Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I have never been as conflicted about a book as I am about The Goldfinch.

For the first half of Donna Tartt’s celebrated novel, I was hooked. I read it slowly, treating myself to it chapter by chapter. I recommended it to every reader I knew. I bristled in indignation when I read an article quoting critics who thought it was poorly written and didn’t deserve its Pulitzer Prize — of course Theo thinks in clichés like ‘the tip of the iceberg,’ he’s only thirteen! I was certain I was reading one of my future favorite books.

And then … the second half happened, and I was left wondering whether the emperor had any clothes.

(NB: This review contains more spoilers than I normally include in my reviews; they are all fairly vague, but you have been warned.)

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Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

LahiriJhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is one of those books that are hard to review without spoiling plot developments. How can I explain my agony at Character X’s bad choice, or my delight at Character Y’s happiness, without telling you who they are and what happens to them and why these moments feel so real and so earned?

If you’ve loved Lahiri’s short stories or The Namesake, or you’re a fan of multi-generational realistic fiction, and you just want to know if you’ll like The Lowland without having anything spoiled for you, here’s my Twitter-length review: I loved it and think you should read it. Those who are in for some more analysis, follow me. I’m going to consider anything mentioned on the book jacket fair game, but I’ll try to avoid major spoilers past the first several chapters.

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Review: The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

There’s been some chatter in the book-reading world lately about whether characters’ “likeability” should matter to readers and critics. My own take on this is twofold: first, somehow likeability seems to matter a lot more when we talk about female authors and characters (shocker), but second, it does make a difference to me as a reader if I enjoy spending time with the characters in a book. I don’t have to want them as friends, but I do have to find them interesting and care about their fates in order to truly love a book.

I thought about the “likeability” issue a lot as I read Ann Patchett’s 1992 debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. Rose — the book’s first POV character and the person whose actions drive the novel — is one of the more unlikeable protagonists I’ve encountered in my recent reading. But I would still recommend this book unreservedly. It’s haunting and lovely, and while I came away frustrated with Rose and angry about the hurt she’d caused others, I also felt deep sympathy with the fear that drove her actions.

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Review: The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett was at least 50% of the reason that I bought the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection. Her gorgeous Bel Canto was the first gift my husband ever gave me and she quickly became one of my favorite novelists. So an Ann Patchett book plus five other books for a bargain price? Sold.

The Magician’s Assistant, like many of the other books in the collection, opens with a death. Sabine, the magician’s assistant from the title, lived happily for many years with Parsifal the magician and his lover Phan. Both Phan and Parsifal were HIV-positive, and after Phan’s death Parsifal married Sabine to ensure that she would inherit his home and money. Sabine has been bracing herself for Parsifal’s decline, but on the first page of the book, Parsifal dies of a sudden aneurysm.

Along with his house and fortune, Parsifal’s will leaves Sabine a shock: he has put aside money for his family. The family he has always claimed was killed in a car accident in his teens. Before Sabine quite knows what is happening, Dot and Bertie Fetters of Alliance, Nebraska are on their way to Los Angeles to meet her.

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Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I have long felt that Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is an underrated member of the Austen pantheon. Yes, Cathy is a bit silly and Henry is sort of a drip, but I adore the sendup of the goofy Gothic novel genre. So perhaps I’m not quite the ideal audience for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, the fifth book in the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection, which embraces Gothic tropes with unreserved enthusiasm.

Edinburgh shop owner Iris Lockhart arrives one morning to find a mysterious letter waiting for her; later that day, she receives a phone call from a lawyer who tells her that she is the legal guardian of an elderly woman Iris has never heard of. Documents prove that Esme Lennox is the younger sister of Iris’s grandmother Kitty, but Kitty has always claimed she was an only child. Esme has been institutionalized since her teens and must be relocated now that the asylum where she’s staying is closing its doors for good.

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Review: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

Amazon’s Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction Kindle collection has become my go-to gift for friends who are sick or on bed rest — what could be better for passing the time than six novels at a bargain price? The collection got lost in my reading shuffle for a while, but this holiday season I finally got around to revisiting it and I devoured all three remaining books in a matter of days. My favorite book in the collection turned out to be the fourth: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones.

Maggie McElroy is a recently widowed food writer who specializes in writing about popular American cuisine — food at state fairs, local specialties in small towns, and other bites (pun intended) of Americana. She is slowly coming to terms with the sudden death of her husband, Matt, when his co-worker calls with stunning news: a woman in Beijing has filed a paternity claim against Matt’s estate. Maggie must go to China to obtain a paternity test.

Maggie’s editor, hoping to give Maggie something to do besides worry about the lawsuit, suggests that she combine the trip with a writing assignment: interviewing Sam Liang, an American-born chef who is about to open a new restaurant in Beijing. Sam is no American culinary giant opening a satellite restaurant in a busy business district. He is the grandson of Liang Wei, author of the (fictional) classic text The Last Chinese Chef, and he dreams that his Beijing restaurant will showcase the kind of classical Chinese cooking his grandfather wrote about. 

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Review: Almost by Elizabeth Benedict

Last week, I finally bought a Kindle collection that a friend has been recommending: “Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction.”  To be honest, I held off for a while because the title of the collection bugged me — what makes it “women’s fiction”?  The fact that women wrote it?  We don’t call fiction written by men “men’s fiction”!  Grrr — but in the end I couldn’t turn down six books for $13, especially when one of them was by Ann Patchett.

The first book in the collection is Almost by Elizabeth Benedict.  It is the story of Sophy, a novelist (and occasional celebrity-biography ghostwriter) who has just separated from her husband and moved to Manhattan.  She’s begun a passionate affair with a fellow New Yorker and is struggling with her latest novel when an unexpected call comes: her husband, Will, is dead.  Sophy must leave Manhattan and return to Swansea, the Martha’s Vineyard-esque Massachusetts island where she used to live with Will, to deal with the aftermath of his death.

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