Big Summer, by acclaimed author Jennifer Weiner, was my Spring Break read. It was a good choice for escapism, and I could definitely use some escapism since travelling wasn't an option and my chilly-Minneapolis-world offered low temps in the 20s. But in the world of Big Summer, it's 80 degrees and Daphne travels to Cape Cod to attend the opulent wedding of her estranged high school friend, mean-girl/multi-millionaire/influencer Drue Cavanaugh. Daphne is also a social media influencer and she's just scored a deal to promote an up & coming fashion designer as a plus-size spokesperson, via Instagram. This is an important detail, because while Big Summer is at once a mystery, a commentary on female friendship, and a story about love (both romantic and familial), it's also about our identities both online and off-line. Image plays a big factor in how we see ourselves, but a million followers can't save us from loneliness or heartache.
It had been years since I read a book by Jennifer Weiner. I loved Good in Bed, which was her first novel. It came out two decades ago, and I've since read many of Weiner's other books and I have liked them all, though some I liked more than others. It's not uncommon for Weiner to have an overweight female protagonist who struggles with self-image and judgement from mean, thin people. You don't have to be overweight to identify with what Daphne goes through, as she deals with harsh treatment from her seemingly perfect peers, or struggles with body image and food cravings, yet becomes determined to love herself even as others deem her unworthy. I liked Daphne a lot and was rooting for her the entire time. The only thing I didn't buy was how she always seemed to be the only overweight person in the room. Maybe that was just her perception, or maybe that's the reality with posh East Coast get-togethers, but here in middle class Minnesota you never have to look too far to find someone who isn't rail thin. But nonetheless, I get that Daphne constantly feels like an outsider due to her size, and this is one of her consistent struggles throughout the novel. She has to feel big in comparison to everyone else, so that sort of description is necessary. I also liked how her love interest, Nick, was totally into her and saw her as beautiful. I very much bought their relationship, even if it was a little rushed.
There were a lot of similarities between Big Summer and Good in Bed, especially when it came to the protagonists. Yet one of the key differences is that Good in Bed was written before social media had taken over all our lives, and Big Summer is ABOUT how social media has taken over all our lives. Early in the novel, Daphne is babysitting a boy who, in his own way, struggles with image and self-worth. He asks Daphne when things will get better, and she responds, “Here’s the good news: even if things don’t get better, you can always make them look good on the internet.” Daphne knows that lying on the internet is something everyone does, and she remarks, “In space, nobody could hear you scream; on the Internet, nobody could tell if you were lying.” But Daphne tries to be honest with her followers and with herself. She tells one of her followers, "Make sure you have people who love you, the real you, not the Instagram you. If you can’t be brave, pretend to be brave, and if you can’t do that yet, know that you aren’t alone. Everyone you see is struggling. Nobody has it all figured out.”
By the end of the novel, Daphne still doesn't have it "all" figured out. But she's figured out a lot, and both her emotional journey and the mystery at the center of the novel make for an enjoyable, worthwhile read. I highly recommend Big Summer.
I have taken many fiction writing courses, and I’ve also had my writing reviewed by readers, critics, and my agent. One thing I've found to be consistent is, no one seems to like it when a main character does something unlikeable. Just this weekend, I took a fiction writing workshop where the presenter said the main character needs to be sympathetic or compelling, and he or she needs to change over the course of the novel. For most readers, a compelling main character doesn’t seem to be enough; they want her to be likable too. That’s why I find it so surprising that Susie Yang's novel White Ivy is as big a hit as it is. Ivy, the main character, is neither sympathetic nor likable, though she is compelling. And she changes very little over the course of the novel.
Ivy is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and from an early age, she learns to be a thief and a liar. Her grandmother is her guide in this subversive behavior, though Ivy also learns to be cold and calculating by example through her mother. When she’s in eighth grade, Ivy goes to a private middle school and meets Gideon, the golden child son of a local politician. Years later, Ivy reconnects with Gideon, and becomes determined to marry him. In fact, she will stop at nothing to become his wife, even though he leaves her unsatisfied. While engaged to Gideon, Ivy carries on a dangerous affair with the guy she’d met as a child, her neighbor who’d she’d lost her virginity to, and who is also an outsider. Yet while Ivy never feels passion for Gideon, she never wavers in her desire to marry him, so she can achieve the wealth and status his family represents.
“In the same way water trickles into even the tiniest cracks between boulders, her personality had formed into crooked shapes around the hard structure of her Chinese upbringing.” Much of what drives Ivy comes from her childhood struggles, the expectations placed upon her, and the feeling that she wasn’t classically smart or beautiful the way “American” kids are. Ivy stole because she didn’t have what she felt she needed, and she lied so she could get ahead. She viewed life as a battle, and “To show you were wounded from battle was to lose the war.”
Ivy is definitely a compelling character, if not sympathetic or likable. The story kept me interested and I sped through it, wanting to know what happened next. I was disappointed by the end, however. I felt the “twist” was pretty predictable, and Ivy didn’t change in any major way. I was left wondering what the point of the story was.
I have to recommend White Ivy because I really did enjoy reading it, but if you need a main character to be likable, or if you need a satisfying ending to have enjoyed a book, then skip White Ivy.
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I still remember those days leading up to having my first baby, the anxiety I felt that I might lose my identity once I became a mother. All I heard was, “nobody tells you hard it is,” it being motherhood. Yet I felt the opposite was true. Not that motherhood isn’t hard, but that the hardship was all I seemed to hear about. What took me by surprise was the overwhelming love and joy that this little baby brought to my life. This “little baby” is now a teenager, which reminds me… I did hear one other thing, over and over, once my son, Eli, was born. “Enjoy it, because he will grow up so fast!” That is so, so true! Sometimes I wish I could turn back time to those sweet baby years.
Now, I’m not trying to minimize the struggle many mothers go through. Eli was an easy baby and I had a lot of help. Perhaps that makes me less likely to empathize with stories like Little Disasters. It’s about several women who meet as soon-to-be mothers in their birthing class. One of them, Liz, is an emergency room pediatric doctor. Ten years after having her first baby, Liz encounters Jess, one of her mom-friends, who has brought her youngest child into the emergency room with a mysterious head injury. Jess swears her baby girl hit her head after slipping on the kitchen floor, but Liz can tell Jess is hiding something.
Liz is pressured by her supervisor to call child services, and then, of course, everything blows up. Chapters switch from Liz’s first person POV to third person narration focused on Jess, and there are other chapters with other characters spotlighted as well. Much of the plot is very compelling and I often read later into the evening than I’d planned, so I could put the pieces of the puzzle together. I felt both for Liz and Jess, though it wasn’t always clear the extent to which Jess was responsible for her daughter’s injury, so at times it was hard to sympathize.
Overall, I liked this book but I didn’t love it. After about three fourths of the way through, it lost steam and I felt like it turned into a public service announcement about how isolating and stressful taking care of an infant can be, and that mothers need support. It’s not that I disagree with any of that, but for my recreational reading, I don’t need a PSA. Later on the book redeemed itself, as a new mystery was revealed, but then I felt like the ending was a little too neatly wrapped up with a pretty bow.
The writing is good. The main characters are well drawn, though the supporting characters, not so much. I recommend it, but not enthusiastically.
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Nearly two years ago, before Covid 19 was a thing, my son Eli and I went to an escape room together. I had bought a Groupon, thinking it would be a fun mother/son activity, especially since Eli’s good at solving puzzles and I’m good at being a sidekick. I remember that he’d just had his braces put on that morning and that I’d injured my knee, so neither of us were in top form, and it was our first escape room ever and we were the only two people there. We tried to solve the clues, while he winced in pain and I hobbled around. We didn’t get very far, and we failed to complete the puzzle before the time was up. The guy running it was very nice; he showed us all the clues we’d missed and the secret passage we would have seen had been a bit more quick and clever, and then he reassured us that we did a good job for first-timers on our own.
I already look back on that day with nostalgia. That was before Eli was too busy with his teenage friends to want to do an escape room with me. That was back when doing something like an escape room - you know, rifling through non-sanitized objects in a poorly ventilated environment - was still possible. It’s a fond memory, made all the rosier after comparing it to the escape room described in Megan Goldin’s novel of the same name. I don’t know that I normally would have been drawn to this book, but it was an Audible daily deal narrated by one of my favorite voice actors, so I figured, why not? And it was great!
Throughout the novel, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is referenced. “Pretend inferiority and encourage their arrogance.” and “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” It’s related to the world of investment banking, and the dog-eat-dog environment that investment bankers work in.
The main character is Sarah Hall. She tells her story in first person POV - how she came to work at a highly prestigious and competitive financial firm. We can see both her rise and her downfall come from a mile away, and yet it also feels so unexpected, mostly because of the casual cruelty, selfishness, and misogyny of the people she works with. She remarks at one point, “There was always an undercurrent of conflict in the firm. The air crackled with a permanent sense of distrust. In the firm’s toxic worldview, conflict was good. Conflict made people work harder and smarter. It made them ruthless.”
At chapter breaks, the narration would switch to present day, 3rd person POV. Then we’d be in the elevator with the ruthless team Sarah had worked with, only Sarah isn’t there. Is she dead? Was she fired? It takes a while to find out, and it’s all done through slow reveals and character portraits of Vincent, Sylvie, Sam, and Jules (Sarah’s former coworkers). Each of them is hiding something, and they’re all stuck in this elevator that they’d thought was an escape room/team building exercise. They’d assumed they just needed to solve a few clues and they’d be out in an hour. At one point, one of them figures out a clue by deciphering a code, revealing the question, “How much do you trust each other?”
Of course, the irony is that nobody trusts the others, and none of them are worthy of trust. As time goes on, the elevator situation becomes more dangerous and more dire, until Sylvie, Sam, Vincent, and Jule’s very survival comes into question. Yet, as the chapters switch back to Sarah’s story and we learn of all the horrendous ways they treated her, we wonder. Do they deserve to survive?
This novel had me guessing until the end, and it was fun to learn about something I know almost nothing about - the cutthroat nature of investment banking. The only downside to reading this novel is it will make you want to stay away from elevators, but hey - especially during a pandemic, it’s healthier to take the stairs anyway.
I totally recommend Escape Room.
Ella Berman’s The Comeback is a post #metoo saga about Grace Turner, a Hollywood star who achieves fame at a very young age, develops the requisite addiction and emotional issues that childhood stars seem often to battle, and then drops suddenly and inexplicably into obscurity. When the story begins Grace is living with her parents in a suburb of LA, but after tensions with her mother bubble over, Grace returns to Hollywood and confronts her estranged husband, her manager and agent, and most namely, Able York, the director who led her to fame and ruin.
Information about Grace is revealed slowly, all through first person narration and often through flashbacks. Yet, it doesn’t take long for the reader to understand that Grace was sexually and emotionally abused by Able. However, it’s not something she talks to anyone in her life about, although most who are close to her, including Able’s wife Emelia, seem to assume it. When Grace’s high school aged sister is faced with her own situation around sexual and emotional abuse, Grace must decide how to both protect her sister and herself.
This book came with high expectations. It’s a pick of #ReadWithJenna (as in Jenna Bush & The Today Show), and was highly anticipated by Oprah, Bustle, Entertainment Weekly, and Marie Claire, among others. The subject matter is very topical, and the objectification and hyper sexualization of young women is something we as a society should have been tackling a long time ago. Reading this novel makes me better understand where stars like Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowen and Ashley Judd are coming from when they talk about the abuse they suffered in Hollywood. But apart from that, The Comeback was a good story that I didn’t want to end.
That’s because the suspense builds from the first page, but not in a scary, psychological thriller sort of way. Instead, the reader becomes emotionally invested in Grace and her struggles, and as her younger sister Esme needs Grace to publicly confront Able, so does the reader. Yet such a confrontation never feels inevitable.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say the story’s payout and Grace’s character arc are flawlessly executed. I strongly recommend The Comeback.
Rachel Hawkins’ The Wife Upstairs is a book that I didn’t want to end. I almost regretted reading it, because I knew I’d have a hard time moving on to another book that I’d enjoy as much as I did reading this one. I believe that feeling of regret is called a “book hangover” - when the effects of a really good read linger with you after it’s over, often for ill. But I can assure you, reading The Wife Upstairs was worth the book hangover.
Perhaps people will think my high praise is overdone. But this book had everything I love. It’s told in first person POV, with a mysterious, flawed, yet compelling heroine who tells us her story and makes some fish-out-of-water observations about the wealthy Southern neighborhood she’s stumbled into. The setting - a gated community in Birmingham, Alabama - adds flavor and the description of all that wealth felt quite indulgent, especially the stuff about the homes and the outfits. The supporting characters weren’t two-dimensional, but well-drawn. And the pacing was awesome. The chapters were fairly short, usually ending with some sort of revelation or cliff-hanger.
Most of all, I love reinterpretations of classic stories. The Wife Upstairs is based off of Jane Eyre. Jane, in both stories, is an orphan. Mr. Rochester falls in love with her; this also happens in both stories, though in The Wife Upstairs Mr. Rochester is mostly referred to as Eddie, and he’s a handsome widower with a mysterious edge. And, in both stories it is revealed that Rochester is, in fact, not a widower, but that he keeps his first wife - whom everyone believes to be dead - trapped upstairs in a secret room. Rachel Hawkins made the room in question an escape room, hidden out of sight to everyone who doesn’t know about it. Of course, Charlotte Bronte had the not-dead wife in her story hidden in the attic.
That’s where the similarities end. Hawkins reveals that there’s a “wife upstairs” early on, and several of the chapters focus on the wife (Bea/Bertha) and her story. Those chapters reminded me of Gone Girl - in that you didn’t know who to believe, the scheming husband or the scheming wife. Yet all the while I worried for poor Jane, who is also a self-described schemer. But is she engaged to a murderer?
Rachel Hawkins did an excellent job of creating a modern, suspenseful love-triangle-murder-mystery, while staying true the classic that inspired it. I wholeheartedly recommend this book!
I know that in the sidebar of this page I said that most of my reviews are positive since I don’t often finish books I don’t like, and I will not review a book I didn’t finish. Well... The Perfect Nanny was short, and it was listed as one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, and Entertainment Weekly gave it an honorable mention, and it was a finalist for the Edgar Award and a national best-seller, so I kept reading, even though it failed to ever really grab me. I was curious if at some point it would live up to the hype.
For me, it didn’t. It reminded me of another much-hyped book that I started a few months ago, Sweetbitter, about someone working in the restaurant business. That one I did stop reading, once I realized that I didn’t care about any of the characters, and that the writing style was more about being literary than emotionally compelling. Call me crass, but I much prefer an engaging story with a likeable, or at least a compelling, protagonist. The Perfect Nanny was not my preference.
It was written in 3rd person omniscient POV, an unusual choice nowadays for popular fiction, and it gave the story a clinical feel, like it was an objective account of this horrific story, and the reader is meant to be kept at arm’s length. I suppose if it was written any other way the story would be unbearable, because it begins with an account of how this “perfect” nanny murdered the two young children she watched, and then she tried to kill herself. The rest of the book was then an unemotional narrative of how the parents came to have children, hire a nanny, and how the nanny had a breakdown. Except, there were a lot of pieces missing and the story ends without the reader really knowing what led the nanny, Louise, to snap. Instead, we’re giving random details about passing characters throughout the story that seem irrelevant.
I don’t understand why critics loved this book so much. None of the characters were likable and it didn’t make me feel anything except regret. I don’t recommend it.
I REALLY love a good identical twin story. The Sweet Valley High novels were a guilty pleasure growing up. And there was this novel that came out in the 80s, about these identical twins that swapped places but one of them died, and there was even a sequel where it turns out the dead twin was still alive! LOVED IT! So imagine my delight at finding a brand new identical twin story, full of intrigue and drama. I was incredibly delighted, with one caveat. Weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at writing my own identical twin story, and I still haven't decided whether to enter it in a contest, or get it published somewhere, or just post it here on laurellit.com. Anyway, the main character twin in my story plays piano, just like the main character twin in The Girl in the Mirror, which I read AFTER I wrote my story. Just saying...
Anyway, The Girl in the Mirror, by Rose Carlyle, was incredibly addictive. It’s about this set of identical twins who were conjoined at one point in the womb, but they managed to break apart. Summer is the elder twin and her organs are on the expected side of her body. Iris, the narrator of the story, is the younger, turned around twin, with her heart in the wrong place. She is literally the mirror image of Summer.
Iris has always been jealous of Summer, who seems kinder, more generous and more together than Iris. Even though they are identical, Iris is sure Summer is also more beautiful, because her beauty comes from the inside. Summer is married to Adam and they seem to have the perfect relationship, while Iris is divorced at 23. This has implications that reach beyond the status of their love life. When Summer and Iris’s dad died, he left a provision in his will that his first child to have a baby in wedlock and to give that baby the family name, will be the sole beneficiary of the 100 million dollars he left behind. Summer and Iris are the eldest of his kids, but they have a younger brother (who happens to be gay, making him less likely to procreate any time soon) and several half-siblings, one of whom is turning sixteen and is from New Zealand, where that is the legal age to marry.
Summer and Iris know that their stepmother will stop at nothing to get the money, even if that means forcing her daughter into a childhood marriage and motherhood.
So, the stakes are high. Things get even more intense when Summer has a family emergency and needs Iris to sail her yacht, because sailing is one of the only things Iris is better at than Summer (the other thing is playing piano.) Still, Summer is on board, and she announces that she’s pregnant, and Iris is pissed, but she loves Summer and will do anything for her. Then, Summer disappears and Iris assumes she’s dead, and she has to make sure her creepy half-sister doesn’t get the money, so she’s forced to swap places with her twin and tell everyone that she is Summer.
And things only get crazier from there.
I loved this story. A lot of the first half was told through flashbacks, where we learned about the dynamic between Iris and Summer, and why Iris is so insecure. By the time Iris decides to fake everyone out and tell them she’s Summer, the flashbacks end, and though we know Iris is making some really bad choices, it all makes sense and you can’t help rooting for her.
Then there are twists and turns and tons of tangled webs. I saw a lot of stuff coming, but I didn’t know when or how it would all materialize. I realize there is no shortage of “evil twin” or “twins trading places” stories, but this one managed to be original, shocking, and well-written. I cared about the main character, Iris, and I appreciated her growth over the course of the story. And, I was sad when it was over.
I highly recommend The Girl in the Mirror.
The Night Before, by Wendy Walker, is not your typical thriller. It centers around two sisters, Laura and Rosie. Laura is the unpredictable, intriguing younger sister and Rosie is the older, stable, happily married sister. Laura has come home to live with Rosie and her family for a while, because Laura’s latest romantic relationship ended badly. Really, really badly. So, Laura does what any of us would do, and tries online dating. She goes out on a date with this guy who looks nice and seems nice, but is he? When Laura doesn’t return home the next morning after her date, Rosie gets super worried. But here’s the twist: she’s more worried about what Laura may have done to the guy, than what the guy might have done to Laura.
It seems Laura has a past, even though she’s not even thirty yet. Some bad stuff went down when she was still in high school. Ever since she was found with blood on her hands, standing over the body of the guy she’d thought was her boyfriend (but he’d just been stringing her along), well, she’s had issues to get over and a reputation to live down. Laura has gone through a lot of men, but can’t seem to find lasting love. Meanwhile, Rosie married her childhood sweetheart and she’s never even dated anyone else. Both sisters have daddy issues, and a whole host of problems that need solving, and Rosie’s husband and her neighbor, who also grew up with her and Laura, seem to want to solve these problems for them. But can they be trusted, or are they hiding things?
The chapters alternate between Laura and Rosie’s POV, and slowly secrets are revealed and revelations are made. The story is intricately told and it’s all very entertaining and well done. Except, once I got to the climax, I stopped reading. There was a lot of explanation at the end that didn’t feel necessary.
I liked this novel but I didn’t love it. I wanted to keep reading, but I never felt that “I can’t put this book down” feeling. I recommend it though.
I heard about Such a Fun Age several times, but it wasn’t until I saw it listed as one of 2020’s best novels that I finally paid attention and downloaded it. I’m so glad I did, because it was one of the best novels I’d read in a long time.
The premise is fairly simple. Alix is a wealthy white woman who started her own business by writing letters, mostly to companies, asking for free merchandise. But she somehow turned her letter writing into a woman’s empowerment venture, and now Alix gives workshops on cover letter writing, she has scored a book deal, and she is involved in Hillary Clinton’s campaign (the novel takes place in 2016). Alix is also a mother of two young daughters, so she has hired Emira, a twenty-five year old African American woman, to babysit her older daughter, Briar. Emira is very bright but also aimless, and while she loves babysitting Briar and is very good at it, Emira also knows she needs a salaried job with health insurance.
At the beginning of the story, Emira does some late night emergency babysitting and takes Briar to an upscale grocery store, where Emira is accused of kidnapping Briar. One customer, a man named Kelly, films the whole incident, and later, he and Emira start dating.
Then, it turns out there are all sorts of tangled webs, hidden motivations, and complications that ensue. Throughout the novel I kept asking myself, “Who is worse? Alix or Kelly?” The answer to that is complicated and it keeps changing, and in the end, the story is more about challenging our own preconceptions on race, class, friendship, and loyalty. One thing author Kiley Reid does exceptionally well is illustrate how vastly a story can change depending on the perspective of the person who is telling it. That, and that we are always the heroes in the stories we tell about ourselves.
I saw parts of myself in Emira. I also saw parts of myself in Alix, though I didn’t want to. Working where I do, in a public high school that is highly diverse and mostly low income, I try to constantly check in with myself and be aware of my white privilege. I resist becoming a “Karen” - though I hate that term. Nobody should abuse their power, but women are criticized for doing so far more than men. With men, it’s assumed they’ll use their power. But a woman using her power? She’ll be condemned. Alix is also aware of the dangers of becoming a “Karen” and I could connect at times with her well-meaning cluelessness, even if ultimately, she makes unforgivable mistakes.
Anyway, this story is so good; it’s riveting and layered and surprising. The writing is superb and never condescends. It also gives the reader so much to think about and perhaps, to learn from as well.
If you’re a human with a half (or more) of a brain, you’ll love Such a Fun Age.
My Book Reviews
I love novels! My favorite genres are high-end women's fiction, suspense, and psychological thrillers, but occasionally I'll also pick up some chick lit or YA. I mostly read books on my kindle, and I also listen to audio books every morning when I go for my run.