domestic drama

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Joshilyn Jackson

[asa book]0446579653[/asa] I’ve read a lot of books since I last put up a review. In three or four cases I really wanted to write something, but there just wasn’t time to gather my thoughts. And of course chaos has reigned supreme for so long I can hardly remember what plain busy feels like.

So here we are, talking about somebody else’s book for a change, and let me tell you, it’s a relief.

I’ve reviewed Joshilyn’s first two novels, both of which I really liked. I think it’s fair to say that with each novel she’s got her feet more firmly underneath herself, but in all her books there’s consistent evidence that she was born to write down stories. And she’s a southerner, born and bred. I think the two things are not unrelated. ((She’s got a website, if you’d like to explore, here.))

The first two novels had love stories at their center, but not exclusively. They are both also full of such clear observations of the nonsensical that I found myself laughing out loud now and then.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming has many things in common with Joshilyn’s earlier novels. First and foremost, the way women hold each other up, or down, as the case may be. Emotional complexity and really loud arguments are how many of these female characters communicate.

This new novel is about two sisters, Lauren and Thalia, their relationship to each other (primarily) to their mother, to Lauren’s daughter and to a friend of her daughter’s, Bet. It is also about Thalia’s relentless dislike of Lauren’s sweet, less-than-verbal husband ((Yes, he’s a Mathematician, in case you were wondering. So maybe I’m biased but at points I wanted to shake Thalia and tell her to leave the man be.)) Thalia does nothing by halves, and as the novel goes along we start to understand where that started and why.

Lauren and Thalia are adults still at odds with extreme childhood trauma. Thalia has coped by turning her anger into a high-speed life in the theater, always on the move, always ready to pick a fight. Lauren copes in the exact opposite way; she has a home and a husband and a daughter, she works as an artist out of the house, and she avoids confrontation and threats at al costs. But her past is always there, in the form of the occasional ghost who comes by. Most prominently the uncle who was killed in a hunting accident — until the night she wakes up to see one of her daughter’s closest friends standing next to the bed, soaking wet. Molly’s ghost walks to the window and Lauren follows her. What she sees sets a series of events in motion that drag the past into the present.

There are a few authors who focus on family or suburban drama, as it is sometimes called – condescendingly, in my opinion. It’s a genre that I like and read a lot of. I have a sense that Joshilyn is going to be one of the big names in that particular crowd. I am very curious to see what she comes up with next, but in the mean time I highly recommend The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished. This is one of those rare times I wished I belonged to a bookclub, because there are so many things to think and talk through.

Still Summer

I’ve talked about domestic drama before. I think of it as the genre that-dare-not-speak-its-name, because it flies under the radar of the litcriterati. A genre written mostly by women and read mostly by women — one that doesn’t get trivialized or bashed (for the most part) — that’s something to nurture. The bigger names (Jodi Picoult and ELinor Lipman, for example) get serious reviews in the big name places. And that’s good. In fact, that is excellent.

[asa book]0446578762[/asa] Jackie Mitchard is one of my favorites in this select group of women who produce well written, intriguing stories about women who live what might seem to be traditional or even boring lives. Many of the subjects are no surprise: divorce, sick children, unexpected violence, family dysfunction. But as is ever the case with a story — it’s not where you end up, but how you got there.

Mitchard’s most recent novel is Still Summer. This is a novel that took me by surprise — and excuse me for sounding know-it-all, but that is hard to do. Still Summer breaks out of the genre in an unexpected and interesting way.

Instead of a small town or a suburban neighborhood or a farm, we have four women on a sailboat. Three of them are old friends who charmed and rabble roused their way through high school together twenty-five years earlier. Tracy, Holly and Olivia as well as Camille — Tracy’s 19-year-old daughter –set out on a great adventure.

There’s enough material right there for a novel, albeit a quiet one. The backstory is chock full of conflicts, enough to power the four women all the way to the Caribbean and back again. But Mitchard doesn’t stop there. The four women set out on what was meant to be a lighthearted adventure, but it turns into a struggle to survive the elements, the sea, predators (some of them human), and twenty-five years of personal history.

Still Summer is a rocking good story, one that pulls you along. I picked it up thinking I’d just read the first few pages and didn’t put it down again until I finished. What Mitchard managed to do here is to take the best of the domestic drama genre and an adventure story and interweave them so that they support each other beautifully.

It is in fact Still Summer, so I suggest you get a hold of this book. Except maybe not on a sailboat. Another one of Mitchard’s novels that I like a lot: The Most Wanted.

Cage of Stars- Jacquelyn Mitchard

[asa book]0446578754[/asa]There’s a fiction subgenre that doesn’t really have a name, or at least, not one that’s used consistently. The kind of novel I’m talking about isn’t about romance or romantic love in the first line, though that may be one of the subplots. These are novels that examine the way families work, or fail to work, in the face of crisis. And I mean crisis in the bigger sense of the word. Divorce would be the least of the problems in this kind of book. We’re talking accidental deaths, fatal illness, rape, murder, permanent disability, kidnapping, felony arrests. You get the picture. The term domestic drama is sometimes used.

Some of the authors who are active in this genre (which is sometimes called domestic drama, a term I dislike because it feels dismissive) are Jacquelyn Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean, A Theory of Relativity), Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper, Vanishing Acts), Judith Guest (Ordinary People), Elizabeth Berg (Range of Motion,We Are All Welcome Here), and Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me).

Somehow this subgenre — though it is written primarily (or maybe even exclusively) by women — has mostly been spared trivialization or undue snark from the litcriterati. A few of these novels have received both high critical praise and popular success.Ordinary People is the best example of that, and it is also the novel that sets the standard for this genre. And of course, not all attempts at this kind of family in crisis novel are equally successful or well written.

Before I talk about Cage of Stars, I wanted to ask you what other novelists or novels you think might fit into this category.

So now, Mitchard. She’s best known forThe Deep End of the Ocean, which was an early Oprah pick. It was her first novel, and it catapulted her into the best seller list. Publisher’s Weekly said: “One of the most remarkable things about this rich, moving and altogether stunning first novel is Mitchard’s assured command of narrative structure and stylistic resources. Her story about a child’s kidnapping and its enduring effects upon his parents, siblings and extended family is a blockbuster read.”

I’ve read most but not all of Mitchard’s novels since her first. The second one,The Most Wanted [asa book]0451196856[/asa] probably made the biggest impression on me. Publisher’s Weekly wasn’t so happy with it: “Despite portentous foreshadowing, Mitchard second novel never achieves the dramatic momentum and the emotional immediacy of her acclaimed fiction debut,The Deep End of the Ocean. But her depiction of two female protagonists is so large-hearted and wise that readers undoubtedly will be engrossed in their story.”

Side note: Beware the review — especially the PW review– that starts with the word despite. I speak from personal experience here. Another note: I think they’re wrong.

I read Mitchard’s newest about two weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Of course that’s a good thing, a story that stays with you. But in this case there was something off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. One thing that jumped out at me was how much her style has changed, or maybe just her approach to this story is a departure. Not necessarily a bad departure, but I was strongly reminded of Jodi Picoult in a way that Mitchard probably wasn’t aiming for.

Cage of Stars is about a small, healthy, close knit Mormon family that lives in a tiny rural community where people generally get along and take care of each other. In the course of the novel you learn a good amount about the LDSaints, all provided in a matter of fact way. You get this information through the main character, Veronica Swan (Ronnie to family and friends), who is twelve years old when the novel opens with a very powerful image: “At the moment when Scott Early killed Becky and Ruthie, I was hiding in the shed.”

This is a story not so much about the murder of two little girls as it is about the way violence is embedded into the heart of their twelve year old sister. Scott Early, who commits this crime, does so in the grip of a psychotic break. It’s his first, and with it, his history as a good guy, a man loyal to family and scrupulously honest, is null and void. He is not convicted of the double murder of the Swan girls, but is sent off to a hospital for the criminally insane for treatment.

Ronnie spends the rest of her adolescence nurturing her anger, while her parents work to overcome their despondency and sorrow after the little sisters are buried. Eventually they meet with Scott Early in the hospital and they forgive him. Which only makes Ronnie more determined to extract justice.

Most of the novel deals with how she does that. Her plan, which is elaborate and well thought out, eventually takes her to California where she inserts herself into the lives of the now released, medicated and stable Scott Early and his wife and infant daughter. This sounds like a retelling of The Babysitter, no? But it’s more complex than that, and we’re in Ronnie’s head for the whole time, watching her thoughts as they evolve.

And here’s the cause of my discomfort: This is another case where I’m unhappy about a first person teenage narrator. And I freely admit that this is a matter of my own quirk, my need for a broader narrative scope and a dislike of the restrictions Mitchard puts on her readers by keeping them in Ronnie’s head.

So is this a good story? Yes. Is it worth reading? You will like it, if you aren’t as sensitive to the narrative voice issues as I am. If you are getting started with fiction writing yourself, this is a novel that might be instructive in terms of approach and structure. It’s one of the few cases where a prologue felt off to me (I generally like prologues; which you probably knew if you’ve ready any of my novels).

At any rate, I continue to be a great fan of Mitchard’s work and look forward to the next novel.