Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold / What The Heart Knows by Regina Puckett / The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Our friend Marta passed on her copy of The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold to us. A bizarre story which is very different from Sebold's debut novel, The Lovely Bones, I can understand why there are such widely varying reviews of The Almost Moon. This isn't a comfortable book to read. It confronts some of the worst of human behaviour in a way that doesn't allow readers to shrink away from what these characters are doing and have done. Moreover, I don't think that anyone is likeable. On the first page we witness Helen murdering her elderly helpless mother and the shock of such a powerful start reverberates through the following twenty-four hours of story.

Both Dave and I have read The Almost Moon and, I believe, have pretty similar views. We loved the actual writing throughout the novel. The prose isn't always grammatically perfect, but it flows at a great pace which makes The Almost Moon a page-turner. I loved Sebold's evocative descriptions and her ability to allow her readers right up close to the family's madness. From questioning Helen's sanity, I began to understand why she might have been driven to such an extreme act by the decades of provocation she endured. Looking back over her childhood allowed us to see the folie a deux of her parents, her mother's extreme agrophobia which alienated the neighbourhood, and - in a powerful scene - the pathetic poignancy of the figures in her father's sanctuary.

What spoilt this book for me though and the reason why I have only given an on-the-fence three stars is that some of the behaviours exhibited seemed so unreal that they jerked me out of the story's reality. Why go to the tub instead of bringing the tub to the house? Why does Helen's husband so blithely accept what she's done? I know this is a story about madness so the unexpected should be expected, but these people aren't stupid. Perhaps it can be explained by the timescale of The Almost Moon only being the one day after the crime, but the book jumps back over so many years that I found it difficult to keep the present-day timeline in mind.


What the Heart Knows by Regina Puckett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I got myself a copy of What The Heart Knows by Regina Puckett when I spotted a limited time free Amazon download offer advertised by the author via Goodreads.

What The Heart Knows is the third in a series of romance books about the Warren family. I haven't read either of the previous two but, other than a few moments when I wasn't sure who new minor characters were, this didn't have a negative impact on my understanding of the story. At the beginning, our protagonist Emily is being talked about behind her back as her sister tries to drum up help from a family friend, an artist called Bill. Everyone is very concerned because the normally outgoing Emily has rushed to her childhood home, holed herself up in her bedroom and is behaving very strangely. It turns out that she was recently attacked and is suffering both nightmares and trauma as well as shame and embarrassment. Fortunately Bill manages to get her to talk about what happened and her brother, conveniently a policeman, sets wheels in motion to arrest Emily's attacker.

In rediscovering her trust in Bill, Emily also re-ignites her buried love for him. At the same time, Bill begins to admit his love for her and their agonising over whether or not they really are destined to be together makes up most of the book. Most of their thoughts are reported in the third person and I found this getting quite dull as the loops were repeated. Also Puckett has most of her action happen off the page which slows the narrative pace right down. For example, at one point Emily and Bill are shopping for an elegant dress for a gallery event. Turn the page and something huge happened at that party, but we readers are completely in the dark until Emily gives a brief resume to her sister before starting to wonder, at length, if Bill really is the man for her after all - again! This 'missing out' occurs repeatedly at pivotal moments and I found it very annoying. The only real time suspense is when Emily's attacker predictably reappears, but here his dialogue is so over the top, it completely ruins any sense of danger.

I admit am not a fan of romance novels. However, as What The Heart Knows featured Emily's attack so prominently in its synopsis I had hoped this story would be more about a woman overcoming her ordeal and less of a will-they-won't-they tease. Emily and Bill both seem nice enough people, if overly indecisive and lousy communicators(!), but there really wasn't enough depth here to draw me into their lives.


The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I am slowly working my way through the Anne Tyler back catalogue! The Amateur Marriage is my eighth of her novels I think and I was delighted to see it on the book exchange shelves at Camping Casteillets near Ceret. The novel is, again, set in Baltimore and examines the minutiae and often mundane realities of a seemingly perfect marriage as it unravels over several decades. Michael Anton is the only surviving son of a war widow in a close-knit Polish-American community. Pauline Barclay is one of several daughters in a prosperous American family which lives just twenty minutes away but might as well come from another planet. Pauline and her red coat breeze into Michael's steady sedate life and, in the emotional maelstrom of wartime, the two rapidly fall in love. Despite some misgivings both from themselves and their communities, a whirlwind romance becomes marriage.

I loved the comments from the Polish St Cassian's women that Pauline doesn't even have a real nationality - "Ukrainian they could have understood, or even Italian". Michael's heritage is so different from what Pauline expects and this, as well as their ever increasing clash of temperaments, slowly drives the two to despair. I appreciated that neither Michael nor Pauline is portrayed as a victim of the other. Both are equally exasperating, self-centered and convinced of their own opinions. A complete illustration of the maxim "marry in haste, repent at leisure", Tyler portrays them wonderfully. The story jumps forward by several years at a time so we can understand how they grow together then apart, how cultural expectations such as Michael's mother living with them cause additional difficulties, and how their growing family suffer in the chasm.

Anne Tyler is one of my favourite authors anyway and The Amateur Marriage has reinforced my desire to read all her novels. I love how she can make the most mundane of conversations come alive with hidden meaning and how her characters are always believable and compelling even when they are not the least bit likeable. I sympathised and then rolled my eyes at both Michael and Pauline in turn! The Amateur Marriage does go to some dark places - this novel certainly is not a light romance - but it is a very rewarding read.


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