Tag Archives: sisters

Failure to Communicate: Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

cover image of CartwheelCartwheel is Jennifer duBois’ second novel, after A Partial History of Lost Causes (which I bought a copy of over a year ago and have yet to read.) Many reviewers loved it; it was chosen as a staff favorite for 2013 at Slate and hit #12 on the list of 50 Best Books of 2013 at BookPage.

In Cartwheel, a father travels with his college-age daughter to Buenos Aires, to be joined shortly by his ex-wife. Not for a vacation, but because their other daughter, Lily, has been arrested and put in jail on suspicion of killing her roommate while doing a semester abroad in Argentina. Both young women, the victim and the accused, were American college students sharing a room in the home of the same host family. Lily’s father has heard reports in the local and national media that Lily was seen on security camera footage doing a cartwheel when left alone in the police interrogation room. He want to doubt this fact, but can’t. This action of his incautious daughter – easily lending itself to multiple interpretations – makes Lily a lightning rod for the tabloids and other media.

At the start of the book there is this note:

“Although the themes of this book were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox, this is entirely a work of fiction. None of the characters are real. None of the events ever happened. Nothing in this book should be read as a factual statement about real-life events or people.”

The author’s depiction of a privileged Middlebury College student – unsure of how to behave with her host family, perhaps jealous of her prettier, more socially adept roommate – getting caught in a web of police investigation with a weak alibi and an even weaker grasp of Spanish, places a reader into the thick of the confusion and mixed signals, leaving a reader as exasperated with Lily’s behavior as her father is. It is easy enough to misinterpret actions and what people say in normal, everyday life, especially in a foreign language and culture. How much more so after a horrendous tragedy! What is evidence, a clue, and what is random or just an error in judgment? Is Lily naive and socially awkward, or privileged and arrogant?

I liked Cartwheel as I was reading it, but so much was left unknown and unsaid, that I ended up dissatisfied with it. I kept expecting to understand more about each character, but then the book ended and I didn’t. Maybe if I had followed the story of Amanda Knox (who has written a memoir, Waiting to Be Heard) and was more familiar with the details, I could have compared the novel, while reading it, to the tabloid reportage that came out at the time when the American study-abroad student Amanda Knox was arrested and (eventually) acquitted. Or maybe I read Cartwheel too soon after reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which was just the kind of enormous, sprawling, family story I love.

For whatever reason, although I admired the writing and enjoyed all the wordplay and clever characterizations, Cartwheel just didn’t come together for me in the end.

Read the beginning of the novel here.

duBois, Jennifer
Random House
Sept. 24, 2013
384 pp.

Disclosure: I was given access to an electronic advance reading copy by the publisher through NetGalley, but didn’t get to it in time, so I read this book from the public library.

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Saving Your Family: The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls @SimonAudio (Audio)

cover image of The Silver Star audiobookThe Silver Star by Jeannette Walls is the author’s third book and sort-of second novel. Her first book, The Glass Castle, was a masterful memoir of family dysfunction; her second, Half Broke Horses, was subtitled “A True-Life Novel” because it is her maternal grandmother’s life story in the form of a novel, based mostly on her mother’s memories. (I haven’t read it.)

According to a New York Times article, after The Glass Castle was published in 2005, whenever the author was questioned about the veracity of the startling memoir of her dysfunctional parents, she would say it was all true and protest that she couldn’t write fiction. “I’ve got to do some serious backpedaling now,” she says in the New York Times interview promoting her new work of fiction, The Silver Star, “I’ve got no more wacky relatives left to exploit!”

The audiobook of The Silver Star is narrated by the author, who has a slightly Southern accent, maybe, and describes the experience in this brief promotional video as “a hoot”. She identifies with Bean, the 12-year-old narrator of the story, who she says is a “linear thinker” – unlike her imaginative 15-year-old sister Liz and their wacky, careless mother, Charlotte – “she doesn’t make things up.” The author is an experienced media personality and she narrates the book very well, in a straightforward way, with sincerity, as if she actually remembers some of the events. And many times over the course of listening I thought how similar some of it was to The Glass Castle. Charlotte – living her dream and “finding the magic”, trying to make it big as a singer/songwriter – is temperamentally a lot like the author’s mother was described to be in The Glass Castle. There is no feckless, drunken father in The Silver Star, but when the girls are abandoned too long by their mother (whose absences they loyally try to hide from authorities for as long as they can), they run to their loving but ineffectual Uncle Tinsley living in the old family home in Virginia.

The author acknowledges the similarities in her books in that same promotional video about narrating The Silver Star:

I think fans of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses will recognize…a lot. I think people write about what they know about and The Silver Star does draw on a number of childhood experiences. Sometimes they’re experiences that I didn’t cover for some reason or another and they continue to haunt me so I wanted to revisit them.” In addition to a number of events, a number of the themes from The Glass Castle also reemerge in The Silver Star, such as children taking on adult roles, taking on responsibilities that their parents maybe should have taken on.”

Writing a novel rather than a memoir, the author has more freedom to embellish, change events around, and add an entire plot line to build the story on. But knowing the author’s background from The Glass Castle, I felt like I was constantly filling in blanks when imagining the characters of Bean, Liz, and Charlotte. It’s hard for me to decide how successfully the author has made the transition to novelist because of that. I don’t know how well this novel would have done if it had been published first, as a work of fiction. I enjoyed listening to it and highly recommend the audiobook edition. I think the author’s narration helped a lot to sell me on the story and the characters as seen through the eyes of Bean.

The Silver Star will be a good choice for many book clubs because of its themes of family dysfunction, coming of age, and socioeconomic inequality. Also because (despite the disappointing failings of many of the main characters) there is a clear villain of the story (Jerry Maddox, evil mill foreman and enemy of Uncle Tinsley) and a true heroine (Bean herself.)

The Silver Star
Walls, Jeannette
Simon & Schuster Audio
June 2013
8 hrs on 7 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this audiobook from the publisher for review.

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Family Secrets on Cape Cod: The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker

cover imageAudiobook narrator Angela Brazil was an excellent choice for The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker, a book with a hint of magical realism and a great weight of regret. She differentiates the voices and thoughts of the two Gilly sisters very well – Jo, older, her voice roughened after a difficult life on the family salt farm and Claire, who has escaped the work of the farm but is hardened by her own sorrows. She also manages to sound like a teenager when she does the voice and thoughts of Dee, a motherless young woman who comes to town and becomes curious about the Gilly sisters’ mysterious past and gets involved in their present-day feud.

Set in the fictional, Cape Cod town of Prospect, The Gilly Salt Sisters reminded me at first of Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery, which has a timeless feel. One of the Gilly sisters (just children at the time) throws a handful onto the annual New Year’s bonfire to determine the town’s prospects for the coming year and then has to leave the festivities; the coarse, gray salt harvested on the family farm is rumored to have magical properties. Townsfolk are wary of getting on the wrong side of the Gilly women and superstitiously keep small stores of Gilly salt on hand. But the story moves in and out of the past and present as it goes on – weaving together local lore, old secrets, lost loves, Catholic-ish traditions, and terrible tragedies in a way that seemed slightly jumbled.

The audiobook narration, again, was excellent, and made what was for me a nice-enough read a lot more enjoyable. The Gilly Salt Sisters would be a great choice for readers who like Sarah Addison Allen (Garden Spells), Brunonia Barry (The Lace Reader) and Kathleen Kent (The Heretic’s Daughter) – all authors who have blurbs on the cover of The Gilly Salt Sisters. It just wasn’t to my taste, although I did like learning how sea salt is farmed.

The Gilly Salt Sisters is the first book by Tiffany Baker that I’ve read, so I can’t compare it to The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, which a good librarian friend recommended to me a long time ago and which I’ve always meant to read. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County received many excellent reviews. I may try it as an audiobook!

The Gilly Salt Sisters has just been released in paperback.

The Gilly Salt Sisters
Baker, Tiffany
AudioGO, May 2012
14hrs, 13min; 12 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook from AudioGO.

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This post is linked to Sound Bytes, a regular Friday audiobook review roundup at Devourer of Books.Sound Bytes badge