When I was around six, I remember watching my mom walk around—probably putting away folded clothes—and I asked her what the word “love” meant. It’s been a long time since that moment, but I still remember the suddenness of it—my feeling, maybe of confusion, maybe a little bit of panic,--that the word meant something even more than what I thought I knew.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s compulsively readable City of Girls is about love, in a nutshell. The different kinds of love and the different ways it’s expressed: the love that we stumble into and seek out, that we chase and run away from, and that we deny ourselves or that’s denied us. Outward love and self-love; friendship and physical love and emotional.
It’s all there in City of Girls, the story of Vivian and New York City and the men, and importantly for this book, the women, she meets along the way.
From the first pages of the novel, I was mesmerized by Vivian’s written response to a woman named Angela; Angela has asked Vivian to answer the question “What was I to her father?” it turns out that the question is pretty complicated. Vivian tells Angela how she came to be in NYC in the early years of the 40s, how she became a costume designer, how she spent her days and nights exploring what made her feel alive, and how it results in a sex scandal that takes her years to recover from.
If this were a Thomas Hardy novel, her story would have probably ended soon after, and in a terribly tragic way. But this isn’t ultimately a story about punishment or castigation, even though Vivian regrets the hurt she caused others and is unflinchingly honest about her mistakes, failings, and moments of self-absorption. It’s a book that’s about love (see above) and growth and connection, about satisfaction, as Vivian says, and happiness, and that’s something that I needed to read.
That I wanted to read, as well. City of Girls is beautifully, compellingly written. Vivian is funny and astute, introspective without being dour, and endlessly interesting. I recognized bits and pieces of myself in her—some things that I like and some things I don’t. And Gilbert evokes a New York—of the 40s through 60s primarily—that I’ve never experienced but that I was fully engrossed in, even as it all felt modern. (Which is part of the point, I think. As Vivian says in her narration, we tend to think that belonging to a younger generation means we’re doing something newer, bolder, that we are modern and by default, the people before us weren’t, and of course that’s a silly delusion/lie we tell ourselves).
City of Girls was not always easy to read, even as it was. Gilbert pulled at my emotions, and at moments, my uncomfortable secondhand emotions were running strong, but the sentences unfurled smoothly, beautifully, wonderfully, and I couldn’t wait to see where Vivian was going to take Angela (me).
Thank you Elizabeth Gilbert for this lesson in loving others.
I spent hours yesterday immersed in the decade between 1940 and 1950, lost in Kate Quinn’s mesmerizing book The Huntress, chasing one sentence to the next, anxious to get to the end and knowing that whatever secrets were revealed would stay with me for a long while.
Told from the perspectives of Nina, a female Soviet pilot, Ian, a British journalist who tracks down Nazis/former Nazis who committed war crimes, and Jordan, an aspiring photographer living in Boston whose dreams are bigger than the dreams her father has for her.
Nina, Ian, and Jordan each become involved somehow in the hunt for the Huntress, a Nazi woman believed to be guilty of despicable war crimes, and whose whereabouts are unknown.
This book can’t and shouldn’t be separated from its World War II setting. What happened in World War II, what was done to innocent men, women, and children, matters to the characters in the book and it should matter to us outside the book, too. But the questions The Huntress poses, the answers it gives, are also universal. What national and individual crimes do we commit? How do we forget? How do we remember, and what burden is on us to do so?
The Huntress is excellent historical fiction; an excellent book, period. It’s masterfully written, with suspenseful pacing and delayed revelations, characters whose hearts and hopes and fears grab at you, and writing that strikes beautifully, powerfully. Unforgettably.
Read this book, and then let's talk about it.
I received an ARC of this book from Edelweiss+ but all opinions provided are my own.
Last week I was hit with a one-two punch of historical fiction. First, it was Kristin Hannah’s brilliant The Great Alone, set mostly in 1970s and 1980s Alaska. Then it was Eliza Graham’s tautly paced The Lines We Leave Behind, a suspenseful story of an amnesia-afflicted woman who is in an asylum post-WWII that played havoc with my nerves.
When the book opens, we’re in 1947 England, and Maud’s psychiatrist Dr. Rosenstein encourages her to write down her memories.
This is what Maud initially remembers: in 1943 Maud Knight was a well-off young woman living in Blitz-era London, seemingly without purpose. She had affairs, she had an unimportant job, but no higher calling. She was approached by a magnetic man, Robert Havers, who expressed admiration for her special talents—including her ability to speak Serbo-Croat, to observe details keenly, to memorize them—and he offered her a position as a British secret agent aiding Partisan (communist) forces fight other fringe groups (and ultimately the Germans) in Yugoslavia and rescuing downed Allies and returning them back home.
Maud accepts the position, and she’s given the name Amber. In Yugoslavia, she learns real danger, real pain, for the first time, and she becomes aware of the complicated lines wartime can drive between family members and neighbors, and how it can test the physical self and the spirit.
That was Maud then.
But something’s happened in the years since, to turn someone who served her country so admirably into a mental asylum resident, and that’s the gripping story that unfolds for Maud, Dr. Rosenstein, and the reader, page by page.
The Lines We Leave Behind tells a story that I haven’t quite heard before, in a place that I haven’t a read a story set in. Graham deftly portrays the toll of war, illuminating how it changes people, and how it makes heroism and depravity possible—sometimes within the same person. This is a heavy story (seriously), but it is also one that is not without redemption, and those slices of light are what I like best about it.
This well-written book is by turns exhilarating and disturbing, and entirely haunting.
**I received a copy of this book from Netgalley, but all opinions provided are my own.
I’ve always been too terrified to watch scary movies, but give me a good gothic novel and I’m in heaven. Especially a gothic novel with romance. Then I’m there with an awkwardly enthusiastic smile and a glitter covered poster-board.
That’s why I always eagerly anticipate a Susanna Kearsley novel. They have some of the things that I find most delicious in a gothic work: a historical and contemporary timeline, in which the contemporary characters are trying to solve a mystery related to the historical timeline; vividly rendered, atmospheric backdrops, often with supernatural elements, whether it’s ghosts, time travel, mysteriously found artifacts, etc.; romance in both the historical and contemporary timelines. Sometimes it’s doomed, sometimes it’s HEA, but it’s always lovely and fills me with the same happiness I get from a peaceful morning: dew still on the ground, pear-colored light slanting in through the windows, and a cup of coffee in my hand. You get the picture.
Kearsley’s latest, Bellewether, is set in Long Island and revolves around two timelines: one set during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and one set during present day. In the present-day timeline, Charley Van Hoek has moved to Millbank, New York after the death of her brother to care for her young adult niece, Rachel, and her house, and to be the curator of the Wilde House museum. The Wilde House is famous for being the home of Benjamin Wilde, a famous Revolutionary War hero, and for being haunted. The locals say that you can see a lantern wandering the path from the house to the water, and they attribute the ghost carrying it to a doomed love story: a French soldier who has "signed the paper giving his parole of honor" (basically a POW, in our terms), was held in the home at the end of the French and Indian War, and he and the young woman of the house—who was loyal to the British, the opposing side—fell in love. The legend says that he was murdered by the young woman’s brother when their relationship was discovered.
We get Charley’s perspective, but luckily for us, we also get Jean-Phillipe’s—the French soldier—and Lydia Wilde’s, the young woman. Jean-Phillipe, a soldier born in Canada and fighting for the French, is drawn to Lydia, even though he knows no English and can sense her resentment toward his presence in her home. Lydia is recovering from the loss of her fiancé, who was killed by the French during the French and Indian War.
Did Jean-Phillipe and Lydia have a romantic relationship, despite the odds against them? Did it end in both of their deaths, as the legend says? Is there a ghost at Wilde House?
The answers are in Bellewether.
Though I was a little bemused (perhaps even slightly disappointed) by one plot element (DM me for spoiler-y details!), on the whole this book was exactly what I was craving and expecting. A compelling mystery-romance that kept me engrossed to the very last page; two haunting stories that intertwined; and richly developed historical details that made me think about how we write our history, and that prove once again how wonderful of a storyteller Kearsley is.
Pssst! If You Like This Book, Try: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, any Kate Morton book, The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
**I was given an ARC of this book from Netgalley, but all opinions provided are my own.
The Need to Know: I stayed up until 1:06 this morning reading this book and wiping tears from my cheeks. So yeah, I really liked this book.
The first sentence of The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff is “They will be looking for me by now.” Immediately I was hooked.
In the opening pages of this thrilling story, an unnamed narrator has snuck away to an exhibit called “Two Hundred Years of Circus Magic.” The narrator glances at the exhibit’s photographs before locating a railcar, where she opens up a compartment in the back, hoping to find something which is not fully revealed to the reader. But there’s nothing there, “and the dream I had that it might hold the answers evaporates like cool mist.”
This kind of narrative is one of my favorites: a frame story told from the perspective of an elderly person, about to reveal her life’s greatest secrets—if only to the reader—and a passionate, tender inner story that is slowly built on until the book’s last revelations.
After the prologue, The Orphan’s Tale is told from two different perspectives, Noa’s and Astrid’s, both of which are rooted in the WWII period. Noa is a young Dutch woman who was thrown out of her parents’ home after she became pregnant with a German soldier’s baby. She ends up in Germany, alone, until in an impulsive moment she takes a Jewish baby from a railcar which the Germans are sending east.
A series of events lead her and the baby to a famous circus, where she meets Astrid.
Astrid’s husband, a member of the Reich, cast her aside because she is Jewish, and she returns to the winter quarters of her family’s circus, the only home she has ever known. Her family’s circus is no longer in operation because her Jewish parents and siblings are gone, but Herr Neuhoff, their former circus rival, offers her a job as an aerialist--her previous role in her family's circus--and she accepts.
After Noa and the baby, Theo, arrive at Neuhoff's circus, Herr Neuhoff tasks Astrid with making Noa an aerialist within a 6-week time period—a task which Astrid resents for multiple reasons, not least because she thinks it is impossible. Will Noa become an aerialist? Will she and Astrid ever trust one another?
But the captivating circus and the performers’ dynamics are only part of the story here. After all the story is set in World War II; two of its main characters are Jewish, and many of the other characters are accomplices to sheltering them, whether they wish to be or not.
This beautiful story moved me in deep ways, and in the final pages, I wiped tears off of my cheeks as I read in bed. Now, hours later, I still feel immersed in the world of The Orphan’s Tale, and I’m also still processing what happened to the nuanced, imperfect, and also noble characters Jenoff created.
I have read comparisons of The Orphan’s Tale to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train. I would also add Natasha Solomons’ The House at Tyneford, and Kate Morton’s books, which use the same type of frame structure.
In one way this thrilling, lovely book was easy to read. I raced through its pages. But on the other, there were sections of this book which were truly difficult to read and come to terms with, particularly after I read the “Author’s Note” and learned that a couple of the main plot-points are inspired by real-life events.
The Orphan’s Tale offers the reader a chance to mourn and to celebrate, to become invested in the lives of the characters and to be reminded of our history.
I’m so glad that I found this book.
I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided in this review are my own.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.