The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (October 2013)

signatureElizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, deserves every bit of that fame.  Her writing is exquisite.  This novel of the 19th century will sweep you away with the esthetic of it’s period language.  And that esthetic is not in the least bit stodgy; it’s rather humorous.  For a large book that covers two generations and travels the world (London, Philadelphia, Tahiti, Peru), it was quick and engulfing reading.  The story centers on Alma, a woman who does not fit her century’s mold for females:  She is not only brilliant, but she lives the full life of the intellect, pursuing a life-long study of mosses and evolutionary theory.  MOSSES?  you say.  Yes, mosses, that lowly plant that perhaps you dislike if it invades the shady places of your pristine lawn, or perhaps you discount because it has never grabbed your attention.  I’m actually quite fond of the stuff, having grown up close to the PNW rainforests.  And I once tried to grow it in my sidewalk garden, only to watch the fragile plant whither to wiry brownness in the unrelenting New York sun.  But I guffawed at first at the notion of spending one’s life dedicated to understanding moss.  Nonetheless, I was entranced by Alma’s enthusiasm and complete absorption in the subject.  And heartbroken at the price she paid for being brainy, tall, and not terribly attractive.  The consequences of Alma’s choices, coupled with those things out of her control — those aspects of her time and culture that determined her fate — combine to form a deeply drawn character whose life was, in the end, very full in spite of gnawing absences.  Like the fragile mosses she studied, Alma struggled to thrive.  But when she found the right ecosystem, she flourished.  One of the best books of the year, I think.  Advance Readers Copy supplied through BEA.

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Arranged by Catherine McKenzie (2012), And Laughter Fell From the Sky by Jyotsna Sreenivasan (2012)

arranged laughterAfter taking a months-long hiatus to read mass market romances, none of which sufficiently compelled me to write reviews, I’m back —  and able to publicly admit what I’ve been reading.  I’m not sure why I dove head first into arranged marriage as a topic.  But two books from 2012 that I had put on my mental “to read” list, while I debauched my brain with other fare, just happened to be on that subject.  And they are very different from each other.  McKenzie, a Canadian, wrote a novel about two Anglos, frustrated after years of unhappy alliances, choosing on a whim to contact a marriage service.  The writing is quite good, and for those of us who have ever encountered a therapist, the therapy sessions are LOL, and insightful.  A surprise partway through the book piques additional interest.  I now want to read McKenzie’s earlier novel, Spin.    I am just now finishing Sreenivasan’s novel, and I can’t claim to have gobbled it up so thoroughly as Arranged.  Well, I am reading it quickly, it has drawn me in and kept me going, but it’s kind of in spite its problems rather than because of its virtues.  First the virtues:  the story of two Indian Americans from different caste backgrounds living in Ohio, is fascinating.  Whereas Arranged described an ultramodern twist on an ancient tradition, so twisted from the original that it has little in common with any tradition; And Laughter Fell From the Sky illucidates that ancient tradition, albeit with some changes in favor of greater rights for women than existed even just several decades ago.  Equally interesting are the differences among the Indian immigrant characters, whether because of caste, gender, generation, or personality.  It’s probably human nature to think of cultures different from our own as monolithic.  This novel is a good antidote to that sort of thinking.  Now the problems:  Things happen that make you say, OK, that never would have happened in real life.  For realistic fiction, it’s not very realistic — the dialog is off, and often stilted, and coincidences abound.  And I just don’t like the main female character.  With 45 pages to go, maybe she’ll redeem herself.  But I think it’s too late for me and my affections, who find the character so shallow a guppy would suffocate in her personality.  I love the guy.  But why said guy would love the girl is beyond me.  Nonetheless, I have enjoyed the foray into arranged marriage.  Especially since I am safely ensconced in a love marriage of my own.

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