Sometimes people say “It’s not you, it’s me” just to get out of a relationship but in the case of today’s books I really do believe they’re both good options—probably great for any number of readers. It may have been my mood, the color of the cover, the fact that’s it’s been raining for a month—who knows, but both are well-written on topics that will keep you reading. Regardless of my lack of book love, read on, check them out and then check back here to share why they worked for you. Seriously…I’ll be waiting.And Again Published by Touchstone
Publication date: January 12th 2016
Hannah, Connie, Linda and David have nothing in common except that each of them have run out time in the bodies they were born in. Each suffers from a terminal disease or injury that left them facing death, until they were approved as the first subjects of human cloning. And Again is Jessica Chiarella’s novel of what happens to their lives after their minds are reintegrated into their new bodies. Bodies that were made from their DNA and injected with a special mix of growth hormones to rapidly age them from infancy to the current age, at which point the portion of the brain responsible for memories was removed from their dying body and placed in their new brain.
There is a lot going on in And Again and yet the novel feels a bit like four stories with a central theme, despite the fact that the main characters interact as they are part of a clinical trial and have to be monitored. Chiarella does do a great job playing with the pros and cons of this medical miracle. For each character there is the wonder at finding themselves in what is their body, but without all the ravages of age and its bodily manifestations—old scars, tattoos, healed bones, and aches and pains. Quite a pro for any reader who has woken up with an aching back for no reason. The con, though, is a bit less clear, but it feels as if Chiarella plays with the theme of the wisdom that comes with age and on an even larger and more amorphous scale- the concept of the soul.
It’s the elusiveness of what is meant by the character’s stories in And Again that makes it difficult for me to heartily endorse it, but I freely acknowledge that to others, Chiarella’s theme may be abundantly clear. David, Connie, Linda, and Hannah all come with a lot of baggage and leaving behind their old bodies only negates some of it. Scientifically and spiritually there is plenty to think about, but, while I was interested I could not get enough of a grasp on the heart of the novel to stay engrossed.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Published by Random House
Publication date: January 12th 2016
I never read Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kittredge and so was unfamiliar with her style when I read her newest novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. Set in the 1980s in a New York City hospital room, Lucy is recovering from an operation and is visited by her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in decades. Despite this estrangement her mother camps out in her room giving them time to do that most delicate of dances—the mother-daughter conversation.
Strout writes My Name is Lucy Barton in the past tense as Lucy is only ever looking back on her life. This, plus a style that is almost stream-of-consciousness, makes for halting and sometimes repetitive reading. Lucy uses the words “That’s what I think” or just “I think” so frequently that it seems clear she expects to be disagreed with. That many of her memories hint at childhood traumas makes the evasion difficult in the long term. Was her mother party to abuse? Is she looking for redemption and is Lucy looking for acknowledgement? It’s never clear.
I don’t shy away from ambiguity and it may be that Lucy’s hesitancy are exactly what Strout means to evoke, but Lucy is a herself a writer and instead she feels like a woman who talks mostly to herself in her own mind and is therefore unable to fully articulate her thoughts. There is no doubt that Strout’s spare, quiet prose makes for beautiful reading. Where it falls short for me is that so much is hinted at but never revealed, which is realistic to many mother-daughter relationships, but unsatisfying to read. Lucy’s desire to connect with her mother paired with her difficult and painful memories of childhood don’t mesh and I can’t reconcile why.