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 Dinner List

We’ve all been asked the hypothetical question at some point in our lives: If you could have dinner with any 5 people, dead or alive . . . who? and why?

My five changes frequently — sometimes Matthew McConaughey’s on the list, sometimes he’s replaced by John Krasinski (they seem so down-to-earth — how could I not?). My mama is always there, though I alternate between Jodi Picoult and J.K. Rowling on a pretty regular basis. (I’m trembling at the mere thought of being graced by their presence.) Stephen King — duh. Edgar Allan Poe — ditto.

And what would I do if, by some stroke of fortune, we all ended up actually sharing a meal and a few bottles of champ together? Um. Well.

In Rebecca Serle’s debut novel, The Dinner List, this is exactly the predicament Sabrina finds herself in when she arrives at her restaurant birthday-dinner date with her best friend: seated around the table alongside her best friend, Jessica, Sabrina sees her father, her ex-lover, her former philosophy professor, and — gulp! — Audrey-freaking-Hepburn. It’s an initially unfortunate-seeming mishmash of individuals: Audrey’s clearly out of place with the other mere mortals, and Sabrina needs some convincing that the situation is real. But once the cork is popped and appetizers ordered, the table finds itself thrown into the inevitable: serious conversation. Sabrina is forced to confront regrets, frustrations, anxieties, and losses from previous years; not the least of which is her failed relationship with Tobias, the man she’s long considered the love of her life.

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A great deal of this book worked for me: I enjoyed the premise, the storyline trotted along at a quick clip, characters were largely a fun and supportive mix that worked for the scenario. To be honest, I picked this book up thinking it would be a “fluff” read — a little bit of romance, some drama, basic chick-lit — but by the time I was done, I was quite surprised to have had so many feelings while I read. And introspective thoughts. For that, I applaud Serle — she managed to compose a narrative that is seemingly simple and predominantly light, but not without depth.

And while the timeline is all-too-familiar in today’s market — back and forth, past and present — I found it a successful formatting for The Dinner List, in which the “present” portions are noted with the time on the clock (hence creating a countdown vibe that enticed me to stay up until 1 in the morning on a work night) and the flashbacks provide a more adequate portrait of Sabrina and Tobias’s shared history.

In a sense, the novel includes a touch of romance — after all, it is Sabrina and Tobias’s love story — but don’t head into this one expecting anything steamy, sexy, or happy-go-lucky. The pair’s history is fraught with frustrating turns of fate and unfortunate circumstances. But the book is so much more than this love story, too — it’s a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and really, the concept of fate and how our every choice alters fate on a minute-by-minute basis.

My one gripe: Audrey. I know, I know — she’s an icon. She deserved to have a seat at that table, and on several occasions, I felt that seat was well-filled. HOWEVER, for the most part, it seemed Serle became a bit heavy-handed with Audrey’s portions; instead of being another player at the table with a bit of starshine, she became a history lesson for readers and that became a bit tedious. More often than not, it seemed Serle needed to justify her inclusion of Audrey with reasons for Sabrina’s (aka Serle’s?) obsession with the actress, and it wound up feeling like a biography-within-a-novel . . . which took me right out of the story on more than one circumstance.

That being said, the novel is a largely compelling read with an intriguing and witty storyline. I’d recommend it to just about anyone — but I’ll warn you to be wary of the f-word: The Dinner List goes above and beyond fun. It’s downright decadent.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Thank you to Flatiron Books for sharing a review copy of this title with me! All opinions are my own and were in no way impacted by the publisher.

Review: The Vines We Planted

It’s hard to tell what I love most about the bookstagram community. The world of bookish photography featuring beautiful locales and steaming lattes (that I will never have in southwest Kansas)? The friendships forged from afar, betwixt book mavens with an affinity for chocolate and cheese? The fact that such a community exists online, where people share a love for something and positively engage with each other to share and revel in that passion?

There is just so much to love about the bookstagram universe. (If you’re on Insta, shoot me a DM & introduce yourself –> @littlereaderontheprairie!) Anyway, one such example: author engagement. A few weeks ago, debut author Joanell Serra shot me a DM and asked if I would be interested in reading and reviewing a copy of her first book, The Vines We Planted. 

I always get a little nervous about reviewing books that authors have specifically sent to me (I’m acting like this happens all the time, but really, it’s only happened a few times). It seems safer receiving a book from the publisher, you know? That way there’s no personal connection or awkward feelings if the book is a bust.

Spoiler alert: The Vines We Planted is not a bust.

I received an e-copy of the book, which promptly resulted in an “Oh, damn” reaction on my end: I’m somewhat of a fervent anti-ebook activist. (Print life 4-ever!) As such, I had to read the book on my phone. My optometrist friends are probably smacking their foreheads at this point; but I did it. I read the whole thing on my 4″ screen! Which is kind of a feat in itself, as I’ve only ever finished one other book on my iPhone, having abandoned the other 4-5 I started. If I’m going to read a full book on my phone, it had better be appealing.

Fortunately, The Vines We Planted met my e-reading standards and proved itself worthwhile. The novel is set in modern-day Sonoma Valley, California, where a number of integral characters’ lives intersect via a winery + stable combination farm. Uriel, a 30-year-old ranch hand and horse trainer, is recovering from heartbreak: after an early-20s fling dissolved in the bat of an eye, he married a spirited young woman on a dare. At the start of the novel, she’d died a year or two previously in a tragic accident, leaving Uriel to wallow in a pit of bachelor-despair. Meanwhile, Amanda, 28 years old and finishing her PhD abroad, returns to the valley when she discovers her emotionally-distant father has been diagnosed with cancer. Their lives become entwined as both deal with family crises and secrets from the past that bubble and erupt from the surface.

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If I had to characterize this novel, I’d call it contemporary literature focusing on family drama with a touch of romance. There’s a strong sense of setting in the work, which I am appreciative of: for this western Kansas girl, anything that transports me from the dry, vacant plains is a welcome distraction. Characters are mostly believable — in truth, I had issues with a few of Amanda’s choices/reactions, and these minor blips took me out of the story briefly — and though there is a host of major players, their personalities and circumstances are easily distinguished from one another.

The novel had a desirable blend of familial drama and romance, making it a great summer read. It’s always hard for me to rate books like this — it was engaging, moved along at a good clip, and dabbled in topics that went deeper than the average romance novel; but it also wasn’t the type of read that kept me thinking long after I’d finished. Would I recommend this juicy story to my girlfriends? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to Serious Critics of American Literature? Um. No. And that’s absolutely okay. The Vines We Planted is a perfectly enjoyable, quick read for lazy weekends or travel days.

Overall: 3.5-4 stars. If you’re looking for something dramatic and engaging, read this book. If you’re looking for something that makes a statement about our social climate or that will provoke hours of deep reflection, keep moving.

This novel was sent to me free by the author, Joanell Serra, in exchange for my honest review. The opinions and words in this review are completely my own and the receipt of this book has had no bearing on my reflections.

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

June will be upon us soon, friends, but before you make your TBR pile for the month, take a quick look at Number One Chinese Restaurant by debut author Lillian Li. This title is slated for release June 19 and I am so excited about it! 

From the publisher:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a go-to solution for hunger pangs and a beloved setting for celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each of them to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year-friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

For a debut, this novel was remarkably tightly-woven and, in my humble opinion, well-edited. When it comes to reviewing books, there’s a lot I can forgive about plot — but I can’t stand reading a badly composed narrative. Prose is practically everything to me (really, I’ll completely overlook a boring plot if the writing is melodic) . . . and Li’s work does not disappoint (not in terms of plot, or prose!).

Though comedic at times (Ah-Jack is a charmer, people), the novel has an underlying melancholic vibe as readers unwrap the gift that is Li’s work. Characters are vibrant, in an ironically simple way. I felt like Nan and Pat and Jimmy were all utterly possible human beings, and as such, empathized with their frustrations, shortcomings, and tiny triumphs. I wanted to slap Pat for Nan (y’all, I’m praying my kid somehow eludes the attitude portion of teenage years), I was repulsed by Uncle Pang’s sneaky demeanor, and I wanted to hold Annie soothingly (despite her frequent moments of unlikeable-ness). The characters in this novel weren’t remarkable or amped up or, truth be told, super memorable in the long run; but that’s exactly what made the novel work for me. Everyone was so simply usual, I believed their reactions and was sucked into the storyline.

Perhaps the greatest gem of Number One Chinese Restaurant: Li’s skillful infusion of the concepts of community as family and our inherent human desire to be someone else to meet another’s needs.

I worked in the restaurant industry for five or so years and I can attest to the sense of community (& therefore belonging, or ostracism) that occurs within a restaurant. Relationships are fiercely loyal — until someone fucks up beyond repair — and often, time spent together at work spills over into time outside the restaurant until suddenly, the people you see at work are the people you see at home and the line is so blurred between the two, you aren’t sure who you are without your job (read: your work family). As you read, watch for this development in the Duck House characters as the story unfolds.

Adding to Li’s ability to create absolutely believable characters: the subtle manner in which we learn that each character has crafted some sort of facade, some exterior personality, with which to appease his or her colleagues/family/love interests — and how inherently human that perversion of ourselves is. I was touched by characters’ realizations that they had even tricked themselves into believing (if only for a brief time) that they were this other person, only to realize when the fog had lifted — it was all for someone else’s benefit . . . and in most cases, that personality distortion has not benefitted either parties significantly. Perhaps, Li seems to observe, these personal tweaks we make actually serve to damage us far more greatly than they do to benefit others. After all — everything comes out in the wash, right?

Overall: A solid 4/5 stars. Read this debut if you enjoy family/community dramas.

Review: My Ex-Life

Here’s the thing about contemporary fiction: such works are often the soda of literature, bubbling and frothing with excitement for a short while before ultimately falling flat months (or short years) later when political digs and technology references have lost their relevance. Sometimes, though, I get lucky and read a piece of contemporary lit that isn’t just timely and charming, but also thought-provoking and re-read worthy.

My Ex-Life by author Stephen McCauley, unfortunately, falls into the former of the two categories.

30-second synopsis: Middle-aged Julie and her teenage daughter, Mandy, are scrambling to make ends meet in a haphazard (and possibly illegal?) Airbnb in a quaint coastal town in New England. Julie’s got a not-addicted pot problem and Mandy has a rather lackluster enthusiasm for school, work, and life in general. On the other side of the country, Julie’s ex-husband David is facing a mid-life crisis of his own: he’s just been dumped by his considerably-younger-and-thinner boyfriend . . . who is buying the home he rents out from underneath him. David and Julie reunite for a few weeks in the summer, seemingly so David can help sort out Julie’s problems; but the two quickly find that simple fixes and good intentions aren’t always enough to make things right.

Reviews on Goodreads for the newly-published novel seem to fall on two separate ends of the rating spectrum: there are those who love the work, who are absolutely convinced it is of the utmost relevance for this time and that the characters are vividly drawn and ultimately McCauley has done no wrong with this stunning piece of literature; and then, there are the disgruntled and defensive conservatives who have stumbled upon this title that is clearly not intended for them.

I’m falling somewhere between the two: I’m not convinced, by any stretch of the imagination, that this book will ever be a re-read for me (or even a book that I remember much from six months down the road); but I was also not put off by the numerous snarky jabs at Republican values and religious individuals, despite the fact that many of these jabs targeted people in my general demographic (I’m a moderate, white, middle-class Catholic from the Midwest). I didn’t take offense to McCauley’s caustic observations on non-Democrats because, well, to make the assumption that all of those zingers were meant to rankle me just seems rather smug and self-occupied, doesn’t it?

My Ex-Life was quick, if not a bit mind-numbing: there wasn’t a lot in this book that required deeper consideration or reflection. (Maybe if I were middle-aged, there’d be more of the latter?) In this sense, it was a perfect summer read — carefree, easy, and just significant enough to make me feel as though I hadn’t wasted my time. I enjoyed David’s character most, and was appreciative of the novel’s approach to themes of regret and reinvention.

I do have a few gripes that might align with some of the more disgruntled readers’ opinions, though. Primarily: the book felt like one long, drawn out generalization after another. This was my first McCauley book, so I’m not sure whether the author intentionally conflated the novel with hyper-cliched characters and over-generalized observations about cultural groups or if these not-so-subtle proclamations were the author’s beliefs subconsciously masked as “character development.” (I’m willing to bet he’s a smart man, so I’m guessing it was intentional — satirical?) I wasn’t offended by his snarky one-liners about Catholics and Midwesterners; really, I just became weary of how every single character seemed to fulfill some oversaturated stereotype and was somehow a representative for entire cultural or social groups. Also exhausting: every wealthy character was clearly a WASP with evil intentions; every teenage girl was obviously devoid of personal depth and purpose beyond staged selfies; every gay man was certainly abused by his straight friends as a flamboyant stylist and emotional support. The immediate assumptions made by characters — or McCauley? — just became tedious over the course of 300-some pages.

I really wanted to see more complexity to McCauley’s characters; sadly, I felt like the novel digressed too often into snarky zingers intended to wow readers with wit — and these moments ultimately took me “out” of the story and, in turn, out of the characters’ world.

Overall: 3 stars. This book will make for an ultimately engaging, light summer read; but don’t pick it up if you’re staunchly conservative or even mildly religious and take offense to alternative (read: critical) viewpoints.

Thanks to Flatiron Books for the advance copy. All opinions in this review are my own.