Review #37: Faithful Place by Tana French

Yet another Tana French book…I’m addicted!

So I was actually kind of disappointed by this one at first, but now that I’ve slept on it I’ve decided that I do like it a lot. It’s just different from the other books in the series.

Frank Mackey, an undercover cop, hasn’t seen his family in 20-something years. He maintains some contact with his younger sister, Jacky, but otherwise hasn’t returned home since he left as a teenager. When he gets a call that someone has found the suitcase of his ex-girlfriend, Rosie, who was supposed to run away with him but never showed up, hidden in an abandoned old house in his neighborhood, he must return home to his family and discover what really happened to the love of his life.

I think my biggest problem with this book, initially, was that as a mystery, it didn’t hold up for me. One of my favorite things about Tana French is that her mysteries are twisty and exciting and truly shocking. The plot here was kind of weak, and although it was suspenseful in the beginning (mostly because I assumed it would be similar to the other books) it lost momentum fairly quickly. The ending was completely predictable (I figured out the ending–or at least, the basics of it–a quarter of the way through). So when I finished it, I was disappointed.

Taken on its own, though, this book is stunning. It’s a love story more than a mystery, I think, and it would have worked better as a stand-alone novel rather than one that’s part of a series–for me, at least, it suffers in comparison to the other books because I had certain expectations going in. This is a mystery, of course, but that aspect of the plot takes a backseat to other, more important themes. So in a way, I don’t think it really belongs in this series because it’s tonally very different from the others. Part of this is probably because Frank is an undercover cop, and so is somewhat removed from the investigation, whereas in the other books, the protagonists are immersed in the action of the actual mystery. Frank is more a victim than an investigator here, and so thematically, this book is very different–it’s about loss and love and the effects of death on those that are left behind.

Anyway, French does some of her best-ever character work here. Frank is broken and wounded and desperate, and I was completely sucked into his psyche and his emotions. His love for Rosie–even after twenty years–is beautiful and raw and so powerful that it really transcends everything else in the narrative. The cast of supporting characters are, as always, incredibly well-rounded and vivid. I love that French explores different socio-economic backgrounds in each of her books–in this one, the characters are definitely blue-collar, and their language and attitudes reflect that. This book, more than the others in the series, also touches on the history of Ireland (in terms of their relationship with England, especially), which I appreciated and thought added an interesting dimension to the story (and helped me–someone who knows very little about that conflict–contextualize some of the characters’ behaviors and beliefs).

Overall, this is a very good book. In a lot of ways I actually like it more than the others in the series. I think, though, if you’re going to read it, don’t go into it expecting the same heart-pounding, page-turning, “what-the-fuck” reaction that you get from the other books. It’s lovely and emotionally gripping in its own way.

Review #36: The Likeness by Tana French

I wasn’t kidding when I said Tana French is like crack to me. I was fiending for another one of her books and couldn’t focus on any other books! I was really trying to hold out for Into the Woods to come in at the library but my mom had a copy of The Likeness and I was leaving for a week-long trip and I couldn’t resist. I read this in about two days (I read instead of sight-seeing in D.C.)–it was SO good.

Detective Cassie Maddox is a recent transfer to the Domestic Violence unit of the Dublin police force after a horrific case in her old department (Homicide) shook her up so much that she needed to get out (this is the mystery in Into the Woods). She’s finally adjusting to her new position when she’s called to a murder scene in the countryside. The victim, a young woman, looks exactly like her. And to further complicate things, her I.D. identifies her as Alexandra Madison–the alter-ego Cassie created as an undercover cop at the beginning of her career. Although at first she wants nothing to do with the case, her old boss convinces her to impersonate Lexi and infiltrate her life, in order to solve the case from the inside. Cassie agrees reluctantly, and moves in with Lexi’s four best friends, but soon finds herself becoming immersed deeper and deeper into Lexi’s world.

Again, Tana French is a master at what she does. She’s particularly good at handling mental illness in her protagonists–it’s interesting that she’s clearly drawn to unreliable narrators. It’s hard to keep the narrative grounded and appealing to the reader while also making your main character break more and more with reality, but French overcomes this challenge incredibly well. Unreliable narrators can often be difficult to handle, especially when their unreliability is an obvious part of the story, but French makes her narrators complex and believable, even when we can’t really believe what they’re saying.

The mystery is, as I expected, super engaging. This is the definition of a page-turner–I had to know what happened! I really love how the solutions to her mysteries are always much simpler than you’d expect. That’s one of the reasons French is so good, I think–in real life, these things are rarely as overblown and complex as shows like Law and Order would have you believe.

One last thing: I was told to read Into the Woods first. I actually don’t think it’s totally necessary to read them in order; French doesn’t give anything away in The Likeness other than that the first mystery was horrific and emotionally draining. I may have appreciated this one more if I’d read ItW first, but I loved this one so I don’t know.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this book enough. Tana French is awesome.

Review #35: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I never thought I’d like a book based on Laura Bush’s life. I didn’t really know there was enough to say about her life to fill a whole book, to be honest. So kudos to Curtis Sittenfeld for making this book as poignant and compelling as it is.

American Wife is a thinly-veiled account of the life of Laura Bush (as in, George W.’s wife). The differences between Bush and Alice Lindgren, the protagonist, are few–the name, obviously, and the fact that the story takes place in Wisconsin instead of Texas. Alice’s voice is also clearly imagined; Sittenfeld takes liberties with her subject matter and creates a character independent of her real-life inspiration.

We meet Alice as the 61-year-old first lady of the United States. The rest of the book is a reflection on her early life, and on the strange path that led her to a position she never thought she’d hold. She was a fairly typical midwestern girl: a child growing up in small-town Wisconsin; a teenager forever tainted by an unexpected tragedy; an elementary school librarian. And then she meets the handsome, charming Charlie Blackwell, and everything changes.

I really liked Alice as a narrator. I don’t know how close Alice is to the real-life Laura, but if Laura is half as cool as Alice, I think I’ve severely misjudged her. Alice is sure of her beliefs; she’s liberal and independent and quietly bookish and makes no apologies for who she is. It is true that Laura was a registered Democrat as a young woman; Sittenfeld expands on this and has Alice consistently maintaining her Democratic allegiance, even as her Republican husband runs for office. I thought this was a really good choice; it added an interesting dimension to the story and made me respect Alice all the more.

My one criticism of the book is that the last quarter feels extremely rushed. The first three-quarters are paced very well, and are pretty detailed and fleshed out. There are time jumps (Sittenfeld frames the narrative by dividing into sections based on the houses Alice has lived in, which I thought was clever), but they’re all pretty short. But then all of a sudden there’s a huge time jump and Charlie is halfway into his second presidential term, and I became significantly less invested in the story. I realize that not everything can be included, but it was kind of frustrating and jarring. It’s literally a twenty year leap! I liked seeing Alice struggle with her role in the public eye, but I felt like we were missing out on some crucial plot development (for example, how and why Charlie decided to immerse himself in politics again, and discussions between Alice and Charlie about that choice). I was just so swept up in the first three-quarters of the book–so invested in Alice as a narrator–and the end fell a little flat for me. If Sittenfeld had developed it better, or made the transition a little smoother, I would have been much happier.

Overall, though, this book is wonderful, and really made me care about a woman I’d given little thought to up until this point. Highly recommended!

Review #34: Broken Harbor by Tana French

This book was AMAZING.

I love mysteries, but I hate the fact that they’re usually poorly-written or too obvious. I dig the really twisty mysteries, the ones that are scary and confusing and utterly engrossing. I was not expecting this to be one of those, but it turned out to be one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read.

This is actually book #4 of a series, but don’t worry about that–I hadn’t read the first three, and it doesn’t matter. The main characters are all different; they all just happen to work on the same police force. I was a little nervous about ruining the other books for myself, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t make much of a difference what order you read them in.

Broken Harbor‘s protagonist is Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, a detective in the homicide unit of Dublin’s police force. He’s arrogant, but rightfully so–he has an extremely high success rate, and prides himself on his ability to solve murders without letting his emotions get in the way. Along with his new partner, Richie, a rookie cop, he’s assigned to a case in the beach-side housing development of Brianstown, in which a man, his wife, and their two children were brutally attacked. Initially, the family seems picture-perfect, but Kennedy soon begins to discover things that indicate that all was not well, including dozens of holes in their walls, video-monitor baby cameras placed around the house. Kennedy must confront the most difficult case of his career while also dealing with his pain and emotions involving Brianstown–the town where his family used to vacation, back when it was known as Broken Harbor, and where tragedy struck when he was a young boy.

I just can’t express enough how fantastic this book is. I was guessing right up until the very end, which almost never happens–I can usually call a mystery about halfway through. French is masterful, creating a story that never feels implausible, even as it ramps up the creepiness and chaotic confusion. I was absolutely glued to the page, and literally could not put it down. I was sneaking reading breaks in at work because I just had to find out what happened. This book was like crack, and I loved every minute of it.

It’s genuinely scary–this was problematic, because I read much of it when I was babysitting and got super creeped out and paranoid–and SO well-written. This was literary genre fiction, something that you don’t find too often, and that I appreciated so much. It felt great to read a mystery without groaning at the cheesy dialogue or cringing at the author’s terrible writing. French is a brilliant author who just happens to write mysteries, and there should be more authors like her.

Go read this, now. It’s new, so the wait at the library might be long, but it’s definitely worth buying (I’m weird about buying books unless I’m pretty sure I’ll love them, so I didn’t buy this, but I should have).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to track down French’s other books and go on a reading binge.

Review #33: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Books that focus on a minor character from another work can be hit or miss for me. Sometimes they’re really good, sometimes they fail miserably (see: Ahab’s Wife, which was the worst book I read this year). I like the idea in theory, so I keep seeking them out, but I’m generally disappointed by them. The Penelopiad, though, is mostly successful, as a feminist retelling of The Odyssey.

The main character is Penelope, as in the wife of Odysseus. According to legend, she waited for her husband for twenty years, fending off suitors by telling them that once she’d finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, she’d marry one of them. However, at night, she’d undo all the progress she’d made during the day, and thus the shroud was never finished and she was able to hold out until Odysseus returned home.

We follow Penelope from childhood through the events of The Odyssey, meeting great figures of Greek mythology (Helen of Troy, for example) and experiencing the stories we all know well from her perspective. She was a great character to choose, because there’s just enough structure to the stories that we know about her that Atwood can’t get too carried away. We’re told the story from ghost-Penelope, after her death, looking back on her past; as a result, Penelope has a very modern, snarky voice, which was both hilarious and slightly jarring. I liked it, though–Atwood really transforms the genre into something unique by doing this, and it didn’t feel forced. We also get a running commentary in verse by Penelope’s twelve (also dead) maids, who interject sporadically to recount their version of events.

This book is really funny, which I wasn’t expecting. Penelope makes fun of everyone, including Odysseus, and provides a fresh new take on characters like Helen (a slutty, bitchy bimbo if Penelope is to be believed). I’ve read a lot of Greek myths, and so it was cool to see them reinterpreted in this way.

My biggest problem with the book is that it’s so short–it’s more like a novella–that we never spend much time on any one event or theme. So it ends up feeling a bit bare-bones. It’s good, and I enjoyed it, but there’s not much substance to it. I almost wish it had been a bit grittier and more dramatic and typically novel-like–Penelope is such a cool character, and I’d love to read a book that really delved into her story a bit more than this one does. Atwood clearly had fun writing this, though, and her enthusiasm is infectious. A fun read, but one that doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.

Review #32: The Servants’ Quarters by Lynn Freed

Lynn Freed is the kind of author I want to be best friends with. She’s just awesome. This is the second book I’ve read by her (the first, Reading, Writing and Leaving Home: Life on the Page is one of my absolute favorites, and one that I like to flip back through for inspiration when I have writer’s block). We have a lot in common–we both spent our childhoods in South Africa, we’re both writers, and we both think a lot about identity and culture. Her fiction is (as she discusses at length in Reading, Writing and Leaving Home) basically thinly-veiled versions of her own life, and her protagonists are essentially her, albeit with different life circumstances. 

So, it’s because I know how close the voice of The Servants’ Quarters‘ protagonist, Cressida, is to Freed’s own that I feel comfortable declaring that I want this woman to be my best friend. She’s incredibly smart, independent, sassy, and fearlessly opinionated. And she’s an absolutely brilliant writer.

The Servants’ Quarters takes place in Durban, South Africa, shortly after World War II. Cressida is a precocious nine-year-old living with her mother, her older sister, and comatose father. Her comfortable world is shaken up by a move to the titular servants’ quarters on the estate of Mr. George Harding, a disfigured bachelor with a timid nephew, Edgar, that Cressida is instructed to befriend. Mr. Harding takes an interest in Cressida and begins to serve as her mentor. The novel follows Cressida over the course of twenty years as her relationship with Mr. Harding develops.

This book almost felt like a retelling/re-imagining of Jane Eyre, and thus Beauty and the Beast as well. This is, however, its own entity; while the storylines feel somewhat similar, Freed makes it her own. She’s a stunning writer, with a dream-like quality to her prose that meshes well with her on-point characterization. Her sense of voice is incredible–as someone who grew up surrounded by South Africans, it’s amazing to feel the pace and the delivery and the tics of their speech transmitted so clearly on paper.

Cressida is a kick-ass protagonist and is definitely one of the best female characters I’ve experienced in a while. She’s so real–funny and flawed and complex–that you can’t help but fall in love with her. It’s to Freed’s credit that she can maintain Cressida’s characterization from childhood to adulthood–she’s still recognizable as the same person, with some of the personality quirks that one would expect to remain constant, but she grows and matures yet remains as compelling as ever. Cressida is the reason this book is so wonderful; she’s the primary reason that the somewhat played-out storyline succeeds so well.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, and encourage seeking out other works by Freed as well. She’s such a good writer, and not enough people know about her.