The Most Fun We Ever Had—Great Family Saga

The Most Fun We Ever Had

By Claire Lombardo

Published 2019

Read Feb 2022

Lombardo’s long (~550pages) debut novel is a winner in this reader’s opinion.  It’s a family saga covering about four decades in the lives of Marilyn Connelly and David Sorenson and their children.  Marilyn and David meet in 1975 in Chicago when both are undergraduates (making them contemporaries of this reader).  When David learns that he’s been accepted to medical school in Iowa, he proposes marriage to Marilyn and she accepts.  She intends to finish her undergraduate degree in Iowa but loss of credits in the transfer process, loneliness as David is consumed in his studies and she knows no one, and ultimately a pregnancy ahead of their schedule mean Marilyn drops out of college.  Her career as homemaker/mother is solidified when their second daughter arrives less than a year after the first.

The “Irish twins” Wendy and Violet are clearly sisters—both best friends and fierce competitors– and as different as can be imagined. Wendy is caustic, turbulent, seemingly strong but tending towards self-destructive.   Wendy refuses to go to college, moves out of the house, meets the love of her life whom she marries and loses him to cancer at a young age after their son dies as a baby.  Violet is a type-A personality who gets her law degree, marries another lawyer, has two children, has a seemingly perfect life, but suffers from depression.  Violet’s lack of appreciation for the apparent wonderfulness of her life infuriates Wendy whose life has been so disrupted by the deaths of her baby and husband. Younger sister Liza has a long-term partner who is in a very deep state of depression.  Liza becomes pregnant and her partner leaves her when he learns she’s had an affair.  Nine years after Liza’s birth Marilyn and David decide to take another spin at parenthood and generate Grace whose nickname evolves from “gosling” to “goose” as she grows up although she feels no one in the family will ever realize she’s become an adult.  The daughters are convinced their parents have a perfect marriage and that they can never attain such perfection in their own lives.  Actually, while David and Marilyn have an enviable relationship, it is, of course, far from perfect. 

Wendy and Violet share a special secret.  When Violet found herself pregnant, Wendy took her in and helped her hide from the family during her pregnancy.  Fifteen years later, Violet’s son comes into the family’s life providing an interesting view into the family and the relationships between the various members of it. 

The structure of the book is interesting if complex.  The author shifts back and forth in time and between various characters as she gives their perspective on various events/scenes in their lives.  The story of David and Marilyn’s relationship is the only thing told chronologically; the author heads these chapters with the dates that the chapter covers.  The complexity of the structure and the varying points of view emphasizes the complexity of the life of any family.  No two children have the same childhood, even when they are separated in age by less than a year, and especially when they are separated in age by over a decade.  The parents’ persona each vary by year and even by month with respect to their level of exhaustion from caring for their children, their home, their work, and their own relationship with each other.  The author captures this evolution with accuracy despite her own relative youth.  Being the “gosling” in her own family likely gave her some help in depicting this. 

The author beautifully captures some great parenting moments.  One in particular is the scene when Violet questions her mother about her decision to leave college, a possibility Violet can’t fathom; Marilyn’s responses are not satisfactory to Violet.  This scene so nicely highlights that many of the choices we face in life aren’t the ones we anticipated having but they are the ones we have and we have to make decisions nonetheless. 

This debut novel is long, but so nicely done that this reader didn’t mind the length at all.  This author was reminded of Anne Patchett in her ability to draw the reader into the lives of her characters so that the reader enjoyed every word spent with them.  This reader was well satisfied with the author’s approach to the book’s closure.  This reader hopes that Lombardo’s next offering is as rich and beautifully textured.

Remembering Laughter–Stegner’s Amazing Debut

Remembering Laughter

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1937

Read Feb 2022

This author continues to explore Stegner’s canon which is quite remarkable although not fully appreciated.  Remembering Laughter apparently was written as a submission to a contest held in 1936, which he won (1). The novella (about 160 pages) launched Stegner’s exceptional writing career. 

Elspeth moves in with her older sister, Margaret, and her husband, Alec, on their farm in Iowa.  Elspeth revels in her new surroundings and life.  Margaret seeks to find friends and potential marital matches for her sister.  Unfortunately for all of them, Elspeth and Alec make one fateful trip to the barn loft resulting in Alec’s only child, a son.  The discovery of the affair destroys all of their previous relationships but the three remain living together, along with their “nephew”. 

No page of this novella is wasted.  While telling this sad tale, Stegner also conveys marvelous descriptions of the scenery of the farm, exquisite perceptions of the rural social scene into which Margaret is trying to bring Elspeth, and conveys the frigidity of the relationships following the betrayal.   Even in his debut, Stegner demonstrates amazing gracefulness and ability to address human truths. 

Beekeeper of Aleppo and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

By Laila Lami

Published 2005

Read Nov 2021

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

By Christy Lefteri

Published 2019

Read Feb 2022

This reader is coupling together these two books in a single essay to allow her to compare and contrast them.

Both books deal with refugees fleeing dire situations who need to cross a body of water in a dangerous way—a rubber boat—and usually engage with smugglers to accomplish the goal of getting to their desired destination and stay there.

In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, the north African refugees are primarily seeking a place where they can work, make a living, and send money home to family so they can join them.  One of the refugees has gotten herself in trouble politically and is seeking refuge to avoid her enemies.

In The Beekeeper of Aleppo, the primary characters are fleeing Syria because the war has demolished their neighborhood.  Also, Nuri has been warned that he will have to take up arms with the unit that holds their neighborhood or he will be killed.  Other characters Nuri encounters are leaving various countries for various reasons. 

With respect to structure, both books tell their stories in an asynchronous manner.  Time and place of the setting change from section to section.  Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits starts with the sea crossing, turns back to pre-crossing life, and then moves to post-crossing times.  “Current” in The Beekeeper of Aleppo is while Nuri and his wife Afra’s stay at a “B and B” in London housing a number of refugees and while they  work with a social worker to prepare for their asylum hearing.  Sections jump back to various times in Nuri’s life with most emphasis on deciding to flee Syria and various stages of their journey to get to London.

The biggest differences between the books are choice of the primary character and point of view.  In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, there are four Moroccan characters, two men and two women.  By choosing these four characters, the author explores the differing drivers for leaving Morocco.  Of course, all are seeking a better life.  The two men are seeking a place to find work that can support them and their families, preferably that utilize their university training.  Their outcomes are very different but both come to an understanding of what’s important to them.  One woman is fleeing an abusive husband.  The other woman is fleeing due to an issue she created for herself in speaking against the current government.  The author tells us what the particular character is saying, thinking, and feeling, and sometimes includes dialogue and characters that point out other issues.  For example, the female student hopes that her friend’s father can use influence to get her a position, something he does for others and which he knows is an abuse of his power.  The chapters are focused on individual characters with their primary connection being that they all cross the sea together.

In The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Nuri generally narrates the story although the author uses some recalled dialog and emails between Nuri and his cousin as well.  While following Nuri and Afra on their perilous journey, there is much time spent with Nuri providing us his thoughts and feelings.  This allows us to more deeply understand the trauma that cause both Nuri and his wife to suffer both physical (Afra’s blindness) and mental (Nuri’s less obvious PTSD) distress.  Since Nuri is telling us the story vs an all-knowing narrator, the reader must rely on Nuri’s words to slowly reveal what they are really going through beyond the physical challenges of trying to escape from the devastation of Syria and we slowly understand that Nuri is suffering a breakdown while at awaiting his asylum hearing in the UK.     Both are interesting books that provide the reader a glimpse into the plight of refugees.  Given a choice of the two, this reader would promote The Beekeeper of Aleppo for its skill in using the narration of a single character to probe very deeply into the psyche of one refugee whose story is far too common