Saturday, December 31, 2011

How Much Truth is Too Much Truth?

House Rules, Jodi Picoult
Washington Square Press, 2010, $16.00, 532 pages

It’s a bit like the story of the Prodigal Son. The whole time you think the story is about one brother, but really, it all hinges on the other one. It’s Jacob who’s on trial for murder. It’s his fate that hangs in the balance, that’s decided by twelve strangers behind closed doors. But it’s Theo, his younger brother, who has the most to learn. It’s Theo who’s changed the most by the end of the book. Being locked up for first-degree murder is not his imminent fear, but his own guilty conscience locks him up in his own personal prison until he learns which rules matter most, rules his brother has been following all along.

House Rules opens up the life of a family affected by Asperger’s syndrome to the scrutiny of people who don’t understand. When Emma Hunt describes her eighteen-year-old son’s Asperger’s-related behavior to the judge – behavior that includes “when he decides to do something, he needs to do it immediately,” “he hardly ever shows emotion,” “if his routine gets disrupted, he becomes extremely anxious,” and “when things are really overwhelming, he’ll go somewhere to hide” – the judge replies, “So your son is moody, literal, and wants things his own way and on his own timetable. That sounds very much like a teenager.” The judge, like most other characters in the story, has not known anyone with Asperger’s syndrome and is unable to put herself in Jacob’s shoes.

Jacob, though, is also unable to sympathize with the judge. One of the traits common to Asperger’s is an inability to feel empathy for other people, or to recognize their emotions. Oliver, Jacob’s lawyer, uses this inability as the cornerstone of his case. Jacob can only experience the world through his own skin, never imagining what others might feel or think. Therefore, his crime, if he in fact committed it, occurred in a moment of insanity, legally defined as lacking the capacity to understand right from wrong because of a mental defect or disease. He killed Jess Ogilvy, if he did kill her, because it was in his own best interest. He is cognitively unable to consider how it would affect her, her parents, her boyfriend, or the world at large.

Against all this is the argument that Jacob is also religiously devoted to the rules. He knows that killing is against the rules, so how could he have done it? He knows that lying is wrong, yet he maintains that he did not kill the victim although all the evidence screams his name. He follows his own rules, such as wearing clothes and eating food of only a particular color on each day of the week, absolutely to the letter. But he has to be taught social rules that others would pick up naturally. He has learned, for example, that people don’t always mean what they say. “Get a grip,” for instance, doesn’t mean hold onto something. It means “calm down.” Not everyone, he’s also learned, likes to hear the list of things you’ve memorized about apples just because you notice that they’re selecting apples in the produce section. He sees, as most of us secretly do, that smalltalk is inane and often untruthful (am I really “fine” most of the time?) but he’s learned that it’s a necessary part of communication with people you don’t know very well. If he’s so devoted to following rules, then wouldn’t he know that committing murder would get him in trouble? If he knew it was wrong, how can he be considered legally insane?

Theo is three years younger than Jacob, yet he often finds himself in the role of older brother, defending Jacob from taunts and even punches from other kids. “If anyone’s going to beat up my brother,” he says after a pummeling friend who’s tackled Jacob for interrupting a Frisbee game, “it’s going to be me.” Theo doesn’t care much about following the rules and secretly longs for a life without an Aspie brother. He’ll sneak a frozen and decidedly non-green pizza on Green Monday, and cut class to roam the neighborhood. But Theo knows and accepts that he may someday be Jacob’s caretaker and remains devoted to his brother despite the ways Jacob has deprived him of a normal teenage life. For him, following the rules consists primarily of being as “normal” as possible and avoiding the label “retard’s brother.”

Both brothers are thrust into a life-altering murder trial when Jacob’s tutor turns up dead. Although Theo knows that his own secret might bring clarity to the murder trial, he sits on the truth, fearing the fallout it would bring on him. Jacob hides part of the truth he knows too, but not for the same reason. Only the combined secrets of Jacob and Theo can acquit Jacob. And neither brother seems willing to reveal what he knows.

Picoult reminds readers that nobody’s normal and that although the legal system has instituted laws to protect the people, there are exceptions to every rule. Because Jacob is easily overstimulated by the sounds and sights of the courtroom, he is allowed to request a recess whenever he wants, a concession not normally allowed to defendants. He’s also allowed to remain at home, instead of in jail while awaiting his trial because having his routine upset by being in a different location could be mentally catastrophic for him. As the rules are bent to accommodate the necessity of putting a man with Asperger’s on trial for murder, the reader must wonder: What rules would I want bent if in that situation? Am I so different from Jacob? We’ve all broken the rules at some point. And we all have guilt we’d like to keep hidden. But at the end of the day it’s not the rules you break that set you apart. It’s the rules you adhere to that define you.  

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Beautiful Singing

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 2001, 318 pages

It’s a kidnapping attempt gone wrong. In search of a South American president, a band of guerrilla soldiers bust a lavish dinner party at the VP’s palace. After training for months, planning, plotting, waiting for this evening, the band of rebels infiltrates Vice President Ruben’s home only to find their prey, President Masuda, not in attendance. The invaders, embarrassed and empty-handed, seize control over the only thing within their grasp: a collection of dinner party guests. What follows in the palace, as the outside world pushes for release of the captives and surrender of the soldiers, crescendos into a beautiful harmony between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” between international dignitaries and jungle rebels.

With its guns, political demands, and South American setting, Bel Canto might put off the average pleasure reader by seeming inaccessible and layered with too much unfamiliar context. But just as the soldiers’ intended plot fails, so does the potentially weighty plot of volleyed threats and demands. The plot that emerges instead tells a story of humanity, the equality of all men, the ways we react under pressure, and our innate desire for love and home.

Patchett’s story unfolds like a reality show. First there are the tensions, the bold statements off camera while the on-screen drama is hesitant, cautious. As the rebel leaders take notes about the hostages, “the guests downplayed their own importance when questioned. After all, in this room of prestigious international guests, “no one was quite willing to lie, but they tugged down the edges of the truth” to avoid potentially disastrous fates. Soon, though, truths start to emerge, colors start to show, defenses come down. Surprisingly, the line in the sand you expected to be etched deeply between captors and captives is washed away quickly by the tide of normalcy that necessarily intrudes on any attempt to forge life in close quarters. The players in the drama prove not to be as good or as bad as you once thought. They are hued, shades of good, shades of bad. General Benjamin, on of the rebel leaders, has a face inflamed with shingles, a malady that makes him tired, understandably irritable, and forgivably short-tempered despite his flagrant criminal intent. Carmen, one of two teenaged girls who has joined the rebel band, secretly wants to learn English and pursues the hostage translator, Gen, to be her personal coach. Mr. Hosokawa, an electronics executive, has a passion for opera, specifically for Roxane Coss, the world-renowned soprano who has been taken hostage with him. It’s hard to hate anyone, even Beatriz, the other rebel girl, a tough-skinned, tomboy-ish brat. And it’s impossible not to love Cesar, the rebel boy who falls in love not with Roxane but with the music she sings, longing to stretch his own vocal wings. In the palace that becomes home for 40 hostages and their captors, dynamics turn enemies and strangers into friends, chess partners, accompanists, fellow chefs, even lovers.

The scene – the vice president’s palace – remains static throughout the novel, a risky move for Patchett who could lose her audience quickly. But she keeps her readers intrigued even within the tight quarters. On the first day after being taken hostage Father Arguedas, one of few locals in residence at the palace, “explained that what they were looking at in the hours they spent staring out the window was called garúa, which was more than mist and less than drizzle and hung woolly and gray over the city in which they were now compelled to stay.” In a place where “time, in the manner in which they had all understood it, was over,” it is just the sort of weather one would expect. But eventually, the garúa “simply stopped, so that one day everything had the saturated quality of a book dropped into a bathtub and the next day the air was bright and crisp and extremely blue.” As the weather brightens, so the story’s action also begins to open up, reaching for fresh air. The story blossoms from concentrated action in the large ballroom to life as it spreads out through the kitchen where large meals must be prepared, into a sitting room where chess is played, into the china closet where secret meetings are conducted at midnight, and up the servants’ stairs to the bedrooms in the private wing. Even the backyard is swept into the action. Patchett ushers the reader through ever-widening circles until the walls of the palace property are all that separate timeless hostage life from the outside world.

As the rules loosen on the hostages, Roxane and her voice finally settle in at center stage. “She started the morning at six o’clock because she woke up when the light came in through her window and when she woke up she wanted to work. She took her bath and had two pieces of toast and a cup of tea that Carmen made for her, brought up on a yellow wooden tray that the Vice President had picked out for this purpose.” With opera consecrating each morning like a holy ritual, life becomes beautiful to everyone living in Vice President Ruben’s home. Chess, soccer games, gardening, and cooking are pursuits shared by both soldiers and hostages. Life becomes nearly idyllic. Routine is established, friendships bloom and flourish, and everyone is free to think, play, love, and hope as they wish.

But paradise can’t last forever. A stalemate surfaces as everyone realizes that the end must come. The reader, feeling the pile of pages thicken on the left and become ever thinner on the right, fears the end, knowing there is no good way out. Either the soldiers will eventually want what they came for, or the captives will want their old lives back. The world will not allow this strange marriage of good and evil to go on forever.

Patchett gives her readers a sweet taste of life paused, life caught between action and reaction. It is a lull that cannot last, a surprising eye of a deadly hurricane offering momentary windless peace. The story of Bel Canto provides for its readers the same fleeting sense of perfection it gives to its own characters, like the last note of an aria, ringing, quivering, fading, finally dying in the cool night air.

When "Borrowed" Means "Stolen"

Necklaces are meant to be borrowed. Handkerchiefs, maybe, or antique hairpieces. Not fiancés. And “borrowing” the fiancé of your very best friend just months before the wedding is certainly off limits. Unless you’re Rachel White, in which case your lust – or, I’m sorry, true love – comes first and even a best friend might end up a casualty.

This is the premise of Emily Giffin’s debut novel, Something Borrowed, and it smacks of American self-centeredness. On the night of Rachel’s thirtieth birthday, after perhaps one too many drinks, she hooks up with Dex, fiancé of her best friend, Darcy. It seems to be a one-time mistake, a misdirected passion resulting from the disappointment of being single at thirty. But over the next few weeks, Dex continues to pursue Rachel, and Rachel finds herself a willing Judas, betraying decades of Darcy’s friendship with a kiss.

Giffin’s plot seems at first humorous. “Oh, dear,” the reader may think, “How will Rachel ever explain and make things right with Darcy? Surely the two of them will band together and give Dex a kick in the pants, a boot out the door, which is just what his cheating ass deserves.” But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is not Giffin’s end. Instead, the peripheral characters side with Rachel, telling her to “go for it,” and swipe something of Darcy’s because, after all, Darcy has been a lucky girl all these years, often getting what Rachel had wanted first whether college acceptance letter, boyfriend, cushy job, or skinnier body. Darcy is painted as the enemy despite her long history of friendship with Rachel.

For female readers, this should come as a shock. But as the novel’s best-seller status suggests, today’s readers are more likely to sympathize with a cheating, lying maid of honor than they would with a loyal best friend. Giffin elevates Dex and Rachel’s love – and it is regarded as love – over the bond of female friendship. And whether Rachel and Dex are “in love” or not, isn’t the crime of stealing a near-husband from a best friend just as criminal?

Rachel might be forgiven for her theft, if Darcy had really been a wretched person. But she does not come across as a bad friend. After all, who hasn’t had a friend like Darcy? A “lucky one” who seems to walk on rose petals and wrap the world around her finger with one batted eyelash? Such a friend may incite envy, but she is not deserving of such betrayal. For Rachel to steal her fiancé displays Rachel’s wickedness, not Darcy’s.

If Rachel is the hero of Something Borrowed, our ladies have come to a sad place, indeed. If it’s the Rachels of this world that we are to admire – those who take what they want at the expense of anyone, regarding even lifelong friends as mere stepping stones – what’s to prevent any of us from becoming the Darcy? Which of us wants to be robbed of our life because someone else wants it more? And where does it leave our men? If Dex can finally unchoose Darcy and choose Rachel – mere days before a wedding – where is commitment?

Giffin’s debut novel should sober us with the realization that in this world, no one cares for you. Even your very best friend cares more for herself than for you. What’s worse, Giffin makes no attempt to suggest that this paradigm is backwards. Instead, she promotes this thinking throughout the novel, ending with the cheaters, Rachel and Dex, “looking for a yellow cab headed in the right direction.” If self-centered, friend-smashing living is not your idea of “the right direction,” avoid Giffin’s sad social commentary and pursue novels with higher standards.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Spilling Secrets: Easing the Pain for Two Guilty Women in Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water

     How long can you keep a secret? Will you give yourself away in a thoughtless phrase or a nervous laugh? Will guilt break your silence? Or can you bottle it up, cork the top, and set your secret adrift at sea for decades until, eventually, time washes it back to your door and demands that you pour it out?
     The two narrators in Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel, The Weight of Water, both have secrets, and circumstances have forced them both to uncork the stoppers and splash out all the messy details. “I have to let this story go,” opens Jean. And her counterpart, Maren, of nearly 100 years earlier begins her own memoir, “I mean with these pages… that the truth shall be known.” Neither will find absolution, for they are both soaked in “hurt that stories cannot ease, not with a thousand tellings.” But the weight that has burdened them for so long compels them to confess, although finding peace may be a hopeless cause.
     On assignment for a magazine in the 1990’s, Jean has been hired to take photographs of Smuttynose Island, the setting of two 1873 murders. She has turned the job into a vacation, bringing along her husband and small daughter, and convincing Rich, her brother-in-law, and his latest girlfriend, Adaline, to ferry them to the island in his Morgan. Over the two-day excursion, Jean watches as Thomas, her husband, hits it off with the mesmerizing Adaline and fights the rising jealousy she feels for the younger woman. In response, she finds herself drawn to Rich, Thomas’s endearing brother who also sees the mounting interest between the other two adults. In the middle of this tension is young Billie, “an effervescence that wants to bubble up and pop out of the top of the bottle,” a little girl who makes pancakes and collects mussels and likes to have her picture taken. Between lobster dinners and swims in the ocean, the five people on the Morgan must find a balance between love and hate, between knowledge and ignorance.
     This microcosm of life on the sailboat echoes the cramped life that Maren Hontvedt lived on Smuttynose more than 100 years earlier. Maren, a young Norwegian wife who came to New England with her new husband, arrived on “shallow and barren” Smuttynose in 1868 moving into a small house “of an entirely unadorned style…, and quite gloomy.” Within a few years, Maren’s toughened spinster sister and her beloved brother and his new wife had joined the family from Norway, and Maren and her husband made room in their home. The inevitable tensions of extended family became more pronounced in the tight quarters, and Maren found herself often in the middle. After five years on the island, catastrophe dismantled the family when Karen and Anethe, Maren’s sister and sister-in-law, were brutally murdered in the Hontvedt home while the men were away on the mainland. This is the famous story Jean has come to Smuttynose to investigate.
     Maren was the only witness of the murders and recorded her whole story, including an account of the murders, in a yellowed, dusty document which lay long forgotten in the Portsmouth Athenaeum for many years. Jean finds the manuscript, learns the truth about the long-ago crime, and becomes the sole recipient of Maren’s confessions, while simultaneously watching her own life churn into a frothy storm. It seems inevitable that the two stories will find their common end in catastrophe.
     The text of Shreve’s novel flows through several pages of Maren’s ancient narrative, then to a few hours of Jean’s life, and back to Maren’s words with barely an interrupting ripple. Facts about the island and transcripts of dialogue from the murder trial bob in and out of the story, painting the both the historical background and the setting. Despite all this juxtaposition, the novel reads easily. Jean and Maren are linked by jealousy and guilt, themes that span the centuries. With these emotions to connect them, their parallel stories become a single tale. Maren Hontvedt’s life, as read by Jean Janes, and the life of Jean herself collide like swells in an ocean storm. Slow to rise, almost imperceptible until the whitecaps crest up into foam, the stories mirror one another all the way up to their crashing ends.
     “If you take a woman and push her to the edge,” Jean wonders, “how will she behave?” The Weight of Water provides a disheartening answer at best. As each woman tries to assuage the guilt that plagues her, she finds no relief. Not even confession can ease the hurt and, ultimately, the same sins will be repeated, though 100 years may pass. Shreve gets to the heart of a woman’s pain, but the reader may not like what she finds there. Just as Jean must decide what to do with the weighty confession passed to her from Maren Hontvedt, so also the reader of The Weight of Water must turn the final page with Jean’s own guilt on her hands.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

All His Eggs in One Basket: David Benioff’s Literary Gamble with City of Thieves

    The premise of David Benioff’s second novel, City of Thieves, is as absurd as they come. Two Russians, arrested by the Germans for petty crimes during the WWII German occupation of Russia, are offered a deal: in exchange for their lives, they must provide the colonel with a dozen eggs. Accepting the mission, Lev and Kolya set off across the famine-ridden frozen wasteland with high hopes. Ridiculous? Perhaps. But Benioff’s simple tale capitalizes on the complexity of friendship and the escapist pleasure of the quest novel. With confident Kolya, the “great salesman, especially when he was selling himself,” and the overly self-conscious narrator Lev, even a hopeless quest for elusive eggs remains entertaining.
    Although primarily lighthearted, City takes on an eerie aura with “German corpses falling from the sky; cannibals selling sausage links made from ground human; apartment blocks collapsing to the ground; and dogs becoming bombs.” Despite this, however, the novel provides an excellent weekend getaway book. Such shocking scenes seem almost mythical, lending a larger-than-life quality to the novel. In the peculiar quest of Lev and Kolya, even the most bizarre events seem right at home. Reality and fantasy blur into a whirling cycle of dreamlike dance and vivid nightmare.
    Rounding out the cast of characters are the tomboy sniper Vika, her posse of Russian resistance fighters, and the German villains. Vika provides the love interest, one that becomes appropriately sticky with triangulated affections, and the host of enemy leaders – from Colonel Grechko who sits as his desk drawing X’s on his notepad to bulky chess-playing Commander Abendroth – spice up the pages of City while complicating things for its heroes. Love and war flit across the pages, interspersed with somber reflections on the potential immediacy of death, a balance that allows City of Thieves to be action-packed while retaining complexity.
    Among all this drama, Benioff’s prose elicits a surprising combination of grins and grimaces. The extreme desperation Benioff builds up at the beginning of the novel frightens readers into submission in the violent environment of Russia. Lev admits to “spending spare minutes hunting rats” to quell his hunger and buys “library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars.” The cold weather compounds the desperate situation of starvation. Moving through the wasteland, “the cold was a greater danger than the Germans” to Lev and Kolya; Lev’s fingertips were numb even with “thick wool mittens and hands shoved into the pockets of his overcoat.” Lev’s miserable plight causes readers to shiver with each page turn and long for a mere hard-boiled egg to satisfy the hungry ache.
    The harsh winter misery is somewhat assuaged by Kolya’s charming attempts to be the older brother figure to young Lev. “You’re a virgin, aren’t you,” Kolya asks. And thus the stage is set for Kolya’s sexual education of young Lev. With anecdotes of his personal love life providing the basis for advice, Kolya takes it upon himself to instruct Lev in the ways of women. Lev proves a willing pupil, although an uncomfortable one, and the dynamic between these two men provides a diversion – for them and for readers – from the dangerous task at hand. Although Benioff includes some measure of gratuitous sexual content in the course of this subplot, the mentor role of Kolya allows him to gain respect from even squeamish readers. Who but the heroic-looking blondie Kolya could get away with such indelicacy yet remain so likable?
    Benioff’s narrator, Lev, couldn’t be more different from confident Kolya. Lev typifies the self-conscious youth. While about to face hand-to-hand combat with eight Germans, Lev finds himself reflecting on how foolish he must look with a wimpy knife in his hand. He fears sex because “the geometry of the act confuses him.” Lev has a sensitive soul, one unaccustomed to sharing feelings or thoughts with anyone. He also possesses a reflective imagination that enhances his sensations of loneliness and discomfort on his long trek. Lev imagines himself and his companions as “a band of enchanted mice, marching beneath the chalked moon on the blackboard sky.” He also admits to feeling slow and exhausted during the journey, feeling like “someone had poured thick syrup into a hole in my skull.” 
    Kolya represents the polar opposite of Lev’s vulnerability, rarely revealing any fear or weakness. The self-assured, dominant Kolya leads Lev into maturity in the span of one week, referring to the timid boy affectionately as “little lion,” and showing confidence in the boy despite the frightful circumstances. Behind his tough-guy façade, Kolya hides a natural storyteller, an insightful intellectual who rarely shuts up. With only Lev to listen, Kolya resembles “a senile grandfather” who repeats his memorized stories over and over again to family dinner parties. Senile, maybe. But endearing nonetheless.
    Although Kolya and Lev both possess enjoyable quirks and form an engaging duo throughout the novel, neither protagonist offers much by way of originality; both are classic examples of stock characters. Character development happens naturally, but a bit too predictably. For a quick action read, though, Benioff’s characters serve their purpose.
    Benioff’s recent screenwriting experience is obvious in City of Thieves, which reads like a film script: a well-paced quest journey and the struggle to survive. Although the terrain of Russia is unfamiliar to most readers, the story does not require understanding of the novel’s locale. The haunting images of a frozen dead soldier, marking the road like a signpost, and a farmhouse filled with beautiful girls dancing in the firelight affect Benioff’s characters as much as they affect his readers. Without requiring immersion in Russian culture, Benioff still provides a believable setting filled with convincing characters. City of Thieves draws readers into the unfamiliar setting with comfortable ease, providing just enough stability to prevent disorientation. The plot does what seems fitting, but does it so adeptly that readers can still be excited by the outcomes. City of Thieves might not be ground-breaking in plot theme or character models, but the book does its job as entertaining escapist literature.