Sunday, September 27, 2015

First Pages in Fiction: The Sea Keeper's Daughters

In this continuing series, "Novel Beginnings," I dissect first paragraphs of novels and show how the opening of a book sets the foundation for what's to follow in terms of tone, character and story intent. In this installment, we'll explore  The Sea Keeper's Daughters by Lisa Wingate. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Perhaps denial is the mind's way of protecting the heart from a sucker punch it can't handle. Or maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe denial is the face of overwhelming evidence is a mere byproduct of stubbornness.

Whatever the reason, all I could think standing in the doorway, one hand on the latch and the other trembling on the keys, was, This can't be happening. This can't be how it ends. It's so…quiet. A dream should make noise when it's dying. It deserves to go out in a tragic blaze of glory. There should be a dramatic death scene, a gasping for breath…something.

Denise laid a hand on my shoulder, whispered, "Are you all right?" Her voice faded at the end, cracking into jagged pieces.

"No." A hard, bitter tone sharpened the cutting edge on the word. It wasn't aimed at Denise. She knew that. "Nothing about this is all right. Not one single thing."

"Yeah." Resting against the doorframe, she let her neck go slack until her cheek touched the wood. "I'm not sure if it's better or worse to stand here looking at it, though. For the last time, I mean."

"We put our hearts into this place…" Denial reared its unreasonable head again. I would've called it hope, but if it was hope, it was false and paper-thin kind. The kind that only teases you...

Wingate launches her story with a profound statement about denial. And the paragraphs that follow bring an immediate sense of intimacy. Notice, however, the use of the words "death," "bitter," "hard," and "sharpening." This speaker is not happy and is grappling, but the philosophical nature of the opening sentences reveal the speaker to be wistful and sensitive. The speaker (not sure if it's a man or a woman) is taking a last look at a place that was obviously dear to her/him. Readers don't know what--or where--that place is, but intrigue deepens, especially when Denise offers a gentle touch and then breaks the speaker's reverie to ask, "Are you all right?" Denise's actions and words--and the conversation that ensues--gives the reader a sense that she is a friend and confidante, and she has a stake, along with the speaker, in something that is coming to a close or someplace these two people will have to leave. The speaker's "hard, bitter" response indicates that she is not a willful participant in whatever change is taking place. And thus, this story begins at the end of something.  

If you're familiar with books by Lisa Wingate (this novel is actually the third in her series of Carolina-based stories; read my review of The Prayer Box), you already know she writes multi-generational, dual time-frame novels of domestic fiction, where she often merges two story threads—a present-day story with a story from the past. You'd have to keep reading this novel to see how this opening scene serves to launch the journey of Whitney Monroe, a high-end (yet struggling) restaurant owner in Michigan who comes from a complicated family. When Whitney's elderly, estranged stepfather takes ill, she travels to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to be with him. He lives at the Excelsior, a famed hotel from the Gilded Age, which he also owns. (Whitney will one day inherit the hotel.) While Whitney is in residence, memories from her childhood are evoked, and she also discovers family heirlooms and letters exchanged between her grandmother and a relative Whitney never knew existed. In reading the letters and experiencing incidents involved, Whitney questions her family and heritage, and she is forced to confront issues of race, politics, identity and secrets.

Wingate once again writes an intriguing, multi-layered story where her main character must take a physical journey in order to trek deeper into the recesses of her soul.

Tyndale House Publishers, $19.99 Hardcover, 9781414388274, 448 pp
Publication Date: September 8, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Woman Who Stole My Life

In The Woman Who Stole My Life, Marian Keyes delivers a warm and positive--at times hilarious--read about the effects of serious illness.

The story is told by charming and chatty, Stella Sweeney--age "forty-one and a quarter"--and the account of what happened when she was a 37 year-old Irish beautician; the wife of a "successful but creatively unfulfilled" bathroom designer; and mother of two rebellious teenagers. Stella's life was humbly ordinary until a strange illness overtook her, making her paralyzed and mute. The diagnosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome--a rare, yet usually temporary, autoimmune disorder--attacks the nervous system. Stella, mentally attentive, remained confined to an I.C.U. The only way she could communicate was via blinking, and the only person who understood her was her handsome neurologist, Dr. Mannix Taylor. During her long hospital stay, the two bond and share intimate details about their lives.

After her arduous recovery, an American tabloid publishes a photo of the Vice-President's wife reading a self-help book called One Blink at a Time—Stella's story, complete with clever, stoic aphorisms she spouted during her ordeal. Stella is surprised to learn it was self-published, behind her back, by dreamy Dr. Taylor. The exposure brings Stella instant international fame and fortune—and the possibility of new love. But at what price?

Keyes (The Mystery of Mercy Close) depicts the realities of illness for the patient and all involved.  Her comic take on Stella's journey--coupled with her distinctive brand of humor and wit--showcases her imagination in top form.

The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes
Viking, $27.95 Hardcover, 9780525429258, 464 pp
Publication Date: July 7, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (7/24/15), link HERE 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Love She Left Behind

A dead woman is the central character of The Love She Left Behind by British author Amanda Coe (What They Do in the Dark). The deceased is Sara, who, 35 years before her death from stomach cancer, deserted her husband and children--Nigel, then age 13, and Louise, age 10--and gave up everything to live with Patrick, a playwright for whom she was muse. Patrick never had any fondness for his stepchildren. After Sara uprooted her life for him, he paid for Nigel to attend boarding school and Louise was shipped off to live with an aunt after their birth father remarried and rejected them.

The book opens in Cornwall, in the now-dilapidated house Sara and Patrick shared. Nigel--a married, type-A lawyer and father--has little care or respect for Louise, a divorced, overweight, working-class mother of two rebellious teenagers over whom she has little control. They are faced with Patrick's irritability, drunkenness and writer's block. As the three go over details and assimilate the contents of Sara's will, it is revealed that the couple's house and the dramatic rights to Bloody Empire--a popular play Patrick wrote in the 1980s--were put in Sara's name for tax purposes. Patrick battles Nigel and Louise over the transfer of ownership, and brother and sister also lock horns.

Coe employs dark comedy to piece together and acutely observe emotional issues dealing with abandonment, loss, death and grief. The idea that we do not truly know the ones we love serves to solidify the cracked fault lines in the foundation of this thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking family saga.

The Love She Left Behind by Amanda Coe
W.W. Norton, $25.95 Hardcover, 978039324543, 256 pp
Publication Date: July 15, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (7/14/15), click HERE