Friday, November 28, 2014

Abandonment and Devotion

Neither Here Nor There by Miriam Drori

Esty is 19 and unmarried, and that's practically an "old maid" in Jerusalem's Haredi (ultra-orthodox) community. However, the reason she hasn't agreed to marry anyone is that she knows the Haredi life is not for her. Once she's married, she might be trapped forever. Gathering up all her courage, she leaves her whole life and family behind. What she finds is a world that contradicts everything her community ever taught her, not the least of which is about falling in love.

Miriam Drori's debut novel investigates the world of those who leave the Haredi community, from the viewpoint of one young woman making her escape into the secular world. Very few non-Jews know much about this phenomenon, if anything. Since the Haredi world is based on theirs being the only true way, obviously they would prefer not to advertise those who leave their fold. Of course, women living in this world are far more oppressed than the men are, so the story of a young woman leaving makes an even more fascinating subject for a novel. In this, Drori has chosen the basis of her story very wisely, since it will surely interest many people.

Drori also seems to have done good homework here in investigating the "underground railroad" for those Haredi wanting to escape. Because of my background with non-profit organizations in the field of religious freedom and pluralism, I happen to know about groups assisting such people, many of whom succeed in making a different life for themselves as part of the greater Israeli society. Drori shows how different the two groups are, and correctly emphasizes the fact the people working for these organizations strictly forbid their volunteers to pressure someone into leaving Haredi society. More importantly, for those who find the change too difficult to cope with, the option to go back is always open to them. However, that is usually only from the side of the person who leaves; often, when someone gets out, their Haredi family will mourn them as if they'd died rather than chance being cast out by their society or shamed. While this doesn't happen to Esty, Drori nicely incorporates this into her story. This is probably the reason for the title of this book, since Esty's family are willing to take her back, and her personal struggle becomes more complicated because of it.

Together with this, Drori introduces Mark, a young immigrant from England, which is also the birthplace of Esty's mother. Her chance encounter with him on the day she leaves her home is what helps her contact someone on the "outside" she heard could help her. His small act of kindness of giving her his cell phone to use is the first contradiction Esty experiences. Up until then, she believed what her teachers said - that all secular Israelis were mean and selfish. After this brief meeting, Mark can't forget Esty, so Drori brings them together by total chance. While this effectively sets up the basic plot for a love story, it was slightly too coincidental for my taste, despite its essential necessity. This is also the reason why Drori needed to focus not solely on Esty, but also delve into Mark's life, which she does using a third person narrative.

In my experience, this point of view can be a problem since it often distances the readers from the characters, because it is less personal than the first person mechanic is. Of course, the problem with first person is the narrowness of the point of view, and I believe Drori probably felt the story would be less effective if she didn't incorporate the actions and feelings of both of these two characters. In any case, Drori does make a valiant attempt to get us closer to both of them. However, she does this with very easygoing writing style, which I found a bit too casual for the story. By this, I mean there are a few places in the book where the reader will feel they are just about to look into the hearts and souls of these two characters, but then the focus changes or the chapter ends and that moment passes. Had Drori used a more poetic style of language, she might have overcome this problem.

I also noticed that at the end of her chapters, Drori likes to hint at something important to come. While foreshadowing is an effective literary tool, in this instance it made the story feel less fluid than it could have been. Because of this, while both Esty and Mark are very likable characters and the situation is one that has great potential, it feels like Drori held a little too much back, which prevented us from falling in love with them. At the same time, I also think Drori fell into the trap of telling us this story, in places where she clearly has the ability to show it to us.

All told, this is a sweet book, and a nice little love story placed in a situation that isn't often found in novels. Drori has a good eye for finding a unique twist to the usual "boy meets girl" plot, and I feel her willingness to go down that road less traveled by. With these as her strengths, if Drori can learn how to become more fearless in letting the emotional floodgates break open in her writing, she could go on to produce some very powerful work. Because of this, in all honesty, I have to rate this book only two and a half stars out of five, but I truly hope that her next work will deserve much more (and I really do believe she can achieve this)!

"Neither Here Nor There" by Miriam Drori published by Crooked Cat Publishing, released May 14, 2014 is available on Kindle from Amazon, or in paperback from Barnes & Noble, the Book Depository, or at an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for giving me a copy of this book for review.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Slice of Glasgow's Darker Corners

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

This story has nothing to do with motion picture film editing; this is about crime, pornography, erotica, sex, and money with a mystery thrown in for good measure. Rilke is an auctioneer for a small and struggling Glasgow auction house, commissioned to empty out the home of the late (and wealthy) Roddy McKindless. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until Rilke discovers the attic. There he finds a huge and valuable collection of erotica. While this isn't terribly strange on the face of it, he then finds some homemade "snuff porn" (ones that look like murders). This motivates him to investigate the darker side of the illusive McKindless. Rilke's own promiscuous homosexuality and dabbling with drugs mix in with this investigation, leading him into some of the darker corners of Glasgow. That's it in a nutshell, but there's far more in this plot than meets the eye. And you must admit that this is an excellent basis for one twisty ride of a thriller.

What impresses the reader most about this novel is the writing style. Welsh describes people and scenes with such vivid accuracy, they practically jump off the page at the reader. It is this type of evocative writing would easily lend itself to the big screen. One can imagine grimy scenes where the lighting is almost non-existent and shadows predominate. You can visualize the layout of rooms to the details of the exact shades of the paint on the walls and which halls lead to where, and the way the light strikes the furniture. You can even imagine the streets, buildings and parks where the action takes place, without ever having had the advantage of visiting Glasgow. That's how precise Welsh is with her prose.

One might expect that a book with such detail would be very long and tedious. However, at only 304 pages, this deceptively simple story is actually quite condense and stream-lined, especially when it comes to character development. There's no waffling about with lengthy descriptive paragraphs giving us decades of background information. Instead, Welsh use suggestion to give the history of her characters through their actions and conversations. You can picture Rilke in your mind's eye; you can see what he's wearing and how he moves his hands. We believe that these characters had lives before the book begins, and that they'll live on after we turn the last page. These are real people with real strengths and a whole lot of real weaknesses. And yet, because of their actions, we don't always like these people; but in real life, we don't like everyone we meet anyway, so there's no gripe here and all the more kudos to Welsh on this account.

It is interesting that Welsh chose a male protagonist. Mind you, the man she portrays is gay, and perhaps this allowed her into his head a bit easier. However, more often than not, a writer of one sex doesn't fully succeed in writing a truly believable protagonist of the opposite sex. Welsh succeeded in spades both with this book (as well as with her second work), and that's a special talent, as the believability of the protagonist is always essential to the enjoyment of reading any book. With all this, the reader is grabbed from the very first line of the story and drawn into the book like iron shavings to a magnet. You'll be swept up and involved and you'll feel like these 304 pages are less than half that number, as you simply glide through this book. All in all, it has a total "wow" factor of 10 out of 10 because of how clearly and beautifully this book is written, which reads so smoothly and quickly.

So far, this has been glowing review. The story is absorbing and original, the writing vivid and compelling, and the characters interesting, carefully drawn and realistic, and it's a fascinating and fast read. However, there is a drawback to this book, and the disappointment come in how Welsh ends this story. Of course, without giving away the ending of a mystery book, the conclusion here was a bit too neat and contrived, despite the very clever twists that she put in. You may note that prior to this novel, Welsh had written only articles and short stories. Oftentimes, longer efforts by an accomplished short story writer tend to disappoint with their endings. This is probably why her second book, a novella, was so much better as a whole. There is also the distinct feeling that Welsh tired of writing when it came to tie things up, and just wanted to finish it off as quickly as possible. That's a shame, since this book had such great potential. Still, this is a wonderful example of how fiction should be written - as far as the aspects of settings, plot development (if not the ending) and character developments are concerned. Louise Welsh has proven that she can write stunningly. This is why this I can recommend this novel, but can only award it three and a half stars out of five. 

"The Cutting Room" by Louise Welsh published by Cannongate, released November 1, 1999 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you.

This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady as well as {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Making of a Remarkable Woman

The Boston Girl: A Novel by Anita Diamant

Addie Metsky (nee Baum) was born in Boston to Jewish immigrants in 1900. She's now 85 and her granddaughter Ava wants to know how she became the woman she is today. This is her story, and it will surprise you.

I'm quickly becoming a big fan of historical fiction. I love the way it transports me to another time and place. If it has a Jewish theme, that's certainly going to catch my attention. This is why I asked for this book. Of course, the story of the daughter of Jewish immigrants to America isn't new territory by a long shot. In fact, many would dismiss this book immediately based solely on this blurb. That Anita Diamant, a well-known author, wrote this is certainly one selling point. The question is does this book live up to its author's name?

My answer to that is both yes and no. Because of my vacillation, let's start with the "no" part, only because I prefer to get the bad news before I hear the good news. I'll start with my usual niggle regarding Jewish accuracy. That is, in this story Diamant says that someone died on Thanksgiving, and then she says that the shiva ended on Sunday. Even the most irreligious of Jews of that era would have had their family member buried by Friday, and followed Jewish tradition as closely as possible. That means the mourning period starts on Friday but because of Shabbat, although the actual shiva would have started Saturday night and finished the following Thursday morning. Sorry, but Sunday would have been either too early or too late to end the shiva. Thankfully, that was the only outright error I found in this book.

However, there are other reasons why I wasn't completely enamored with this novel. To begin with, most of Addie's story ends in 1931 and then she skips forward to 1985 and the interview with her granddaughter. There we get a few mentions of what happened after that, including Addie having her daughters and how she developed her career. On the one hand, I have to admit that the drama of Addie's growing up and becoming so different from her parents was fascinating. On the other hand, I would have been happy to forego some of that in order to hear more about Addie the professional.

I was also hoping that this relatively mundane subject matter would receive a treatment that would make it particularly unique. Instead, what we have here is one woman's story of her life, told chronologically, for an interview. That just seemed a bit too commonplace a mechanic for someone whose story was really quite special. Of course, it could be that telling Addie's exceptional story in such a straightforward way was Diamant's version of irony. Addie almost downplays her brilliance by talking about it all as if she was almost typical of her day and age.

Now that I think of it, this is probably what kept me reading this book to its conclusion. The simplicity of this story is ultimately deceptive. Furthermore, Diamant's unpretentious prose has just the right amount of vitality to make Addie a sympathetic and compelling character. In this way, Diamant takes plain storytelling to a much higher level and this proves that sometimes even in literature, less can really be more. While I'm not sure that this book will appeal to everyone, I do think it is more complex than the plot summary would suggest, and would recommend it to people looking for something charming to read - because despite sounding mostly negative here, this is a delightful book, from start to finish. For all of these reasons, while in general, I enjoyed this book, I can't honestly give it more than three and a half stars out five (although I'm sure many would give it much more). 

"The Boston Girl" by Anita Diamant published by Schribner (a division of Simon & Schuster), released December 2, 2014 will be available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback/hardcover from The Book Depository, new or used from Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance copy of this book via NetGalley. This review also appears on my Times of Israel blog.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Mother and a Mystery

The Perfect Mother by Nina Darnton

When Jennifer Lewis gets a call from her daughter in the middle of the night, she knows something has gone terribly wrong. Now she has to go to Spain to free her daughter of murder charges, and it could take everything in Jennifer's power to save her, if she can.

At the heart of this story is a murder. Emma, an exchange student in Spain, is accused and arrested for the murder of a man who Emma claims tried to rape her. It is only after Jennifer gets to Spain that some elements of Emma's story start to sound questionable. Now Jennifer has to figure out what is true, what is a lie and how to free her daughter.

However, more important than the murder is Jennifer and her relationships. To begin with, there is her relationship with Emma. Of course, mothers and daughters usually have some type of special connection. Sometimes it is a good, strong one, but some are at odds with each other, and often it is a combination of both. The question is, what can a mother do to help her daughter when she thinks she's close to her, but her daughter has decided to rebel. How far will a mother go to save her daughter? More importantly, how can a mother cope with her daughter's problem if she won't cooperate and all but refuse that help?

We also get Jennifer's relationship with her husband Mark, the hard-working high-powered lawyer, who isn't always there for Jennifer or the kids, and sometimes Jennifer prefers it that way. This effects how Jennifer views and reacts to her sudden situation, as well as the people with whom she's in contact to solve the problem. With this, we also get Emma's relationship with the local boy she's seeing and his less than forthright behavior from the very beginning. With all of this, Jennifer, the lawyer Jose and Roberto, the private investigator they hire, have to puzzle through the information they have and find whatever they can to get Emma released. To all these questions, Darnton doesn't give us any easy answers.

Of course, all this gives us the perfect backdrop for a resounding murder mystery. So the next question is did Darnton deliver that with this book? Overall, I have to say yes, but I'd have to classify it is "mystery light" for several reasons. To begin with, from the very start, we know that the story Emma is telling isn't completely true. This means that we can quickly assume who the murderer is, although we do have more than one person to suspect. Darnton doesn't lead us down any dead-end trails, but does add a sub-plot mystery. Furthermore, Darnton makes us wait a bit too long for the big turn for either the better or the worse. However, when that does come, things really start to move and we're on our way. This leads us to a not-overly dramatic climax, followed by a run-down that seems slightly slow. However, just when we're thinking, "are we there yet," Darnton throws us a final twist and then ends the novel abruptly. While that might seem abrupt, I liked how Darnton put questions back into our minds that we thought we had answered.

Darnton writes this with a very simple and straightforward style that never overpowers the action. Still, she gives us enough background and smatterings of Spanish to make us feel that Darnton knows the local and understands the culture, particularly from an observer's point of view. Together this makes a read that is compelling enough to deserve the title of mystery, with a nice mix of psychology. For all of this, I'm going to give it four out of five stars and recommend it for those who like aren't huge mystery lovers, but enjoy one that also includes some non-mysterious drama. 

"The Perfect Mother" by Nina Darnton, is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader copy of this book for review via NetGalley. (This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel Blog.)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Taste of Passion

La Cucina by Lily Prior

They say that authors like Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) and Joanne Harris (Chocolat, Five Quarters of the Orange) invented the genre of "Cuisine Romance" or "culinary fiction" novels. If this is true, then with her first novel, "La Cucina," Lily Prior took this genre to heights that none of them ever dreamed they could reach. 

The story of this book, set in Sicily, is very simple. Rosa Fiore lives in a small Sicilian village. When the love of her life disappears, it is obvious that his refusal to marry someone other than Rosa led to his murder. Broken hearted, Rosa leaves her family farm in Castiglione and goes to Palermo. There she becomes a librarian, who feeds her gaping heart with her the finest of Sicilian cuisine – made by her own hands, and with all her pent up ardor. Then one day an English chef comes to the library to research the history of Sicily's gastronomic delights, but apparently Rosa is on the menu for dessert! 

This slim volume of only 266 pages has a listing of a cast of characters that fills almost four pages. Yet, somehow with just a few strokes of her pen, Prior is able to make us feel that most of them are truly vibrant and multi-faceted people. Prior seems to have an uncanny ability to invent absurdities and quirks that make many of these characters astoundingly unique, so that we can pick out individual faces despite the throng she brings to the story. While many of them end up with only a few moments in the spotlight (and some only get a passing mention), they often come back through aside remarks or tiny flashbacks. I found this to be very endearing and felt that Prior was weaving a whole village of people for us to read about. Think carnival sideshow mixed with country Mafia and you'll start to get the picture. 

However, this doesn't mean that her main characters suffer in the least. This is primarily Rosa's story, and Prior has drawn her so vividly in all of her complexities that I swear I could pick her out of a crowd. She's plump – if not downright fat – with swirling dark tresses and a downward glance in her soft brown eyes, and she walks hiding herself from the world. But when she's in her tiny kitchen, she stands upright, shoulders back and her eyes sparkle and color comes into her cheeks. Can you see her? Well, that's how I see her, and this is no quote from the book, I assure you. The other major character – l'Inglese (or the Englishman) never actually gets a real name in this book, but he too is easily imaginable. Prior has written him slightly more enigmatic than Rosa, and rightfully so, since she wanted his true intentions to be on the mysterious side. This gives the novel a curiously cloudy undertone to which she adds Italian folklore and a touch of innocence and wit, which made this tale even more alluring. 

The other two major elements in this book are sex and food. What makes this book special is how Prior combined these two elements so totally that they became almost inseparable. The sex scenes include savory aromas, spicy accents and sweet toppings, while the cooking is either steamily sensual or deeply passionate – both physical and platonic. In short, this book is truly a feast in every respect. 

Prior's language is also a joy. She peppers the text with words in Italian but not to a point where you cannot understand what she's trying to say. Otherwise, she uses simplicity of phrase to give this book a touch of purity, mixed with a good amount of humor. This makes for a very easy read but one where you feel you are deeply involved but not overly taxed intellectually. In addition, she doesn't make the reader feel stupid by spelling everything out. What I mean by this is, she uses suggestion in her story so that the reader feels what is happening or about to happen or will happen, when the writing comes to an end, rather than being told it all. Again, the first rule of good fiction is "show, don't tell" and Prior has learned this lesson to perfection. 

I found nothing to fault this book on, with the singular exception that it finishes far too soon. However, when you have a good thing going, perhaps leaving your audience wanting more isn't the worst thing you could do (and now I see she's written a sequel). Therefore, I highly recommend this book, as a fun read which would be perfect for a summer holiday read (not only because the book is short). 

"La Cucina" by Lily Prior published in 2000 is available in paperback from The Book Depository, on Kindle from Amazon, in Nook format from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or an audiobook from iTunes, or from an IndieBound store near you.

(This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, as well as on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

So fascinating, it should be outlawed!

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje

With this book, Michael Ondaatje (author of "The English Patient") brings us a unique hybrid of poetry and prose, mixed with both historical fact and fiction based on the true-life story of the famous American outlaw William Bonney, better known as “Billy the Kid.” Already from this little bit of information, you can tell that this is not a book that follows any usual format or structure. Therefore, there is no real “plot” to this book, and there is no linear story here either. Instead, you get more of an account of a small period in one infamous person’s life. 

What you’ll find in this book is a collection of short pieces invented from Ondaatje’s imagination and mingled with research into a vicious and fascinating personality from the pages of American folklore and history. Essentially, Ondaatje puts himself into Mr. Bonney’s shoes and from inside the mind of this infamous criminal. With this, he attempts to give us a totally different view of who this man really was. This exposes us to Bonney the poet who looks at the crimes he’s committed almost as works of art. It also introduces us to Bonney the lover, who is both gentle and harsh with his prostitute girlfriend, Angie. We then become familiar with Bonney the public figure who grants an interview. Interestingly, Bonney insists the interviewer call him by his real name and not the media-invented handle of “Billy the Kid.” Obviously, from Ondaatje’s point of view, this is a self-respecting gunslinger. Finally, we go into the annals of Bonney’s own account of events that lead to his final demise. 

Along with these bits and pieces, we also get a small group of pictures, which help illustrate this book. Mind you, the first page of this book opens with a blank picture with Ondaatje’s “caption” that says it's a portrait of William Bonney. He does this as if to say, “A photograph of the real William Bonney would prejudice you in reading this book. It is the images of what I feel is the essence of Mr. Bonney that you will find here, and not what the world has heretofore come to believe was the persona of ‘Billy the Kid’. Therefore, take my words and your imagination and fill this photograph in for yourself.” While I only assume this, it does seem likely that this was Ondaatje’s intention. 

Despite this being a very slim volume, Ondaatje packs an extreme amount within its covers. Perhaps this is because he uses a particular strength and artistry with words, which fills every page with a myriad of meanings within the minimalist text. This style allows the reader to feel as if they aren’t just reading about a historic person, but rather are able to wander around inside the mind of that person. This experience is one that only Ondaatje could have created, since no other author has used this particular format to tell such a story. 

In sum, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone who is looking for a totally new and different experience in reading. The subject matter will appeal to those who generally aren’t interested in poetry, and the poetry will appeal to those who generally wouldn’t be interested in the subject matter. Moreover, the brevity of the book will appeal to those who are looking for a “quick read” while the depth of the language and material will appeal to those looking for a special and significantly original literary experience. What more can one say except read it, you won’t be sorry. This book deserves a strong four and a half stars out of five.

"The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" by Michael Ondaatje, originally published in 1970 is available in paperback from the Book Depository, in Kindle format from Amazon, for Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook and as an audiobook from iTunes or from an IndieBound store near you.

This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on the site Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, as well as {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

An Ex-Lover Ghost Story?

My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O'Farrell

Sinead is – according to Marcus – “no longer with us.” That means that the room Sinead had in Marcus’ flat is now vacant, and Lily moves in. The question is, what else does all that mean – to both Lily and her budding feelings for Marcus?

If Maggie O'Farrell's second novel "My Lover's Lover" is supposed to be her weakest work, then perhaps anyone interested in her work should start with this one, since it is far from weak in my eyes. This is the story of three people - Lily, Marcus and Sinead. After a chance meeting at a party, Lily impulsively moves out of her mother's home into Marcus' extra room after he mentions he's looking for another flat mate. This is because - as Marcus regretfully puts it - Sinead is "no longer with us". But as Lily becomes more involved with Marcus, sinister things begin to happen around the flat, and the other roommate - Marcus' best friend Aiden - is equally as mysterious about Sinead as Marcus.

Told in three sections and mostly in first person from the different characters' perspectives, this tale builds very interestingly. O'Farrell doesn't bog us down with lots of back-story and descriptions. Her style is more documentary in that she starts us at a point in time where she wants us to begin, and then pulls us along through time - mostly chronologically, while dropping subtle hints of the past along the way. However, in one section Sinead tells her story, without recounting the past that fills in the gaps that Lily is unable to discover for herself. In addition, a couple of scenes take place twice - once from one chronological perspective, and then again, in flashback from a different. This also brings new insights into the plot. While mixing past, present, and including duplications may seem confusing, it isn't in the least. 

To be more honest, this story is mostly Lily and Sinead's about their relationships with Marcus, with some injection of Aiden's friendship with him as well. Marcus himself is more like a focal point, around whom all the other characters act and react. Moreover, his erratic behavior is something that the other characters stand in judgment over, even as he feels confused regarding his blame. O'Farrell is almost saying that you can't guide someone without a moral compass in the right direction, because they only see themselves as the injured party. In this, we realize that Marcus is extremely immature, with no cure in sight, making him a true protagonist and ultimately, an unlikeable fellow - which is obviously O'Farrell's intent. 

O'Farrell's prose here is again, straightforward and practically bare boned, yet super-charged with adjectives and adverbs. This gives it a very rich, almost poetic feel to it, without getting flowery or snobbish. This allows the reader to feel what's going on, rather than just read about it, making it seem like we are personally by their sides - if not almost under their skins - as the story unfolds. Yet, there's enough left to the reader's imagination to keep you thinking. This is the brilliance of O'Farrell's style in that she never underestimates her reader's intelligence, and would never compromise herself to make it easier on us. Either you get it or you don't. If you do, there will be no end to the number of times you'll be rewarded with realizations of understanding while reading her novels. Almost like mystery writer without the crime and final "round up" of suspects ending in the big reveal of the criminal. 

This also means that her books don't tie things up into neat packages with pretty bows on top. No, O'Farrell leaves you with the path behind you in sunshine, while the road ahead is barely visible through a shifting fog. O'Farrell leads us to use conjecture as to what will happen after her text is finished, and because we have become so intimate with the main characters, we do care. However, to pique our curiosity further, Maggie gives us a final twist to the story at the very end, making us question some of our initial estimations. 

In all, I find O'Farrell's work to be luscious and intriguing in both language and story. Her characters are vivid and complex, while still very believable. Moreover, O'Farrell is able to evoke strong emotions in the reader, which brings us into the story and enslaves our interest from beginning to end. While this may be ever so slightly weaker than her latest novel, I still can't find much to fault this book, and feel it deserves a full five stars out of five, and I highly recommend it. (By the way, despite the cover, this is not classic "Chick Lit," it is literary fiction at its best!)

"My Lover's Lover" by Maggie O'Farrell, is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, as well as {the now defunct} Yahoo! Voices.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Cast and Curse of Genius

Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb

The name of Auguste Rodin is synonymous with the emotionally charged sculptures he created, and practically everyone recognizes his iconic "Thinker." However, far fewer people know the name or the work of Camille Claudel, his student and the woman who shocked the art world of Paris, because of her gender, her own incredible talent, the love affair she had with her mentor and teacher and finally, because of her mental instability.

If Rodin was a rebel of the art world of his time, than his student Camille Claudel was his foremost co-conspirator. Their mutual passion for sculpting led the way for their passion for each other, and their relationship fluctuated from being harmonious to poisonous. At the same time, both were uncompromising in how they portrayed their subjects, both put their whole beings into their work and both of them suffered for their art and because of each other. Mere words are often insufficient for these types of souls, but that's what makes their tumultuous story so irresistible.

Thank goodness, Webb didn't resist telling their tale. Her ambitious portrayal of these epical people focuses on Camille's side of the story. In it, she takes us from just before Camille becomes Rodin's student, until her being committed to a mental institution. All of this happened over a period of only 10-15 years. By constraining the narrative to the most dramatic era of these two people's lives, Webb hones in on the very depths of their spirits. She then exposes them on the page with elegant prose that's redolent, often frighteningly vivid and therefore ultimately fascinating.

Underneath all this, we learn the inner workings of the Paris during an era that eschewed women as being serious in any of the arts. The amount of Claudel's acceptance in this world was only partially due to Rodin's own nudging, which would have been ignored (in part because of their affair) had her talent not been worth a second look. Judging from the pictures of her work that I've seen, she certainly lived up to that recognition. Since many of my favorite artists are from this era, I now feel ashamed that I didn't know more about Claudel before I started reading this novel.

It must be obvious by now that I adored this book. Webb has outdone herself here by bringing brought us a masterful piece of fiction based on a lesser-known historical figure whose genius should never have been ignored. If this book doesn't make you want to Google her and her work, then nothing will. This is why I can wholeheartedly recommend this novel with a full five stars out of five. 

"Rodin's Lover" by Heather Webb is available to purchase from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me an advance copy for review. (Heather Webb is also the author of "Becoming Josephine," a historical fiction novel about Josephine Bonaparte.) This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel Blog.

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