In the Language of Miracles

in the language of miracles

Viking, August 11, 2015

The American Dream is portrayed in any number of novels, often from the perspective of the struggle to reach it, but In the Language of Miracles Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy are Egyptians who have already achieved the dream. He is a doctor and they live in a nice New Jersey suburb with their three children. They have been close friends with their next-door neighbors the Bradstreets for the last decade and their oldest son, Hosaam, dates the Bradstreet’s daughter, Natalie. They are assimilated, a part of their community, right up until Hosaam shoots Natalie and then himself. The novel begins one year after the shooting and five days before the Bradstreets and the community hold a memorial for Natalie.

In the Language of Miracles provides an intimate look into the private life of the Al-Menshawys. Despite having lived in the U.S. for over twenty years much of their lives is still rooted in their past. After Hosaam’s death Nagla struggles to come to grips with the loss of her son and his actions. What was a comforting routine of socializing and girl time with Cynthia Bradstreet is now lonely days spent avoiding her and largely staying at home with only her old-fashioned mother for company. For Nagla, Hosaam’s act is a direct reflection on her parenting and she slips into an increasing depression trying to decipher where she went wrong with her oldest son. For Samir, no such reflection is necessary. Hosaam perpetrated a grievous wrong but after initial apologies Samir is now certain that by getting involved in the memorial, by reminding the citizens of their community that they too have suffered, it will put an end to the increasing isolation and discrimination his family has faced.

While the adults try and muddle their way through the days leading up to the memorial, seventeen-year-old Khaled wants only for it to be forgotten. For him, his old life ended that day, when his social media accounts exploded in vitriol and all but one of his friends stopped talking to him. He shut everything down and only engages online in a made-up persona to avoid anyone recognizing him as a Hosaam’s brother. He will always be the killer’s brother. His fear is compounded by his brother’s final words to him:

“ …I want you to remember one thing: I want you to remember that you’re my little brother, that you’ll always be my little brother, and that we’re just alike, you and I. We’re just alike.”

This psychological weight colors every action he takes so that even when he meets a nice girl he cannot let her know his real identity. That he is also more American than Egyptian in his cultural make-up means that he is the conduit between his parents and everyone around them, putting him in the untenable position of trying to reason with his father about what is appropriate and what will only make things worse.

Although fiction, In the Language of Miracles is a timely study in cultural differences. On the surface the Al-Menshawys are progressive Muslims. Samir imposes no restrictions on his wife—she smokes, wears skinny jeans and is a licensed pharmacist. And yet, their culture is engrained in them. Nagla’s approach to being a wife and mother is strongly influenced by her mother who has visited from Egypt since the children were young and is now living with them. She places expectations on her daughter, especially regarding her role as wife that Nagla tries to meet but that only create a growing disconnect between her American life and Middle Eastern upbringing. As for Samir there is no malice in his actions nor is he an unintelligent man but his upbringing is such that he cannot accept he doesn’t understand the ways of his new country. As the man, the head of the household, no matter the cost, he cannot be wrong so his entire family lies to him down to the smallest detail. He builds on these lies a thicker and thicker wall of stubbornness and intolerance. His way is the only right way even when all the evidence suggests otherwise. His perceptions of America are so skewed by what he has been fed by those trying to keep him emotionally full and content that he truly believes going to the memorial is a good idea.

Author Rajia Hassib’s piercing eye brings to the forefront the cultural and religious differences of things unfamiliar to us and yet all too real as our communities expand and change. She opens the door to a world of beauty and ritual that, while it may be unlike ours, shares more similarities than differences when it comes to the fundamentals of family life. Throughout In the Language of Miracles her ability to navigate such psychologically and socially fraught territory with grace and compelling prose means that ultimately stereotypes are stripped away and all that is left is the compassion we too often forget.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat

beautiful bureaucrat

Henry Holt, August 11, 2015


The Beautiful Bureaucrat has been raved about and reviewed by almost every book blogger I know and discussed at The Socratic Salon so I’ll try and keep this brief. No matter what else I think about The Beautiful Bureaucrat, author Helen Phillips has to be commended for writing one of the most immersive novels I’ve ever read. The premise is a bland, grey, dreary world in which a young couple ends their unemployment drought with jobs as data entry clerks. What they do not know is that they work at the same company. Josephine’s office is minuscule, with smudgy walls surrounded by long hallways and closed doors. The building has no windows. Her boss’ face is so monochromatic he appears faceless. Her days pass with virtually no human interaction and in the mind-numbing entry of numbers that appear to be completely random. Through these kinds of details, with each sentence, each word, Phillips coats the reader in the same kind of lethargy Josephine feels. This grinding turpitude gains traction to become a more ominous feeling, especially when her husband disappears for days on end and reappears without explanation.

There is a lot of mystery in The Beautiful Bureaucrat rivaled only by the symbolism, which is plentiful to the point of distraction. Without something real to balance it, everything as a symbol means nothing is real and creates meaning overload. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes there is nothing behind all that smoke. Beyond symbolism run amok some of that smoke also includes assertions that The Beautiful Bureaucrat is Kafkaesque. Yes, it deals with the absurdist nature of bureaucracy (and even has the word bureaucrat in the title!) but it’s a stretch. There is none of the existential heft of Kafka but reminded me, instead, of O. Henry’s charming but light story, The Gift of the Magi, in which a poor couple, acting out of love, unknowingly work against each other and end up losing their dearest possessions. Basically, a twisty story tied up with a neat bow and somewhat moralistic ending.

What else can I say? Many people have given The Beautiful Bureaucrat 4 or 5 stars but, for me, it was a 2.5—meh. Where the novel succeeds is that all the mystery and symbolism, elements that did not work for me, make the novel a marvelous book club book. It can be parsed and pulled apart in an almost infinite number of directions and is likely to engender animated discussion.


Because I was out-of-sync on The Beautiful Bureaucrat with so many great book bloggers I respect, here are links to their reviews to get their perspective:

The Lovely Bookshelf

The Steadfast Reader

River City Reading

Sarah’s Book Shelves

Bookish Tendencies

The Daily Dosage

Malcolm Avenue Review

Author Q&A: Val Brelinski

Yesterday I reviewed The Girl Who Slept with God by Val Brelinski. It is a touching novel about the mysteries of God, religion, life, family, and growing. In short, one of those books guaranteed to engender conversation (a great book club pick!). One of the more intriguing aspects of the novel is that Brelinski herself grew up in a strict evangelical Christian household. The folks at Viking were kind enough to provide a question and answer interview with her and because I’m always interested in how authors work and their thoughts about their books, I wanted to share it with all of you. 


Val Brelinski

Photo by Tim Brelinski and Max Boyd.

At the age of 58, The Girl Who Slept with God is not only your debut novel but your first ever published book. What was your journey to becoming a full-time writer?

I didn’t begin to write fiction until the age of 42, which is obviously amazingly late to be starting a writing career. Much of the reason for this delay was my extreme evangelical upbringing which told me that novels were frivolous, sinful things written by dissolute and worldly people who lived in New York City and smoked lots of cigarettes. Growing up in rural Idaho, I had never met a novelist and certainly didn’t know how to become one, even if I had wanted to. Although I was a serious and devoted reader, and had been since early childhood, the authorial world was simply not open to me. By the time I was 32, I was a single mother whose main goal was paying my rent. I managed this by teaching English at an enormous public high school, a job that demanded unending patience and stamina. After several years, I asked my principal if I could teach creative writing, something that sounded potentially more fun than attempting yet again to stuff The Scarlet Letter down hundreds of unwilling adolescent throats. My principal wanted to know what fiction I had written, and I hemmed and hawed, and then went home and wrote a short story, which I submitted (with utter naiveté) to a contest. The contest’s judge was the author George Garrett, and he not only awarded me first place, but later offered me a spot in the MFA program at the University of Virginia, as well. Without hesitation, but with plenty of admonitions from my family, I packed up my entire life and headed off to Charlottesville. After I received my MFA, I was awarded a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford, and thanks to these two incredible writing programs and their fantastic teachers, here I am now.

Chronicling the Quanbecks, a devoutly religious family living in a small town in rural Idaho, The Girl Who Slept with God is very much a work of autobiographical fiction. What were your experiences growing up in a strict evangelical household? 

 Like Jory, the protagonist in my novel, I was the middle daughter in a family of extremely conservative evangelical Christians. My parents (like hers) took the notions of holiness and God-likeness very seriously, and the list of things we were not allowed to do or own or wear was lengthy, to say the least. We couldn’t attend circuses or movies or dances or pool parties, and we couldn’t eat at any restaurants that served alcohol or allowed smoking. Our clothing had to be extremely modest and we weren’t allowed to wear makeup or have pierced ears. We went to church at least three times a week, and attended private, fundamentalist schools where we watched films about the hoax of dinosaur bones and carbon dating, and the imminence of the Rapture. In the summer we went to Bible camp and Vacation Bible School and outdoor camp meetings where people wailed and wept and ran down to the altar to get saved. This environment made up my entire world, since I was not allowed to associate closely with anyone who was not a fellow evangelical. Unfortunately, I was a stubborn, naturally rebellious child, who got kicked out of high school for arguing with my Bible teacher about whether Jesus had a crew cut or not, and put on probation because my skirt was two inches above my knee (the latter was determined by having me kneel on the floor of the principal’s office while he measured my skirt with a ruler). My childhood and adolescence were marked by frequent acts of sin for which the price was public humiliation and emotional abasement. And just like Jory and Grace in my novel, I was banished from my home. My familial expulsion however, happened repeatedly. Whenever I did something my mother disapproved of, I would come home to find the door locked and a grocery bag full of my clothes waiting on the front porch. I then had the option of ringing the bell and facing my furious mother, or knocking on my sister’s window and begging her to let me in. After a certain number of these evictions, I finally had enough, and at age 17, I moved out of my home and began living with two other teenagers in a tiny house that we rented with waitressing money. My father would occasionally come visit me at this little house, asking me when I was going to come home, and I would always reply, “When Mom asks me to,” an event I knew was highly unlikely. I lived in this house for the next year and a half, awaiting an invitation home that never came.

Was there one particular event in your childhood that became the impetus for the novel? Are there any personal memories that you chose to include in the book?

At the age of 8, my older sister announced to our parents that she had been saved and was now going to become a missionary to foreign lands. She began studying Spanish and reading a Spanish Bible, and indeed, she went on her first mission to Mexico when she was just 16. From then on, she spent her summers in South or Central America, testifying and ministering to the “heathen.” When she came home, she would work as a youth minister in our church and then put the paycheck she had just been handed directly into the offering plate during morning service. She essentially outdid my parents at their own religiosity, an act that seemed to me like a reverse form of teenage rebellion. One summer though, she came home early from a mission and no one would explain why. Years later, in a moment of confessional weakness, my father said that it was because of “something that had happened with a man.” My imagination concerning this strange event grew and expanded, and the end result was my first novel.

Continue reading

The Girl Who Slept with God

girl who slept with god

Viking, August 4, 2015

Even within their evangelical Christian community the Quanbeck family is known as unusual, but in The Girl Who Slept with God, fourteen-year-old Jory is used to it. Until, that is, her devout sister, Grace, is allowed, at seventeen, to go off on a mission to Mexico, and returns pregnant. The potential embarrassment to their father within their religious circle is such that he purchases an isolated house in the country where Jory and Grace will live until after the birth of Grace’s baby. There is no discussion of this decision or of the upheaval it will cause to Jory’s life; the confusion it will create in her young mind. A confusion that she is unable to identify and deal with, as shown by her only thought early in the novel, when her father drops them off at their new home.

Bending down, he pressed his lips against a spot in the middle of her forehead. “JoryAnne,” he whispered, and then touched the spot firmly with the tip of his finger, as if sealing the kiss into place.

   She had a sudden impulse to slap him.

In this one sentence, debut author Val Brelinski slides smoothly into Jory’s mind, leaving no doubt as to her opinion on her exile and illuminating her self-protective instincts. On the other side of the Quanbeck coin is Grace, so filled with the Holy Spirit and devotion to witness for Christ, that even as her own mother questions her condition she remains obdurate in her stance that this is a baby from God.

“I didn’t ask for this,” she said. “It was given to me. It was a thing that was given to me alone, and I alone am to bear it.” 

Religiosity is a topic that can tilt a book in any number of directions or even weigh it down to the point where it can’t move. Brelinski uses Jory at the tender, bewildering age of fourteen to guide us through what could be the weighty, murky mess of a sister claiming that God has made her pregnant. Although both Grace and Jory are stuck in their exile Jory goes into the real world for school. Not the Christian school she had been attending but a public high school. And while most of us have not been uprooted from a fundamentalist education to a secular one, Brelinski circumvents that aspect in The Girl Who Slept with God and goes for one more relatable to all—freshman year. A time that, even if it was decades ago, can cause most of us to tense up and our brains to fizzle with the remembered pressure of all the minutia that went with trying to fit in. From getting undressed in front of other girls in the locker-room to trying to decipher the social cues of the cool girl (is she mocking me or being nice?) Jory is thrown into the minefield of high school without any signposts or guidelines.

High school is just one place where Jory’s horizons begin to expand in ways her father never considered when he came up with the plan to seclude his daughters. The property they live on is owned by an older woman named Hilda, a woman who’s seen much of life and has a common-sense approach to it, who ends up being a much needed lifeline for Jory. Then there is Grip, a man in his late twenties, who provides friendship and understanding for her, allowing her to ask all the questions she cannot voice to anyone else, but his openness and beliefs about freedom and living life take both Jory and Grace well beyond the realm of their world. Through these two people Brelinski redefines what is meant by family and how and who we learn from.

I imagine there are many who will focus on Grace’s pregnancy and her resulting crisis of faith as the meat of The Girl Who Slept with God but for me, this is an incredibly touching coming-of-age novel. Jory’s experiences in a world that is commonplace to most but unheard-of to her mean that mistakes and poor judgment are plentiful but so is the beauty of things as simple as a prom date who wants to make sure he buys a corsage to match her dress. That this simplicity becomes complicated as the new Jory and Grace crash against their old family is not unexpected. With the voice of experience and the prose to convey it, Brelinski brings forth a story that takes the larger themes of religion and God’s will and strips them down to family and love. And how they can all be so right and so wrong at the same time.

Author Val Brelinski grew up in a evangelical Christian home which heavily influenced The Girl Who Slept with God. Check back in tomorrow for a fascinating Q&A provided by her publisher.



We Never Asked for Wings

we never asked for wings

Ballantine, August 18, 2015


For those of us who loved Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel, The Language of Flowers, her new novel has been a long time coming. Not actually, it just felt that way. Flowers was one of the first novels I read where the protagonist did bad things and yet, I was drawn to her and to the reasons why she was drawn to doing these things. It is a beautifully satisfying novel so if you haven’t read it you ought to. Now Diffenbaugh is back and in We Never Asked for Wings has expanded her gift for intimate portraits to the family dynamic in modern times. Letty is a bright young woman with a penchant for bad choices like opting out of college, drinking too much, and two unplanned pregnancies. Thankfully, since the birth of her son Alex, fifteen years ago, she has been able to rely on her mother to raise him and her six-year-old daughter Luna. In return, Letty provides the income the family needs to survive by working three jobs. It isn’t until her parents return to Mexico that Letty is faced, for the first time in her adult life, with the realities of being a mother.

Without her mother watching Luna at night Letty has to give up her lucrative nighttime bartending job, forcing the family to economize even further. The physical implications of her parents’ absence are only a small part of their impact. For Luna, her grandmother has been her mother and she lashes out in the only way a six-year-old can with increasing tantrums and bad behavior. For Alex, things are more complicated. He is used to taking care of himself and even his sister but his scientific mind and interest in learning are ignored in his overcrowded, underfunded school. And while Luna is too young to know or care about who her father might be, Alex is desperate to know his. Letty does her best to manage all of these needs but as more of the past comes to light and the present grows darker, she decides to do whatever it takes to get her children the life they deserve.

We Never Asked for Wings is a marvelous story but Diffenbaugh goes beyond mere entertainment by wrapping her plot and characters in the new America. A place where bright students with aspirations for college are stuck in schools that are more about survival than education; where holding down multiple jobs may still mean you have no credit and so can’t move to a safer place. Even where having lived and worked here for decades doesn’t mean that you can’t be sent back to your original country. There is no proselytizing in Wings nor is it a treatise on immigration reform, but like the very best storytellers Diffenbaugh’s prose creates a compelling narrative that even while it is fiction is actually very real.

Author Event: Paula McLain

I may not be in tip-top writing form but I did decide I needed to get some bookish mojo back and what better way than to go to an author event. I haven’t been to one in 8 months so when I saw that Paula McLain was going to be at a local store I knew it was serendipity, because I loved her book. I liked The Paris Wife but I loved Circling the Sun.

I’m so glad I went. McLain is a charming raconteur who breaks the book event mold by not reading from the book she’s promoting. Instead, she talks about it, her writing process, and most especially, about Beryl Markham and how she came to find her as her next novel. It was easily one of the most social events I’ve attended thanks to McLain’s humor and gracious style. Her publicist had sent her the link to my review so she knew me,  which is mind boggling, as I consider authors to be rock stars and why they should know anything about my tiny self is beyond me, but what fun! If she is coming anywhere near you, not only should you go see her but you really ought to read the book (I know, I’m getting aggressive about it).

Paula McLain

I don’t want to say great minds think alike but we ARE both working a maxi-length floral print summer dress. I’m just sayin’

Finally, thank you to everyone who commented on my last post. The kindness is much appreciated- especially because I know that everyone has things going on in their lives. Sometimes we can cope and sometimes we need to step back. I have thought about it and have decided that insofar as the renovation has been a new unwieldy presence, another, more insidious fact is that we moved two years ago and have never been able to fully unpack our belongings. I’m a creature of habit and need a certain amount of organization—of knowing where my things are (even if it is knowing that they are under a stack of papers on my desk) and digging through boxes takes up an inordinate amount of headspace for me. Finally, getting to unpack them would seem like nirvana, yes? Well, yes and no. It is daunting to see piles of cartons (11 labeled ‘Catherine’s books’) and look at our new space and realize it’s all got to find a home. So, as the renovation winds down there is the pleasure of rediscovering the things that soothe and bring joy but there is also the ‘where should this go?’ as we settle into a smaller home. It makes my brain feel stuttery and confused because for me, organization and creativity can’t co-exist. I need one in order to have the other. I’m working to get it all unpacked, put away, labeled, and organized, so my brain can relax and fill back up with words about books. And look, I’m making strides already with the important things!


These aren’t even from cartons but are the books releasing in the next two months- which is all right, it makes me happy to look at them.

Picture This

It’s been said by some (mostly my husband and my mother) that I read A LOT. That I can then write about it is even more confounding to them. It’s always been difficult, but in that great way that anything worthwhile is. When I can find the right words to convey to a reader what it is about a particular book that moved me or made me think, it is the best feeling in the world. Unfortunately, those words are harder to come by right now.

This site is my job and I take it that seriously but right now my creaky brain is full of things like: why didn’t they pull that cable wire out and patch it?, that light is crooked, I need to find our property lines before you can put in a fence?, are you sure that’s going to fit?, it’s 30V and needs a transformer?…home renovation minutia. We are in the final stretch but the process has been going on for months. I’ve tried to keep up with what I love but the mental space needed to manage all the moving parts of construction has depleted my brain, leaving it sludgy and sluggish. I’m reading (only non-pharmaceutical way to fall asleep at night) but my stream of words has dried to a trickle and I’m not comfortable repeating ‘marvelous, engrossing, intricate’ over and over because I can’t think of more and better words to describe what I’ve read. So while, I would like to be like this:

Happy dancer w book

or even this

woman reading

Because yes, I am that chic in my Dior suit and gloves, reading on the street in Paris


doing my best to keep everything straight without forgetting anything has left me feeling like this:

Even though it's chocolate it's still overwhelming

Even though it’s chocolate it’s still overwhelming

or this

wicked witch shoes

Even being crushed under the weight of a house is no reason not to have fabulous shoes


I’m not signing off completely but my posts will be a little sporadic for the next few weeks, so bear with me. Carry on with your own reading and please feel free to stop by and share with the rest of us what’s great or what’s not. I’ll be back soon, all shiny and articulate, writing from a room in a finished home, which is likely to bring on a torrent of words, lovely words.

picture this

The words are in there, I just need to find the joy again to get them out.

Circling the Sun: A Novel

circling the sun

Ballantine, July 28, 2015

I have a chart that traces my route over the Atlantic, Abingdon to New York, every inch of icy water I’ll pass over, but not the emptiness involved or the loneliness, or the fear. Those things are as real as anything else, though, and I’ll have to fly through them. Straight through the sickening dips and air pockets, because you can’t chart a course around anything you’re afraid of. You can’t run from any part of yourself, and it’s better you can’t.

For me, the little I knew of Beryl Markham was as a fictional character from the movie Out of Africa: a pretty but tomboyish young woman whose family wanted her to become a lady and get married. How fortunate then to have an author like Paula McLain turn her keen eye to this unusual and daring woman who, while never quite conforming to society’s demands, lived a life of tremendous highs and lows without ever giving up. In her novel Circling the Sun McClain begins in 1904 when Markham’s family leaves England and settles in the African colony of Kenya.

After two years living in mud huts with no plumbing her mother has had enough and returns to England leaving Markham behind with her father. Despite this loss Markham is already firmly ensconced in African life and feels it to be her true home. She feels the same way about the horses her father trains and at the age of eighteen she is the first woman in Africa to get her training license—a feat unheard of at the time. It is only when she is sixteen and her father decides to move far away that she breaks stride and marries an older farmer in order to stay in the area, a mistake that follows her for years. In that time, she meets and falls in love with Denys Finch Hatton, a safari hunter, and her friend Karen Blixen’s lover. If it sounds messy, it is, as much of the social interactions seemed to be in Kenya at the time. Markham gives little thought to this. For her, life is only about the horses she trains; animals she feels have more interesting qualities and inherent strengths than the humans around her. This is especially true of the men she encounters when time and time again, horses she’s brought to the peak of their powers are taken away from her months before big races, meaning she has no claim to their winnings.

Markham’s personal life may have been scandalous for the times but it is to McLain’s credit that it is not the focus of Circling the Sun. Rather it is her visceral commitment to every decision she made, her abiding love of Africa and her inability to be anything other than what she is that is the lifeblood of the novel.

But in another way I didn’t believe anything would be solved by talking or explaining. We’d made our choices, separately and together, hadn’t we? We were who we were.

It is this aspect of McLain’s writing that makes it difficult for me to write too much more about Circling the Sun because I’m going to become gushy. Not only is the terrain and life of Kenya thrown open to the reader in all its panoramic beauty, but McLain’s achieves the same effect in capturing the context and excitement of the times, when so much of the world was changing. Through the power of her words as they pour off the page, Markham is visible, striding through her life, giving her all to everything she loved, be it horses, airplanes, or the African land and her companions there. McLain does not mythologize Markham but through prose that is poetic in its fierce embrace of a gifted and wildly exuberant woman, brings her vividly to life.

The New Neighbor

new neighbor

Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, July 7, 2015


At 91 Margaret Riley lives a life of isolation on the shore of a small lake in the mountains of Tennessee. Across the lake is another house that has stood empty for years since its owner died but suddenly fills with life again as Jennifer and her 4-year-old son move in. The New Neighbor is Leah Stewart’s novel about Margaret and her sudden fascination with her new neighbor. A fascination that starts from loneliness and builds into something more.

Stewart splits The New Neighbor between Margaret’s point-of-view and chapters about Jennifer’s life. It is clear early on that Jennifer does indeed have something to hide but what she is running from seems to be exposure not a person. As her backstory fills in it becomes clear that her marriage to her high school sweetheart was not a happy one but instead of the more expected abuse story we learn that her husband, Tommy, was a drunk. Not a mean one, just a falling-down, sloppy one who couldn’t really take care of or protect his family. As Jennifer’s story is shared with the reader it is kept from Margaret, despite her using every weapon in her ‘fragile old woman’ manipulative arsenal to get it out of her. Stewart teases out the tension between Margaret, in her determination to get Jennifer’s secrets, and Jennifer, to keep them. She goes so far as to hire Jennifer to give her massages but even as she begins to open up, Jennifer does not. It is only when Margaret crosses the final boundary and enters Jennifer’s house when she’s not at home that she discovers information to force Jennifer’s hand.

Given that there are a lot of suspense thrillers out there, there needs to be a reason to read The New Neighbor and Stewart creates one in Margaret. A 91-year-old woman does not sound tension-inducing but add the proper backstory and a misanthropic streak combined with a need for attention and you’ve got a character who won’t let go. That Stewart also infuses Jennifer’s story with the perfect amount of ambiguity and emotional conflict is just one more reason The New Neighbor hits the spot as a satisfying summer read.

Crooked Heart

crooked heart

Harper, July 28, 2015


Noel is a ten-year-old who has been living with his godmother in London, until she dies. He moves in with her nephew and his wife but they are not well suited for a child of Noel’s personality and use the excuse of the impending war to send him to the suburbs to live with a foster family. Vera Sedge is the frazzled woman who sees Noel less as a child to be helped and more as a meal ticket when she takes him in. As World War II ramps up around them, author Lissa Evans follows the unusual Noel and Vee in Crooked Heart, as they try and make sense of each other and of life in wartime London.

Having been raised by a strong-minded and crotchety former suffragette, Noel is a child of distinct tastes, intelligence and opinions. Not surprisingly this does not endear him to the adults around him or, for that matter, to the children. For Vee, a hapless woman who spends more time cooking up schemes to make money than she does working, he is the epitome of everyone who has held her down and made her life difficult. That is until her latest venture, going to door-to-door to collect for war charities that don’t exist, proves to be more than her flustered brain can handle and Noel steps in (for a cut of the profits) to provide pathos as an orphan. Only then is he a person of interest, although still annoyingly precocious.

Vee and Noel and the thoughts that percolate in both their brains are the anchor of Crooked Heart but Evans doesn’t stop there in mixing in additional characters that contribute to the sweet and sour feel of this novel. Many of Vee’s actions are due to the guilt she feels about her son, Donald, because of a heart murmur she somehow feels is her fault. What Vee sees as tragic Evans quickly makes clear is a lazy oaf who uses his heart murmur both to get out of work and to earn cash by standing in for men who don’t want to be drafted. It is only when his con goes awry and puts Vee in more danger than her own scams that she sees him clearly for the first time.

Vee stood and looked at him, this large man in her kitchen who had never learned—never been taught—the meaning of obligation, and with a slow surge of despair that was almost like nausea she realized that the calamities of the day, every last one of them, had simply been lying in wait for her; not the actions of cruel fate but a series of tripwires lovingly laid by herself.

There are so many WWII novels out there that it seems almost impossible to find a new perspective but Crooked Heart does. Evans writes with honesty about off-kilter characters at a time when the world seemed to be clearly divided between villains and heroes. In the same way she highlights the small absurdities of their lives during a time when normal has no meaning. That she imbues the quirky and somewhat unlikable Vee and Noel with humor and insight as they muddle through these days, means that even if their hearts are crooked, they are real and we are left caring about them.

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