Friday, June 21, 2013

Women Who Want to Be Left Alone: The Affairs of Others and Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

I am in the reading zone (which is a great place to be--it is just too darn hot and humid to be much of anywhere else!)  and just finished two really good books:  The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd and Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. On their face, these books are as different from one another as night and day.  They both, however, feature women who basically would just like to be left alone to lead their lives.  That's enough of a theme for me to work with!

The Affairs of Others  -- I've mentioned this book a couple of times recently as it was one of the Editors' Buzz Books at the recent Book Expo.  From the start of this novel, I was drawn in by Loyd's beautiful writing.  The set-up is fairly simple.  Celia, a young widow, has purchased a brownstone in Brooklyn and rents out the three upper stories.  She has carefully selected the tenants as people who will respect her privacy and permit her to continue to live in her grief-stricken state.  When one of the tenants persuades her to permit a sublet of his apartment while he's out of the country for a few months, the delicate balance of the building shifts.

The story is engrossing and unexpected.  At times it made me uncomfortable.  At times it made me sad.  At times I just wondered what the heck was the problem with this woman.   Why can't she just get on with her life?   (You do find out.) 

At all times, though, I was struck by the power of Loyd's words.  Take, for instance, Celia's recollection of seeing Hope, the proposed sublessee, hugging her son on the street.  Celia crossed the street, feeling that she's intruding on a personal moment, as "[Hope] grabbed him abruptly and hugged him with all of her, as if she were trying to steady him against a mean wind or force something out of him.  That day, I remember I thought sorrow, she's trying to hug his sorrow away and there was no time to lose apparently."  We learn that Hope is going through a divorce after 25 years of marriage.  She says of herself, only half jokingly, "Don't you all know that you are supposed to treat me as if I'm newly widowed?  As if I've been shipwrecked?" 

The Affairs of Others is a debut novel by Loyd, who is herself an editor.  (She was the fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine which, as we all know, is oft purchased for its writing.)  It would be interesting to read some of the work that Loyd edited to see if her authors share her lyrical writing style.  The Affairs of Others will be available in stores in August. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? --  I picked up this laugh out loud funny book at the 2012 Book Expo but only recently got around to reading it.  (My sister recommended the book after reading about my outing to Solomon's Castle.  I couldn't imagine what the connection might be, but it definitely exists.) The story defies easy synopsis but centers around the life of a Seattle family--Elgin, the Microsoft wonk dad, Bea, the precocious 12 year old daughter, and the named Bernadette, the mom who experienced a Huge Hideous Event that resulted in her desire to withdraw from society.  The story is told through a variety of formats, including "FBI documents involving surveillance of Bernadette, emails between Elgin and his administrator, handwritten notes between a woman and her gardener, the same woman's emergency room bill, back-and-forth from a Galer Street School fundraiser about a disastrous brunch, an article about Bernadette's architecture career, and correspondence between Elgin and a psychiatrist."  (I told you the story defies easy description.)

My copy of the book has zillions of flags marking passages that made me erupt in laughter.  There's the memo from the guy hired to run a capital campaign for Galer Street School (where Bea is in the 6th grade) stressing the points he wants to make in bold.  He implores the families to "emancipate themselves from what I am calling Subaru Parent mentality and start thinking more like Mercedes Parents.... When applying to kindergarten, Merceds parents keep their eyes on the prize.... The first stop on this crazy train is Kingergarten Junction, and nobody gets off until it pulls into Harvard Station."  (In between my snorts of laughter I was congratulating myself on never having had to go through this experience!)

There's Bernadette's email to her virtual assistant bemoaning the overabundance of Craftsman style houses in Seattle.  "It's like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance.  You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won't matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on a lot."  Seattle's love of Chihuly chandeliers garners some contempt from Bernadette as well. "Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle. They're everywhere, and even if they don't get in your way, you can't help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them."  (Naples also is a big Chihuly area, and I have to admit that I don't share the love.)  The egalitarian, laid-back nature of Seattle's residents also drives Bernadette crazy.  "Nobody here likes me.  The day I got here, I went to Macy's to buy a mattress.  I asked if someone could help me.  'You're not from around here, are you?' the lady said. 'I can tell by your energy.'  What kind of energy was that?  That I asked to be helped by a mattress saleslady in a mattress department?"  (In case you're wondering, we do find out what the Huge Hideous Event was, and it was enough to drive a person a bit batty.)

Author Maria Semple was a writer for the TV shows Mad About You, Ellen, and Arrested Deelopment, so it's no surprise that she is so darn funny.  If you need a good laugh (and who doesn't?), Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is the book for you.

1 comment:

  1. Both of these novels sound interesting. I'll put them on my list to read. Thanks Nanette!


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