes longer than she expects, and Maggie gets caught up in off-season island life. The body of an island man, missing for several days, washes up on her beach. Islanders rally around his daughter and give Maggie, who found the body, the support she needs. “You’re entitled to fall apart,” she is told. She learns about a serious problem in one of the families. Should she remain silent, closing her eyes the way the islanders have been doing? Should she call in authorities from the mainland? What role should she play? In Island Justice, Winthrop packs onto her small island (12 miles long, three miles wide) adventure, romance, mystery, and humor. We learn a bit about furniture conservation, a bit about training Vishlas, hunting dogs. When Randy Baker spots a school of fish off the beach: “ÔHallelujah,’ he shouted, and got on the radio with a single call. He knew he was breaking the cardinal rule of the island. The radio was to be used only for emergencies. But the fishermen had come up with a simple code. . . . Within twenty minutes, there were twelve fishermen lining the beach, calling news of lures and catches to one another.” Kasha, Maggie’s Siberian husky, is hurt badly and must get to the mainland. The word goes out, “Get down to the ferry will you, and try to convince Dan to hold that boat.” Besides being a good yarn, the story has the feel of an island. We hear the bell buoy, the fog horn, the gulls, we struggle along with Maggie to back a car onto the ferry. I was sorry when I finished this wonderful, rich book. Now that I’ve discovered Elizabeth Winthrop, I am off to my favorite island bookstore to order her previous novel, In My Mother’s House.

Reviewed by Cynthia Riggs.

Islands are magical places, no doubt about it. Whether you live on one, as I do, vacation on one, or read about them, islands stir some deep core of fantasy. Island Justice is a satisfying island book. Elizabeth Winthrop understands and better still, makes us understand the feeling of a close-knit community that knows everyone […]
Review by

Barnaby Gaitlin is no prince. A quasi-reformed juvenile delinquent, Anne Tyler’s anti-hero in her new novel, A Patchwork Planet, has just celebrated his 30th birthday alone, swilling beer in his dank basement apartment. Still, Barnaby is a disheveled handyman with a heart, and Tyler’s 14th novel will not disappoint die-hard fans who cherish the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s knack for plainspoken storytelling.

Like most of Tyler’s novels, A Patchwork Planet is set in a Baltimore suburb, capturing a year in the life of an eclectic array of characters, primarily, the Gaitlin family. Barnaby, the proverbial black sheep of the bunch, has never managed to overcome his tarnished teenage years, when he soiled the Gaitlin name after he was arrested for burglary. His affluent family orchestrates a charitable foundation, but Barnaby is not impressed. His ill-fated marriage to the wholesome girl-next-door ended in a divorce after the birth of their daughter, Opal. Now, his ex-wife has married a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer, and Barnaby has grown estranged from his only child.

A Patchwork Planet could have easily fallen into a predictable pattern, portraying the travails of a divorced dad who longs to be closer to his daughter. Tyler will have none of that with Barnaby, who is less than enthusiastic about his sporadic drives to Philly in his grandfather’s old Corvette. Indeed, Barnaby is passionate about two things: searching for his angel a mythical Gaitlin tradition and helping his elderly clients at Rent-A-Back, where he tackles odd-jobs alongside his co-worker, a scrappy, anemic-looking waif named Martine. Of course, Barnaby is searching for love, which arrives in the form of a plump, sweet-faced banker named Sophia. At last, Barnaby seems to have settled down, as Sophia’s hearty crock-pot meals and stolid serenity lull the former felon into a homespun nirvana. Even the Gaitlins approve of Sophia, and the romance blossoms with the blessing of Barnaby’s persnickety mother, Margot. But A Patchwork Planet is not a love story, and Tyler is too talented to serve up a neat and tidy conclusion. A common thread running through all of Tyler’s novels is the minutia of everyday the trips to the grocery store, the lace doilies and dusty furniture, and, above all, a deep respect for an average life. While many of Tyler’s prior novels have revolved around the struggles facing couples with teenage children (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Ladder of Years), at 57, the novelist seems to be taking a long, hard look at the so-called Golden Years.

It is a reflection that is alternately comedic and tragic, and Tyler does not shy away from the raw truth. As Barnaby’s aging clients whisper their fears and share their fading memories, he begins to believe that perhaps his search for a soul mate is pure folly. “At Rent-A-Back, I knew couples who’d been married almost forever. Finally, you’re just with who you’re with. You’ve signed on with her, put in half a century with her, grown to know her as well as you know yourself or even better, and she’s become the right person.” With A Patchwork Planet, Tyler has once again served up literary comfort food for the soul. While those who crave action and demand resolution may be frustrated by Tyler’s character-driven plots, even the most cynical reader will be charmed by Barnaby, and above all, an assortment of silver-haired saints.

Reviewed by Karen A. Cullotta.

Barnaby Gaitlin is no prince. A quasi-reformed juvenile delinquent, Anne Tyler’s anti-hero in her new novel, A Patchwork Planet, has just celebrated his 30th birthday alone, swilling beer in his dank basement apartment. Still, Barnaby is a disheveled handyman with a heart, and Tyler’s 14th novel will not disappoint die-hard fans who cherish the Pulitzer […]
Behind the Book by

Patti Callahan Henry's new novel, And Then I Found You, centers on a reunion of a young woman with the daughter she gave up for adoption. In a behind-the-book essay, Henry explains how a real-life adoption story inspired this touching and emotional novel.

Imagination is the essential fire for a writer. Questions are the fuel. Why and how and what if and what happens next—these are the questions that occupy my working hours. My waking and sleeping hours, too.

For years I had imagined a baby growing into a toddler, a young girl facing her first day of school, her first date. This was a shared narrative in our family. Everybody wondered. We had to. We knew so little.

Here is what we knew: My sister gave birth to a baby girl on July 18, 1989. She was adopted the next day by a hand-chosen, but anonymous family. She had a shock of dark hair and a dimpled chin. Her dad was a dear college friend of mine and she was blessed with his kind, green eyes. My sister named her Janelle. I only saw a single photo of her. And yet I loved her.

This wasn’t a story in one of my books. It was real life—the ache and tug and wondering of real life. I understood that I had a niece somewhere out in the world and I sometimes imagined her life. And yet for all the what if’s and what happened, never had I visualized the parallel coincidences that marked our crooked paths. Never had I crafted the reunion.

This wasn’t a story in one of my books. It was real life—the ache and tug and wondering of real life. I understood that I had a niece somewhere out in the world and I sometimes imagined her life.

It was a Facebook friend-request that changed my family’s world completely. Her name was Catherine and she wanted to see what her birth mom looked like. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who had wondered.

After talking to her mom, my niece typed her birth mother’s name into Google. In this search for Barbara Callahan, Catherine found me—her aunt. I had dedicated one of my novels to Barbi, so Google spit out my books and my name first. But I was a mere stepping stone.

I accepted the friend request, unaware that something life-altering was under way. I was living this, not writing it, so I had no idea what was happening. Catherine then went through my friend list to find her birth mother, Barbi, and our sister, Jeannie. Slowly, incrementally, we realized who Catherine was. We wept with the singular truth that she had found us. All the unknowing ended with a single email.

My sister Barbi met Catherine first. That reunion inspired another and Catherine brought her family to Atlanta. I walked toward her, feeling as if I were meeting a character from one of my novels, or a mythical creature found in an Irish forest. Then I hugged her and there was nothing fictitious or mythical about her. I cried. She cried. I held her even as she let go of me. It was love at second sight.

In the beginning of our relationship, it was all about storytelling, all about how our lives had unfolded without each other. Catherine told us about her best friend and her boyfriend. She told us how she used to look at her eyes or the dimple in her chin or her feet and wonder, “Who gave this to me?” We all laughed about our similarities and our differences. We marveled at how our lives had run parallel without touching. Catherine, Barbi and I all grew up outside Philadelphia. Catherine’s last name is my sister’s first name: Barbi and Barbee. She looks like my daughter. She has Irish parents. Like me, she rubs her nose when she’s nervous.

 

Patti's daughter, Meagan, left, with Catherine, right.

It’s easier to love an image than a living, changing, person. Yet, through cookouts and nights out, through football tailgating and hanging out in the kitchen, I’ve loved Catherine more with every conversation, with every intimacy.

So with that love I wanted to write a novel that captured the emotional changes that this reunion brought to our family. I didn’t want to use the true-to-life details of my sister’s life—this story is hers to tell—so I put aside the facts to write about a young woman who’d done the best she could, and yet still found herself in a terrible situation with few options. I wrote about the life of a young woman and her adopted first-born child, both wondering what had become of one another, both wondering if they’d ever meet. I explored the extraordinary changes that a reunion can bring to a life and to a family. I wondered again, and this time I got to choose the questions and the answers.

Our lives were forever changed when my sister’s daughter found us. I needed to find a way to portray the goodness and grace that our family discovered in the chaos of this event. So I turned to story, because it’s story that has the power to bind us together in our messy lives. It’s story that brings us together in our common human journey. 

Patti Callahan Henry's new novel, And Then I Found You, centers on a reunion of a young woman with the daughter she gave up for adoption. In a behind-the-book essay, Henry explains how a real-life adoption story inspired this touching and emotional novel. Imagination is the essential fire for a writer. Questions are the fuel. […]
Behind the Book by

St. Louis writer Michele Andrea Bowen made a splash in the inspirational fiction world with her Church Folk series, which followed the loves and losses of a tight-knit church community in Durham, North Carolina. Her latest release, Pastor Needs a Boo, launches a spin-off of that series, the Pastor’s Aide Club, and matches reader favorite Denzelle Flowers—a former FBI agent turned pastor—with the woman who will be the making of him. In a behind-the-book essay, Bowen explains why she chose Reverend Flowers to kick things off.

I always have a hearty “laugh out loud” moment when I think about how this book came to be. Pastor Needs a Boo is the book behind the books Up at the College and More Church Folk. The main characters in this story (and in the forthcoming books in the Pastor’s Aide Club Series) are the secondary characters readers were immensely interested in throughout the original series of Church Folk novels.

Every time I wrote a new novel, my readers would ask: “Sooooo, what about Denzelle Flowers?” They wanted to know things like “Is Denzelle ever going to settle down with a good woman?” “You know, I always thought he had a thing for . . . what’s her name . . . yeah, Marsha Metcalf.” “What happened to that pastor where the women in his church went wild, like ‘Church Girls Gone Wild’ during one of his Friday night services? Wasn’t that brother Denzelle?”

My readers wouldn't stop asking, “Is Reverend Denzelle Flowers ever going to settle down with a good woman and leave those hoochies alone?”

And “Is Reverend Denzelle Flowers ever going to settle down with a good woman and leave those hoochies alone?”

Who knew that my characters would touch the hearts and funny bones of my readers to the point of them having that good old “church folk” community connection with Denzelle and the other supporting characters like they were their cousins or something? And honestly, I was beginning to ask myself what was going on in Denzelle’s world. I always liked this character—he had a lot of “old school swag” and was very funny with regard to his approach to life.

Denzelle Flowers was the kind of man that a woman writing about love and the perils of the heart could explore, analyze and investigate. Why would a man with such a deep secret desire for true love run from it like it was some kind of sci-fi concocted nuisance? I also wanted to know what kind of woman would make this man stop running. In asking that question, I became more and more intrigued by another supporting character, Marsha Metcalf.

It was so much fun to get all up in Denzelle’s “grille.” Or, to be more exact, I had a good time digging in the brother’s history, finding out what happened to make him so jaded, and how a woman could be the inspiration to turn his life around. I wanted to know why men in a certain age group ran from the very thing that would actually give their hearts the joy they craved in all of the wrong ways. Well, what I really wanted to know, was why would a handsome, smart, smooth and savvy FBI Agent/preacher like Denzelle Flowers always found himself lookin’ for luuuuvvvv in all the wrong places.

Funny thing—that was the secret question on the hearts, minds and lips of my readers. They just didn’t “get” Denzelle Flowers. They couldn’t understand how he could be such good friends with the happily married Rev. Obadiah Quincey and his wife, Lena, and not believe that love really existed, that there really was a “Ruth” out their waiting to connect with her “Boaz.”

Yes, Denzelle Flowers definitely wanted to connect with a Ruth. He didn’t want the modern-day version of a Queen Esther, or a Rahab, or even Lazurus and Martha’s sister, Mary. Denzelle wanted that sweet, dedicated, smart, hard-working and good-looking Ruth. And just like Boaz, Denzelle needed the chance to watch and observe from afar, to act like he wasn’t thinking and feeling what the readers all knew he was thinking and feeling, and to stay safe while his heart did a soft whirring motion every time he witnessed his Ruth—Marsha—laboring in the field of activities created by his church’s Pastor’s Aide Club.

I had so much fun working with these characters and figuring out how to get this pastor from “needing a boo” to grabbing that boo close to his very fragile and needy heart.

St. Louis writer Michele Andrea Bowen made a splash in the inspirational fiction world with her Church Folk series, which followed the loves and losses of a tight-knit church community in Durham, North Carolina. Her latest release, Pastor Needs a Boo, launches a spin-off of that series, the Pastor’s Aide Club, and finds reader favorite Denzelle Flowers—a former FBI agent turned pastor—the woman who will be the making of him. In a behind-the-book essay, Bowen explains why she chose Reverend Flowers to kick things off.

Review by

Reading Susan Gregg Gilmore’s debut novel is almost like being introduced to the author herself. The former journalist writes Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen in a conversational Southern dialect that includes frequent use of words like "dad-gum." The reader is instantly immersed in a world of chigger bites, berry picking, comfort food and Sunday school.

The small town of Ringgold, Georgia, is home to nearly 2,000 people in the early 1970s, and one of these citizens is a girl with big aspirations. Catherine Grace Cline, the preacher’s daughter, dreams of moving to the big city—Atlanta—as soon as she turns 18. She and her younger sister, Martha Ann, lick Dilly Bars at the Dairy Queen every Saturday and plan what excitement their lives will hold in Atlanta. The difficult part is that Catherine Grace must leave her father, sister and high school boyfriend behind. She embarks on what she hopes is a great adventure as an independent young woman, but soon returns to Ringgold because of a devastating tragedy. A surprising series of events, including revealed family secrets, causes Catherine Grace to question where she really belongs: working at Davison’s department store in Atlanta or growing her own crop of tomatoes in Ringgold? Maybe what she was seeking could have been found in her hometown all along.

The tight-knit Cline clan lives in a home of Baptist values and Georgia football, but the most significant component of this family is their confidence in one another’s dreams. That kind of love and support is even more appealing than a diet of Dilly Bars, and Gilmore’s novel is a meal well worth the consumption.

(This review refers to the hardcover edition.)

Reading Susan Gregg Gilmore’s debut novel is almost like being introduced to the author herself. The former journalist writes Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen in a conversational Southern dialect that includes frequent use of words like "dad-gum." The reader is instantly immersed in a world of chigger bites, berry picking, comfort food and […]
Review by

A title wave of beach paperbacks Whether you’re contemplating a trip to an exotic beach, or planning to spend the warm weather months in the back yard, you’ll want to bring along that most necessary of seasonal accouterments. No, not sunscreen. We’re talking summer reading. Especially the easy-to-tote paperback variety. A hardcover sensation, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story, literally spent years on bestseller lists. This month the 1994 title at last debuts in soft cover (Vintage, $12, 0679751521). Never mind that Clint Eastwood’s movie version has come and gone. If you haven’t read this account of life and death and murder Savannah-style, replete with its parade of beguiling eccentrics, you’re in for a mint-julep-flavored treat. Southern accents and sensibilities also abound in Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (HarperCollins, $14, 0060928336). Flashing back and forth from the 1990s to the 1960s, the book explores Siddalee’s efforts to understand her seemingly incomprehensible mother, the Louisiana magnolia Viviane, and her three chums. Booted out of a Shirley Temple lookalike contest when they were just six, the girls spent their college years blazing a bourbon-splattered trail, buffered by the motto (from a Billie Holiday tune), smoke, drink, don’t think. As much a paean to sisterhood as it is a mother-daughter tale, Ya-Ya is a kind of follow-up to Wells’s much darker first novel, Little Altars Everywhere, (HarperCollins, $13, 0060976845), and is being developed for a movie by Bette Midler’s production company. Yet another girly story is recounted in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Helen Fielding’s book which originated as a column in a London newspaper is the first-person odyssey of the thirtysomething Bridget, who is obsessed with such ’90s issues as learning to program her VCR, finding Mr. Right, and, of course, weight loss (in one year she manages to lose 72 pounds . . . and to gain 74). The producers of the quirky Four Weddings and a Funeral plan a movie version of the quirky Bridget.

Memoirs of a Geisha: A Novel, by first-time novelist Arthur S. Golden, may also be headed for the screen with Steven Spielberg’s involvement. For now, enjoy it in print (Vintage, $14, 0679781587), as the geisha Sayuri details her metamorphosis from peasant child she was nine when her widowed father sold her to a geisha house to her prewar rise as a leading geisha and on to her role as mistress to a power-broker. Golden spent nine years researching and writing this intricately detailed saga, which takes us on a memorable, eye-opening journey.

And last but not least, we mustn’t forget Margaret Mitchell’s monumental (and perennially best-selling) classic, Gone with the Wind (Warner Books, $7.99, 0446365386).

Hollywood journalist Pat H. Broeske is also a biographer who has chronicled the lives of Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley.

A title wave of beach paperbacks Whether you’re contemplating a trip to an exotic beach, or planning to spend the warm weather months in the back yard, you’ll want to bring along that most necessary of seasonal accouterments. No, not sunscreen. We’re talking summer reading. Especially the easy-to-tote paperback variety. A hardcover sensation, John Berendt’s […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Reviews

Author Interviews

Recent Features