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“The Paris Wife,” by Paula McLain

I've done lots of reading in the past ten days, too much to report in any detail.  So, I'll simply comment on the best of the five novels and note the others.  The best is good literature; the others are beach reads of varying quality.



Paula McLain's The Paris Wife is a luminous look at the young Ernest Hemingway and his crowd of Paris compatriots in the 1920s, seen through the eyes of his first wife, Hadley Richardson.  Though a fictional rendering of that time in Hemingway's life, McLain's novel is thoroughly informed by biographies of Hemingway and by his own writings. Consequently, the reader learns a lot about the great author (the bad as well as the good) and the people with whom he surrounded himself — Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and others.   To me, the book felt much like Nancy Horan's fine novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, Loving Frank, an intimate portrait of a great (but deeply flawed) figure on the American landscape. 

This is an excellent novel. ★★★★★


And here are four other novels to consider.  

The Arrivals, by Meg Mitchell Moore — A story about empty nesters whose adult children, each facing problems of different kinds, find themselves gravitating back home to their parents' home one summer in Burlington, Vermont.  The characters, dialogue, and human dramas are very real.    ★★★★☆ 


London is the Best City in America, by Laura Dave — A story about a young woman whose brother's impending wedding forces her to revisit her own decision three years earlier to abandon her fiance right before her planned nuptials — and to deal with her brother's ambivalence on the weekend of his wedding.  This is a really skillful novel that nicely captures the angst and paralyzing indecision that many twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings feel when facing life's big decisions.  ★★★★☆

These Things Hiddenby Heather Gudenkauf — A story about a young woman, recently released from five years in prison for a heinous crime, who tries to fit back into an unwelcoming community and to reconnect with family members who want nothing to do with her.  It's partly a suspense novel, partly a domestic novel. Though it has some flaws, it's diverting entertainment.   ★★★☆☆


Heat Wave, by Nancy Thayer — A story about a young woman (32) whose husband has just died of a heart problem, leaving her house-rich but cash-poor, and needing to find a way to support their two young daughters.  They live on Nantucket, so the island itself is, of course, a strong presence in the book, as are the young woman's close female friends, in-laws, and a particularly handsome and available man who was her late husband's best friend.   It's not a bad book, but Thayer is one of those authors whose characters address each other directly by name far more often than people do in real life, distracting the reader (this one, anyway) from some of the book's qualities.  All in all, if you want a good beach read that's set on Nantucket, you're better off going with any of Elin Hilderbrand's books.     ★★☆☆☆

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“Silver Girl,” by Elin Hilderbrand; “Maine” by J. Courtney Sullivan

ImagesElin Hilderbrand's new novel Silver Girl, just released last week, is a successful addition to her list of entertaining books set on Nantucket and involving women who are dealing with crises of various sorts — often husbands who are troubling or in trouble — and tensions in their friendships with other women.  This time, her main character is based on a sympathetic imagining of the problems faced by Ruth Madoff, the wife of Bernie Madoff, history's biggest swindler and ponzi-scheme architect.  Hilderbrand's character, Meredith Delinn, escapes New York's omnipresent paparazzi, fleeing to Nantucket with her best friend from childhood, Connie Flute.  There, Delinn awaits news of whether prosecutors will charge her with aiding her jailed husband in his financial crimes, and the two women face a variety of relationship dilemmas involving their children and available men. 

The story isn't as silly as it sounds.  Sure, it's a beach read, but far better than the average for that genre.  Hilderbrand knows how to maintain various strands of tension in a novel of this sort.  Her characters are believable and interesting. Like her other books, this is a great beach read — or, as in my case, a good book for a cold, rainy June day.  ★★★★☆



Images-1I had a less fortunate encounter this week with Maine, the new novel by J. Courtney Sullivan.  I had read Sullivan's first novel, Commencement, a few years ago and found it mildly entertaining.  So, I got suckered in by the big advertising push being conducted by Knopf, publisher of Sullivan's new novel about several generations  from one family who congregate every year at their beach house in Maine.  I only got a third of the way through this book before giving up on it. Nothing happens; I mean nothing!  And the characters are incredibly uninteresting. 

I went back and looked again at a review of Maine that I saw in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago.  Here's an interesting portion of it:

Sullivan hits her stride once she gets all her characters to Maine [which, incidentally, wasn't even close to happening when I stopped reading a third of the way through]. There, she can put them around a dinner table or take them out to a field and let the fireworks erupt. Unfortunately, for much of the book, Alice is the only one actually in Maine. The other family members are still at home, packing and fretting. Sullivan inundates us with their memories and hurts, straining to set the stage. One yearns as her characters do to escape their tangled ruminations and get to the beach.

Once they do arrive, we’re not disappointed. The narrators come fully to life, and the dynamics between them are rich and exhilarating. . . . 

Many novels begin with a full head of steam, only to peter out halfway through. So often I’ve gushed to friends about a book, then had to call them later to retract my recommendation. “Maine,” conversely, starts slowly, but once it gets going, it does not falter. . . . 

Maybe.  But there are too many good books out there to sit around waiting for one to work its magic.  A novelist has to grab you at the start and impel you to keep reading.  Spending more than the first third of a 400-page book on characters' backstory is ridiculous. No author can afford to do that. I put down Maine after 120 deadly pages; I then picked up Silver Girl and was immediately drawn in.  After finishing Silver Girl, I went back and gave Sullivan's book one more try.  But another 30 pages still left me cold.

Save your money.  If you want a good beach read, go with Hilderbrand, not Sullivan.  ★☆☆☆☆