February is more than halfway gone but for the sake of brevity let’s just call these midmonth mini-reviews. Three quick hits of books I’ve read while being waylaid with this season’s mega-cold. I hope you’re all reading this from a place of warmth and comfort and not the huddled against records levels of snow and below zero temperatures.
Her by Harriet Lane
Publication date: January 6th 2015
Her by Harriet Lane: This novel has been getting a lot of attention but it’s appeal slipped right past me. The story begins with two women, Emma and Nina, whose paths seem to cross by coincidence. Nina is a middle-aged painter who lives with her husband and teenage daughter. She is at the stage of life Emma yearns for as she struggles through the chaos of life with an energetic toddler. As the novel unfolds—told from each of their points of view—it becomes clear there is a connection between the two, and it is not a happy one. Simplicity is a virtue in well-written literary fiction but in this tale of suspense and mystery it just felt skimpy and weak.
It’s odd to say a novel about cancer is light and humorous but Colleen Oakley’s debut novel Before I Go is just that. When Daisy Richmond, a young married woman is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer she decides the best thing she can do with what’s left of her life is to find her husband’s next wife. The premise is both endearing and upsetting because it’s likely there are real victims of cancer who have thought/felt this way. As someone who is fortunate not to have lost anyone close to me to the disease I was torn between finding Daisy’s actions silly and touching.
What if there was a shop with walls covered in fabric that changes with the season and music that changes to suit the customer as she walks in? A woman who sews silk dresses that nurture and brings to fruition the client’s deepest desires? This is the kind of dress shop I’d love to find but it exists only in Menna van Praag’s novel The Dress Shop of Dreams. Etta Sparks is the owner and seamstress and her gifted hands make these dreamy dresses. For a woman with no confidence but a secret longing to take charge of her professional life, Etta has made a dress. But she won’t lead you to it, it is for each woman to take a chance and reach for her dreams herself.
If the magical realism were the bulk of the story this novel would have been a sweet read for me. Instead, van Praag over-constructs The Dress Shop of Dreams by adding a grand-daughter whose parents died in mysterious circumstances, research on genetically modified seeds that could grow without water, a bookseller without the bravery to claim love, mistaken identities, a priest with a secret…it goes on from there. The stories aren’t bad, they are simply too much. And in an effort to wrap everything up neatly van Praag is forced to work against her material, which every great designer knows, is always a mistake.