It’s no secret that books are marvelously subjective–unless of course, they’re badly written, in which case, of course, they must be ignored completely. Still, for every reader who loves spy thrillers there is one who does not. Even within genres there can be books that appeal to some but for whom others don’t feel the same way. Along those lines, I’m adding a new type of mini-review. For those of you who lived through the Seinfeld years (which should be anyone old enough to read as they’ve been in syndication for decades), you know the character, George Costanza. He’s a bumbling fool who has an excuse for everything. In this case, his one for breaking up works for my take on these books about women– It’s Not You, It’s Me. These may not have worked for me but are worth a look to see if they might be right for you!
Such was life inside the Barbizon, she’d learned. In short order she’d discovered the hotel was more of a play than a residence, populated by three distinct casts of characters. There were the glamour girls. Then there were the supporting players (small town girls who won local beauty pageants). And finally there were the Women (long-term residents who worked as librarians)
In Searching for Grace Kelly, Michael Callahan introduces three young women living in New York City at the famed Barbizon hotel for women. The novel opens with a scene reminiscent of the beginning of First Wives Club—a woman on a ledge, contemplating death, who has left behind notes for her best friends. Even shrugging off that similarity the novel utilizes characters and plots that are straight out of 1950s central casting. Laura is a patrician blonde who catches the eye of the most eligible playboy in NYC and falls in love, believing she has changed him into a one-woman-man; Dolly is the plucky unattractive working-class friend falls in love with mysteriously unavailable men over and over, and Vivian is a British knockout redhead who keeps men on a leash until she finds herself in the kind of ‘trouble’ that doesn’t play in that day and age. Any one of the three could be the woman on the ledge and Callahan unspools the tale with enough details about New York City life to make Searching for Grace Kelly light, quick reading about a time and place long gone.
An un-named twenty-year-old girl in New Delhi is the narrator and centerpiece of Deepti Kapoor’s debut novel, A Bad Character. Thanks to her beauty, her family sees her as nothing more than marriage material. When she meets an inappropriate man at a café she rebels by lunging headfirst into a wild ride of hedonism.
Kapoor’s prose is as lush and harsh as the city it describes. Her picture of a city in the midst of massive social and economic upheaval, where paupers live next to the obscenely rich, holds the same allure as the drugs and nightlife in which the narrator and her boyfriend indulge. But like said drugs, the novel burns itself off at a superficial level. I wanted so much more from A Bad Character that, while it’s odd to say, I felt personally disappointed that it did not deliver.
Black Dog Summer by Miranda Sherry combines the supernatural aspects of The Lovely Bones with a tale of family tensions and dysfunction. The novel opens with Sally’s brutal murder, an act that leaves her oddly connected to her life and everyone in it. Within the space between life and the afterlife she sees and feels threads to the lives of those she loved and hears the noise of all their stories. In an effort to complete what seems to be her mission in life, she travels each thread back to its owner and so learns what is happening in the world she left behind.
Sherry does a fine job at bringing the tension to a boil with a group of unlikely characters thrown together in close proximity. They include Lesedi, a sangoma (witchdoctor); Sally’s catatonic daughter, Gigi, who may have witnessed the massacre; Bryony and Tyler, Sally’s niece and nephew; and Adele and Liam, Sally’s sister and brother-in-law, with whom she shared unrequited feelings. There is so much going on in so many spheres but by-and-large it works. Where Black Dog Summer stumbles is that the tween Bryony is a key element in the story’s drama but Sherry’s portrayal is not one to engender sympathy or even recognition of her as the gifted child we’re supposed to believe she is. This disconnect left me unable to care about the climactic scenes involving the girl. What I did find engrossing was the depiction of modern day South Africa.