No Novocain Required: Bowlaway


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Review: Bowlaway, by Elizabeth McCracken
Ecco, 2019. 373 pp. $28

Around the turn of the last century in Salford, Massachusetts — don’t bother to search your atlas — two men discover a woman lying aboveground in a cemetery. A bag beside her contains a corset, a small bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold bars. When Bertha Truitt wakes up (for she was asleep, not dead), she sets eyes on Dr. Leviticus Sprague, one of her discoverers, and decides to marry him. She hires the other, Joe Wear, for the candlepin bowling alley she opens.

No one knows how Bertha got there, where she was before, or who she is. But that doesn’t prevent the townsfolk from making myths about her, and not all are complimentary. Her marriage to Dr. Sprague, who’s African-American, causes tongues to wag, as does her bowling alley’s approach to the sport — all welcome, men and women together, which can hardly be ladylike. But the young women Bertha cultivates like it fine, and the alley and its owner become town icons.

A postcard, ca. 1910, of the Windsor Club candlepin lanes in Windsor, Vermont. The signs prohibit players from stepping or sliding into the lanes. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Bowlaway resists classification as a historical novel, except in the most inclusive sense, for few outside events intrude on the alley and its denizens, though common social attitudes do. I suspect that McCracken chose her time and place because that’s when candlepin was popular in New England, “a game of purity for former puritans.” But as she says in her acknowledgments, “This book is highly inaccurate, even for a novel.” And that’s what Bowlaway is, really, a kind-hearted, whimsical musing about the eccentricities that permit (but more often inhibit) love. The prose is literary, yes, but to engage the reader, not call attention to itself.

On principle, I dislike quirky. I must be one of the few readers of literary fiction who can’t abide Anne Tyler; putting up with her asylum of self-destructive masochists makes me feel as if I’m having a tooth drilled. Pass the Novocain, please. But Bowlaway needs no painkillers. Maybe it’s because the characters sense that they’re lost and therefore can’t take themselves too seriously or fool anyone else into doing so. They’re just trying to figure out which front to put up, an internal shell game that makes them more recognizable, for all their madness.
A narrative that depended on cutesy plot twists in which to display these weirdnesses would quickly wear thin.

McCracken goes the other way, relying on character through physical description. Her great gift here involves the expansion of consciousness to include perspectives that are unusual, to say the least. For instance, I’ve never read a paragraph about a child in utero who has the advantage over her mother, because, like a scientist, “she had known Bertha’s literal depths, had elbowed her organs and heard the racket of her various systems.” I have to laugh at that; I laughed often, reading Bowlaway.

How many books do you read in which the author can launch a perfect metaphor that’s equally funny and painful, like this: “Her relatives were doomed stocks in which she had better not invest, but she had come into love like a late inheritance.” Or descriptions that reveal an emotional atmosphere, so that a bowling alley becomes a character:

Nobody stands behind the wooden counter at the front — a large oak structure like a pulpit, with a spectacular cash register that looks ready to admit steam-powered music, a calliope of money. Nobody sits at the bar along the other wall, though the jar of pickled eggs glows like a fortune-teller. The tables and chairs in the middle of the room await lollygaggers. The ceilings are warehouse high, so that the eventual smoke coming off all those eventual people (cigarette, cigar, desire, effort) might be stored aloft.

To be sure, not everyone in this absurd candlepin universe pleases the heart or soul. Two important characters in particular are extremely irritating, whether because of selfishness like an art form, bad faith, or the sort of masochism that just isn’t funny or winning, no matter how you look at it. Maybe that’s the trouble with a novel that rests on good-heartedness; since the outliers don’t really belong, they test the boundaries of that place and, perhaps, the reader’s patience. Still, as a tale of a star-crossed family over several generations, with its legends, secrets, and resentments, Bowlaway will make you laugh and think.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Mythic Seduction: Once Upon a River


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Review: Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield
Atria, 2018. 464 pp. $28

The night of the 1887 winter solstice, drinkers and storytellers at the Swan, an inn that has served generations of villagers hard by the Thames in Oxfordshire, witness an event capable of stirring the mind for generations. A badly injured, comatose man is dragged in with a child, a four-year-old girl, dead, to all appearances. The revelers immediately send for Rita Sunday, their exceptionally gifted nurse practitioner, who tends the wounded man and checks the girl’s vital signs. A shake of Rita’s head tells everyone what they’ve already feared. And yet, as the nurse studies the girl laid out on a table, she’s less than absolutely certain.

The Thames at Oxford (courtesy Zxb via Wikimedia Commons)

Sure enough, within hours, the girl stirs. She can’t speak — whether from psychological trauma remains unclear, for she bears no apparent physical injury — and at first, she doesn’t bother to track any conversation or stimulus around her. But alive, she is. The question is, whose daughter is she? Is she Amelia Vaughn, abducted from her parents two years before? Or Alice Armstrong, born to parents who no longer live together, and who has herself disappeared, poor mite?

The solution to this mystery involves violence, loss, conspiracy, romance, and some of the most beautiful prose you’ll ever read, elegantly simple, unhurried, like the river. This is storytelling at its finest, as befits the tradition of the Swan. Once Upon a River conveys that benevolent, all-knowing authorial mood of folklore or fable, and if it didn’t, I’m not sure the novel would work, or at least not for me. The bad guys are truly bad, and the good guys, though they may have a foible or two, could never do anything really hurtful. They never get angry, jealous, or aggressive, nor do they have any grudges, never mind holding onto them.

Robert Armstrong, grandfather to Alice, is the son of a lord and a black serving girl, well educated, thoughtful, and sensitive. You have to like Robert, and though he’s keenly aware that his dark skin scares many people, he has infinite charm that wins just about anyone over within a minute or less. Does he resent the prejudice that makes him a feared, hated object on sight? No, he doesn’t. Should he? If we’re talking about the real world, why, of course. But Once Upon a River mixes fantasy with reality, and though a Woo-Woo Meter, if such a thing existed, would flicker occasionally, I’m glad that Rita’s there to scoff at magic. She’s ably aided in her skepticism by Henry Daunt, the badly injured man, who turns out to be a photographer, and therefore skilled at observation.

Yet Setterfield can seduce even a crotchety skeptic like me. I particularly like her creation of Quietly, a spirit boatman credited with rescuing many of his living brethren from certain drowning when it’s not their time, while, conversely, escorting to the next world those whose moment has come.

But mostly, I think the writing carries the novel. Take, for only one example among many, a passage about a man as he leaves the Swan the fateful night, trying to make sense of having witnessed a girl seemingly return from the dead:

Usually the walk home from the Swan was a time for regret — regret that his joints ached so badly, that he had drunk too much, that the best of life had passed him by and he had only aches and pains ahead of him now, a gradual decline till at the end he would sink into the grave. But having witnessed one miracle he now saw miracles everywhere: the dark night sky his old eyes had ignored thousands of times before tonight unfolded itself above his head with the vastness of eternal mystery. He stopped to stare up and marvel. The river was splashing and chiming like silver on glass; the sound spilled into his ear, resonated in chambers of his mind he’d never known existed. He lowered his head to look at the water. For the first time in a lifetime by the river he noticed — really noticed — that under a moonless sky the river makes its own mercurial light. Light that is also darkness, darkness that is also light.

Note how Setterfield’s description remains understated. No raptures or verbal fireworks here; only the river and sky as someone who’d watched them all his long life would view them. And because he sees them afresh, you catch his sense of wonder, joy in being alive, and gratitude that he’s lived this long to appreciate the heavens and the water. Lightly done, and all the more affecting for that.

That’s Once Upon a River. Read, and be seduced.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Vienna Blood: The Second Rider


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Review: The Second Rider, by Alex Beer
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr
Europa, 2018. 319 pp. $17

When police Inspector August Emmerich stumbles across a corpse while pursuing a black-market ring in 1919 Vienna, he refuses to do what his superiors tell him. That’s nothing new, apparently. Emmerich, a gifted detective who longs to work in homicide, the elite police unit, has made no secret of his ambition or his contempt for idiotic rules and the men who make them.

Karl-Marx-Hof,, a tenement built during the Socialist era in Vienna (courtesy © Bwag/Wikimedia)

Unfortunately for August, however, the mayor has been leaning on the police to break the black marketeering that has caused such misery in this freezing, starving, ill-clad, impoverished postwar city. Which means that even though the dead man August happens on couldn’t have committed suicide the way the coroner insists — the deceased was a shell-shocked veteran with such a debilitating tremor, he couldn’t have loaded a pistol and held it to his head — the inspector’s under orders to leave that case and crush the black market.

Naturally, his disobedience gets him into trouble, which happens about every half hour. You can’t blame him, exactly, because his superiors are much less competent than the criminals, an irony that leads to an unusual alliance. But Emmerich’s troubles aren’t always of his own making. Beer spares him nothing, so that whatever loss or indignity he can possibly endure will no doubt come his way, and soon. “No — and furthermore” doesn’t simply live here; these pages are that concept. Money trouble? Absolutely. Physical pain? He’s got it, limping from an old war wound that he dares not reveal, for fear that he’ll be farmed out to a desk job.

At times, the plot spins a little too often, too neatly, and many, many bodies fall. But Beer’s adept at testing her hero’s flair for getting out of tight spaces, and the results are often hilarious. (My favorite is the time he’s forced to impersonate a medical student during hospital rounds, during which Emmerich proves ingenious as well as lucky.) Most of these situations occur because, after sizing up the incredible risks he faces, he goes ahead nevertheless.

Along the way, he tries to train his newbie assistant, Ferdinand Winter, a young man whose sensitivities, desire to follow the rules, and privileged background earn his boss’s disdain. Winter’s grandmother, who openly mourns the kaiser and seems to blame Emmerich for his abdication, adds a little spice — and thievery — to the relationship between the two men. But Emmerich, who’s had a hard life, is compassionate at heart, showing regard for anyone in Vienna struggling to get by, especially veterans like himself, so you sense that eventually, he’ll warm to Ferdinand.

Meanwhile, though, the pair witness a city still reeling from the war, suffering hopelessness, tuberculosis, pervasive crime, and crushing poverty. It’s enough to break anyone’s heart:

As he had feared, inside they encountered the most miserable squalor. The dwelling — this form of lodging didn’t deserve the name home — was a dark hole with barely any air to breathe. Passing through the musty kitchen, its walls covered with mold, they entered a room that served as the living room, bedroom, and work space. It was perhaps four strides across, six strides long, and dimly lit by a flickering petroleum lamp. That was it. No other space.

The atmosphere in which Beer immerses her characters provides more than background. The homeless shelters (five-night limit), the incessant thievery, degradation, and sickness contrast sharply with the few oases of wealth and privilege. Beer knows her postwar Vienna thoroughly, selecting just the right details, and you breathe the same foul air as her characters, smell the same vile odors.

The Second Rider (which, by the way, refers to the Four Horsemen) introduces a series. If the subsequent installments are anything like this one, I predict many successful adventures for August Emmerich.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

St. Peter, Don’t You Call Me… : The Widows


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Review: The Widows, by Jess Montgomery
Minotaur, 2018. 317 pp. $27

When Lily Ross’s husband, Daniel, sheriff of Bronwyn County, Ohio, is shot to death in March 1925 under circumstances that beg for investigation, the widow undertakes to learn the truth. Though the bereaved spouse/lover detective is by now a trope, you couldn’t ask for a more compelling premise than Montgomery provides. Not only does Lily quickly learn that Daniel led a secret life with another woman — again, something we’ve heard before — but that woman, Marvena, is recently widowed herself and a union organizer. Bronwyn County is coal country, and the mine owners’ exploitative practices loom large — wages paid in scrip instead of cash, the company store, yellow-dog contracts, Pinkerton thugs; the whole nine yards.

“Keeping Warm,” a cartoon appearing in the Los Angeles Times in November 1919, reveals a common attitude of that time about mine labor disputes (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The miners’ cause lends potent substance and background to Daniel’s death and Lily’s investigation, not least because Daniel’s half-brother, Luther, owns the mines. Accordingly, the story involves many more deaths, beatings, and threats of violence, whether from mobs or individuals, authentic to labor history in the coalfields. Montgomery makes Daniel a violent man too, an erstwhile prizefighter capable of great rages. Lily’s least pleasant discoveries concern aspects of his past that show how he hid his violent side from her.

Much of this she learns from Marvena, who shares the narrative point of view. Though the story wouldn’t work without her, Marvena’s a weak link. She’s an admirable person who has suffered for her beliefs, but maybe that’s the problem — either she’s too earnest, or Montgomery was in creating her. Marvena plays two notes, over and over — whom can I trust? how can I keep the miners together when the union-busters have all the power? — and you can’t argue, but she needs more. Marvena’s emotional world feels too narrow, despite a passage or two about what her two daughters mean to her. What the miners endure is absolutely heartbreaking, and the way management maintains power at all costs reads like a combination of serfdom and three-card Monte. Nevertheless, to me, Marvena remains a symbol, an icon of resistance, rather than a complete person, and if she had a flaw other than the suspicious nature she has honestly earned, I’d believe her more readily.

Lily needs flaws as well. Men call her stubborn and foolhardy, but they would. Though she suffers from Daniel’s silences when he’s alive, she never regrets having married him, and though she briefly resents him for having died, that doesn’t stick. Why the whitewash? Even so, she comes across more fully than Marvena, particularly in passages like the following, a flashback to her courtship of Daniel — in a delightful switch, she’s the aggressor — when she spies on him training for a fight:

She took in every bit of him with her gaze — the bow of his head as if he worshiped at the swing of the bag, the pull and stretch of his muscles with each wrathful thrum, thrum, thrum of his fists against the bag. She felt in that beating rhythm his intention to keep going until mind and memory and muscle all melted to mere spoonfuls of sopping grayness.

Montgomery writes well, if unevenly— occasionally, her dialogue dumps information — but I wish she had more confidence in her skill. I want especially to see more emotional moments like the one quoted above, in which her protagonists’ inner lives expand to take in what they love, hate, or dream of. Instead, the author focuses on action-reaction moments, in which Lily or Marvena take in what they’ve learned or experienced and wrestle with it, often posing rhetorical questions, a device that easily wears thin. They’re strong women, and they have dreams, so why are they so tightly bound to what’s in front of them?

That approach may result because of the many, many plot twists, which, though they keep the reader guessing, hurt the narrative in the long run. It’s not that Montgomery ignores her characters’ inner journeys, exactly, but she seems less sure of herself with them, which leads me to suspect that she’s more comfortable twisting the story. But that’s not where real tension lies, and the plot turns sometimes seem improbable; more than a couple ooze melodrama. Likewise, had the villains occupied fuller characters than plain villainy, they would have felt truer to life.

All the same, I like The Widows, which features two female protagonists who don’t wait for men to rescue them, a feminist perspective that remains consistent. And as the grandson of a staunch union man, I applaud this narrative, a reminder of an ugly chapter in our nation’s history.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

A Feminist in the Four Hundred: A Well Behaved Woman


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Review: A Well Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martins, 2018. 392 pp. $28

In 1874, Miss Alva Smith, Southern belle of good name but a lost cotton fortune, puts herself on the New York marriage market, much the way gambler with a limited stake visits a casino. She snags William K. Vanderbilt, who must be counted quite a catch, having more money than even he knows how to spend. But it’s not love or even physical attraction that motivates her, only the financial considerations that will save her three sisters, their invalid father, and herself from destitution, and William’s apparent liking for her. Bad idea, you say? Marry in haste, repent at leisure?

Alva Vanderbilt, duly attired for her costume ball in March 1883 (courtesy via Wikimedia Commons)

Well, yes, and as a Vanderbilt, there’s plenty of leisure around, about two hundred pages’ worth, in this case. By that time, Alva has learned a thing or two about her husband and the high society she was so eager to join. The first lessons are brutal. William’s notion of sex is lift the nightgown, push hard, grunt, roll off, and return to his own room. The day their first child is born, he gives Alva an extravagantly expensive bauble “for her trouble,” and goes off to inspect champion horseflesh for purchase. After all, as he says, he has nothing better to do.

Alva shouldn’t be too surprised. As the impecunious Miss Smith pursuing William in the dining room of an upper-class watering hole, she senses that she herself might as well have been a horse:

The other marriageable girls were too lovely, all of them, those rose-milk complexions and hourglass waists and silks that gleamed like water in sunlight. The Greenbrier resort’s dining room was filled with such girls, there in the company of clever mothers whispering instructions on the most flattering angle for teacup and wrist, and sit straighter, smile brightly, glance coyly — lashes down. The young men, who were outnumbered three to one, wore crisp white collars and linen coats and watched and smiled and nodded like eager buyers at a Thoroughbred market.

Yet, as Fowler painstakingly reveals, the results of this successful husband hunting aren’t all bad. Alva enjoys many of the things William’s money buys — physical comfort, fine clothes and jewels, beautiful homes that she helps design (and for which she has a gift), protection from life’s hazards. The Gilded Age comes alive in these pages, with its shockingly conscienceless opulence while hunger and hardship stalk New York; the social cabals involving who can snub whom and feel righteous about it; and the assumption, embraced by both sexes, that women are ornaments, hearth warmers, and social arbiters but never, ever thinking, independent-minded people with their own inner lives or interests. I like how Fowler’s drawn the two major characters, and though I can’t say I like William, I do get that he feels a dynastic weight on his shoulders and acts accordingly. Unfortunately, others suffer from his self-inflicted wound, because he’s a man incapable of reflection or questioning his prerogatives.

You know that Alva’s different from her cohort, that within her lurks a social reformer, a sympathetic person, perhaps even a democrat, and the narrative implies that had the field been open to her, she could have trained as an architect. The first scene of A Well Behaved Woman shows Miss Smith touring a tenement with seven other upper-class ladies and displaying a singularly receptive, empathic reaction. I love this scene, and Fowler’s clever to introduce Alva that way. Two hundred pages is a long time to wait for consciousness, and the author is giving the reader something to hold onto during the interim.

But I’m not sure the tactic succeeds. I understand Fowler’s commitment to a slow burn, because Alva has been taught all her life that an outwardly brilliant marriage is all any woman could (or should) want. I agree that her inchoate dreams for wider horizons shouldn’t lead her in another direction too soon or too easily. Further, the payoff, when it finally comes, does satisfy, and Alva’s subsequent actions justify the author’s contention that this socialite was an ardent, practicing feminist.

That said, however, it’s another question whether you actually care about Alva’s intricate, time-consuming machinations to make Caroline Astor accept the Vanderbilts as social equals. No doubt it’s true to life, but, as Alva’s African-American maid gently suggests, there’s prejudice, and then there’s prejudice. Moreover, Fowler proves her case early on that William K. Vanderbilt, like other men of his class, is selfish, tyrannical, and completely deluded as to the relationship between wealth and character. Piling on the evidence adds nothing new.
Consequently, whether A Well Behaved Woman will please you depends on your patience for the Gilded Age and its sins. It’s a well-written book, and Alva’s a worthy character, but I wonder whether Fowler could have told her story more effectively.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

What a Woman Knows: Lilli de Jong


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Review: Lilli de Jong, by Janet Benton
Doubleday, 2017. 335 pp. $27

This riveting debut novel shows how quickly and thoroughly a woman’s life may unravel, to which the only responses must be fortitude, will, and, at times, subterfuges of which men know nothing — and don’t wish to know. In 1883, twenty-two-year-old Lilli de Jong loses her mother to untimely death, whereupon this Philadelphia family of plain-speaking, plain-living Quakers falls apart. Her father, a selfish, irascible furniture maker of great stubbornness and little foresight, takes to drink, upsetting the Friends elders, and he compounds the felony by inviting his cousin, Patience, into his home and bed. That gets him expelled from the local meeting, and Lilli from her teaching job at the Friends’ school.

Then her suitor and brother, having had enough of the furniture shop and its cantankerous master, go seek their fortunes in the Pittsburgh steel mills, leaving Lilli friendless and vulnerable. What’s more, the night before her departure, Johan, the boyfriend, makes her pregnant. Three men have therefore done what men so often do, shielded from responsibility or ostracism, while a woman takes the shame, the burden, and the calumny, visible to all.
Lilli talks her way into a charitable home for expecting, unwed mothers, by no means a happy place, though she realizes she could have suffered much worse:

After stirring hot vats of laundry, wringing out the steaming cloths, and hanging them on lines; after scrubbing floors on our knees, helping Cook peel potatoes and knead heaps of dough, wiping away the grime that falls to every surface from the city air, and unpacking crates of donated supplies left at the back gate, we should want nothing more than rest. But without work to occupy us, our minds wander to places of uncertainty and dread. Better to sit in an upholstered chair, lean toward the orb of a gas lamp in the parlor, and draw a brightly threaded needle in and out of a dish towel or an apron. Better to form lovely flowers than to consider that the promise of our youth has bloomed and died.

Mrs. G. W. Clark’s Open Door, home for unwed mothers, which opened in Omaha in 1892 (courtesy University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research and

But the charity assumes — nay, almost demands — that these women give up their newborns for adoption. And when the time comes, Lilli refuses, unaware of the terrors, hardships, and exploitation that await but adamant that she won’t abandon her little daughter, Charlotte, flesh of her flesh, as others have abandoned her.

I love this premise, the inverse of so many novels in which a mother gives up a child, and either party tries to reconnect later. Not that there’s anything wrong with such stories, but consider the immediacy, the elegant, hard-edged simplicity of Benton’s approach. Her protagonist has an infant crying for milk, but Lilli has no money, no food for herself, and nowhere to live; meanwhile, she’s looked upon as a whore, vagrant, or juicy target. That predicament, which Lilli periodically escapes and falls back into, creates more electricity than your average hydro plant. Her conscience, developed from a young age and schooled in the Friends’ outlook, pushes against her needs constantly, and she struggles to do the right thing.

Consequently, Benton need not strain to place obstacles in Lilli’s way, for the world is stacked against her, and the “no — and furthermores” flow as naturally as a river. For instance, when Lilli reluctantly leaves Charlotte with a wet nurse and hires herself out in the same capacity to a wealthy family, you can probably imagine a few problems, such as the lascivious, unhappy master of the house. But furthermore, you have the doctor who must approve her position and whose half-educated word is law, and the myriad, uncountable ways in which the mistress of the house humiliates her.

Lilli narrates her story through diary entries, and though I like her voice and simple style, I wonder whether she could have written so fluidly. For a young woman who has read only those books that contain useful information and little or no fiction — her parents obeyed the stricture of plainness in all ways — Lilli has a highly polished pen that never hunts for a word or a thought. Benton wants to write a coherent novel, and no one can object to that, yet because the narration is so articulate, it doesn’t always feel contemporaneous with the action, as though Lilli writes years later. To credit Benton’s storytelling, however, this never occurred to me until I finished the book.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help noticing that Charlotte at times seems more like a four-or five-month-old infant than a newborn. That’s not a deal-breaker, except that I had to stop and think about my own children when they were infants, which took me out of the story. The plethora of exclamation points also puts me off, a bad editorial decision for several reasons, not least pushing a sober-minded, nineteenth-century young woman used to self-discipline too far toward a modern-day schoolgirl tearing a passion to tatters. Lilli’s story needs no adornment, any more than she needs (or would think to use) lipstick and rouge. At its best, which is very good indeed, Lilli de Jong delivers a powerful moral tale from simple, basic elements.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

In the Madman’s Court: Wolf on a String


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Review: Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black
Holt, 2017. 306 pp. $28

As the year 1599 draws to a close, an impoverished German scholar named Christian Stern has wangled an introduction to the Prague court of Rudolph II, king of Hungary and Bohemia, archduke of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor. Called eccentric by some, mad by others — in whispers, of course — Rudolph shows more interest in magic and alchemy than in governing. Christian has read widely in the occult arts and considers them hogwash, but he’s willing to play the happy acolyte to ingratiate himself with His Majesty in hopes of patronage for natural philosophy—science–like the emperor’s other hirelings, Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1591 painting of Rudolf II as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons, growth, plants, and fruit. The emperor liked the portrayal (courtesy Skokloster Castle, Sweden, via Wikimedia Commons)

The chestnut about being careful what you wish for applies here. No sooner has Christian entered Prague than he stumbles across a corpse of a young woman dressed in a velvet gown, wearing a gold medallion around her neck. Robbery can’t be the motive, and her attire suggests she’s well born. But when he brings the death to official attention, to his surprise, he’s beaten and imprisoned for the crime:

Bells in countless churches were tolling the hour; it seemed to me I had never in my life heard so bleak and comfortless a sound. The thought came slithering into my defenseless consciousness that I might never be released from this foul dungeon, unless it was to be taken out on a freezing midwinter morning much like this one and marched to some grimy corner of the castle keep and made to kneel there with my neck on the block, where my last sight of this world would be that of the hooded headsman testing the edge of his blade with a thick thumb.

Luckily, Rudolph smiles on Christian, and he’s released, but not to serve justice or kindness or logic. Rather, the emperor believes in a prophecy that a “new star,” a sign of good fortune, will cross the firmament. Who better than someone named Christian Stern (Stern means “star” in German) to represent these glad tidings? And there could be no better way to prove his worth than to solve the murder; the victim was the court physician’s daughter, one of Rudolph’s mistresses. Besides, the emperor can’t trust anybody else. Christian implicitly understands that the killing has immense political implications, though, as a newcomer, he has no way to know where they lead.

“To the gallows,” replies just about everyone he talks to, most of whom make no secret of their desire to see him swing. Christian can never tell whether their animosity results from his exceedingly rapid rise, how they perceive their self-interest, plain viciousness, or a combination of all three. All he can see is that he’s stumbled into a power struggle between Felix Wenzel, His Majesty’s high steward and the official who had him arrested, and Philipp Lang, the subtle, devious high chamberlain. Allying himself to either may well be fatal, but the day will come when Christian must choose sides. His predicament causes frank amusement among the courtiers, spiced by his amorous adventures, which, though risky, are common knowledge. How pleasant to be the source of merriment.

Black, a pseudonym for John Banville, the famous novelist, has told a gripping story whose tension never flags, and which has the ring of literary and historical truth, even though he made most of it up. He’s captured the timeless tale of a young man on the make, and this one’s so dazzled by the money, finery, and sexual favors on offer that he’s distracted from his task to solve the murder, a loss of focus that seems true to life. Christian has some leeway in that Rudolf’s easily distracted too, but that won’t last forever, and the mercurial emperor’s whims must be honored. Black has also re-created Prague in all its filth, lice, mud, grandeur, cruelty, and hardship, which puts you in the narrative and doesn’t let go.

The title comes from a remark by Kepler, who appears in a marvelous cameo, full of braggadocio and insight. He explains to Christian that if you bow a violin in precisely the wrong way — a remote likelihood for a skilled musician, yet still possible — you produce a sound like a wolf. What a perfect metaphor for Christian’s situation, potentially sublime yet fated to evoke a terrifying threat with only the slightest misstep. Black never lets his protagonist — or the reader — forget that.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Romanian Tragedy: The Girl They Left Behind


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Review: The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos
Atria, 2018. 353 pp. $27

One horrific night in January 1941, police and paramilitaries in Bucharest drag thousands of Jews from their homes and murder them. A young couple, fearing the worst, abandons their not-quite-four-year-old daughter in hope that someone will take her in. Someone does; and through great good fortune and personal connections, a childless couple, Anton and Despina Goza, adopt her and name her Natalia. Even better, adoptive parents and child make a practically seamless fit, and, for better and worse, Natalia remembers no other life, no other family.

Luckier yet, the Gozas have a happy home, despite wartime shortages, bombing raids, and the German presence that comes with being a Nazi satellite. Anton has a successful stationery business, built by hard work and an abundant reservoir of personal warmth, and the Gozas want for very little. Natalia even has a piano to play, at which she seems a young virtuoso. Ironically, the real troubles begin after the war’s end, when the Soviets come to Romania. Stalin’s men intend to root out “bourgeois counterrevolutionaries,” as in anyone who’s got two pennies to rub together. That puts the Gozas in the crosshairs.

Bucharest, late 1930s, Bratianu and Magheru boulevards (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain

How this drama plays out is the greatest strength of The Girl They Left Behind. Veletzos excels at scenes revealing the nitty-gritty of Soviet rule — the uniformed thugs who “inspect” private homes for signs of wealth; the joyless, muzzled schoolroom; the several families packed into one apartment, with a Party informer in their midst. Natalia’s past, though not unique in Holocaust literature, packs a punch too, and the reckoning you know is coming hangs over the narrative like a storm cloud.

Unfortunately, I think Veletzos could have allowed a full-fledged hurricane and derived even more power from it. One wind that never even gets a chance to blow concerns Natalia’s reaction to her private discovery (which happens in very contrived fashion) that she’s adopted. Though surprised, she shuts the news from her mind, which seems rather nonchalant, especially for a teenager, who’d likely be trying to figure out who she is. She never asks herself (or anyone else) who the fugitives might have been, though she knows the date of her abandonment and could have put two and two together. It’s as though Veletzos, having evoked the Holocaust, wishes to leave that behind, like the girl.

Later, when Natalia understands the complete story, she still fails to plumb that aspect of herself. But even without reflecting on her Jewish heritage, she’d surely imagine who her birth parents might have been, why they fled, and what sort of blood runs in her veins. She might also ask why her adoptive parents never told her. But Natalia never holds onto criticism of them, only about others.

Then again, the narrative idealizes Anton and Despina. Consider this first description of him:

Despina could not help thinking that he looked handsome in his striped silk pajamas, even at this early hour, his short-cropped hair rumpled, the faint smell of last night’s whiskey still on his breath. He began brushing his teeth, humming a tune to himself. Sometimes his boundless optimism rattled her a little, but it was part of his charm. And her husband was certainly a man blessed with undeniable charm.… It wasn’t just her on whom Anton had this effect but practically everyone who knew him. His lightness of being was infectious, irresistible. Women turned their heads as he passed them on the street, looking like Cary Grant in his suits tailored to perfection, a white angora scarf draped over his broad shoulders…

Sounds like someone I’d like to meet, yet surely Anton would show a blemish once in a while, especially given the stress of war and two foreign occupations. Despina’s messier, but in a clumsy way, toward mania — first, as a woman desperate for a child, and then as a fiercely protective, almost lunatic, mother. Why does such intense maternal love in fiction so often require screaming fits or cold, manipulative silences? Grief and passion feel more authentic when they’re not histrionic. What’s more, the portrayal strikes me as antifeminist, as though we can only understand such an overwhelming attachment through hysteria. M. L. Stedman made the same mistake in her otherwise excellent novel, The Light between Oceans, so I don’t mean to single Veletzos out. In both cases, though, I think a flaw other than craziness would have served better.

If The Girl They Left Behind sometimes seems predictable, that’s partly a function of the story, which sets up certain expectations and delivers too reliably, and partly because of characters who react the way they have before. That’s why I like the scenes you can’t anticipate, like those describing Soviet rule; and since I knew very little about Romania before I read the novel, I drank all that in. What could have been a powerful, unforgettable story fails to rise above the poignant, but for some readers, that will be enough.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Saving Your Life (and the World): The Lake on Fire


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Review: The Lake on Fire, by Rosellen Brown
Sarabande, 2018. 349 pp. $18

Why in the world is a group of Ruthenian Jews from Zhitomir trying to homestead in Wisconsin? That’s the question Chaya-Libbe Shadarowsky asks herself, and by the time she’s seventeen, in 1891, she’s come to a few conclusions. So when her parents pull her out of the school she loves, which has expanded her outlook and given her hope, and plan to marry her off within the community, she must make an excruciating choice.

Chaya loved her parents and felt their difficulties — her mother breathed for them, she was their pulsing machine. She admired her father for the dignity of his commitments. He was a man who bled for others, who ought to have been given a chance to work for the well-being of strangers. But they were living someone else’s life, she was certain of that. Driven to improve their chances, they had chosen wrong, and were covered with the dust of failing farmers. They seemed to attract catastrophe — the rain that soaked the hay before they got it in, the calf that strangled in the womb and could not be pulled out until its poor mother expired, the wind — so harsh it could not be measured — that took down the chimney pipe and let the rain flood in and soak the quilts and bother the babies. Each, if you traced it back a few steps, was the result of their incompetence.

She dreams of escape though she has no money, a struggling grasp of English, and no idea what she could do to keep body and soul together. But Chaya is nothing if not resourceful, and when she makes it to Chicago, her ten-year-old brother, Asher, unexpectedly tags along. His presence delights her, for she loves him more than anyone, yet also terrifies her, and not just because she now must support two people on invisible means. He’s ungovernable, and his impulsive nature, which seeks unfamiliar words and experience, renders him incapable of understanding obstacles, especially other people’s feelings or private property. Though Chaya worries he’ll be arrested for petty theft, the notion that her little brother might be a sociopath or harbor deep rage never occurs to her.

Both siblings bend their talents to social protest. Asher scrambles for a living as sneak thief and wunderkind and befriends the men building the World’s Columbian Exposition, due to open in 1893. With inequality visible on every corner, he becomes a political radical, whereas Chaya, committed to working within the system, crosses paths with Jane Addams and other social reformers from the higher classes. The juxtaposition poses the chief question of The Lake on Fire: Once you see oppression and suffering, how do you respond?

The novel explores several answers, each of which finds representation in a particular character or characters, achieving a universality in the particular. That’s not so unusual; more remarkable is how Brown proceeds with such subtlety that no one, ever, sounds like a talking head. The Lake on Fire therefore offers a primer on characterization, and it’s a demanding art. Brown takes her time, because she wants you to see everything she does and enter her narrative. This is what literary fiction aspires to, painstaking vividness that feels effortless. Readers who assume that portraying physical background, feelings, and character to such an extent must inevitably be highbrow or boring don’t know what they’re missing.

However, the unhurried approach works only because Brown constantly introduces the unexpected through the characters’ reactions, particularly to unforeseen intrusions that no one else would notice, but which mean the world to them. It could be a strange-looking dog on a railroad station platform, a manner of dress, the weather, an odor that carries particular associations, but they all spark a search for meaning and keep the reader close. Once or twice, I wanted the internal narrative to stop, and the external one to resume. But this wasn’t because the story bored me, only that I’d gotten the point, and the tension made me impatient.

More seriously, Asher gets under my skin in the wrong way. After a while, he becomes hard to like, and though I don’t demand liking in fiction, the reasons I dislike him — his self-absorption and lack of empathy — evaporate when it’s thematically inconvenient. If he’s unempathic in general, how does he wind up caring so much about the downtrodden men whom the city gobbles up and spits out? Chaya, usually so clear-eyed, seems to overlook or forgive her brother’s bad behavior on reflex and wonders why others can’t. Her stubbornness paints her (and the author) into a corner, the outlet from which strikes the only contrived note in the book.

Still, The Lake on Fire bowled me over, a splendid example of what literary fiction can be.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Blood and Money: House of Gold


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Review: House of Gold, by Natasha Solomons
Putnam, 2018. 433 pp. $26

Greta Goldbaum, a spirited young woman in 1911 Vienna who thinks nothing of going barefoot when her shoes pinch or contesting conventions that make no sense to her, dreams of choosing her own life. Alas, Vienna’s no place for free spirits, nor is the Goldbaum family the type to tolerate them. As international bankers (patterned after the Rothschilds), the Goldbaums have branches in various European capitals, connected by blood ties, common interests, and a remarkable network of couriers. So it is that distant Goldbaum cousins traditionally intermarry, which is why Greta has been betrothed to her kinsman Albert, in London, whom she’s never met. Neither of them has any say in the match.

But that doesn’t mean Greta has to like her bridegroom, or vice versa, and from her point of view, there’s much to dislike. Pedantic, dull, and as straight-laced as they come, Albert has one great passion, collecting butterflies. Greta finds that utterly appalling and cruel. For his part, Albert fears that his stubborn, immodest wife is always seconds away from attracting the wrong kind of attention and creating a scandal.

Passing of the Parliament Bill of 1911 in the House of Lords, Samuel Begg (courtesy Gutenberg Project via Wikimedia Commons)

I seldom read sagas because, fairly or not, I assume them to involve melodrama, contrivance, and an obsession with the surfaces of wealth and power that don’t interest me. But I made an exception for House of Gold, and I’m glad I did. Solomons needs no melodrama or contrivance to tell her tale, because she adeptly introduces the unexpected without resorting to plot twists. A passing sight or ordinary occurrence, unremarkable in itself, becomes a focal point for the characters to seek meaning. Consequently, Greta and Albert reveal their many facets naturally, as does most of the rather large cast of characters. Toward the end, the narrative veers toward contrivance, but even there, Solomons reclaims these moments somewhat by having her characters grapple with their humility.

Also, Solomons has tackled a thorny subject, the bigoted canard about Jews and money, and done so with surehanded brio. If anyone or anything purely represents anti-Semitic delusions, it’s the Rothschilds, which demands that an author conduct a deep, consequential examination of wealth and power. House of Gold delivers. It portrays the delicate balance the Goldbaums must strike, aware that however wealthy and/or ennobled they are, they’re outsiders and always will be. Their family name may permit a demarche in the halls of government, even to the palace or the prime minister’s office, but they know what’s said about them and how precarious their reputations are. Moreover, none can ever be sure that outsiders deal with them candidly; something’s always in play, even in the wedding presents lavished on Greta and Albert:

Two saloons had been set aside for this purpose, and yet still they were not large enough. Clients of the Goldbaums from all over Europe had sent tokens expressing felicity and gratitude, and the silent hope of generous terms in future negotiations. Tables heaved with silver dinner services from President Fallières, and Persian rugs from Emperor Franz Joseph himself. The British empire was expressed in miniature: hand-painted wallpaper from China, a carved chest from the maharajas of Rajasthan filled with finely colored rugs, an ivory jewelry box from Ceylon.… Greta escaped the minute she could, wishing that so many strangers had not been quite so generous, requiring so many hundreds of thank-you letters. If she had remained a moment longer she might have overheard Albert remark that he found the habit of ingratiating gift-giving obsequious and excessive.

Solomons means to recount history, and to some extent, she manages. Against the Goldbaum backdrop, she portrays the Liberal reform of 1911, which diminished the power of the House of Lords; the rise of feminism; and, most significantly to the plot, the First World War, which threatens to destroy the banking house and the family. I like how she conveys the home front, in its shortages and prejudices, the latter of which keep Greta from venturing out where people will hear her Austrian accent. Less successful or convincing is the narrative conceit that America entered the war to protect the extensive loans made to the Allies, a notion that serves the plot but not history and involves an information dump or three.

My other serious complaint involves Otto, Greta’s beloved brother, who needs a flaw or two and more depth in general. I understand the forces that restrain him, but though he appears to have dreams as wide as the heavens — he’s a brilliant astronomer — I don’t know what they are.

Still, I like House of Gold and think it’s worth reading for the central issues explored, the two principal characters, and the myriad details of everyday life that emerge from the narrative.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.