he/she has written. Once in a while, I bump into a dud.
At Home, by Bill Bryson. Bryson takes a rambling tour through his own house, a Victorian parsonage built in England in 1851. He wanders (literally and figuratively) through the rooms – the hall, the kitchen, the drawing room, the cellar, the stairs, the nursery, and so on. He ambles along, takes off on side topics and weird tangents. The house itself, I decided, was an excuse for writing about whatever struck his fancy because he often gets way, way off course. He delves into what life was like during medieval times, during the Victorian era and in the present.
I love Bill Bryson’s view of the universe and I’ve read nearly every book he’s written. Always lots of facts. A 21-page bibliography is included for this tome. This guy likes doing research. He gets mired in detail sometimes, but I liked the book. ★★★ out of four stars.
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer. This was a strange book about a spell
that invades the town of Stellar Plains, NJ, after a new high school drama
teacher comes to town. She selects Lysistrata, a Greek play about a bunch
of women who refuse to have sex with their men until they stop fighting a war. The women of Stellar Plains soon begin turning away from their husbands and boyfriends. The town changes.
It all comes to a head when the play is performed by Dory and Robbie’s daughter, Willa, because the lead in the play has staged her own sex strike by remaining in bed until the Afghanistan War is over. The play is stopped and men take to the stage to plead with their wives and girlfriends to take them back. Very improbable; unrealistic. I guess it’s a fable or something. It was fine and I liked the way it was written, until I came upon the weird ending. ★★★out of four stars.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is gripping. It chronicles the post- graduation year of three brilliant University students: Madeleine Hanna, an English major; Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major; and Leonard Bankhead, a biology major. Mitchell is determined to spend a year traveling and “finding” himself. He goes to India to work with Mother Teresa. He volunteers at the Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta, visits churches of various denominations, flirts with Christian mysticism, travels around Europe and ponders his future.
Leonard has a paid fellowship at a biology lab on Cape Cod, but he has been hospitalized and diagnosed with manic depression. His medication fogs his brain and makes him feel stupid and slow. He plays around with his medication dose and begins to swing back and forth between mania and depression. The consequences are predictable.
Madeleine is re-writing her senior thesis, an exploration of what she calls “The Marriage Plot,” a theme common to English Victorian novelists like Jane Austen and George Eliot. She plans to submit the paper to a literary magazine. Madeleine moves with Leonard to Cape Cod, ostensibly to take care of him. All three are intellectuals. All smart. All flawed. Leonard and Mitchell are rivals; both are in love with Madeleine. Madeleine is in love with Leonard.
Some reviewers have said the novel is pretentious, with its long passages about philosophers and allusions to its super intelligent, well-read protagonists. Maybe it is. You don’t have to be familiar with it all – although I admit I Googled a few of the philosophies and authors mentioned, just to get a feel for where Eugenides was going. In the long run, however, it’s the characters who run the show. The whole year plays out in unusual ways that won’t let the reader quit.
Eugenides takes an average of nine years to write his books. The Virgin Suicides was published in 1993; Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize, came out in 2002; and now The Marriage Plot, 2011. He has perfected the art of writing a thoughtful page-turner with complicated, fascinating characters.
My next author, Joyce Carol Oates, turns out a book every year. Eugenides takes his good old time, which is apparently a g★★★★out of four.
A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates. Oh, dear. Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favorites, but this was a drag. It’s a memoir. Her beloved husband, Ray Smith, died unexpectedly of pneumonia, after spending a week in a hospital. She is devastated, of course, and the whole thing is truly tragic. They had never been apart for more than one night in 46 years
and had been devoted to each other, deeply in love.
But Joyce! Get over it. I got tired of her sniveling and whining. She goes on for more than 400 pages, almost day by day, journaling her depression, her medications, her suicidal thoughts, her sleepless nights, her crying jags, her widow-duties, even some nasty stuff about people who tried to offer condolences and who sent well-meaning gifts and letters and notes. Sure, she’s depressed and distraught. But come on. 400 pages? ★★out of four stars. (Apparently, she has remarried since she wrote this, so the poor lady has probably perked up.)