Category Archives: Domestic Fiction

Male Family Dysfunction in Maine (Even the Narrator is a Boy): The Miracle on Monhegan Island by Elizabeth Kelly

cover imageThe publisher of The Miracle on Monhegan Island calls it “another rollicking, summertime family saga” from author Elizabeth Kelly, but I think “rollicking” is a slightly misleading description, unless you’d also call the stories of the dark dysfunctional family summers in We Were Liars by E. Lockhart or Maine by Courtney Sullivan “rollicking.”

Although The Miracle on Monhegan Island overflows with humor and is narrated in its entirety by Ned, a purebred Shih Tzu who is wise beyond his years on the subjects of both human nature and dog breeds, the humor is mostly dark. The Monahan family is still recovering from events related to mental illness that broke up the family in the past.

I am a big fan of author Elizabeth Kelly, although you might not know it from my blog. I was so impressed with her two previous novels – Apologize, Apologize! and The Last Summer of the Camperdowns –  that I was afraid my reviews wouldn’t do them justice. But after reading an advance copy of The Miracle on Monhegan Island, which is coming out on May 10th and is written in the same understanding, unsentimental tone – a blend of light and dark, heavy on the dark– as her earlier books, I want to make sure my blog readers don’t miss hearing from me any longer about author Elizabeth Kelly (not to be confused with Canadian romance author Elizabeth Kelly, or Catholic inspirational author Elizabeth Kelly.)

Monhegan Island is a real island in Maine with cliffs overlooking the ocean, miles of walking trails, unspoiled natural vistas, and no cars.

photo of Monhegan Island
Photo from Monhegan.com http://monhegan.com

Before Spark, the prodigal adult son, returns after an absence of many years to the family home, he steals a dog as a gift for his young teenaged son Hally on impulse from the backseat of a car, thus changing Ned’s life completely, as Spark’s return to Monhegan Island also changes the life of his son Hally, who has lived alone with his artist uncle and stern preacher grandfather since the death of his mother when he was little. Pastor Ragnar is either a crackpot or inspired by God, but his faithful following grows exponentially when Hally reports seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary, igniting a firestorm of media attention and obsessed visitors to the isolated island.

Ned muses frequently on how different and more meaningful his life turned out to be from the petted and pampered life he had believed was his lot; his witty observations of the behavior of the members of the human family he now belongs to and the other humans (and dogs) on the island are equally keen and thoughtful.

You don’t have to be either a dog person or a God person to appreciate the dark humor of this story of the fine line between religious fervor and psychosis and the strength of blood lines and family ties. Add this one to your summer reading list, if you don’t mind a few loose ends and unanswered questions to ponder over after you close the book!

The Miracle on Monhegan Island
Kelly, Elizabeth (@ElizabethKelly8)
Norton, May 10, 2016
9781631491795 (hard.)
$25.95

Disclosure: I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.

 

Deserves All the Big Praise It’s Getting: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

cover imageI’ve been very selfish with my library copy of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and so I need to bring it back today.

A Little Life is my #1 favorite book so far this year, and I had so many pages marked with Post-its that I had hoped to write a review that would convey the power of this 700+-page novel that pulls you in and keeps you there.

But looking through the passages I have marked, I realize they’re too long – each sentence depends too much on what comes before and after and a single thought is continued over several paragraphs, so you can read an excerpt from the book on the publisher’s Web site instead.

Although written by a woman (the author of The People in the Trees, which I haven’t read yet), A Little Life is about the friendship of four men who roomed together at a Boston-area college (unnamed), then moved to New York City, where two of them were from, and hung out together in various configurations and apartments over the following decades.

They talk a LOT, so there is a lot of passionate, intellectual conversation – with each other, and also with other people who become important in their lives over time – about art and life. What may seem like youthful self-centeredness early in the book (which might be annoy readers who were annoyed by The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer – another long, very New York City, novel) is tempered by the overall tone of sad retrospection.

There’s a great deal of humor in A Little Life, but the compelling main character, Jude, has a hidden past, so even as people who come into his orbit are inevitably drawn to him, he tries to keep them from getting too close, which gives the whole story its air of tragedy.

If you like to get absorbed in big novels with lots of deep/witty conversation and observations about the lives of friends, family, and strangers seen on the subway, this is the book of the year for you!

A Little Life was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. (Winner to be announced Nov. 17th). It doesn’t come out in trade paperback until January 26, 2016, so you’ll have to put the hardcover on your holiday gift wish list.

A Little Life
Yanagihara, Hanya
Doubleday, 2015
978-0-385-53925-8
720 pp.
$30.00, U.S.

Other bloggers’ opinions (all excellent):
As the Crowe Flies (and Reads)
Book Chatter

Lonesome Reader
River City Reading

Youthful Accident or Racial Incident: Upper West Side Story by Susan Pashman

cover imageIn Upper West Side Story, a first novel by philosophy professor and former attorney Susan Pashman, two families in Manhattan are pitted against each other after a tragic accident (possibly a crime) goes from the personal to the political.

The case of two eighth-grade boys – best friends, one white and one black, both in the gifted class and on the chess team – just horsing around or maybe not? – while returning a weekend class trip to Washington, D.C. is nothing like a recent incident of the three black students who opened fire on workers in a Brooklyn school cafeteria, thinks Bettina, who narrates most of the story. Max, the white eighth-grader who becomes a public figure overnight is her son.

Bettina’s a political liberal – an academic – who prides herself on raising her two children – Max and his younger sister Nellie – to be comfortable in a racially diverse, urban environment. Bettina’s husband, Stephen – a city planner enmeshed in local politics – can see clearly how Max and Max’s best friend Cyrus are being used as pawns in the game of racial politics played by the mayor, the district attorney, and most of all the most vocal local activist on racial issues – City Council member Marcus Hake, an African-American fighting for social justice and against racial inequality under the law.

Here’s an excerpt from Upper West Side Story to give you an idea of it:

I stood up to face Stephen, a lump swelling in my throat. “It is simple,” I cried. “I can’t stand all this conniving and second-guessing when the truth is perfectly obvious. It’s always some stupid game with you politicians. But they can’t play games with our son, Stephen. That’s just not going to happen!”

I tore down the hall to our bedroom and stared out at the city. Down every street, behind every window, lives were being ruined – choked by greed, poisoned by ambition, obliterated by self-interest. The city stared back at me, a professor of political theory, a stalwart campaigner for a more just world.

“Sweetheart,” Stephen said gently He stood in the doorway to our room. “I know this could be a bit hard on Max, but it’ll be worse if we try to head it off. Hake will get the press revved up and they’ll mix this in with the cafeteria case even if the D.A. does nothing. It’s better to let them investigate and find nothing. If we get in his way, Hake will blow things up as he always does.

“The mayor’s obviously desperate for a bone to throw to him. The D.A., I’m sure just wants to keep up the office’s image as tough on crimes against kids. She won’t be as eager as the mayor is to yield to Hake. It’s a game, as you said, but I think we have to let it run its course.”

“I won’t have our son made a scapegoat! I won’t let those games get anywhere near him. We owe Max some peace!”

I turned back to the window. I felt a tear start down my cheek and brushed it aside. “They have to leave us in peace, Stephen. You and me, but most of all Max.”

Author Susan Pashman has clearly thought a lot about race, especially in terms of schools and parenting. In January, she started a Kids & Race blog where she posts on these issues. Writing a nuanced novel about a family in crisis allows her to delve more deeply into the complexity of reality vs. theory and imagine what’s happening out of the public eye when an event that you’re used to reading about in the news hits home.

Harvard Square Editions is a publishing house formed by and for Harvard University alumni to publish literary fiction with a social or environmental message. The message in Upper West Side Story that racial politics don’t tell the whole story occasionally overpowers the fiction, but the multilayered story of family, city, and the law, told in the voices of Bettina and Max is moving, and the clash of Bettina’s academic theories and liberal ideals with her maternal desire to protect and defend her son is realistic and thought-provoking.

Upper West Side Story
Pashman, Susan
Harvard Square Editions
May 28, 2015
978-1-941861-03-5
276 pp.
$22.95, softcover

DIsclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review. (I’m not part of the blog tour going on now, but check out it out for a chance to win one of 15 copies of Upper West Side Story.)