May Attaway has reached a personal crossroads. She’s 40 years old and shares a house with her father (he’s in the basement apartment) and her brother has moved across the country, having broken off from the family. May is a landscape architect for the university in town and one day, she realizes that she doesn’t have many friends, and has lost touch with the ones she’s had. Something is missing and there’s a sadness about May’s family, pointing to her mother’s depression and the years of withdrawal and sickness that led to her death.
May, afraid she will be like her mother, decides to make a fix. So she uses her gifted time off and visits four old friends from childhood, college and her young adult life, hoping that by reconnecting, she will understand how to keep friends and make new ones.
“I was interested in figuring out who I was with other people, and why that person was hard to be with,” she says. She later adds, “It seems to me that your oldest friends offer a glimpse of who you were from a time before you had a sense of yourself and that’s what I’m after.”
May’s story is cleverly framed around descriptions of the many trees and plants she has come to love and understand. Of particular importance is a yew tree that May has cared for at the university. She’d brought the sapling from Scotland and tenderly cultivated until it was ready to plant and now it’s a point of interest on the grounds. Its true significance is revealed at the end of the book
In this feel-good story, May approaches a better understanding of who she is and how to connect with other people, and just as important, how to confront the sadness that has crippled her family.
In a world of fake social media connections, where impressions of the perfect life make others feel disconnected, Kane shows the value of the face-to-face friendship. May rediscovers her old friends and recognizes that the people around her, including a potential love interest, are just waiting to connect.
I enjoyed this hopeful story that started out sad but ended nicely. Rules for Visiting is a quick read that will make you want to catch up with an old friend or make plans with a new one. I recommend it to readers who like stories about friendship and overcoming depression.
Do you ever wonder if you are subconsciously drawn to certain types of books? Well of course you are! But sometimes the patterns of what you choose don’t become apparent right away.
I asked myself the same question last week, after finishing (and loving) yet another story about a family with four children. What’s the connection? I’m the youngest of four children and I’m also the mother of four children. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have read so many books with the same number dynamic.
But I’ve also read many books about other size families and other subjects besides, so maybe this isn’t stat-worthy. Just something fun to think about.
Here’s a list of some of my more recent 4-children reads:
If you loved Olive Kitteridge as much as I did, you may want to take a look at The Burgess Boys. It’s a different kind of book, but there are many things to like about this story of Jim and Bob Burgess and Bob’s twin sister, Susan. We meet them as fifty-something adults, deep into their lives and full of complex problems, set into place when, as young children playing in the family car, they rolled down the driveway and over their father, killing him.
Bob is found at the wheel and, and at age four, shoulders the blame for this terrible accident. He has endured a lifetime of complicated family dynamics and at the opening of the story is an affable, but divorced and lonely borderline alcoholic lawyer. He’s overpowered by his brother Jim, a famous defense attorney turned corporate lawyer, who has spent a lifetime berating and punishing Bob for their father’s death. Susan has her own problems with her son Zachary, who has been arrested for throwing a pig’s head into a Somali mosque. The two brothers try to help her and their lives change in major ways.
This is a book full of thoughts, conversations, arguments, feelings and reflections. This slower pace may frustrate some readers, because the story seems to reach a point of going nowhere, only to pick up deep into the second half. I am wondering if Strout has deliberately constructed her story to show how the characters begin the story deeply rutted into their lives and very slowly undergo major changes that drive the story to its conclusion.
I think Strout does a great job showing how grown siblings communicate with each other, something that is frustrating to view as an outsider, but can ring true for many.
I like Bob’s character the most because of his great ability to soothe people and calm situations, despite his arguably messed-up life. He has deep thoughts that are presented in a simple way and a manner of connecting with people that makes a real difference. For me, that quality rises above his other major flaws. Jim’s character, although arrogant, has many realistic traits and he is complicated in a different way. His outer finish of confidence and authority carry him far, but the way he lashes out at Bob makes him difficult to like. I like how Strout shows how they change in relation to their flaws.
It’s hard to name the real plot in this story and that’s where I think there’s a problem. Strout introduces the reader to the Somali people who have moved to Susan’s town and the difficulties they have had integrating and being accepted. And although Zach’s character pulls them into the Burgess story line, there is something forced here. Again, I’d like to think it’s deliberate on Strout’s part, to show how very hard it was for the Somalis. But, except for Abdikarim and his character’s initial struggle to fit in and later assimilation, it’s hard to know the rest of the Somali immigrants.
And you either like open endings or you hate them. I like open endings because they allow me to think about the characters long after I’ve finished the book. And I think this kind of ending realistically shows how there is never a perfectly neat finish to people’s complicated and messy lives.
Empire Falls is a great novel with many layers and characters and that’s just the kind of story I like to read. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002 and HBO made it into a miniseries in 2005 (check it out here). I read it much later than most people, but I think the story and characters survive the time.
Its first layer is about Empire Falls, Maine, a town that is struggling to survive and is controlled by Francine Whiting, of the once-strong Whiting Industries. This backdrop introduces you to those who have chosen to stay and they make up many of Russo’s subsequent interconnecting layers. We learn about Miles Roby, his failed marriage to Janine and his own parents’ unhappy marriage. We meet Janine’s fiancé, Walt Comeau, and try to understand the new life she is about to begin. And later on we see how Miles struggles to understand his mother Grace and the choices she made as a young woman.
But this story is also about Miles and Janine’s high school daughter Tick, her friends Zack Minty, Candace and especially John Voss and these intense teenage relationships and conflicts. Russo has skillfully introduced this sleeper plot and we see how it slowly moves the story to its climax. I also like how Russo includes many other side characters, such as Jimmy Minty, Otto Meyer, Miles’ brother David, Charlene and Father Mark and develops them so we know that their lives are just as complicated, and are key parts of the story.
In addition to an excellent plot that is carefully constructed and both serious and humorous, this story is about the control of money and people, survival and the search for happiness. And on top of that, many of Russo’s characters struggle to understand the meaning of life and religion as they face both painful memories and discoveries.
There are many seemingly small pieces of conversations that, upon a second look, show how much thought went into writing Empire Falls. For example, Russo shows just how complicated father-son relationships are as he parallels Miles and Max with Jimmy Minty and his father. Both Miles and Jimmy hang onto their fathers, despite their flaws. Jimmy says, “He did slap my mom around a little…But I miss him anyway. You only get one father, is the way I look at it.” Later Miles tries to explain to David why he keeps giving their own father a second chance: “He’s pretty good at getting to me. I guess I don’t want to be sold short when I’m old.”
I think my favorite scene is when Jimmy Minty and Miles argue at the football game. Russo shows so well just how someone who is as unsophisticated as Jimmy still has excellent insight into people. Jimmy says, “You’re not the only one people like, okay? And I’ll tell you something else. What people around here like best about me? They like it that they’re more like me than they are like you. They look at me and they see the town they grew up in…You know what they see when they look at you? That they ain’t good enough. They look at you and see everything they ever done wrong in their lives.”
I also think Miles’ relationship with Cindy Whiting is very interesting and was glad to see how Cindy’s character developed from someone pathetic and needy into someone strong and independent. She’s also an example of a character we think is less significant, but who comes up with something important to say. She tells Miles, “It’s like you decided a long time ago that someone like me is incapable of joy…It doesn’t occur to you that I might be happy.”
The Whiting family dynamics and history are also very interesting and amusing and Russo has a different style of describing these people, using irony and a cold kind of humor. I liked this part just as much, particularly the story of Francine’s gazebo.
Empire Falls has a tidy and satisfying ending, with just enough open story lines to make me hopeful about the characters and their futures.
When the mutilated body of Helen Emerson washes up in New York’s Riverside Park, it’s not just the city detectives who are on the case. Selene DiSilva, a striking figure with jet black hair and silver eyes, has a special interest in the crime. A former cop, Selene has made it her mission to protect women against violence and she’s not about to let this murder go unsolved. Clues point to a violent cult ritual and Selene knows she must act before more women become victims.
The above description could outline all kinds of murder mysteries, but The Immortals is an altogether different kind of story because Selene is no mortal. She is a modern-day Artemis, daughter of Zeus and Leto and goddess of the hunt, virginity, archery, the moon, and all animals. Selene and her family of gods and goddesses are using aliases and living in New York and around the world. Although they aren’t exactly close, these Greek deities are connected by thousands of years of family dynamics, complicated relationships and rivalries. Imagine carrying around all that family baggage!
Selene is drawn deeper into the mystery when she learns that Helen had been obsessively researching papyri fragments found in an ancient Hellenistic city. And shocking details about a second murder convince Selene that the people behind this violence are reenacting the Eleusinian Mysteries, a ten-day ceremony and “the most important religious ritual in ancient Athens and the surrounding area for almost two thousand years.” This connection to the Mysteries will bring Selene’s dysfunctional family together in new ways.
While it may sound great to be immortal, Selene and her extended family have found themselves in a strange state. Their godly powers are fading and they are coping with the very human side of aging. Selene’s senses aren’t quite as strong, her strength has diminished and she’s noticed lines and wrinkles in the mirror. Caught somewhere between being mortal and immortal, she wonders if she can do enough.
She has help from Professor Theodore Schultz, a classics expert at Columbia. This unlikely duo combine their knowledge and connections to chase after the cult before its next sacrifice. There are plenty of twists, turns and road blocks in this race to stop the hierophant and his followers. Selene and Theo land in a multitude of dangerous situations, complicated by Selene’s sudden and inexplicable strengthening powers.
The Immortals is more than an action thriller, however, as its characters navigate through relationships, family issues, university politics, love and forgiveness. Romantic tension torments Selene, who has kept her vow of chastity for thousands of years, a promise that landed her long-ago love, Orion, in the heavens, twinkling down at her. And Selene’s bitter rivalry with her twin brother Paul has modern relevance despite its ancient history.
In addition to these sub-plots, Brodsky introduces the interesting conflict between a world shared by gods and mortals and the idea that academics view myths as manmade creations, “not to be taken literally, but to be torn apart and dissected and put back together.” Who’s to say the gods aren’t living among us?
I thoroughly enjoyed The Immortals. It’s an ambitious but fun combination of mythology, mystery, romance and real-life figures in the modern world. It’s full of facts about Greek mythology, but don’t worry about keeping up. The author explains and repeats enough so you will soon understand the dynamics. I loved the author’s descriptions of New York and how she places scenes at interesting places in the city, especially the City Hall subway station, the secret railway beneath the Waldorf Astoria, Central Park waterfalls and a hidden cave. It’s exciting to imagine Brodsky’s story at these sites:
In addition, Selene’s character is nicely introduced in this Olympus Bound series. She’s a strong female, but a long-time loner and her lack of social skills can get her into trouble, especially when it comes to romance. I’m looking forward to seeing how this endearing character manages in Book Two – Winter of the Gods.
If you liked my review of The Immortals, you may also be interested in these preview posts of Brodsky’s book.
Set in the dusty desert town of Cedarville, North California, beauty queen, Jody Angel Taylor believes her life is all mapped out: glamorous, clever and popular, and due to marry her handsome boyfriend, she has it all. Until one night she has a devastating car crash, ending up paralyzed – and her perfect world collapses. Committing media suicide and publicly blamed for her own accident, everything around her falls apart. She becomes a lonely recluse, feeling she’s lost everything including her legs – her boyfriend to her best friend, her father to an affair, her mother to depression – but above all she fears losing her mind. What she doesn’t know is that someone across the globe is about to throw her a lifeline. Can she find the courage to take it?
Bio: I’ve worked as a journalist for nearly twenty years and have also written two self-help books published twelve years ago. Stop the World is my first work of fiction.
Favorite thing about being a writer: Creating new worlds and becoming every character.
Biggest challenge as an indie author: Finding support to get your novel ‘seen’.
Favorite book: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins