There’s something for everyone in Kate Racculia’s very good debut novel, This Must Be the Place: romance, adventure, drama, humor, baking… you name it, and Racculia has probably worked it in somewhere. The novel opens with Arthur Rook, an awkward, charming geek of a man who has recently been informed that his captivating wife of a year, Amy, has been killed in a freak work accident (she made the special-effects monsters in Hollywood films). He’s looking for a sign, for a reason, to keep living without her, and he finds one (or makes himself think he’s found one) in the form of a mysterious shoebox stuffed into her closet. It leads him across the country to Amy’s hometown—Ruby Falls, NY—and to the doorstep of Mona Jones, Amy’s best friend through childhood. Mona runs a boarding house full of charming eccentrics who don’t steal too much time from the addictive narratives of Arthur, Mona and Mona’s daughter, Oneida. There’s a predictable attraction between the adults, but Racculia has acknowledged and captured Arthur’s grief sharply: You can picture his confusion and his terror of waking up every morning, only to realize that Amy’s death wasn’t a nightmare. Oneida, the gawky teenaged daughter, also has a lovely coming-of-age story nestled into the novel. This book has been described as offbeat in several reviews, and it’s an apt word, but a little misleading. Sometimes offbeat sacrifices heart for quirkiness, but Racculia has managed to capture the perfect amount of both.
STORIES BY YIYUN LI
Like Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li is a masterful short-story writer and novelist who finds the disparities and juxtapositions of traditional Asian culture in modern day life, and weaves together those oft-dangling and frayed strands. Of course, while Lahiri is from India, Li is Chinese (she currently resides in Oakland, Calif.), and her stories are rooted deep in that country’s own cultural identities and confusions. In her wonderful sophomore collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Li tells human stories, stories of individual foibles and idiosyncrasies: Many of her characters are lonely and isolated; many are searching for something resembling a connection. There is the title story, for instance, about a middle-aged woman who has long been infatuated from afar with one of her professor’s sons, and who is finally set up with the son by the professor, only to find…the son is gay. There is the story about neighborhood women who suspect their husbands of cheating, and turn to a group of feisty 60-something women for help; these seniors become a sort of ad-hoc detective agency, inserting their own wisdom and advice into the cases. Li spins well-paced, simple prose, occasionally inserting a surprising detail that is especially perfectly rendered. For many American readers, Li’s native China will be unfamiliar, but her characters and their concerns are universally relatable and recognizable.
Carrie Bradshaw, heroine of the astonishingly popular Sex and the City series, is back once more, this time as an impressionable (but still fashionable) youth in The Carrie Diaries. Author Candace Bushnell will be milking this cow as long as she’s got fingers to type with, so fans should be thankful that Bushnell attempted to create an interesting, engaging story instead of just throwing together some sentences and slapping the SATC acronym somewhere on the cover. This newest incarnation—a young adult novel in which Carrie is seen as a high school senior—provides the backstory for Carrie’s neuroses (of which there are many), her sometimes startling fashion choices and, most importantly, her introduction to New York City—Carrie’s biggest love. Her mother dies young and her father does his best with two wild girls (Carrie’s got a younger, punkier sister). The budding fashionista falls in love with a cultured rich boy who, at the end of the day, is still a teenage boy. It’s a pretty traditional story arc and the story is missing a lot of the punch and humor the adult books and series captured, but it’s a fun if slight book for fans, and there’s an especially charming reveal on the very last page that nods to the big, bright future little Carrie Bradshaw has in store.
I’m a sucker for books that get Jane Austen comparisons, which seems to be the positive review du jour these days, and that means that I’m picking up an awful lot of books that actually don’t compare at all to the timeless excellence of a Jane Austen story. Cathleen Schine’s newest effort, The Three Weissmanns of Westport: A Novel, has been likened to the ultimate romantic classic Sense and Sensibility, a comparison that fits in theme if not quality. Seventy-eight-year-old Joseph Weissmann falls for a younger woman at the company he owns and asks his 75-year-old wife, Betty, for a divorce. Betty’s two girls, Miranda and Annie—adopted by Joe as young girls after their father died in an auto accident—immediately and understandably side with their mother. Betty, having been a housewife and mother during their 50-year marriage, is destitute and takes up her cousin Lou’s offer to live in a beachfront cottage he owns in Westport, Conn. The two daughters move in with her, the trio mopes around the house and engage in flirtations with mysterious neighbor men wherever possible, while ignoring the stable, charming fellows that always seem to be around to help. There are a couple of humorous moments—I’ll admit to chuckling once or twice—but the overflowing story drags by the first quarter and quickly sinks into the doldrums, dragging the reader with it. The Three Weissmanns of Westport seems like nothing more than fodder for book clubs too lazy to attempt the challenging (but winning, and lovely, and humorous) language of a real Austen novel.
It’s 1980, and Rachel Waring can’t stand her chain-smoking roommate/only friend. She also hates her boring mail-order job and the British city she lives in. Then, one surprising day, middle-aged Rachel finds out she’s inherited a gorgeous Georgian mansion from the great-aunt she barely saw. She immediately quits her job and completely sheds her old life, becoming a lady of leisure with the inheritance from her mother she’d been storing away. Anyhow, that’s the basic premise of Stephen Benatar’s book Wish Her Safe at Home. But the real story beneath the premise is Rachel’s eccentricity bordering on psychosis, which emerges as she takes on her new persona. She encourages pity as she constantly relives an awkward summer fling that didn’t amount to much, but became the pivotal moment in Rachel’s romantic life. She then fixates on the handsome young gardener (along with his lovely wife and newborn baby), but it’s hard to tell who is being taken advantage of: Do they make Rachel godmother because they want her money or does she accept because she’s angling to steal him away? She has supreme self-confidence and always thinks that people are staring at her in admiration, and who knows? They might be…but probably aren’t. New York Review of Books recently republished Benatar’s book after its original 1982 release didn’t attract a wide audience, and thank goodness they brought back this gem. It’s a fun and uncomfortable ride with an erratic narrator that keeps the reader constantly questioning reality and perception.