REVIEW: TANGERINE, BY CHRISTINE MANGAN

 

The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the accident at Bennington, the two friends—once inseparable roommates—haven’t spoken in over a year. But there Lucy was, trying to make things right and return to their old rhythms. Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy—always fearless and independent—helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country. 

But soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice—she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.

My Thoughts: Set in mid-century Morocco, Tangerine reveals the push and pull between Alice Shipley and Lucy Mason, college friends who parted after a tragic event. Told in their alternating voices, we see the uncertainty between them.

Alice has moved to Tangiers with her husband, John McAllister, hoping to start over. Sadly, however, the marriage is disappointing in many ways. She and John seem to have very different thoughts and feelings about their new surroundings, and they are a bit off-balance, too, because of how they are depending quite a bit on Alice’s trust fund. Perhaps because of the power struggle, John often tries to push Alice out of her comfort zone, encouraging her to be more sociable, but he comes across as a bully.

When Lucy Mason arrives unexpectedly, everything changes between the three of them. Alice hasn’t moved past what happened in Bennington, when they were in their senior year of college. Nothing about those events was ever satisfactorily explained…but Alice has always felt uneasy. She pushes the feelings down, however, and tries to be a good hostess.

What will trigger long-hidden memories and feelings and change the direction between them? What will Lucy do when pushed up against the wall? Will Alice find the courage to do what she needs to do? Or will Lucy manage to out-maneuver her when she senses her own wishes might not be realized?

An intense and twisted tale of obsession that brings the worst kind of betrayal, ending with mistaken identities and lost dreams. There is no happy ending here, and the book kept its grip on me throughout, but I kept hoping for something to change, for someone to finally find a good resolution. In the end, I sighed with relief that I no longer had to guess what might happen. But I definitely wanted a different outcome. 3.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE DOLLHOUSE, BY FIONA DAVIS

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Fiona Davis’s stunning debut novel pulls readers into the lush world of New York City’s glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where in the 1950s a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side by side while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success, and where a present-day journalist becomes consumed with uncovering a dark secret buried deep within the Barbizon’s glitzy past.

In The Dollhouse, I was caught up by the alternating storylines that swept back and forth in time. In the narrative voice of present day journalist, Rose Lewin, I felt for her situation as she waited expectantly for her lover of three years to come home from work, halfway expecting a marriage proposal. But instead, he told her he was going back to his ex-wife because of problems with his teenage daughter.

Then, almost without a second thought, he tells her a few days later that she has to move out. His family needs to move in.

I was stunned by her situation, since he had persuaded her to give up her apartment in the West Village.

But during her stay at the Barbizon condo, she had met an elderly woman on the fourth floor, the place where the long-term residents were allowed to stay after the building turned into condominiums. She was told the woman was named Miss McLaughlin. She always wore a hat and heavy veil.

Flashback to 1952, and a young woman named Darby McLaughlin found herself in an untenable situation. One partially due to being drawn into the world of Esme Castillo, a maid at the Barbizon who had befriended her when the potential models, whom Esme called “giraffes,” were pushing her around. Esme opened up possibilities for Darby, a part of New York she had never seen, a place with jazz clubs and interesting people. Darby had grown up in Ohio, and when faced with going back there, she hoped to find another way to stay in New York.

Rose is drawn into Darby’s story, but Miss McLaughlin has refused to talk to her. She decides to try again before leaving her apartment to stay with a friend, but instead, runs into Stella, another resident, who is watching Darby’s dog while she is away for a few weeks. She is in a situation, too, as she has to go to the hospital for tests and needs someone to watch the dog, Bird. She tells Rose just enough to pique her curiosity further.

Perfect, right? Somehow Rose finds herself watching Bird and bunking on Darby’s sofa. At work, she presents the story…and the video expert, Jason Wolf, is assigned to shoot film.

Can the two of them find out the mysterious story that someone has hinted at, involving a fall from one of the higher floors, a death, a badly scarred face? Who is Sam, the man with a mysterious book of spices, and an incredible ability to mix them? What happened on that roof on Halloween night? Why has Darby become a recluse?

By the time the final secrets are revealed, I did not want to let go of these characters…so intriguing, and so much a part of The Barbizon, which could also be another one of the characters. 5 stars.

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REVIEW: THREE-MARTINI LUNCH, BY SUZANNE RINDELL

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They were all young and so full of hope, back in 1958. Students, writers, young radicals, and party seekers…they had the future before them, and they were eager to reach out for it. They hung out in Greenwich Village, but their partying took them all over the city.

The core group included Cliff Nelson, whose father was Chief Editor at a large publishing house. Cliff, however, had dropped out of Columbia and despite his life of entitlement and privilege, found himself rudderless when his father cut him off financially. Nevertheless, his background gave him a confidence and brashness that stayed with him for a while…but then his inability to launch his writing career had him scrambling to find another way. Flawed and unable to view his own qualities honestly, Cliff was an interesting character, but unlikeable in many ways.

Eden Katz had come to New York from Indiana, and with her eye on an eventual job as an editor for a publishing house, she brought with her two letters of introduction. How she uses the second letter forms a part of her story after she realizes that sometimes you can trust the wrong people.

Miles Tillman, a young black man and recent graduate of Columbia supports himself as a bicycle messenger while seeking more permanent work. A journey to San Francisco in search of his father’s mysterious journal from his war years leads Miles to unexpected connections. While he struggles to make sense of his life, he finds himself pondering a lifestyle that could cement his role as an outsider.

Hangers-on like Rusty Morrisdale, full of himself and his job working for a literary agent, found a peripheral role in the group, but his behavior was obnoxious. Others put up with him, believing he had something to offer. Then there was good looking Bobby who drew many to him, just because of his beauty and his charisma. These extraneous characters reveal themselves occasionally, but really add little to the story, except as cautionary reminders of what to avoid. Or as foils for the primary characters.

Can the characters reach their dreams? What will they have to do to make that happen? Will the past rear its ugly head and bring them down? What would be the eventual links between them that would last beyond those early years, and how would the events of their youth inform their lives? Then, as a final twist, the author fast-forwards to the 1980s to reveal some of the consequences in the characters’ lives.

Three-Martini Lunch was alternately narrated by Cliff, Eden, and Miles. Their antics, their dreams, and what they would do to achieve them resonates for those who have lived during those times. The author vividly paints the scenes, depicting the era with authenticity, bringing a nostalgic glimmer to those moments from the past. The typewriter as an instrument felt like a poignant reminder of what once was, for those who now enjoy the technology of computers and social networking, while the party scenes vividly show the reader what real life connections look like. 5 stars.

REVIEW: BROOKLYN, BY COLM TOIBIN

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We first meet Eilis Lacey in her small town in Ireland: Enniscorthy, on Friary Street. The author sweeps us up into the world of the Lacey family: her sister Rose and her sad mother; the town, with some of the young people; and the shops. It is the 1950s, revealed to us in the styles, mannerisms, and expectations of the times.

Rose has a good job for the local mills, but there are few possibilities for Eilis, with only a dull job in a local shop to bring in a little extra money for the family. A situation which inspires Father Flood to begin talking about an opportunity for her in America, in Brooklyn, where many Irish people have settled.

Soon the plan is in place, and the details of how it all comes about bring the reader into the moments of leaving; of the passage, with all the sea sickness; the newness of a life beyond the village.

After her arrival, she moves into a boarding house arranged by Father Flood, which consists of Mrs. Kehoe, a rather controlling woman, and several young women.

Eilis has work in a nice shop, and soon is taking night classes to become a bookkeeper.

Dances, church, charity events…her life fills up and becomes routine. When she meets Tony, a young Italian boy at a dance, everything begins to change.

What happens near the end of the second year that changes everything for Eilis? How will she deal with revisiting the old village to see her mother after a family tragedy? What will become of her and Tony? What dilemma will Eilis face upon her return to Ireland?

Brooklyn was the kind of story that might seem quiet and even ordinary, on the surface, but the rich details and the vivid portrayals of the various characters kept me engrossed all the way through, experiencing a new life along with Eilis, feeling her awe at each new event. Like baseball, hot dogs, Coney Island. And love.

I felt swept away by how the author showed us Eilis’s inner thoughts as she came to some decisions. I enjoyed watching the interactions between the young women in the boarding house, and loving how Eilis was learning how to stand up for herself. And after her return visit to Enniscorthy, I appreciated how her time in America had changed her, how we could see her growth as she dealt with her demanding mother and her old friends. I could now imagine how her future would unfold. 5 stars.

REVIEW: HOME, BY TONI MORRISON

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What does it mean to come home?

For Frank Money, it means finding his way back to Lotus, Georgia, to rescue his fragile sister Cee. In 1950s America, the adversity a black man faces is clearly shown to the reader, from the moments on a train or in a restaurant, to his discoveries in Georgia upon his return. He is clearly suffering from some kind of Post-Traumatic Stress, as the images that war within his head follow him wherever he goes.

What has happened to Cee in his absence is devastating, but the strengths of their bonds help the two of them recapture a sense of family and home. And a scene near the end illustrates the essence of this feeling.

A short novella with beautiful prose, Home (Vintage International) was memorable and captivating. 4.0 stars.

REVIEW: MEMENTO MORI, BY MURIEL SPARK

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The author shines a spotlight on the thoughts and preoccupations of an aging population in the story Memento Mori (New Directions Classic).

Set in England in the 1950s, we meet the elderly characters residing sometimes on their own, or with a spouse, or in nursing homes. In all cases, their fears of those who would ignore them or harm them are articulated as persecutions. One specific persecution takes the form of anonymous phone calls with the message: “Remember you must die.”

As each person experiences the calls, he or she describes the caller’s voice to the police. But they all report something different. Eventually, it seems likely that the calls are a form of hallucination that stems from a preoccupation with death and loss.

Some consider this tale to be a kind of dark comedy, and while I found the characters interesting and very realistically developed, having known people from this age group whose preoccupations have turned to paranoia at times, I soon tired of the tale and was happy to finally come to its end. 3.0 stars.

BENEATH THE SURFACE LIES THE TRUTH: A REVIEW

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In the middle of the Twentieth Century, in a small town near Boston, Ava Lark and her young son Lewis stand out like a sore thumb. For in 1956, people in white bread communities like this one look askance at single mothers, especially single DIVORCED mothers, and to top it off, Ava is also Jewish.

Across the street, Dot, with two young children, Rose and Jimmy, is also a single mom, but she is a widow. This fact elevates her status in the community. Just a bit.

The three children of the two single moms are best friends, and in this supposedly safe neighborhood, they are often unsupervised for periods of time.

One hot day in April, tragedy strikes. And young Jimmy goes missing.

What happens afterwards will affect all of their lives for decades, and the mystery will linger, even as lives go on in some fashion. Ava struggles to earn her way and to keep her ex-husband from taking custody of their son. But Dot isolates herself more and more and while Rose and Lewis cling to one another, there are subtle changes in their relationship. Fear, guilt, secrets…all of these emotions color everything between them.

Fast forward a few years and we see lives changing. Lewis has moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and Ava discovers a new passion. But underneath the surface, they are all marked and damaged by the events of that April.

What will happen when a startling discovery is made in the once-peaceful community? Will answers be forthcoming? And how will the unveiling of one secret change things? Or will each revelation lead to more questions? Can anything ever be normal again? Or was it ever?

The shifting narrative and time periods reveal snippets of the lives of Ava, Lewis, and Rose, Slowly the puzzle pieces begin to fit together until the picture is complete. Meanwhile, the characters and the settings are richly drawn as the reader is transported back to those times. Those times depicted in the media as peaceful were anything but, and always hovering nearby were the fears and paranoia: nuclear war, Communism, and the stigma placed on those who were different. Beneath the surface, nothing is perfect or as it seems. Is This Tomorrow: A Novel is a hauntingly poignant read. Five stars.