Tag Archives: Illness

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

Double BindThe title here is your first warning: Oxford Dictionaries describes ‘double bind’ as “[a] situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action.” Think on that, then brace yourself as you open the cover (or hit ‘play’ to allow narrator Susan Denaker to lull you into false complacency): between these pages, you’ll lose all control of what’s real and what’s not.

To tell you too much would be such an injustice, so if you’re already a Chris Bohjalian groupie (my favorite hapa Armenian American writer and general go-to-when-I-need-a-good-story-stuck-in-the-ears), just read it without any further preamble, because that’s always the best way to discover new stories. If this is your first Bohjalian from his 16-thus-far (#17 coming in July), congratulations for picking a mind-blowing powerhouse, so go start already.

If you’re still with me, let’s start with Bohjalian’s opening “Author’s Note” in which he carefully lays out what’s true: the executive director of a Vermont homeless shelter shared with Bohjalian a box of “remarkable” black-and-white photographs taken by a once homeless man, Bob “Soupy” Campbell; both were “mystified” how such an obviously accomplished artist could go from capturing images of celebrities and newsmakers of the 1950s and 1960s to becoming homeless in Vermont. “We tend to stigmatize the homeless and blame them for their plight,” Bohjalian writes. “We are oblivious to the fact that most had lives as serious as our own before everything fell apart.” In deference to Campbell, Bohjalian includes some of his luminous photos throughout this book. He adds, “Obviously, Bobbie Crocker, the homeless photographer in this novel, is fictitious.”

The “Prologue” then begins with grave violence: “Laurel Estabrook was nearly raped the fall of her sophomore year in college.” She was 19, biking on a dirt road not too far from school when two men in a van attacked her. In the midst of this description – unrelenting in careful details – of the most pivotal moment of Laurel’s young life, Bohjalian slips in two unexpected phrases you should not miss on page 3: “George Wilson (shot Jay Gatsby as he floated aimlessly in his swimming pool)” and “…even if she hadn’t grown up in West Egg …” Hold on to those clues …

By prologue’s end, the narrative intentions are set: At 26, Laurel works at a Vermont homeless shelter and is in possession of a box of photographs belonging to 82-year-old Bobbie Crocker, a former shelter resident who has just passed away. The photos fall into three categories: instantly recognizable famous people and places; a girl on a bike on an all-too-familiar dirt road; and scenes from the country club of Laurel’s childhood “once owned by a bootlegger named Gatsby” that include photos of society doyenne Pamela Buchanan Marshfield as a girl with an anonymous young boy about whose identity Laurel instantly “has a hunch.” Laurel must decipher the multi-layered story literally laid out before her, realizing she is somehow implicated.

Puzzled yet? [And no, you don’t need to be a Gatsby aficionado, just know the basic story of invented identities and unattainability. Literary heresy aside, Gatsby bores me, except when Elevator Repair Service performs it as their phenomenal eight-hour stage spectacle renamed Gatz.] Just beware: Don’t get too presumptuous too quickly – even as Bohjalian reveals clues in plain sight, full understanding probably won’t come until you go back and reread. Reality has rarely been so clearly, cleverly camouflaged.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Armenian American

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

Monsters of TempletonFirst, a few details to address before we get to award-winning Lauren Groff‘s down-the-rabbit-hole, delightfully convoluted debut novel …

If you choose to go audible, the publishing world offers two versions: I went with Ann Marie Lee (via the local library), although the (later) more readily available recording is by Nicole Roberts. As long as Lee stays away from accents, her narration is just grand. Her version, however, doesn’t include Groff’s opening “Author’s Note,” so you’ll need to find those two pages in print (or stick Roberts in your ears) as they are dense with contextual information.

Templeton is real. Sort of. Templeton is based on Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, New York, that baseball Mecca named after James Fenimore Cooper‘s father William, the town’s 18th-century founder. Quakers, house by the lake, Yale, great novelists with initials that begin with J.F. – do remember some of those real-life details.

Cooper rechristened the town ‘Templeton’ in The Pioneers, his novel about Cooperstown, in which “his facts also went a little awry,” Groff explains. She herself initially intended to “write a love story for Cooperstown,” but she realized hers was “a slantwise version of the original.” Groff adapted Cooper’s ‘pioneer’-ing approach, as well as some of Cooper’s characters, including Marmaduke Temple, Natty Bumppo, and Chingachgook. “In the end, fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies. I ended up with a different sort of story about my town than the one I had begun.”

So now … welcome to Monsters, of which Templeton seems to have many. “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace,” confesses protagonist Willie Upton – a few months short of finishing her Stanford PhD in archeology, and pregnant by her married advisor – “the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” That titular beast is the town’s least benign, and symbol it may be, it’s alas a rather unnecessary diversion from the rest of the narrative.

Having nearly killed her lover’s wife in a spectacular plane chase on the frozen Alaskan tundra, Willie returns to Templeton and her mother Vi in a think-later state of shock. With the discovery of the town’s monster, home is not the calm escape Willie expected. Her former flower-child mother has unexpectedly embraced religion, claiming the town’s pastor as her boyfriend. Hoping to purge her past wrongdoings, Vi confesses that Willie’s wild birthstory involving three potential donors is untrue, and that Willie’s father is actually a shall-not-be-named Templetonian, which means Willie’s heretofore unknown paternal link shares the same blue blood as mother and daughter. Willie’s challenge to dig up her lineage is just the insane sort of project to restore her sanity …

Interwoven with Willie’s personal quest is an acerbic, possibly dying best friend on the other side of the country, the “Running Buds,” a homecoming King too attracted to his returning Queenie, a transformed “Peter-Lieder-Pudding-and-Pie,” not to mention a sprawling, entangled family tree that includes ghosts, slaves, Native Americans, murderers, cheaters, and, of course, writers. From that epic monster mash came forth Wilhelmina Sunshine Upton … and she’s not leaving again until she’s unearthed all her buried roots.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Ghost BrideHauntings, posthumous marriage proposals, addictions, not-quite-human heroes, in-between spirits growing old, burnt offerings that are actually real in another world. Interest piqued? Get ready for this absolutely ingenious debut novel!

And (there’s more!), as an exponentially satisfying bonus, the crisply-voiced author herself – Yangsze Choo, a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent now California-domiciled – refreshingly voices the audible incarnation. Yes, without having to grit your way through errant pronunciations, Choo’s rendition is just about music to your ears!

The concept of ‘hungry ghosts‘ is centuries-old in China and other parts of Asia, but Choo goes far beyond lost and desperate spectres to create original, unexpected parallel world she calls “the Plains of the Dead” filled with the uniquely undead. Li Lan, a young woman in 1890s Malaya who is quickly bypassing socially-deemed marriageable age, receives an eerie offer. No longer an illustrious family, Li Lan’s father is financially diminished enough to present the unusual proposition to his daughter: to marry Lim Tian Ching, the wealthy heir to a privileged family … never mind that he’s … well … dead. His mother worries that her precious son will be lonely in his afterlife, and requests Li Lan as his bride.

Just in case Li Lan had other thoughts, Tian Ching quickly begins to lay claim from beyond on his intended. Li Lan, of course, is no obedient wallflower; in fact, her heart flutters for Tian Ching’s cousin, Tian Bai, who she initially mistakes as a servant. Her future, alas, is not her own if she can’t get herself unhaunted. Somehow, somewhere, she’ll have to chase down the undead Tian Ching and expose him for the less-than-honorable spirit he is …

Li Lan’s epic journey toward death in order to live is filled with unexpected meetings, devious servants, a trusty horse that never eats or tires, an arrogant yet irresistible guardian spirit, and plenty of corrupt officials (surprise, surprise – even in the netherworld!). Lest you worry about your own soul, Choo inserts a clever nod to tolerance: Keep an eye out for the centuries-old Dutchman who cannot help Li Lan on her deathly quest because “Those are not my beliefs … That is not my afterworld.”

The lengths a girl has to go through to escape unwanted attention reaches new heights – or should I say depths? – in this intriguing, wholly inventive, thoroughly entertaining debut title.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese, Malay American, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

Sickness Unto Death (vols. 1-2) by Hikaru Asada, illustrated by Takahiro Seguchi, translated by Vertical, Inc.

Sickness Unto Death 1.2

Determined to become a clinical psychologist, young Futaba arrives in an unnamed city to begin college. Before he even gets to his lodgings – arranged through a friend of his father’s – he helps a young woman who collapses in a crowded plaza. While he can’t deny her strange beauty, he’s more struck by her lifelessness: her colorless hair, pale skin “like glass,” her “mannequin’s” hand, her body “so frail it could snap.”

When he reaches his lodgings-to-be, he’s not only surprised he’ll be living in a mansion, but that the owner is none other than the sickly young woman. “Miss Emiru suffers from a terminal illness of the spirit,” Kuramoto – the mansion’s butler and only other resident – explains. Surrounded by nightmares, monsters, and death (oh, my!), Emiru proves to be an irresistible psychological challenge. How could such a caring (testosteroned!) young man turn away from someone so gorgeously needy …? Doctor/patient distance be damned (uhhh, he’s still just a student, so that’s okay?!). Will Futaba be able to save his own sanity as he battles her past?

The title is a nod to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who originally published the text in 1849 under what seems today to be a comical pseudonym, Anti-Climacus. You probably don’t need to read the eponymous psychological treatise on despair to get full benefit of this two-volume manga. That said, while Sickness might be less venerable than its namesake, it’s also not without subtle depth.

Take names, for example – a whole meta-narrative is happening in their possible literal meanings. As a new student, our young man Futaba (‘a bud, a sprout’) is a vessel for potential when he presents himself at the Ariga mansion. There he first faces Kuramoto (‘the foundation of darkness’) who has faithfully served the young heiress through dark, difficult times. Futaba next formally meets Emiru (‘to look at the picture) Ariga (‘to be a picture’), who is a mere semblance of who she once was; Ariga could also mean ‘to be congratulatory,’ perhaps a reference to her outcome as a result of Futaba’s intervention.

What happens to Emiru certainly raises thought-provoking questions, especially about (possible spoiler alert!) so-called ‘true’ identity in the case of multiple personalities, and who gets to determine who is ‘real’ and who is not. After reading both volumes, try this: line up the covers side by side and ask – whether doctor or patient, what would you do?

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami by Gretel Ehrlich

Facing the WaveBefore discussing content, I must start with a warning about presentation – think of it as a public service announcement: Choose the page, choose the page, choose the page!

Although narrator Sumalee Montano (an American actress of Filipina and Thai/Chinese descent with a Harvard degree) lists Japanese as one of her specialty accents on her résumé – she also lists “Asian gibberish,” I kid you not! – any supposed proficiency disappears with actual Japanese names and words: “Junie-cheeeeero” in spite of the distinguished first syllable in Jun’ichiro, “Koh-BEE” instead of Kobe, oh my. That said, to blame the narrator is ultimately misdirected; irresponsible (lazy?!) audible producers who are incapable of employing a reader who is actually familiar with the language featured in a title seem to be the norm. Again and again, careless casting does grave injustice to otherwise well-written, important titles. Might I repeat: choose the page!

Gretel Ehrlich – award-winning journalist, novelist, poet of 15 titles, and a rancher and filmmaker, as well – travels to Japan three months after the tragic March 11, 2011 Tōhoku earthquake that triggered a powerful tsunami which then caused one of the world’s worst nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. The devastation is understandably wrenching as she travels along the Tōhoku coast, sharing with survivors their overwhelming losses of home, possessions, and friends and family.

Beyond the harrowing tragedies, however, Ehrlich finds the most life-affirming stories amidst so much cataclysmic death and destruction: a mother who lost her daughter obtains a backhoe license so she can dig for the still-missing; horse and dog rescuers who realize that “many people died … but the animals didn’t even have a chance to run for their lives'”; a stranger who, when he learns Ehrlich is American, asks her to thank the U.S.Navy for providing food, clothing, and water right after the tsunami when no one else could reach his village.

Perhaps the most memorable of all features 84-year-old geisha Tsuyako Ito, “the ‘last geisha of Kamaishi.'” Geisha rarely travel, and “[e]ach region of Japan holds on to its own traditional acts, and they are never passed from one region to another,” Ehrlich explains. “But the March disaster changed protocol and erased territorial boundaries.” The tragedy of the wave brought Tokyo geisha Megumi Kumura to Ito-san’s village bearing a new shamisen after she read how Ito-san lost everything. Megumi-san left with the “Hamauta, the Bay Song,” which only Ito-san knew in all the world; back in Tokyo, Megumi-san taught her four apprentices. “‘Even though the girls aren’t from here, at least the song will be carried on … As long as someone owns it, it can’t be stolen, or forgotten. I’m so grateful,'” Ito-san exclaims.

Such moments of human connection carry Ehrlich’s memoir forward with hope. She finds the unexpected moments of bonding and laughter, of happy memories and promises for a recovering future. “The Wave was … both destructive and beautiful,” she writes in her “Epilogue”; her eyewitness memoir – chilling and inspiring – captures the same.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Kinder Than Solitude*STARRED REVIEW
In her first title since she received a 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Yiyun Li again explores the far-reaching repercussions of a single person’s death. While her mesmerizing The Vagrants (2009) revolved around the execution of a young political victim, here, three childhood friends take the spotlight when a fourth dies after a protracted illness.

Ruyu, an orphan raised by elderly “grandaunts,” is sent to live with Aunt, Uncle, and their acerbic daughter, Shaoai, in Beijing. There, she meets Boyang and Moran, who live in the same residential compound. Just four months later, the three children are implicated in Shaoai’s mysterious collapse. Shaoai’s long-expected death after 20 years prompts Boyang – now a wealthy divorcé – to contact Moran, a Massachusetts pharmaceutical tester with a PhD determined to care for her ill Midwestern ex-husband, and Ruyu, who sells chocolates and keeps house for wealthy Californians.

Verdict: Li’s effortless ability to move fluidly in time and place – between minutes or decades and across continents – always with exacting details, gives this novel a shattering immediacy. Discerning readers who appreciated the well-traveled, multicultural virtuosity of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone will find rewarding satiety in Solitude.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American

If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman

If I Go.Where She Went

That the film version of If I Stay is currently in production is reason enough to read the book before Hollywood leaves its indelible imprint too soon. Trust me: 99.9% of the time, the book is better. The intensity and ferocity that author Gayle Forman offers with her careful, lucid words, that your imagination magically makes ‘real,’ couldn’t possibly be duplicated on the flat screen – not with this sort of intimacy and depth.

Like the young lovers within, these two books shouldn’t be separated. The duo comprises a ‘she said’/’he said’ love story from its innocent inception to its miraculous recovery. In If I Stay, Mia and Adam are both musicians – Mia with her classic cello, Adam with his rock ‘n roll guitar. They are wondrously young, utterly in love, and infinitely hopeful … until Mia is lying in a hospital bed, the only survivor of a tragic auto accident that rips her away from her entire family. Mia’s twisted, damaged body lies comatose, while her mind remembers everything she has to live for, and her heart must decide if she should stay …

Three years later, in Where She Went, Adam speaks. He’s moved to L.A., he’s making amazing music, and he’s famous beyond his wildest dreams. He’s also living with a caring woman he can’t love, popping pills just to survive each day, and on the verge of imploding his rock star band. During a New York stopover on his way to London, Adam buys a ticket on a whim for a cello concert at Carnegie Hall. He’s too famous to sneak out, and is summoned by the evening’s star … and so begins a not-quite 24-hour reunion that will restore two young lives … again.

Fresh. Soulful. Raw. Sighs, tears, joy, as well.

Go ahead … put aside any cynicism and just believe.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009 and 2011

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

The Translator by Nina Schuyler

TranslatorIn just her protagonist’s name alone, author Nina Schuyler imbues linguistic magic in her latest novel about language, communication, understanding, and ultimately, the bonds of family. Schuyler’s leading lady is Hanne Schubert, a 53-year-old woman who speaks seven languages including Japanese, German, along with her English. She teaches Japanese language courses at a San Francisco university, although her professional reputation is built on her prowess as a translator of Japanese texts into English.

Hanne’s given name reflects her German-Dutch origins, yet its pronunciation is not far from the Japanese infinitive, hanasu, which, depending on the kanji characters, can mean ‘to speak, to talk’ (話す), or ‘to separate, disconnect, divide’ (離す). Over the novel’s 300 pages, or just over nine hours stuck in the ears (be warned: the only language Kirsten Potter seems to share with Hanne is English – her garbled attempts at Japanese and German are mostly incomprehensible), Hanne will move between the desire to speak and communicate, as she longs to repair the separations and disconnects that have left her isolated in middle age.

And then there’s her last name, Schubert, surely a nod to the prodigious composer, Franz Schubert, who passed away far too young, leaving behind what would become one of his signature pieces, “Unfinished Symphony.” Even in her isolation, so much of Hanne’s life is unfinished, unsorted, unknown. Having walked to City Hall where her married life began decades prior (only to be unexpectedly cut short), her future is considerably altered when she falls down the stairs. One of her last thoughts before she tumbles is a line from the book she’s just translated: “Every situation, every person has a melody playing, even if you can’t hear it.” Hanne will need to learn how to listen – to others, as well as her own self – in order to truly hear and genuinely comprehend.

Although Hanne seems to recover from her accident in just a few days, her ability to speak English disappears. Suffering from a rare form of aphasia, her fluency is limited to only Japanese, the language of her husband, the shared language she instilled in both their children, the language that literally feeds her as translator and professor. Unable to communicate at home in San Francisco, Hanne takes the opportunity to speak at a conference in Tokyo. She’s publicly confronted by Kobayashi, the author whose work she’s just translated, who accuses her of having “‘ruined my main character!'” That ruined protagonist, Hanne is reminded, has a living counterpart: a renowned Noh actor named Moto – of the many kanji characters his name might represent, moto (元) could mean ‘the beginning,’ or ‘the genesis.’ Hanne spontaneously decides to visit this Moto, and in discovering Kobayashi’s inspiration, she is forced to confront her own beginnings, especially her past relationships with her own estranged daughter, in order to finally ford the divide, restore lost communications, and reclaim severed connections. With so many layers to be deciphered, puzzled, revealed, and understood, Translator is a lingua-lover’s near-perfect novel.

Tidbit: To read my profile on Schuyler for Bloom, click here. To check out my Q&A, click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, BernadetteEven though the Yoko Ono comment made by an angry daughter about her hapless father’s extramaritally knocked-up girlfriend gets apologized for some 40 pages later – “‘I called her Yoko Ono that night because she was the one who broke up the Beatles. Not because she’s Asian” – it’s a lingering annoyance in what is an overall hysterical, rollicking tale of miscommunication and privilege. [The fertile girlfriend, by the way, is definitely not Japanese; she’s a native-born American of perhaps Chinese heritage guessing by her name. Unfortunately – surprise! not! – she’s also the wayward hubby’s admin. More damning is that if you start typing “women who broke up …” into Google, as soon as you hit that last ‘b,’ ‘bands’ pops up automatically – “Women have been breaking up bands for decades, from the inside and the periphery,” shouts an example article. Clearly Yoko was not the only evil bandbreaker; she’s just the easiest Asian stereotype to grab. I’m just saying …!]

Okay, so grumbling aside, back to laughing. The titular Bernadette is stuck in Seattle – a city she abhors – hiding out in a sprawling, unique hovel she calls ‘home.’ She seems to bear little resemblance to the fearless architect she once was – a legendary MacArthur “Genius” renegade who was building green long before Al Gore was performing his global warnings. But after too many disasters and tragedies, she seems to have turned into someone else. Where’d she go, indeed?

This Bernadette has a virtual assistant in India (at $0.75 an hour!) to keep her life organized enough; the only human beings she sees with any regularity are her husband Elgin, a Microsoft exec with a viral TED talk, and their precocious teenage daughter Bee who is absolutely excited about claiming her upcoming middle school graduation present: “‘You told me when I started Galer Street that if I got perfect grades the whole way through, I could have anything I wanted for a graduation present … A family trip to Antarctica!'” As the departure date nears, Bernadette panics and Elgin plots. Then Bernadette disappears … and it’s up to Bee to figure out where’d she go – again.

Filled with wacky supporting characters (overinvested, helicopter private school mothers are a breed unto their own!) and impossible plot twists (Russian Mafia, anyone?), Where’d You Go is 99% fun. Author Maria Semple – who, like her missing Bernadette, when to Choate, established a highly successful career in LaLaLand, and now lives in Seattle – parlays her extensive TV writing experience in creating a novel perfect for short attention-spans trained on 21.5-minute episodes. Her prose is presented in snippets of emails, faxes, letters, notes, diary-like entries from multiple viewpoints and voices, never lingering too long on any one person’s naval-gazing. If you choose to go audible, narrator Kathleen Wilhoite keeps perfect pace with Semple’s rapid narrative, never allowing for a dull moment. Once you start, you just might be devising your own vanishing act in order to get to adventure’s end! Where’d YOU go …?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

Paris Was the Place by Susan Conley

Paris Was the PlaceIn Susan Conley’s debut novel defined by deep relationships, the most intriguing alliances get neglected and overlooked for the more commonplace and predictable. Willow – called Willie – moves to Paris to be closer to her peripatetic brother Luke who was most recently in China bringing safe water to far-flung villages, but has settled in the City of Light for love. Their mother passed away a year earlier, and for Willie who is estranged from their once-philandering-now-reborn-Christian father back in Northern California, Luke is her only constant family.

Poetry professor by day, Willie volunteers at night to teach English to refugee girls held at an asylum center while awaiting their immigration hearings. Her students are too-young survivors of violence and tragedy, and Willie finds herself becoming especially attached to Gita who seeks immediate safety from her local rapist brother-in-law, and hopes to be saved from child marriage to a much older groom in her native India. At the center, Willie finds herself ever hopeful of crossing paths with the girls’ lawyer Macon (named so by his American South loving French mother and Estonian father by way of Canada).

Go ahead and take a few guesses as to what will unfold: we’re talking a gay brother in the 1980s, a “funny man with hiking boots” who makes Willie’s stomach do flips, and a pair of deserting parents (the avoided living father, the longed-after missing mother). Over almost 400 pages – or more than 14.5 hours stuck in the ears (narrator Cassandra Campbell clearly enjoys exaggerating her French accents) – Willie succumbs to an awful lot of navel-gazing as her brother weakens, her lover beckons, and her father flees (again).

A redistribution of self-absorption to beyond-the-comfort-zone exploration – about 75%/25% here – would have been a vast narrative improvement. Repetitive street names and places (more than a dozen references to Avenue Victor Hugo alone!) were also unnecessary – it’s a novel, not a walking tour. Verdict? By condensing Willie’s myopic tendencies in favor of further developing the lives of her refugee students, Conley undoubtedly could have written a more provocative, captivating story only hinted at here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, European, Nonethnic-specific, South Asian