Small Admissions is a Wise, Funny Novel about a Couple of Serious Topics

I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Poeppel’s first novel Small Admissions.  This is a funny book and not a heavy read, but Poeppel has deft insights about friendship and our assumptions about our friends and relatives.  The characters are appealing and just a little more complicated than they seem.  Even the “bad guys” are kind of charming.  Without giving too much away, Peopppel plops a young woman who is reeling from multiple personal failures into the admissions office of a highly competitive Manhattan private school.  The book is populated with several points of view and highly entertaining emails, all of which combine to keep a brisk, neurotic pace.  Poeppel’s deft treatment of neurotic, competitive parents, coupled with the highly useful question of how much can and should you help flailing friends makes this a thoughtful book, that was also a hoot to read.  Small Admissions would make a great movie!

A Big, Wonderful Novel — A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara has written a wonderfully long novel, A Little Life, about the forty year friendship of four men.  Jude,Willem, JB and Malcolm start out as college roommates in New England and end up in New York.  After various struggles, they all achieve significant success in their chosen fields.  More importantly they are all interesting and likable men.  With the exception of JB as an occasional foil, they are fundamentally kind and loyal.  Their careers and their sex lives figure in the story, but they aren’t the main thing.  Their friendship is the heart of the book, even as all four men lead independent lives.  

 Jude commands most of the attention.  Brilliant, kind, fragile and needy, he is a singular character.   I kept wanting to fix his life.  (I would literally wake up in the morning with some notion about how Jude could do something differently, and that isn’t my normal reaction to a book.). The slow unwinding of Jude’s past shapes drives the narrative.  We gradually learn more about Jude than do his friends, who persist in their loyalty to him even when he makes that hard to do.  Similarly, Ms. Yanagihara slowly peals away the past of the other men so that we come to understand them.

This is a long, rich book.  I just had to keep reading.  The deep, evolving friendships and a pervasive acknowledgement of kindness and ethical behavior consistently held my interest.  The very idea of four men remaining friends for such a long period  was intriguing.   

Perhaps because the book was so long, I became very invested in the characters.  I wanted more for them.  Some problems can’t be overcome, but I found myself wishing that a character might be stronger or more resilient.  If only they could have gotten past some obstacle…  

For some reason, I assumed this novel was written by a man, and I only realized that it was written by a woman after I finished it.  (You don’t get dust jackets when you read on Kindle.)  Ms. Yanagihara’s style is clear, and she skillfully tells the story from a number of perspectives and points in time.  I was driven to keep reading because I needed to know more, and it was hard to accept that ultimately the book came to an end.

I highly recommend A Little Life.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings Captures a Certain Kind of Friendship

The principal characters in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings have dubbed themselves cool and interesting.  They come together as teenagers at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970’s, and the novel follows them into their fifties.  The group, initially comprised of a wealthy brother and sister, a striving would-be cartoonist and the talented son of a folk star, invites Jules (previously know as Julia) Jacobson to join them.  Although told in the third person, the story is largely seen through Jules’ eyes.   As the story begins, Jules is a miserable teenager from a middle class New York suburb. Her father has  recently died, and she feels estranged from just about everything.  Awarded a scholarship by the camp, Jules is mystified as to why she has been invited to join this “cool” group of New Yorkers.  She eagerly joins them, and a great story of decades of friendship ensues.

All of the other Interestings are from New York City, and Jules views everything about them as hip, fascinating and special in contrast to her own stifled life in the suburbs.   She can’t believe she is part of this group and becomes known as a consistently loyal and wryly funny member.   Jules’ view that the other characters are special and generally lead relatively charmed lives in contrast to her own more prosaic and periodically impoverished existence is one of the central themes of the book.  Jules spends  a lot of time regretting that she hasn’t been more “successful” as she stubbornly defines it and discounting her own significant, real-life accomplishments.  We all know people like this, and they can get pretty annoying, but Jules held my interest.  Her struggles and the decisions she made were heroic in their own way and gave structure to the book.

Whereas Jules’ backstory is pretty much laid out at the beginning of the book, Wolitzer supplies the details for the other characters as the story proceeds.  The novel tracks these friends well into their fifties, through years of crazy success, economic hardships, romantics ups and downs and various highs and lows.  At times each of these characters gets pretty annoying.  I wanted them to suck it up and got on with their lives.  Sometimes they do, but often they don’t.  Whereas Jules is persistently observant and dissatisfied, the others generally seem far more caught up in the details of their own lives and more accepting of the lives they have been dealt. 

In the end some of the characters have luck and others don’t; some of the characters adjust and some of them don’t; and the definition of success is probed and redefined.  Wolitzer’s writing is clear and gives the reader plenty of time to think about the choices the characters make.   I liked this book.  It made me think a lot about past and current friendships. 

Alice and Oliver – A Contemporary Tragedy

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Charles Bock has written a fine autobiographical family novel about cancer.  Specifically Alice and Oliver tells the story of what happens to a family after the young mother’s abrupt diagnosis of cancer.  There is an overwhelming sadness to this book, but a lot of other things are going on as well.  This  young family has taken good health and good fortune for granted.  They leave an optimistic life.  Suddenly everything changes, and nothing will ever be quite the same.   Alice is always ill, and Oliver is confronted with enormous,  unanticipated responsibility.  Life wasn’t supposed to be this way.  In addition to taking care of his wife and child, he struggles to keep his business afloat and figure out how to pay for his wife’s astronomical medical expenses.  This isn’t a story where everyone rises to the occasion and the sick and healthy spouses continue as before, except with increased adoration and nurturing.  This couple is shell shocked and utterly unprepared.  In many ways they take independent paths and aren’t always kind for each other, even as they doggedly pursue a cure.

The appeal of Alice and Oliver is twofold.  First, the author repeatedly looks at the situation from both the wife and the husband’s point of view.  Secondly, these are flawed and immature young adults who are both terrified and resentful at suddenly have to grow up and get serious.  They don’t always get it right.  Sometimes muddling through is the best you can do.

Charles Bock’s first wife died after suffering from cancer for two-and-a-half years.  She left a young child who wouldn’t remember her and a bewildered, grieving husband.  In Alice and Oliver, Bock addresses his family’s story through a novel.  His efforts to show what his wife was feeling through this ordeal are bolstered by some diary-like pieces she wrote while she was ill.  Questioning Oliver’s behavior, as well as the way Bock elects to present it is one of the puzzles presented by this intriguing yet very sad book.

This is far from a feel-good novel, but I do recommend it for its thoughtful presentation of human behavior under stress.

Invisible City — A Murder Mystery Set within Brooklyn’s Hasidic Community

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Julia Dahl’s Invisible City provides a fascinating look into the Ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn.  Rebekah Roberts is a brand new stringer reporter for a New York tabloid.  She is thrilled to have a newspaper job so soon after graduating from college in Florida.  New York is pretty new to her, but she is learning fast.  One of the stories she is sent to cover ends up involving a suspicious death in New York’s Hasidic community.  Rebekah has some tenuous ties to the Jewish community and is swept into covering a fast-breaking story that was supposed to remain under wraps.  There are lots of suspenseful moments and some interesting plot twists, but the theme that moves the book along is the tension felt by members of the Ultra-Orthodox community who can’t or won’t go with the program.  Rebekah Roberts is a sympathetic character who is brave and curious, even as she makes rookie mistakes.  Add to that her own back story and conflicted feelings about the demands of the Hasidic community, and Julia Dahl provides an excellent crime novel.

I am happy to recommend this book and to report that the author has already written a second book in what looks to be a thoughtful and intelligent series.

Small Mercies — A Beautiful, Thoughtful Novel

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Eddie Joyce’s first novel, Small Mercies, is an absolute gem.  The premise is an extended family dealing with the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11/2001.  The rich background of a Staten Island neighborhood and a family’s own history support this story of a family’s struggles to deal with the loss of a son.  This isn’t a soggy tearjerker, and there are no larger-than-life heroes.  Instead, we get to read about real people who sometimes rise to the occasion and sometimes don’t.  By and large they are not at each other’s throats, but they often aren’t really connecting either.

The various family members have done some rotten things and been horribly selfish at times and yet they compel the reader’s empathy.  This isn’t one of those books where the reader is constantly imploring selfish, misguided characters to get their act together.  Instead, the tragedy of losing a beloved son and brother in a horrific attack makes the reader exercise just a little more patience and try just a little bit harder to empathize with the characters’ mistakes.  Background stories of the family’s history are richly seeded throughout the book and add texture to the family’s current struggles.

The prose is clear and simple.   Gail, the mother, is the centerpiece.  She is a rock, except when she’s not.  As demonstrated by the flashbacks to their own courtship and early marriage, Gail and Michael, her husband, have a marriage that has withstood a certain amount of bone-headed behavior on both sides.  You’d like Gail and Michael to really comfort each other, but their griefs are separate.  They understand each other and they have come to understand what they can and cannot expect.  Whether they like it or not, they hold it together in their own ways.

This is a family novel.  The author refrains from assigning saint and sinner roles.  Everyone messes up, some more than others.   All of the characters have some good in them and  yet they can be real self-centered jerks.  By the end of the book, everyone is afforded his or her own individual claim to the reader’s interest and sympathy.  This isn’t a mythical heroic family — instead it is a highly recognizable family comprised of individuals with a common history and mutual responsibilities.  Even when things aren’t going well and a bleak sorrow overwhelms them, there is a momentum.  Things will continue to happen to this family, and some of those things will be good.

I loved this book.