As you hunker in place while the virus spreads, you may choose to open a book or two or three -depending on how long the assault lasts. I loved Judy’s last (and spookily prescient) write up on The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. It is a great read. My post today is focused on books filled with people, because it might be nice to have a bunch of characters rattling around the house with you while The Dreamers landscape comes into sharper view outdoors.
Strangers and Cousins by Leah Hager Cohen takes place in a crowded historic home as people gather for a wedding. The parents of the bride and owners of the house are Walter and Bennie Blumenthal, a long-married couple who are also hosts of the backyard wedding. Walter and Bennie have four children (and are secretly sprouting a fifth), and it is their oldest, Clementine, who is marrying her college sweetheart. Family and friends gather over several days and to no surprise attendant family and guests don’t help as much as Walter and Bennie hoped and actually end up complicating plenty. This is especially true of Clementine’s eccentric college buddies who set up camp in the backyard and hatch plans to turn Clem’s wedding into an absurdist pageant.
The characters that fill this book are charming. Their energies, affectations, and personal histories alone are enough to propel a reader through the book. But there is another story line that makes this book more than a jolly family romp.
This story line made me uncomfortable enough that I thought about putting the book down a couple different times. Here’s why; on some level Walter and Bennie remind me of myself. We’re about the same age (okay, they’re younger, but not by that much) and they are educated, liberal, love their community, and like to think of themselves as open-minded and free of prejudice. But their community is changing and that change is causing a rift between the otherwise tight couple and it is exposing a flaw: it’s that their liberal self-satisfaction may not be defensible.
Walter and Bennie’s town is gaining new residents, members of the Haredim, a sect within Orthodox Judaism. The Haredim have a history of moving into communities, buying homes, and then integrating themselves onto school and city boards. Their beliefs and customs are contrary to how the community traditionally functions and from some viewpoints, the Haredim undermine the honored status quo by working to change the community to align with their religious beliefs.
I sympathized with Bennie and her concern about the changes a Haredim population would bring to her town. But Walter’s righteous argument, that welcoming outsiders into a community has to be a universal response for those who wrap themselves in liberal cloth, made me uncomfortable because he was right and I couldn’t get there. There were times when I was reading the book (those times when I wanted to stop reading the book) that I felt Cohen was smartly poking at her readers and their liberal facades but finally I realized it was Cohen’s writing that was leading me to question myself. This is a charming and clever novel rooted right in the middle of everything.
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo is her first novel. And it’s another fun family sprawler. The book takes a look back at a 40-year marriage and the 4 daughters that sprang from Marilyn’s and David’s union. Each daughter gets to tell her own past and current day story and each is a distinct fireball. A major story thread is dedicated to unraveling a life-altering secret two of them share. It’s a doozy. And it broke apart my preconceptions of the sisters’ feeling for one another.
But the daughters are all alike in this, they believe their parents have had a perfect marriage and they will never be able to achieve similar passion and companionship with anyone. Ever, never. This incorrect assumption about their parent’s marriage has led the sisters down some unnecessary paths, but their side trips make for good reading.
The lesson here, it’s not just the low-performing bummer parents that screw up their kids.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota: by J. Ryan Stradal. This is another wide-ranging and energetic family saga, this one told from alternating points of two sisters. Edith and Helen grow up on a dairy farm in the late 50’s. Edith is a homebody, bakes blue ribbon pies, graduates from high school, and marries soon after. Her life is good but never is it a big or easy one. Helen on the other hand decides to go to college, hones a gold star beer palate, and marries into a brewery family. As Belizians would say: Helen went there strong.
There are the standard story lines in this novel about family that include long-time grudges, fortunes made, and quick deaths. But this novel is special because of the author’s development of the older women characters, who branch out into new professions late in life and always say ‘yes’ when others their age retire quietly into a corner or when authors write them into a corner.
Here’s a cool side bar to this novel: the older women are a composite of some of the women closest to author — Stradal’s mother and grandmothers. Stradal has noted in interviews that he was not reading characters who were strong Midwestern women like those who raised him. So he wrote those characters himself. Big thanks to him.
And just in case you are wondering, yup, there are multiple examples of ‘Minnesota nice’ in the book.
From deep inside my house on this rainy Friday night, I wish you all health and good reading with a bunch of entertaining characters. We’ll get through this together.