Today’s post by author Samantha Wilde
Here’s something I rarely tell people. It’s as true as a story can get and as close to the heart. When I wrote my first novel, I wrote with mixed motives.
Here’s the story I tell: I wrote This Little Mommy Stayed Home during my first son’s naps. He napped one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. I wanted to write the book I wanted to read! It came out of me in a rush. In a way, I couldn’t not write it. A funny, honest, rueful tale about the first nine months of new motherhood and the cataclysmic effects of a baby on a marriage and on identity spilled onto the page in a comic voice that I hadn’t used before in my other (unpublished) novels.
Here’s the story I don’t usually tell: My husband and I, even before my son’s birth, often talked about our ideal families. Heatedly discuss fits the mark better than talk! I wanted a large family, he wanted a small family. I wanted six children, he wanted two children. A compromise wasn’t out of the question, but neither of us showed signs of budging. He wanted two children and not a single kid more. I wanted six and not a single kid less. Our ideas of family came from our own childhoods and deep, important, profound dreams about the meaning of family and our own hopes for the good life.
My husband had several valid reasons backing up his perspective, chief among them financial concerns. He very much wanted to have the funds so that each of our children could have the best education. He’s a professor; education makes a difference in his life every day. At a certain point in our ongoing dialogues, he suggested the possibility of me (the stay-at-home parent, the really, really wanting to stay-at-home parent), earning money for these “extra” children. Well, how do you make enough money to send four surplus kids through college while staying at home to take care of them as children?
When I sat down to write my first novel, I had a creative drive and a passion for my story. AND a little voice in the back of my head that said, maybe this could sell. You could write at night and still stay home. You could write for babies.
I often think how funny it would be to make a sign on cardboard: will write for babies. I have a sense of humor about this situation. I also have three children now and a husband who graciously, lovingly, made room in his heart and plans for our third. But I still carry this ancient dream with me, as old as I am, as early as any memory I can think of–me, the mother of a gaggle, a gang, a team, a party’s worth of children. Dreams heavily rooted inside of us, made from the fibers of our heart, don’t surrender easily.
At the inception of my new novel, one of the main characters, Nora, wants to have a baby and can’t. The woman she envies, Cynthia Cypress, gets pregnant and Nora’s green-eyed monster comes out in force. This feeling of envy, baby envy, is so common and so powerful that friendships often end because of it. I try very hard not to envy mothers with many children! The story of I’ll Take What She Has, a story of motherhood and friendship and envy—also a comic novel—is about finding your own green grass inside of the messy complications of friendship and love.
Do I hold out this little hope that one of my novels will top the charts and sell millions before my eggs dry up? I sure do. In the back of my mind, I write for that dream of family. In the front of my mind, I just write. I count my blessings: one, two, three. I put the rich, juicy stories in the novels. Part of what I love about fiction is that in writing it, I get to control the outcome—unlike life. And yet fiction teaches us how to live. My characters had to grow up and grow into the mixed up beautiful lives they were given, uncover the green grass they were standing on all along. Me too. I got to grow up with them.
At a bookstore event a few weeks ago, celebrating the paperback incarnation of my novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, I was asked what it meant to me to be a New England author.
My first impulse was to look over my shoulder, because surely they were talking to Anita Shreve or Nathaniel Philbrick or Sue Miller. It was true that I was born in Boston, and so were all my children. But I’d grown up in Chicago and Connecticut, and first found my writing voice at a travel magazine in New York, and then on a novel written mostly in Washington DC. I had never thought of myself as a New England writer, because I’d rarely written about New England.
But a funny thing happened when I sat down to write a novel: When I picked a setting, my mind and heart went first to Boston and the Massachusetts islands, to the beaches where I’d learned to dig quahogs with the salt drying in white whorls across my shoulders, the places I’d rented summer bungalows so small I could see where the children were at all times. It was a place I could write with the authority that only comes with familiarity:
“The ferry’s cafeteria windows overlooked the Atlantic on three sides. The color of the sky matched the water, today more oyster than leaden. It had been overcast on almost every one of the ferry trips Kate had ever taken, and she’d come to associate gray with vacationing as people do navy with sailing or pink with baby girls. Gray was the shingled house they rented and the darkly opaque waves outside its windows. It was the sweatshirts the kids threw on over their bathing suits, and the steamers she ate several times a week dipped in dun-colored broth. Gray represented freedom from ordinary time, and gray was the uniform of the cavalry riding in, the child-care cavalry, Chris was with them most of the time.”
So when Literary New England approached me about being part of its fundraiser, supporting both its radio show and its forthcoming travel guide, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
A literary travel guide to locations featured in contemporary and classic books, with lists of the best New England bookstores, literary festivals, writing workshops, and retreats? Just the sort of thing a New England author would want to support, and own.
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Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, who’d lost her close friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident. But when she inherits a trunk of Elizabeth’s journals, they reveal a woman far different than the cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew. The complicated portrait of Elizabeth—her troubled upbringing, and her route to marriage and motherhood—makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her own deepest beliefs about loyalty and honesty at a period of uncertainty in her own marriage. When an unfamiliar man’s name appears in the pages, Kate realizes the extent of what she didn’t know about her friend, including where she was really going on the day she died. The more Kate reads, the more she learns the complicated truth of who Elizabeth really was, and rethinks her own choices as a wife, mother, and professional, and the legacy she herself would want to leave behind.
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Nichole Bernier is author of the novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D. (Crown/Random House, 2012), which spent eight weeks on the Boston Globe bestseller list and was a finalist for the New England Independent Booksellers fiction award. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler magazine for 14 years, she has also written for publications including Psychology Today, Elle, Health, Self, Salon, The Huffington Post, and Post Road Literary Magazine. Nichole lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children, and is at work on a second novel. She can be found online at nicholebernier.com.
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Written by Cindy Boynton and scheduled for release in September, the Literary New England Travel Guide will take actual and armchair travelers to more than 500 New England locations featured in contemporary and classic books and related to popular authors, as well as provide a list of the best New England bookstores, book fests, writing workshops, retreats, and more.
Produced in both print and e-form, the guide will also include maps, suggested itineraries and author interviews. Travel spots include:
- Wally Lamb’s Three Rivers
- The Matlock Paper’s Carlyle U
- Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”
- The Gloucester port from “The Perfect Storm”
- Truman Capote’s high school
- Mark Twain’s home
- The Little Women house
- The apple orchards in Jodi Picoult’s Songs of the Humpback Whale
- William Styron’s and Arthur Miller’s graves
- The foghorn that appears in many Eugene O’Neill plays
- The Weissmanns’ Westport
- Where Linda Greenlaw set The Lobster Chronicles
- And many more
The writing space of this month’s featured author, Christina Baker Kline. Everything about this room looks warm and cozy and primed for inspiration. It’s no wonder ORPHAN TRAIN hit the New York Times Bestseller list almost immediately upon publication. My favorite thing about this room: the windows (I do love a pretty view).
Every summer I expect to have a new book from the authors I think of as “The Bigs,” and I’m not referring to their size. I’m thinking of their reputation, their standings on the various bestseller lists, and their talent. I thought I’d share what I’m looking forward to from “The Bigs” this summer.
Following college, Jamie McAllister wins a prestigious internship at the White House that she has no idea will irrevocably alter her life. An unexpected flirtation with the handsome and charismatic Gregory Rutland quickly leads to an emotional relationship she is ill equipped to handle at twenty-two. Each time she tries to extricate herself Greg is unable to find the strength to let her go. Meanwhile, the opposing party mobilizes to annihilate his presidency by any means necessary.
As Greg’s conflicting desires drive her to the breaking point, Jamie can’t help but reveal intimate details to those closest to her. But she must have unburdened herself to the wrong person—because within a matter of weeks Jamie finds herself, and everyone she loves, facing highly calculated destruction at the hands of Greg’s political enemies.
With her every mistake dragged out for the world to judge, Jamie has to endure an unprecedented trial in the court of public opinion—with the fate of the President, his party, and the country at stake.
Now, years later, can the woman infamously known as the “girl in the blue dress” make sense of this affair, and the trauma it wrought, for the world—and for herself?
From the author of Another Piece of My Heart comes Family Pictures, the gripping story of two women who live on opposite coasts but whose lives are connected in ways they never could have imagined. Both women are wives and mothers to children who are about to leave the nest for school. They’re both in their forties and have husbands who travel more than either of them would like. They are both feeling an emptiness neither had expected. But when a shocking secret is exposed, their lives are blown apart. As dark truths from the past reveal themselves, will these two women be able to learn to forgive, for the sake of their children, if not for themselves?
Tully Hart has always been larger than life, a woman fueled by big dreams and driven by memories of a painful past. She thinks she can overcome anything until her best friend, Kate Ryan, dies. Tully tries to fulfill her deathbed promise to Kate—to be there for Kate’s children—but Tully knows nothing about family or motherhood or taking care of people.
Sixteen-year-old Marah Ryan is devastated by her mother’s death. Her father, Johnny, strives to hold the family together, but even with his best efforts, Marah becomes unreachable in her grief. Nothing and no one seems to matter to her . . . until she falls in love with a young man who makes her smile again and leads her into his dangerous, shadowy world.
Dorothy Hart—the woman who once called herself Cloud—is at the center of Tully’s tragic past. She repeatedly abandoned her daughter, Tully, as a child, but now she comes back, drawn to her daughter’s side at a time when Tully is most alone. At long last, Dorothy must face her darkest fear: Only by revealing the ugly secrets of her past can she hope to become the mother her daughter needs.
A single, tragic choice and a middle-of-the-night phone call will bring these women together and set them on a poignant, powerful journey of redemption. Each has lost her way, and they will need each one another—and maybe a miracle—to transform their lives.
An emotionally complex, heart-wrenching novel about love, motherhood, loss, and new beginnings, Fly Away reminds us that where there is life, there is hope, and where there is love, there is forgiveness. Told with her trademark powerful storytelling and illuminating prose, Kristin Hannah reveals why she is one of the most beloved writers of our day.
Grace Stanton’s life as a rising media star and beloved lifestyle blogger takes a surprising turn when she catches her husband cheating and torpedoes his pricey sports car straight into the family swimming pool. Grace suddenly finds herself locked out of her palatial home, checking account, and even the blog she has worked so hard to develop in her signature style. Moving in with her widowed mother, who owns and lives above a rundown beach bar called The Sandbox, is less than ideal. So is attending court-mandated weekly “divorce recovery” therapy sessions with three other women and one man for whom betrayal seems to be the only commonality. When their “divorce coach” starts to act suspiciously, they decide to start having their own Wednesday “Ladies’ Night” sessions at The Sandbox, and the unanticipated bonds that develop lead the members of the group to try and find closure in ways they never imagined. Can Grace figure out a new way home and discover how strong she needs to be to get there?
An all-expense-paid week at a luxury villa in Jamaica—it’s the invitation of a lifetime for a group of old college friends. All four women are desperate not just for a reunion, but for an escape: Tina is drowning under the demands of mothering four young children. Allie is shattered by the news that a genetic illness runs in her family. Savannah is carrying the secret of her husband’s infidelity. And, finally, there’s Pauline, who spares no expense to throw her wealthy husband an unforgettable thirty-fifth birthday celebration, hoping it will gloss over the cracks already splitting apart their new marriage.
Languid hours on a private beach, gourmet dinners, and late nights of drinking kick off an idyllic week for the women and their husbands. But as a powerful hurricane bears down on the island, turmoil swirls inside the villa, forcing each of the women to reevaluate everything she knows about her friends—and herself.
Here’s my confession: I have a HUGE crush on this book. In fact, I’ll tell you what happy looks like – my face when I’m reading Jennifer E. Smith’s sweet, funny, and cleverly written exchanges between Graham Larkin and Ellie O’Neill.
In this story, a simple mistake in typing an e-mail address leads to a correspondence between two teenagers from opposite sides of the country. The teenagers don’t know much of anything about each other, and yet it’s that anonymity through e-mail with a stranger that allows them to open up to each other about things they’d never tell anyone they actually knew. What results is a conversation of thoughts and feelings in the moment – things they can’t say out loud but can say to each other. This ranges from seemingly insignificant observations about the annoyingness of smiley faces used in e-mails (J) to the soul-searching question of what happiness looks like.
Each still holds an important secret, though.
Graham Larkin is a teen heartthrob movie star, trapped in a world of paparazzi and feeling like nobody really wants to be around him for him, but only for his looks and his fame. In his correspondence with Ellie, he gets to be himself and get to know her without the trappings of fame. He’s just a witty, smart, normal guy who’s falling for a girl he’s never met.
Ellie O’Neill is a seemingly typical small town girl, but she and her mom have changed their names to keep a scandalous past hidden. Ellie is the only child of a single mom, and life gets lonely even with her friends to keep her company. This anonymous pen pal deal is exactly what she needs – a guy she can be honest with and dream about.
Only, what if it doesn’t have to be a dream anymore? When Ellie lets her town’s name slip, Graham starts pulling strings and gets the location for his next movie shoot changed… to Ellie’s small coastal town. Sounds like every girl’s dream – what teenage girl doesn’t want the teen magazine centerfold showing up on her doorstep, ready to sweep her off her feet? For Ellie, though, Graham’s fame and constant media attention complicate and change everything.
Watching these two characters navigate the challenges they each face as they explore the possibilities the future holds is great summer fun. The characters are great to spend some time with, the writing is full of smart romance and beautiful description, and the story holds enough excitement to keep us all daydreaming about our teenaged selves opening the door to find our adolescent celebrity man-crush there, declaring his love for us. All in all, I highly recommend you check out This Is What Happy Looks Like… and soon!
What was the last great YA novel you read?
Today we have a recipe inspired by this month’s book club selection, ORPHAN TRAIN, and created by chef Ingrid of Edible Tapestry. We thought it fitting to provide this for the She Reads book clubs that will meet throughout the month to discuss the novel. We hope you find the book and this dish equally delicious!
I’d intended to make a savory dish for May’s book selection as my last two guest posts were very sweet. The point of my collaboration with She Reads, however, is to create a recipe that is inspired by incidents in the book and the characters that they are centered around.
It was a dish from character Niamh’s own poignant culinary recollections that I decided must be the May recipe, despite the fact that I kept thinking someone really needed to cook that poor girl a dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes with creamed corn and collards. But the memory of her gram rolling yellow dough for a rhubarb tart while a goose roasted in the oven was such a source of comfort to her–the thing she uses to get through some difficult moments in Orphan Train. Her life, filled with strife from an early age, moves from one period to another with very few moments of tranquility. All she wants is to feel to safe. This vision of Gram bustling around her kitchen in County Galway momentarily calmed her and was the perfect inspiration for this recipe.
I was stubborn about this idea of mine. Rhubarb has been hard to find. The farmers in our area tell me it won’t be ready until next week. But one, Jane from Garnet Creek Road, said hers was ready and available for purchase. Look at these beautiful stalks.
I added a cup of diced strawberries for sweetness and color, but the rhubarb takes center stage in the tart, unlike the berry sweetness of a strawberry rhubarb pie. I used turbinado sugar which made a deep, rich burgundy filling. I loved the look and taste but white sugar would make a filling of a brighter color. For convenience, a prepared crust can be substituted for the Flaky Yellow Crust I have included in the recipe.
Flaky Yellow Crust:
1 c. all-purpose flour, plus additional flour for rolling
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sugar
6 T butter, cut into pieces
1/2 tsp. white vinegar
1 egg yolk
2 T ice cold water
3 c. fresh rhubarb, sliced into half inch pieces
1 c. fresh, diced strawberries
2 c. sugar
Pinch of salt
1 T all-purpose flour
1 T butter
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine all filling ingredients.
Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Cook 20 minutes until thickened and reduced, stirring frequently.
To make the crust, sift together the salt, sugar, and flour in a medium sized mixing bowl.
Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles lumpy beach sand.
Add the egg yolk, vinegar, and water.
Mix just until the dough comes together. It happens very quickly. Over-mixing will make a tougher dough. Pat the dough into a flattened circle on a floured surface.
Dust the surface with flour. Roll into a circle large enough to fit inside a tart dish or pan.
Roll the dough up on the rolling pin to transfer.
Unroll it into the tart pan.
Fold the excess edges under to form a thick crust or trim it off.
Prick the bottom of the dough.
When the filling is ready, pour it into the prepared crust.
Bake for 35 minutes.
Cool 30 minutes at room temperature, then chill thoroughly before serving to allow the filling to firm.
Today’s post by debut author Suzanne Rindell
We have a copy of Suzanne’s novel, THE OTHER TYPIST, up for grabs today. Just leave a comment on this post and you’ll be entered to win.
People seem to find it interesting that I worked at a literary agency while writing my first novel. My fellow writers in particular seem surprised. “Didn’t you have to read some pretty bad stuff sometimes?” they ask. Or, an alternative version of the same thing: “Didn’t that interfere with your own creative process?” And then, there is the question that actually weighed most heavily on my heart: “Do you find your passion was divided between your writing and other people’s projects?”
I thought about that last question a lot, and not just in retrospect, but also during the time I worked there. Working in publishing is more or less a round-the-clock endeavor. You need to be kind of obsessive in a way, because your job is to constantly think about what makes a good manuscript good, and what makes a book work – and by “work,” I mean appeal to a lot of readers. These are necessary questions for an editor or an agent to constantly ask, and they are certainly not bad questions for a writer to ask herself, as they are questions concerned with connecting to one’s audience.
I was lucky; I worked at a well-reputed agency. Our “slush pile” (i.e. unsolicited submissions) was of a higher caliber, and while working there I encountered a number of great manuscripts that way. But one month, we had a particularly dry spell. I came home from the agency one day, frustrated that I wasn’t finding my “dream manuscript” in the slush, and decided: I’ll write the manuscript I want to find myself! That day, I decided to run with it and started the first chapter of my novel.
After that, I spent little tiny periods of time – usually very late at night or very early in the morning – adding a little more to my novel. I found this daily act didn’t take away my passion for agency work – instead, it enhanced it! I still wanted to find great manuscripts, and I felt the act of writing everyday helped hone my instinct for giving sharper editorial advice and spotting talent in others. I was as obsessed with their projects as I was with my own. The experience wasn’t competitive, either. Instead, I felt a larger sense of community. I wanted (and still want) my fellow writers to succeed, and raise the bar for other writers. In my opinion, writing is like real estate: you don’t want to be the nicest house on a crummy block. You want to live in a dazzling neighborhood that inspires you to make bold renovations.
Realistically, I am forced to admit I don’t have the time to work full-time at an agency anymore. Book tours and related obligations have shown me there are sometimes spells where I simply don’t have the hours to work for other writers as their primary agent in the manner they deserve. Nonetheless, I still hope to find some sort of middle ground; some way to continue discovering, helping, and supporting my fellow authors within the publishing community. Because if you ask me, writing while cheering on and mentoring other writers is truly a win-win situation.
For fans of The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Great Gatsby comes one of the most memorable unreliable narrators in years.
Rose Baker seals men’s fates. With a few strokes of the keys that sit before her, she can send a person away for life in prison. A typist in a New York City Police Department precinct, Rose is like a high priestess. Confessions are her job. It is 1923, and while she may hear every detail about shootings, knifings, and murders, as soon as she leaves the interrogation room she is once again the weaker sex, best suited for filing and making coffee.
This is a new era for women, and New York is a confusing place for Rose. Gone are the Victorian standards of what is acceptable. All around her women bob their hair, they smoke, they go to speakeasies. Yet prudish Rose is stuck in the fading light of yesteryear, searching for the nurturing companionship that eluded her childhood. When glamorous Odalie, a new girl, joins the typing pool, despite her best intentions Rose falls under Odalie’s spell. As the two women navigate between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night and their work at the station by day, Rose is drawn fully into Odalie’s high-stakes world. And soon her fascination with Odalie turns into an obsession from which she may never recover.
I’m often amazed at how little history I know. Sure I’ve got a working knowledge of the big events. The big wars. The big men and women who shaped history. And yet, truth be told, those are usually not the events and people that most fascinate me. I’m drawn in by those who were forgotten. The quiet heros. The stories that didn’t get told. The people and events that didn’t make the history books. Christina Baker Kline has given us such a story with this month’s book club selection, ORPHAN TRAIN. And we are very thankful to her for doing so.
The generous folks at William Morrow publishers are giving away ten copies of ORPHAN TRAIN to our readers this month. (U.S. residents only) Just leave a comment on this post and you’ll be entered to win. And as always we’ll be doing a Twitter chat with the author and discussing the book with our online book club at the end of the month. We’d love you to join us for both.
About the novel:
Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by luck or chance. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?
As a young Irish immigrant, Vivian Daly was one such child, sent by rail from New York City to an uncertain future a world away. Returning east later in life, Vivian leads a quiet, peaceful existence on the coast of Maine, the memories of her upbringing rendered a hazy blur. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past.
Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer knows that a community-service position helping an elderly widow clean out her attic is the only thing keeping her out of juvenile hall. But as Molly helps Vivian sort through her keepsakes and possessions, she discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they appear. A Penobscot Indian who has spent her youth in and out of foster homes, Molly is also an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past.
Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, Orphan Train is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship.
Christina Baker Kline is a novelist, nonfiction writer and editor. In addition to Orphan Train, her novels include Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines and Sweet Water. She is Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University and an on-staff editor and writing coach at the social networking site SheWrites.com.
Note: I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Melissa since she acquired my forthcoming novel, THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, for Doubleday last September. I know a bit about her editorial style but very little about her personal reading tastes. So I invited her to share some recommendations with us today: one novel she edited, and one she didn’t. Melissa has kindly offered to give a copy of PARLOR GAMES to one lucky reader. Simply leave a comment on this post if you’d like to be entered in the drawing.
I have a weakness for unreliable narrators, so when Maryka Biaggio’s debut novel, PARLOR GAMES, first hit my inbox, I put it at the very top of my submission pile. Part Becky Sharp, part CATCH ME IF YOU CAN’S Frank Abagnale, this historical romp chronicles the life and times of May Dugas, a beautiful con-artist whose escapades spanned the Gilded Age and took her all around the world.
The novel is framed by a trial occurring in 1917 where an older May finds herself accused of extorting money from a friend—a charge that our alluring protagonist vehemently denies. Fearful that details revealed during this trial will be twisted to make her look like the bad guy, May entreats the reader to hear her version of events. She promises a truthful account, but it’s immediately clear that we’re dealing with a woman who knows how to spin a story, cover her tracks and get what she wants.
May takes on an intimate tone, drawing us into her confidences in such a way that readily explains why so many men (and some women) fell prey to her charms. I have to confess that it’s so fun to be in May’s orbit that it was only after one faintly disquieting revelation after another—about how she’s seduced and swindled, enchanted and entrapped—that I realized the full extent of her transgressions. She would certainly like us to believe that this is a tale of an innocent corrupted by an unfair world or that she did it all to support her beloved family, but regardless of whether or not the reader buys into these claims, it’s hard not to root for (or at the very least, respect) May as she traipses across countries, hearts and the law.
In a sense, it’s even harder to believe that this novel is based on a true story. As Maryka recently wrote in a blog for Huffington Post, we say that the truth is stranger than fiction so often that it’s become a bit cliché. And yet, it’s a cliché that I find myself constantly gravitating towards in my reading—both for work and for pleasure. Although very fine plots and characters in historical fiction have been the product of pure invention (after nailing the period detail of course), there is almost a voyeuristic appeal in reimagining a life already lived. Here, we see a glamorous existence lived just a step ahead of the law–until, that is, May’s past catches up with her.
The novel that I didn’t edit falls into a very different category, but features a style that could also justifiably be called unreliable—if only because it’s narrated by a child who bears witnesses to events that she can’t fully comprehend even as she faithfully recounts the sensory detail.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s WE NEED NEW NAMES (on-sale 5/21) opens in a Zimbabwe shantytown in 2008. 10-year-old Darling and her friends spend their days stealing guavas and playing games like “Find Bin Laden”—scenes that so perfectly capture the universal preoccupations of childhood. This coupled with the powerful, pretense-free narration by Darling exposes the distance between how these children see the world and the harsher reality that an adult reader can intuit.
Their homes have been destroyed and the schools shut down amidst political upheaval; deep, gnawing hunger and AIDS have become so ubiquitous that they’re hardly worthy of description but operate forcefully in the background. Luckily for Darling, her aunt lives in America, and the young girl has placed all her hopes in this sparkling country without fully realizing what she’ll sacrifice or the challenges she’ll face when she finally moves to Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The book has two distinct parts, and although America stands in such stark contrast to life in Zimbabwe, the bigger gulf is between Darling’s expectations for America and what she experiences once she’s actually there. This is not to say her life in America is marked by tragedy or exploitation that sometimes accompanies this type of novel. Instead, humorous moments mingle with nuanced observations and Bulawayo shifts the tonal register so expertly as Darling navigates the pitfalls of both assimilation and adolescence that it’s an even more gripping read than if there were high-octane drama involved.
Questions of identity and alienation definitely loom large in this novel and there are scenes punctuated with violence and heartbreak, but the characters and plot never feel like part of a message while Darling’s point of view is pretty much pitch perfect to my ear. The only point where Bulawayo breaks this spell is in a powerful chorus-style narration that gives voice to not only those from her country and continent but the full-spectrum of immigration.
Following in the tradition of other novels of displacement, but with a beguiling rawness that’s uniquely its own, WE NEED NEW NAMES is a beautiful and haunting book that provides an intimate window into one young woman’s experiences, overturns preconceived notions and entertains in equal measure. It’s a book that will stay with me long after the last page.
Today’s post by Bonnie Grove of our sister blog, Novel Matters | @BonnieGrove
I’ve finished writing a novel this week. A three-year journey of frustration and hope. As I combed through one last time before sending it off, I lingered over the pages that contained song lyrics. There are lyrics from eight songs in the manuscript. Snippets mostly, the apt verses that fit the moment in the book, except for one song I transcribed in its entirety. The songs had to be included in the manuscript because they add a dimension of emotional expression unattainable through any other method.
Music and novels are, for me, two sides of the same storytelling coin.
When I was a kid, I had bemoaned the fact that a soundtrack did not accompany real life the way it did in movies. It wasn’t until as an adult, I looked back and saw that I had created a soundtrack for my life after all. Summers were Chicago’s power ballads on a sandy beach holding hands with a boy I’d met two days ago. And The Beach Boys singing oldies but goodies while I learned to waterski and windsurf (I was terrible at both). Grade 11 was the soundtrack to Purple Rain as my friends and I acted out each song. (I was a drama geek.) The stories in those songs became my story.
How does that happen?
I think part of the answer is that storytelling is the creative connection between people and life. Both the novel, with its long view of unfolding events, and the song with its explosion of emotion capsuled in a few verses, weave themselves into our life journeys and help us express a prism of meaning and depth we cannot articulate on our own.
The lyrics from the eight songs I included in the manuscript add emotional depth and dimension to the story. A mother holding her child sings,
Baby mine, don’t you cry.
Baby mine, dry your eyes.
Rest your head close to my heart,
never to part, baby of mine
A fisherman faced with the daunting task of making an outsider understand how his life and livelihood have been wiped out sings,
They filled their dories twice a day
They fished their poor sweet lives away
They could not imagine then
No more fish, no fishermen.
The songs become something beyond language and usher us into the place of feeling and experiencing. Story weaves into story. A novel’s reach is extended by the songs ability to quickly touch the tender talon of longing, the ache in the bone, the explosion of hope.
I no longer bemoan the fact that life doesn’t come with a soundtrack. I’m convinced we create our own soundtrack thought the creative connection of storytelling both with the stories we read, and the music we listen to.
How about you? Which novels and/or songs have woven into the fabric of your life?