I decided to use yesterday morning, my usual posting time, to finish the excellent novel I was reading and to post today instead, since it is March Break and so I am not working this week. I have my usual cup of tea, and CBC’s classical program on in the background, and all is right with the world…
I read two books since my last posting, one for my book group and one for review. Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay was this month’s book club selection, and we got together on Saturday to discuss it. It tells the story of Connie, a young teacher in Saskatchewan in the 1930s who has some interesting experiences in her first year of teaching. She falls in love with one of her students, becomes enthralled with her much-older principal, and must deal with the accusation of rape of one of the female students by said principal, a student who shortly after the incident faces a tragic demise. This is all told from the point of view of Connie’s niece, Anne, who is piecing together the family history from articles she acquires and stories she hears. Our group has read and discussed Hay’s earlier award-winning novel, Late Nights on Air, and we loved it, so I added this novel to our list without knowing anything about it. I read it in just a few days, as it was written very much in the style of Late Nights. I thought that there were too many characters and coincidences, but that everything would get resolved in the end. Alas, I was sorely disappointed. I felt that there were many potential ideas or incidents that could have been used as central themes for this book, but that they were all jumbled together and not dealt with in sufficient depth for my satisfaction. When our group began discussing this book, I realized that most everyone felt exactly the same way. Too many characters. Too many incidents, or coincidences. Story didn’t flow very well. No main theme. Not really “about” anything. One member read the book twice and took extensive notes, even making a chart to keep track of the characters and incidents, and she still didn’t really get it. She suggested that it was more like the author had bits of paper filled with ideas on her desk, and she brushed them all into a pile and published them “as is”. Another member remarked that there were no characters that she really liked, so she found it difficult to relate to anyone in the story. I thought perhaps chapter headings to indicate whose life and/or time period the chapter would be dealing with would have be helpful to alleviate reader confusion, and also a family tree at the beginning of the book would have helped. It was not the most successful book selection I’ve made, but it was also not the worst choice. My newest member of the group, who was unable to attend on Saturday, sent notes on her reading experience with this book, which was great. She said that she had never read anything by this author before, and that she was disappointed with this book, but that she has since gone on to read Late Nights on Air, which she enjoyed much more. That is good to hear. Elizabeth Hay is certainly a talented writer, but this was not her best effort, despite the potential that the book offered.
I read a book I picked up for review for the local paper, The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh. This debut novel for this author kept me glued to my seat all weekend. It opens with the discovery of the dismembered body of Cheri, a developmentally challenged local teen who has been missing for a year, found stuffed in a hollow tree trunk near a river. Told in alternating chapters by Lucy, a 17-year old in the town of Henbane, in the Ozarks and friend of Cheri’s, and Lila, a young girl nearly two decades earlier who comes to Henbane from Iowa with the hope of starting her life over, these parallel stories come together as Lucy searches for the truth behind Cheri’s murder. Lucy’s mother disappeared many years earlier under mysterious circumstances, and being raised by her father in a small town has been difficult for Lucy. She has her uncle Crete in town, but no other family to speak of. She is watched over by Birdie, the elderly woman who lives down the road, who often takes care of Lucy when her father, Carl, has to be out of town. When Lucy begins working for her uncle at his restaurant for the summer, she meets up with Daniel, an acquaintance from school on whom she has had a crush for some time, who is also working for Crete. When they are assigned the job of clearing out an abandoned trailer belonging to Crete, Lucy finds a necklace that belonged to Cheri, and she and Daniel undertake to find the truth about what happened to her in the year before her body was discovered. Lila’s chapters detail the arrival of a young woman in Henbane to fulfill a two-year contract after aging out of foster care. Lila hopes to save up enough money to go to college and find a job, and she expects to be helping out at a farm and restaurant as part of this contract, which includes room and board. She is not readily accepted in the backward town, considered an outsider and a witch by many of the townspeople. Her troubles are compounded further when she realizes that Crete, the man for whom she is she is working, has only a stifling shack to offer as accommodations, her meals are sporadic, and he withholds most of her pay. When she falls in love with Carl, Crete’s younger brother, complications ensue, and she is attacked and raped by Crete. She quickly learns that she was really hired to work as a prostitute, servicing clientele procured by Crete. When Carl saves her from this fate, although not realizing the full involvement of his older brother, he becomes indebted to Crete, even as he takes Lucy for his wife and they have a child. The stories come together to resolve the mysteries of town and family, and the reader feels that no loose ends have been left dangling. This literary thriller was an excellent surprise, as I knew nothing about the novel or the author before opening to the first page. The story and writing style swept me along like a fast-moving river, and while I was satisfied to reach the end, I also wished it was a hundred pages longer.
I have to get reading, as my friends’ book group is meeting on Thursday to discuss Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and I’ve barely started it. I also have a Volunteer group meeting on Saturday to discuss The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which I also have not started. It will be a busy reading week – good thing I’m off work!
Bye for now…