The Last Romantics, by Tara Conklin (Review)


The Last Romantics
by Tara Conklin

Genre: Literary Fiction

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: February 5, 2019

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

The New York Times bestselling author of The House Girl explores the lives of four siblings in this ambitious and absorbing novel in the vein of Commonwealth and The Interestings.

“The greatest works of poetry, what makes each of us a poet, are the stories we tell about ourselves. We create them out of family and blood and friends and love and hate and what we’ve read and watched and witnessed. Longing and regret, illness, broken bones, broken hearts, achievements, money won and lost, palm readings and visions. We tell these stories until we believe them.”

When the renowned poet Fiona Skinner is asked about the inspiration behind her iconic work, The Love Poem, she tells her audience a story about her family and a betrayal that reverberates through time.

It begins in a big yellow house with a funeral, an iron poker, and a brief variation forever known as the Pause: a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town. Caught between the predictable life they once led and an uncertain future that stretches before them, the Skinner siblings—fierce Renee, sensitive Caroline, golden boy Joe and watchful Fiona—emerge from the Pause staunchly loyal and deeply connected. Two decades later, the siblings find themselves once again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they’ve made and ask what, exactly, they will do for love.

A sweeping yet intimate epic about one American family, The Last Romantics is an unforgettable exploration of the ties that bind us together, the responsibilities we embrace and the duties we resent, and how we can lose—and sometimes rescue—the ones we love. A novel that pierces the heart and lingers in the mind, it is also a beautiful meditation on the power of stories—how they navigate us through difficult times, help us understand the past, and point the way toward our future.

ratingthree

“If you live long enough and well enough to know love, its various permutations and shades, you will falter. You will break someone’s heart. Fairy tales don’t tell you that. Poetry doesn’t either.” 

I had a serious love-hate relationship with this book. To start with, it’s stylistically beautiful. Fiona, the point of view character, is a poet, and this shines through in the writing style and really contributes to giving Fiona a distinct voice. (This aspect reminded me a lot of The Air You Breathe, by Frances de Pontes Peebles.)

This then is the true lesson: there is nothing romantic about love. Only the most naive believe it will save them. Only the hardiest of us will survive it.

And yet, And yet! We believe in love because we want to believe in it. Because really what else is there, amid all our glorious follies and urges and weaknesses and stumbles? The magic, the hope, the gorgeous idea of it. Because when the lights go out and we sit waiting in the dark, what do our fingers seek? Who do we teach for?

The story begins with the major characters (a group of siblings) as children, as they endure what they later dub “The Pause,” the three year period in the wake of their father’s death when their mother rarely left her bedroom and they were left to fend for themselves. They are all thrust into roles which arguably alter their personalities in major ways for the rest of their lives, with the younger siblings’ sense of security shaken and the older siblings dealing with the additional burden of being forced into a parental role. The relationships between the siblings were one of the big highlights of the novel, with their familial bonds waxing and waning over the years and being tested in various ways.

The story itself… sometimes lost me. For starters, I didn’t entirely understand what Conklin was going for with her choice of framing device, as it didn’t seem to add much to the story. Fionna’s life story is told in retrospect from a somewhat dystopian future. She has become a world-famous poet and is speaking at an event and reminiscing on her life. Not a lot happens during the course of the events of the framing device, but just enough occurs that it leaves the reader expecting the focus to shift to the later timeline at some point. But there’s no follow through, and in the end I was left feeling like the story would have lost nothing if it had all simply been told in past tense from Fiona’s point of view without the framing device.

My second issue with this book has to do with a whirlwind romance that occurs for one of the characters when they are adults. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll be vague here, but suffice it to say that the character in question has as lot of problems and meets someone who is equally troubled. The way the romance plays out seems unrealistic and optimistic to a fault, in a way. It’s cut short for reasons I won’t spoil, but it seems as if Conklin wants us to believe that, had it not been for that, this would have turned everything around in that character’s life. And, despite the brevity of the relationship, it’s absolutely, 100%, for sure true love. 

Can a good relationship and support system help someone who is determined to turn their life around do so? Sure. Do I feel it was “earned” in this novel? No. Conklin seems to want us to buy into the pure potential in this relationship as some of the other siblings do, when the whole thing felt like an impending disaster to me.

Overall, I thought this was worth the read, despite the issues I had with it. Have you read The Last Romantics? Please share your thoughts in the comments! What do you think about the title of the novel in relation to Fiona’s blog of a similar name? Why do you think Conklin made this choice? Let’s discuss! 

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Review – The Girls at 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib

The Girls at 17 Swann Street
by Yara Zgheib

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: February 5, 2018

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Synopsis: 

The chocolate went first, then the cheese, the fries, the ice cream. The bread was more difficult, but if she could just lose a little more weight, perhaps she would make the soloists’ list. Perhaps if she were lighter, danced better, tried harder, she would be good enough. Perhaps if she just ran for one more mile, lost just one more pound.

Anna Roux was a professional dancer who followed the man of her dreams from Paris to Missouri. There, alone with her biggest fears – imperfection, failure, loneliness – she spirals down anorexia and depression till she weighs a mere eighty-eight pounds. Forced to seek treatment, she is admitted as a patient at 17 Swann Street, a peach pink house where pale, fragile women with life-threatening eating disorders live. Women like Emm, the veteran; quiet Valerie; Julia, always hungry. Together, they must fight their diseases and face six meals a day.

Yara Zgheib’s poetic and poignant debut novel is a haunting, intimate journey of a young woman’s struggle to reclaim her life. Every bite causes anxiety. Every flavor induces guilt. And every step Anna takes toward recovery will require strength, endurance, and the support of the girls at 17 Swann Street.

rating

four

My thanks to St. Martin’s Press and Netgalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Girls at 17 Swann Street is a an honest, unflinching, but fundamental hopeful portrayal of anorexia and the struggles of recovery. Anna enters treatment at the beginning of the novel primarily at the behest of her husband, who is at the end of his rope and fearful that he wouldn’t be able to keep her alive on his own. She is resistant to the idea of treatment at that time, filled up with fear and denial.

Zgheib explores the triggering events that led up to Anna’s situation, from her demanding background in ballet to her sense of isolation as an immigrant in America. Anna’s background felt like one of the biggest strengths of this novel. There is no single factor which led to her developing an eating disorder; the reasons are myriad and the descent was gradual. As is often the case in real life, compounding traumas and pressures slowly built up to a mental health crisis, and it’s difficult to say how Anna would have fared if even one of these factors had been different.

Zgheib seems to take pains to lend a sense of realism to Anna’s recovery efforts throughout the novel. Progress is treated with caution, as relapse is very common with anorexia, but the overall tone does not come across as pessimistic. The reader sees Anna’s mindset change slowly but drastically, spurred in part by a desire to reconnect with family members who have grown distant during her decline and in part through fear of ending up like some of the other girls she encounters in treatment.

There is nothing remarkably original or unique in the telling of this story; a woman hits rock bottom, enters treatment for anorexia, falters and makes slow progress, and the story ends on a hopeful but still somewhat ambiguous note. If you’ve read a lot of novels about mental health, the structure will feel very familiar, but Zgheib’s writing style is engaging and it feels very easy to connect with Anna. The Girls at 17 Swann Street is a rewarding and poignant read, and I look forward to seeing what this author writes in the future.

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Review – Maybe in Another Life, by Taylor Jenkins Reid


Maybe in Another Life 
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Women’s Fiction

Length: 342 Pages

Release date: July 7, 2015

Synopsis: 

From the acclaimed author of Forever, Interrupted and After I Do comes a breathtaking new novel about a young woman whose fate hinges on the choice she makes after bumping into an old flame; in alternating chapters, we see two possible scenarios unfold—with stunningly different results.

At the age of twenty-nine, Hannah Martin still has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She has lived in six different cities and held countless meaningless jobs since graduating college. On the heels of leaving yet another city, Hannah moves back to her hometown of Los Angeles and takes up residence in her best friend Gabby’s guestroom. Shortly after getting back to town, Hannah goes out to a bar one night with Gabby and meets up with her high school boyfriend, Ethan.

Just after midnight, Gabby asks Hannah if she’s ready to go. A moment later, Ethan offers to give her a ride later if she wants to stay. Hannah hesitates. What happens if she leaves with Gabby? What happens if she leaves with Ethan?

In concurrent storylines, Hannah lives out the effects of each decision. Quickly, these parallel universes develop into radically different stories with large-scale consequences for Hannah, as well as the people around her. As the two alternate realities run their course, Maybe in Another Life raises questions about fate and true love: Is anything meant to be? How much in our life is determined by chance? And perhaps, most compellingly: Is there such a thing as a soul mate?

Hannah believes there is. And, in both worlds, she believes she’s found him.

rating

four

I know there may be universes out there where I made different choices and they led me somewhere else, led me to someone else. And my heart breaks for every single version of me that didn’t end up with you.

This book had me thinking a lot about Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch. …Bear with me for a minute here. I thought it was interesting how two very tonally different books stemmed from the same central idea: the vastly different paths one’s life can take based on a single choice. Specifically, a romantic decision. Dark Matter takes this idea and runs with it, culminating in a dark science fiction story about alternate universes which hinges on the protagonist’s choice to prioritize his career or his romantic partner. In Maybe in Another Life, Taylor Jenkins Reid uses a nod to the multiverse theory to write two love stories for her protagonist, each mutually exclusive.

I think we’ve all spent time thinking about what seemingly inconsequential choices have altered the course of our lives. What tragic accidents have been narrowly avoided? Who are the people who would have changed your life that you almost met? Reid takes Hannah’s decision about whether or not leave a party with her ex boyfriend and runs through the drastically diverging scenarios which emerge. While each story is somewhat engaging on its own, the appeal to this novel is mainly in seeing how one decision can trigger a thousand more, leading to one storyline bearing little resemblance to the other.

When you fall in love, it can be difficult to picture things turning out differently. Reid seems particularly interested in exploring the concept of a soulmate. Hannah (minor spoiler here but not really) eventually ends up happy in both scenarios. Who is to say that one is right or wrong? Who is to say that anyone’s perfectly happy marriage is the only way things could or should have turned out?

I’m just going to do my best and live under the assumption that if there are things in this life that we are supposed to do, if there are people in this world we are supposed to love, we’ll find them. In time. The future is so incredibly unpredictable that trying to plan for it is like studying for a test you’ll never take. I’m OK in this moment.

I loved Hannah as a character. She was a bit of a hot mess, but a self-aware hot mess, and determined to work on herself. It’s difficult not to root for her. I think a lot of Millennials will find her relatable; she’s in her late twenties and struggling with the sensation that things should have fallen into place by now. She should have a stable career, stable relationship, stable life. Instead, she’s untethered and there’s a sense that adolescence is clinging onto her far longer than she’d prefer.

Maybe in Another Life was published two years before The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and I think it’s fair to say that Taylor Jenkins Reid has grown a lot as an author in those two years. If you’re going into this novel expecting it to be similar in tone and quality to Seven Husbands, you may find yourself disappointed, but taken on its own merit, Maybe in Another Life is cute, sweet, and a worthwhile read.

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Review – A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult


A Spark of Light
by Jodi Picoult

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: October 2, 2018

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Synopsis: 

The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.

After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.

But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester disguised as a patient, who now stands in the cross hairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.

Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.

Jodi Picoult—one of the most fearless writers of our time—tackles a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent? A Spark of Light will inspire debate, conversation . . . and, hopefully, understanding.

rating

three

Jodi Picoult was one of my favorite authors back in high school; I still vividly remember staying up late to read My Sister’s Keeper and crying my eyes out. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to find her books a bit too formulaic and found myself gravitating away from them. But there was so much hype around the release of A Spark of Light that I decided to check it out. Unfortunately, my experience with this book was rather underwhelming.

Let me start with the structure: the timeline is backwards. Why? Good question. It doesn’t feel like it adds anything substantial to the story. When Megan Miranda did this with All the Missing Girls, I didn’t care much for it then either, but at least it had the function of placing a big reveal late in the novel which happened chronologically early. I’m not sure what Picoult is going for with this other than trying to make it different for the sake of being different, but it just made it unnecessarily difficult to follow at times.

I liked that Picoult made a solid attempt at portraying varying viewpoints, although I think she fell a little flat in this regard. The writing seemed to suffer when she was portraying a viewpoint that wasn’t her own; consequently, some characters’ arguments fall rather flat and don’t always seem to ring true even in their own heads.

The father-daughter relationship was probably one of the biggest strengths of the novel. Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator, doesn’t realize his daughter Wren is inside the clinic when he first makes contact with the shooter. I think the uneasy and sometimes secretive nature of the relationship between a father and his teenage daughter will feel familiar to a lot of readers. Wren loves her father, but there are some things she could never tell him, and needing birth control goes at the top of that list.

Overall, though, I think the biggest drawback for me was that facts about abortion and musings about abortion rights took up what felt like a disproportionate amount of the book. It’s not that I have an issue with that subject matter; I read collections of essays about feminism on a semi-regular basis, so I obviously willingly encounter this topic often. Given what I gathered about the story from the blurb and the site of the hostage situation, I obviously expected these themes to come into play, but I did not expect them to overshadow the rest of the story. The events felt very secondary here, like a mere vehicle to insert rhetoric. Basically, it ended up not feeling much like a novel at all.

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Review – Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman


Britt-Marie Was Here
by Fredrik Backman

Genre: Fiction, Contemporary

Length: 324 Pages

Release date: May 3, 2016

Synopsis: 

Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. She is not one to judge others—no matter how ill-mannered, unkempt, or morally suspect they might be. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention. But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes.

When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg—of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it—she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?

rating

four

“One morning you wake up with more life behind you than in front of you, not being able to understand how it’s happened.”

Britt-Marie Was Here was my second book my Fredrik Backman, the first being the wildly successful A Man Called Ove. I was a bit surprised by the striking similarities in themes between the two books, even considering that they both come from the same author. Ove and Britt-Marie are both older protagonists struggling to cope with a fundamental sense of loneliness for the first time in their adult lives. They are both uptight curmudgeons who find love and meaning in places they didn’t expect, finding themselves fundamentally changed in the process.

That being said, Britt-Marie Was Here is very much its own story. Britt-Marie is not dealing with the death of a spouse, but with the dawning realization that she is not being treated the way she deserves. After years of marriage, after devoting the bulk of one’s adult life to a partner, what a terrifying prospect: it’s all been all wrong. Fundamentally, irreparably, wrong. Britt-Marie packs a suitcase, leaves the home she’s shared with her husband, and sets out to find a job after spending her life as a homemaker. This brings her to Borg.

Britt-Marie obtains a position as a caretaker of the rec center, where she meets a colorful cast of characters who have more to teach her than she could possibly guess. The most important lesson she must learn is this: it is never too late. It’s never too late to turn around a football match, to make new friends, to visit the city you’ve always wanted to see… to stand up for yourself and realize that a spouse who doesn’t value you doesn’t deserve you. Britt-Marie’s story is told with the charming blend of humor and poignancy which made Backman’s A Man Called Ove such a success.

Britt-Marie Was Here is perfect for fans of…

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A human being, any human being at all, has so perishingly few chances to stay right there, to let go of time and fall into the moment. And to love someone without measure, explode with passion… A few times when we are children, maybe, for those of us who are allowed to be… But after that? How many breaths are we allowed to take beyond the confines of ourselves? How many pure emotions make us cheer out loud without a sense of shame? How many chances do we get to be blessed by amnesia? All passion is childish, it’s banal and naive, it’s nothing we learn, it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us… Overturns us… It bears us away in a flood… All other emotions belong to the earth, but passion inhabits the universe. That is the reason why passion is worth something. Not for what it gives us, but for what it demands that we risk – our dignity, the puzzlement of others in their condescending shaking heads…

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Review – Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

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Fates and Furies 
by Lauren Groff

Genre: Fiction, Contemporary

Length: 390 Pages

Release date: September 15, 2015

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Synopsis: 

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.

At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.

rating

four

Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.

Fates and Furies is the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage, and is told in two parts: the first half is told primarily from Lotto’s perspective, followed by Mathilde’s perspective in the second half. The halves are remarkably different in tone. Lotto’s chapters reminded me somewhat of Tin Man and The Book of Speculation. There is an odd, dreamy, rambling quality to Lotto’s musings.

To be honest, despite my overall positive feelings towards this book, I didn’t quite care for Lotto’s half. This is nothing against the writing, as Groff’s style is delightfully weird and evocative. My issue was with Lotto as a character; he is, in short, a jackass. He is painfully a self-absorbed playwright and loves Mathilde deeply only in the sense that he views her as a possession, and Lotto loves his toys. It’s also extremely evident even before reaching Mathilde’s POV chapters that Lotto views her through rose colored glasses in a big way. He is deeply in love with the idea of her, while blissfully unaware that the reality of her is a complete mystery to him.

Then Mathilde gets to have her say…

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I adored Mathilde. I’m not sure I was supposed to like Mathilde, but she was honestly the highlight of the novel for me. She is burning with anger and resentment. Which is not to say that she doesn’t love Lotto, but she is realistic about his flaws and cognizant of how little he really understands her. Mathilde had me thinking of Gillian Flynn protagonists, (think somewhat less Gone Girl and more Sharp Objects and Dark Places) with a dark past and righteous anger.

They had been married for seventeen years; she lived in the deepest room in his heart. And sometimes that meant that wife occurred to him before Mathilde, helpmeet before herself. Abstraction of her before the visceral being.

I had reservations about this novel early on; getting through the first half was definitely worth the payoff, in my opinion. Looking at other reviews of this novel, they are extremely mixed with very few people seeming to fall in the middle; you will adore this book or else you probably won’t finish it. Either way, it’s certainly an experience.

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Thank you for reading! How do unlikable protagonists impact your experience with a book? Do you need to like the protagonist in order to enjoy the book?

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