Hey Publishers: Let’s Talk About Bodies

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend about The Kiss Quotient — basically, all the reasons I didn’t like the much-lauded novel (and the romance genre, in general). She gently suggested that even though I didn’t like the love-at-first-sight plot or the writing, it’s still a considered a “good” book because of its groundbreaking qualities — an autistic, Asian female lead. Though I disagree — I think that books should be well-written to be considered “good” — I don’t disagree with her overarching sentiment: that readers need heroines/heroes with whom they can identify. Readers want and need to read about people that look like them, characters who share the same ethnicity or culture or values or gender issues, etc.

And that brings me to the apex of this blog post: body diversity within literature.

It stands to reason that readers want to be swept up in novels about characters that represent them. So why aren’t there more novels that feature women with soft, squishy mom-bods? With stretch marks here and there? With — no, not a perfectly smooth, rounded bum, but — cheeks that have some dimples? And if those characters are out there, why are writers glossing over these goddesses with the blur-feature of authorial photoshop?

I can distinctly remember the struggles I had with body image as a teen. Most of those issues are still alive and well today — there’s constantly an undercurrent of spiteful self-talk running through my mind like a ticker-tape: You’re too fat. You’re too fat. You’re too fat. And I can also remember being an avid reader during those years, noticing — even then — that the characters in the books I read were all the same. They were pretty. They had thigh gaps. They had flat bellies. They didn’t look like me. I was subconsciously aware that with their size 2 jeans and slender ankles, these characters were unhappy with the way they looked — and what the hell kind of message is that supposed to send to a size 12 girl who is, in her teens, utterly preoccupied with looking right?

As an adult, the issue has come into focus with a much sharper lens. Having a child, having a c-section, having a hard time quashing a chocolate addiction — things have gotten increasingly plush around here. I’m hyper-aware of these changes, seemingly at every moment. And in nearly every novel I’ve read (or skimmed, or DNF’d) over the past several years, I’ve been unsurprised to find the same heroine body type over and over again: slender, lean and toned (though somehow she’s almost never athletic?), maybe a few well-placed curves, all topped off with a silky mane and contoured cheekbones. (Unless, of course, she’s an undiscovered beauty who, much like Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries, is in dire need of some Urban Decay and a wardrobe overhaul but still has the makings of a perfect body.)

Right now, the romance genre is making big leaps to change its formulaic white-people-only decades-old trend — here’s a great article about it! — but readers of all genres are still missing something key: varied body types.

Part of this responsibility falls on the shoulders of writers. I get it — authors are tasked with producing what people want to read, and it’s probably safe to say that people mostly want to read about beautiful people/things. But I think writers also have a responsibility to their audience, to go beyond the superficiality of television and magazine beauty standards, to set the precedent for new norms. Norms in which a fluffy, c-section ravaged woman can have a chiseled husband who still finds her hot — and she doesn’t have to feel compelled to change to be proclaimed beautiful. Norms in which stretch marks can cover a woman’s thighs without depleting her sex appeal. Norms in which a female lead can be remarkably unremarkable but not described as “forgettable” or “plain” or “simple” — just described in terms of her actual physical features, so that, you know, readers stop deeming themselves “forgettable” or “plain” or “simple.”

A big piece is up to publishers, too, though. I don’t regularly pick up the types of novels that feature real-life people on the cover (mostly because that kind of cover art usually falls under the romance heading), but I have seen several of these covers floating around the Bookstagram community as of late. I can’t think of a single example in which a fiction book features cover art of a real woman who doesn’t look like she’s been airbrushed and dieted and exercised into a mortal Aphrodite.

Somehow, this seems to be a topic vastly unexamined in the book community. The same people who tip their hats to Aerie for their body positivity campaign — “I’m so refreshed to see models who look like me!” they say — don’t seem to notice (or care?) about the fact that the characters they read about in books are ideal, without flaws (unless they’re dubbed cute “quirks”), coated in some sort of protective layer of surface-level beauty.

I, too, like to escape to a fantasy world in which my thighs don’t chafe as I jog gloriously down the street with boobs that aren’t so big they bobble around like soccer balls but not so small they’re invisible; but sometimes, sometimes — it’s nice to read about a heroine who isn’t “fat comic relief*,” but thick around the middle with goals and problems and seductive powers like the rest of the leading ladies of the literary world.

*Don’t even get me STARTED on the fat-women-on-television problematic tropes

WWW Wednesday – 11/28

WWW Wednesdays

In an effort to bring a little more regularity to this blogger’s recently-hectic life, I’m

jumping on board the WWW Wednesday train. WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam over

at Taking on a World of Words — if you’re interested in participating simply answer the following questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

November has been a good reading month for me so far — I feel like I’ve had quite a bit of variety in the genres I’ve picked up. First things first, though!

Here’s what I’m currently reading . . .

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The Ensemble by Aja Gabel. This is my book club’s selection for November and we’re due to discuss it in just a few days — eep! — so naturally, I just started it yesterday. I’ve been listening to the classical pieces listed at the beginning of each “part” of the book which adds to the reading experience, in my opinion. This novel was extremely hyped on Instagram in the spring when it was published, so I went into it with a little apprehension; but so far, I’m quite invested in the characters and the way their storylines so badly want to diverge. The Ensemble follows four musicians who belong to a string quartet and desperately seek fame and success — but at what cost? How much will they sacrifice to achieve their dreams?

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. This is my first audiobook (ever!) and I’ve started listening to it as a means of motivating myself to get on the elliptical during Henry’s afternoon naps. The premise is simple: nine individuals, seeking change or a rest or some sort of personal growth arrive at Tranquillim House for a ten-day retreat. The resort has a reputation for its inventive and intense methods, and the guests are eager to begin — if not a bit apprehensive. When the gong sounds and 5 days of silence (Noble Silence) begin, things begin to get . . . interesting. Thus far, I’m really enjoying the narrator, and I’ve been surprised by the number of times I’ve laughed out loud.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This is the third book in the Outlander series and part of a buddy read I’m doing with bookstagram buddies @shihtzus.and.book.reviews and @booksgloriousbooks. We’ve been crawling through this one, a bit (started it October 1), but I’m finding the pacing much better than the previous book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. While I’m not generally a fan of romance novels, Gabaldon’s Outlander series has me hooked, and I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon.

Here’s what I’ve recently finished . . .

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An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. This nonfiction title was sent to me for review by Henry Holt Books. This work of true crime/investigative nonfiction is an unexpected gem: covering the disappearance of young, charismatic Rey Rivera, who was discovered dead and later proclaimed — unbelievably — to have committed suicide at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Sprinkled in among the exhaustive research regarding Rivera’s suspicious death, Brottman has included interesting asides about the history of the Belvedere Hotel and its many suicides over the decades. This work of nonfiction also includes more than a few spot-on observations about the human psyche, our fascination with morbidity, and tendencies toward blame within the pages.

Here’s what’s next . . .

I’ve already started compiling a list of wintry reads I hope to get to in December. Here’s a couple I’m especially looking forward to.

There’s also a strong possibility I’ll reread The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey because I loved that book so dang much last year. If you’re in the market for a magical, sweet, and emotional read — I can’t recommend it enough!

What’s on your December reading list? Give me some wintry ideas in the comments section, if you will; and as always, happy reading, friends!

7 Books to Read if You Love a Rural Vibe

I can remember thinking in high school, Why are so many books set in the city? I was born and raised in a rural area where cows outnumbered humans, and had such a difficult time fully relating to the idea of life on the crowded streets of the Big Apple or London; these were places I’d never been, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have pizza delivered to the door (our closest option: Pizza Hut, 27 miles away) or to spend thirty minutes traversing a few city blocks (you could get from one side of town to the other in 3 minutes, if you hit the stoplights just right).

Obviously, I didn’t give up on these titles; part of the joy in reading is, for this little reader on the prairie, “traveling” to other times or places that differ significantly from my own life. That being said, there’s just something about rural literature that I adore — the homey feel I get when I read about an old dirt road leading to nowhere under a canopy of trees, the not-so-anonymous vibes of small-town crime, the intimate knowing between neighbors who’ve team-raised half the kids in the community.

In honor of this love affair with rural America, I give to thee: A List of Renee’s Favorite Rural Reads.

  1. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. Published by Putnam Books, August 2018. If you’re in the market for something gritty, something utterly compelling, something sofrigginmindblowinglyEXCELLENT that you can’t put it down, look no further. I picked this one for my August BOTM selection and just got around to reading it in September and I still haven’t stopped thinking about this glorious work of fiction. (Or recommending it to, like, everyone.)
  2. Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Series. Published by Minotaur Books, 1990 – present. I’m only three books in (Still Life, A Fatal Grace, and The Cruelest Month), but these cozy mysteries do not disappoint. Nestled in the teeny town of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada, the book isn’t *technically* rural; however, the small-town vibes are terrifically reminiscent of the upbringing of anyone who’s been part of a community of a couple hundred. Everyone in Three Pines knows everyone else, all are quick to welcome — and assess — newcomers, and the small-town feel is utterly endearing.
  3. Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. Published in 1933. This satirical work of fiction examines a family of sharecroppers in Georgia during the Great Depression. The narrative is centralized on a family of poor white farmers — the Lesters — who are struggling to survive in an era that no longer needs all hands on deck to cultivate, plant, and harvest cotton. The Lesters are ignorant, depraved, and some of the most darkly-comical characters I’ve ever read. Often repulsive and darkly hysterical*, this tragic portrait of 1930s America  depicts rural life in an unfathomable time.
  4. Descent by Tim Johnston. Published by Algonquin, 2015. Nestled in among the Rocky Mountains, Descent takes readers to the dark places that exist in the shadows between family members. The Courtland family heads off on a family vacation prior to the eldest daughter’s departure to college. What should be relaxing and rehabilitating ends in despair when the daughter disappears without a trace on an early morning run. This novel isn’t purely set in the countryside — there are some forays into the city as family members search for their missing daughter and sister; but much of the novel takes place within the wooded mountains or rural areas outside the city, at times both blissfully lonesome and achingly void.
  5. The High Divide by Lin Enger. Published by Algonquin, 2014. This western novel features the Pope family, living on the prairie of Minnesota in 1886 and newly abandoned by Ulysses, father and husband. Leaving without a word of explanation and hardly a farewell, Ulysses leaves his two sons and wife reeling: where could he have possibly gone? It doesn’t take long for the boys to set off after him, truly a wild goose chase in an era unprivileged with cell phones and social media. This work of historical fiction offers spectacular views of the prairieland and Midwest of more than a century ago and I am here for it.
  6. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Published by Little, Brown, 2012. If you read my review of this spectacularly charming work of fairy-tale-esque fiction last winter, you’ll already know I was utterly captivated by Ivey’s lonesome Alaskan couple, childless and increasingly individual as the months pass by. When the pair builds a snow child on a whim during the first snowfall of the season, things take a turn for the better and the couple soon discovers an orphaned girl, roaming about the woods. Is she a manifestation of their snow child? Is she the product of homesteaders, long dead and gone? And more importantly — is she theirs to love forever? Surrounded by nothing by the breathtaking and brutally remote Alaskan wilderness, The Snow Child is a perfect read for those seeking a rural setting . . . and better still, it’s ideal for these chilly and snowy winter days.
  7. Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. A simple, but evocative novel in which several ordinary characters — a father raising two sons alone, two solitary bachelors dwelling together, a pregnant teenager thrown out by her mother, and a compassionate schoolteacher — are strung together in an unembellished by heartwarming manner. Set in the plains east of Denver, the novel is a portrait of the simplicity and community that comes with life in rural America.

And here’s a peek at a few titles I haven’t read yet, but am highly anticipating due to their rural vibes!

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Published by Tin House, 2018. An unconventionally wrought story about a young boy growing up near a river in the Midwest, sans parents. The book is told in glossary-style, a list of informative vignettes about various subjects the boy encounters in his lifetime. The book promises to be a coming-of-age tale, and you all know how I feel about those. 🙂
  • The Worst Hard Time (nonfiction) by Timothy Egan. Published by Mariner Books, 2006. This work of nonfiction is mostly focused on the area I now occupy: the vast — and unforgiving — southwest region of Kansas. A portrait of the dust storms and utter calamity that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s, The Worst Hard Time is “the story of those who stayed and survived — those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave . . . “. I’m particularly interested in this title as my grandfather-in-law has often imparted memories of his own upbringing during the Dirty Thirties, an era which is unfathomable to most of us today.
  • Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich. Published by Putnam, 2015. Now this one — this book is what I’m all about, friends. Have you ever watched Lawless,  the movie about a moonshine-making family in the hills of Appalachia during the Prohibition era? I have. Seven times. I’ll probably watch it again tonight, now that it’s on my mind. Anyway — Bull Mountain seems to fall in line a bit with the rowdy gang of vigilantes in Lawless. The novel features a family history of down-home mobsters running moonshine, pot, and meth across state lines, with virtually no legal consequences. This is all well and good until one of the sons — Clayton — decides to become a law-man and separate himself from his family of criminals . . . until the federal government steps in and Clayton is forced to reconsider where his loyalties truly lie. I have high hopes for this one, my friends. HIGH.

Got any other great rural reading suggestions for me? Drop ’em below in the comments! I’m always on the lookout for books that bring life to the places tucked away in forgotten valleys or between mountain towns or left untouched among the prairie grasses of the Midwest. After all, home is where the heart is; and once you’ve loved the country, your home will never change.

*I read Tobacco Road in college in a course titled “Literature of the South.” My classmates were deeply disturbed that I (& my darkly humorous professor) found the book “funny” at times. I’d like to clarify that this isn’t a “OMGLOL” book, but rather, a book that one has to laugh at here and there in order not to weep at the sheer depravity of the characters featured. And honestly, it is funny sometimes. It’s satire. 

Review: The Caregiver

Having grown up in an unbroken home, with present and participative parents and enough food to eat and clothes that I didn’t have to buy (or beg for) secondhand, I’ve taken a lot for granted, I know. One major “thing”: my relationship with my parents, and in particular, with my mother. She’s always been a positive part of my life, overflowing with love and kindness and patience. But I know that not everyone is so fortunate, and possibly because of that, I’ve forever been fascinated by the relationships between mothers and daughters.

The Caregiver, by the late Samuel Park, is just that: a portrait of mother and daughter, displayed in pieces of the past. Mara Alencar is an immigrant living in Bel Air in the 1990s, serving as an in-home caregiver for a wealthy (and isolated) woman who is battling cancer. Their relationship is complicated — one stranger caring intimately for another, what wouldn’t be awkward about that, at first? — and made even more so by the fact that Mara’s patient, Kathryn, begins to make extravagant promises about her will and Mara’s imminent inheritance. These “current” snapshots of Mara’s life as an immigrant are full of gems about the unfamiliar nature of common life in America that native residents so take for granted. For example,

“Nothing made me feel more American than being in a supermarket. So much choice, so many different ways to fill yourself up. . . . Even if I didn’t buy anything, walking down the aisles gave me a sense of belonging. . . . Going to the supermarket was free; there was no admission price. Nobody questioned my right to be there. It was the most democratic institution in the city.” (p. 7)

Park writes with clarity on this strange world-inhabiting experience, about what must surely feel like being devoured whole. However, Mara’s life in modern-day California isn’t the bright, shiny bit of this novel. The real gem: the intermittent flashbacks to 1970s Rio de Janeiro, with eight-year-old Mara living in turbulent political times with her mother, Ana.

These flashbacks offer readers something almost tangible, thanks to some vivid and unrestrained writing from Park. Mara’s mother is a voice-over actress, dubbing American films into Portuguese for the general population; and in her mind, something of a starlet. She’s beautiful and almost frivolous, flitting from one idea to the next with only the hounding necessity of money to stabilize her focus. The two live alone, without husband or father, and survive from paycheck to paycheck: feasting and luxuriating in good fortune after payday, grumbling and skimping when jobs are few and far between. As the country nears its political breaking point, Ana’s desperation peaks and she takes a job as an actress — partly out of a desire to prove her worth (to whom, it’s unclear) and partly out of sheer necessity: their cash stores are running low.

When Ana becomes entangled in something far greater than she could have foreseen, their lives are launched onto a trajectory that has devastating consequences for the pairing.

Park writes with a stunning depth of feeling and wisdom in these flashbacks — Ana’s desperation to be something and Mara’s furious devotion to her mother had me captivated. The political unrest and turmoil of 1970s Brazil provides a provocative backdrop, and as events fall into place, the novel seems to scurry toward something dark and unavoidable.

When Mara is an adult, she seeks the truth about her mother’s life, desperate to reconcile her own image of her mother with that harsh mistress — Truth.

Unfortunately, these two narratives don’t . . . quite . . . connect. I was so immersed in Mara’s younger years, but less drawn to her relationship with Kathryn which ultimately left me dissatisfied and a bit underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong — there are parallels, here; they just don’t seem to ever flesh out completely. The novel feels unresolved, and maybe that’s just because I didn’t get what I was expecting — or hoping for? — at the end. There were some loose ends that needed tying up, and Lazarus’s role in particular felt anticlimactic.

That being said, I appreciated Park’s smooth writing and the various nuggets of genius sprinkled throughout the novel, so I’ll leave you with one more:

“I realized then that I hated when people tried to find the silver lining in tragedy. There was no upside, none. I did not grow from it, or become a better person, or learn to appreciate life, or any such cliche. . . . death would not seed some kind of beautiful legacy . . . It’d just make those [she] left behind feel sad and morose.” (p. 235)

Overall: 3/5 stars. Recommended for those with an interest in family relationships and diaspora literature.

Review: The Waiter

I was drawn to The Waiter — a translation of the Swedish work by Mattias Faldbakken — for a simple reason: the book is advertised as a portrait in miniature, an intimate and classical-feeling depiction of one man’s life as a waiter within the confines of a prestigious and centuries-old family eatery. It didn’t hurt that the book was compared to Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow — a decadent, exquisite gem of a novel.

While it’s true that both novels employ dense prose with a classical vibe and settings that are confined to one particular space, the similarities end there.

The Waiter opens with an introduction to the title character: a middle-aged waiter in the well-established European restaurant called “The Hills.” The waiter offers a vessel for readers to traverse the inner-workings of the restaurant (which itself is merely a means of exposing readers to the choreography and near-relationship of waitstaff in proximity to customers on a daily basis). Our unnamed title character puts forth a series of cynical observations about the restaurant staff, the diners, the esteemed artwork crammed onto the walls, and the restaurant itself with little rhyme or reason.

“The Hills is one of the capital’s defining institutions, one of which gives Oslo character and draws the long lines. The space, or the premises, where I now and will forever stand in my waiter’s jacket, is an intricate meshwork of scraped-together items, and I sometimes feel sick at the thought that the longest-standing, most constant and unchanging ‘traditional place’ is a mosaic of items dragged and scraped together.”

Time and again, the waiter makes it perfectly clear to readers: he is meticulous, he is old-fashioned and tetchy when routine is disrupted, and he is very preoccupied with the hobby of ensuring things are done as nearly perfect as possible. In fact, at more than one juncture, I wondered if the character might be intended to exude signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so intent is he on following certain procedures repeatedly with or without necessity, and on doing things just-so. I’m fairly certain the author did not intend this conclusion, though; I think readers are just supposed to find the waiter steeped in habit as well as socially awkward and stand-offish.

One of the things I loved most about Towles’s Gentleman is that the novel offered readers a portrait of confinement amid luxury and a constantly shifting political and social landscape within the hotel over the course of several decades. Rather than offer readers just one major character to latch onto, though, Towles provided a host of other fastidiously drawn, intriguing individuals to play supporting roles.

While readers are exposed greatly to the waiter’s innermost ramblings, Faldbakken takes a huge misstep with the omission of other significant characterization. Sure, there are a slew of other cast members introduced — “the Pig,” a regular customer of a commanding sort of presence; Sellers, a rowdy party-boy given behavioral freedoms others aren’t on the basis of his several acquisitions for The Hills; Child Lady, a beautiful woman with otherwise very little clear significance to the story; Edgar and Anna, a father-daughter duo that regularly patronize the restaurant and serve as the waiter’s only friends; and a handful of restaurant workers — but the characters themselves don’t feel significant.

Now that I think of it, allow me to correct myself — characterization is not shortchanged in The Waiter; it’s purpose that the novel is severely lacking. All of the aforementioned characters have distinct features and personalities, but at the end of the novel, I couldn’t really tell you why most of them were included in the work. At all.

And that brings me to the saddest point: the plot is virtually nonexistent. Readers spend a few days in the waiter’s hemisphere, privy to his inner ramblings and increasingly neurotic behaviors, only to arrive at a conclusion that is head-scratchingly underwhelming. I’m not sure what Faldbakken envisioned as the driving force behind this narrative, but it certainly was not plot. Was there a climax? Was there a purpose behind the waiter’s actions? Was there a point to Anna’s stay? I don’t know. And I’m not going to lie: this uncertainty on my end left me wondering for several days — am I missing something, here?

To be sure, there are some gems tucked in amid the perplexing meandering of the narrative; a few times, I positively chortled. And Faldbakken makes some painfully accurate estimations of modern culture; each time, I kept cheering and thinking — Now we’re getting somewhere! Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“It’s as though my face is a cast of all the concerns that have built up within me over the years: the concerns are the mold for my face.”

and

“‘The adornment of a city is manpower, of a body beauty, of a soul wisdom, of an object durability, of a speech truth,’ Gorgias writes in the Encomium of Helen. The part about the body is the only one which still applies, it seems.”

A particular favorite, relating to the minds of children:

“There are a few golden years between infancy and the teenage years, Edgar says, when kids are as smart as they’re ever going to be, or that’s how it seems, when they’re still uncorrupted.”

There were several other striking observations made by the author which redeemed this otherwise sadly-under-edited work, and it’s those bits and pieces that I’ve added to my journal which make The Waiter a difficult work to rate. I wanted to love this novel so much, but I ultimately found the most fundamental aspect — a purpose, a driving force — lacking, or too obscure to be discerned by my brain.

Overall: 2 stars.

The Waiter was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion and review. I’m grateful to Simon & Schuster / Scout Press for sharing a free digital copy with me in advance of publication and my thoughts are all my own — in no way affected by the exchange of goods and services.

Review: News of Our Loved Ones

Goodreads [condensed] blurb: Set in France and America, News of Our Loved Ones [by Abigail DeWitt] is a haunting and intimate examination of love and loss, beauty and the cost of survival, witnessed through two generations of one French family, whose lives are all touched by the tragic events surrounding the D-Day bombings in Normandy.

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News of Our Loved Ones is a difficult novel to review, friends. The prose is melodic and the story is ultimately one that should be on your radar if you’re invested in the genres of WW2 and historical fiction, like I am. It’s difficult to name major players, though, as the novel reads like a series of narratives — almost short stories? — cobbled together by threads of DNA with varying degrees of strength.

Each segment of the novel provides readers with a nugget of the Delasalle family history, starting with young Yvonne, in love with a stranger who cycles past her window daily; and later winds up with Polly, a niece of Yvonne’s who visits Paris decades later and is feverish with her desire to make sense of her mother’s behavior and her place in the world.

The experience of reading this compilation of narratives is a bit off-putting — I struggled consistently to place myself in the story, and by the time I was settled, the chapter had ended and a new thread was picking up, but not where the previous had left off. I really appreciated DeWitt’s intimate development of each of the characters; they were distinctive, complex, and rich with life. However, I wish there had been more to each of the characters’ stories, or that there had been fewer family members to keep up with, or perhaps just that I’d been told to read this book one segment per day, rather than in large chunks. At the end, the author thanks a number of literary publications that featured segments of the novel prior to its publication; and truthfully, I think that I would’ve enjoyed the stories even more if I’d gone into the reading with that in mind: these were a collection of narrative, some more tightly tethered together than others.

While I struggled to piece together the narratives in a way that made the characters’ connections clear, I did love the little glimpses we were given into each individual’s experiences during – and in the aftermath of – WW2. My favorite chapters/stories were “Mathilde,” “Someone Else,” and “The Visit.”

Overall: 4/5 stars. Read if you’re a fan of historical fiction and you enjoy family sagas, and if you don’t mind a bit of complexity when it comes to tying together narratives.

Thanks to Harper Books for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion! All thoughts in this post are my own and in no way influenced by the publisher.

Review: Not Our Kind

I’m a sucker for historical fiction. I won’t even try to deny it: I’m obsessed. It’s always been my thing, though, to be honest; my first literary love affair was with the American Girl: Felicity and Little House series, both of which I read numerous times. I daydreamed about living in colonial houses at the start of the American Revolution; and of living in a dugout on the plains, not too far from where I grew up.

Some of my adult favorites include The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. When Harper Books offered an advance copy of Not Our Kind, then, I jumped at the opportunity to read and review the title by Kitty Zeldis (pseudonym). Here’s the synopsis:

One rainy morning in June, two years after the end of World War II, a minor traffic accident brings together Eleanor Moskowitz and Patricia Bellamy. Their encounter seems fated: Eleanor, a teacher and recent Vassar graduate, needs a job. Patricia’s difficult thirteen-year-old daughter, Margaux, recovering from polio, needs a private tutor.

Though she feels out of place in the Bellamys’ rarefied and elegant Park Avenue milieu, Eleanor forms an instant bond with Margaux. Soon the idealistic young woman is filling the bright young girl’s mind with Shakespeare and Latin. Though her mother, a hatmaker with a little shop on Second Avenue, disapproves, Eleanor takes pride in her work, even if she must use the name “Moss” to enter the Bellamys’ restricted doorman building each morning and feels that Patricia’s husband, Wynn, may have a problem with her being Jewish.

Invited to keep Margaux company at the Bellamys’ country home in a small town in Connecticut, Eleanor meets Patricia’s unreliable, bohemian brother, Tom, recently returned from Europe. The spark between Eleanor and Tom is instant and intense. Flushed with new romance and increasingly attached to her young pupil, Eleanor begins to feel more comfortable with Patricia and much of the world she inhabits. As the summer wears on, the two women’s friendship grows — until one hot summer evening when a line is crossed. Both Eleanor and Patricia will have to make important decisions — choices that will reverberate through their lives.

Unfortunately, my excitement was short lived. Not Our Kind began with an engaging start — an unfortunate accident crosses the paths of Gentile and Jew, post-WWII — but soon devolved into a frenzy of hot-and-cold emotions and a cast of characters in a story arc that felt more like a juvenile romance novel than adult fiction.

Characters had every opportunity for depth and complexity, but instead, I found them to be drawn with broad strokes. Where Patricia Bellamy faced a number of struggles — conflict with her only daughter, whom she desperately wants to love; a growing distance between herself and her ghastly husband; the battle between what is right and what is socially accepted — instead, Zeldis spends a majority of the novel focusing on Patricia’s reluctance to sacrifice her social standing, wealth, and personal respect in exchange for treating a Jew as a human being. While this sort of thinking is no doubt par for the course among white Americans after the war, I sincerely wish Zeldis had focused equally — or moreso — on other sources of emotional trauma for the character. In particular, I was largely off-put by the “resolution” of one of Patricia’s most climactic problems in the story; a resolution which was ultimately hastily cobbled together and left me wanting so much more.

Additionally, emotions ran hot and cold — there was absolutely no in-between. One minute, a character was sorrowful and withdrawn; the next, chipper and flamboyant. Decisions were made with about as much thought as it takes to flip a light switch. Major conflicts were resolved more conveniently than I like, and the writing ultimately just felt . . . juvenile. Abundant cliches, an overwhelming abuse of adjectives, cringe-worthy metaphors. *Sigh.*

I know that all sounds bad, and, well, it wasn’t great. However, I did have enough of an interest in the storyline to finish the book; and I feel that the novel would have been stronger if an editor had told the author: don’t make this such a deliberately preachy book — just tell the damn story and let readers come to their own conclusions. Too often, I felt that Zeldis was trying to spoon-feed me the theme; and honestly, that’s something I outgrew in grade school. All of this is sadly too bad: themes like consent and racism ended up feeling like generic concepts the author wanted to write about but couldn’t manage to compose effectively for an adult audience.

Overall: 2/5 stars. If you’re not looking for a super impactful or dense story and enjoy YA fiction, this book will probably be a welcome distraction. Truthfully, if a couple of steamy-ish sex scenes were removed, this would be a great book for those romance-monger teenage girls that populate the halls of my middle school.

Thanks to Harper Books for sharing an advance copy of the novel with me in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.