“This was what she missed as much as the sex: the flattery. In the early throes of love, you complimented each other. Then you got married and spent the rest of your years hurling insults and complaints. Marriage was disappointment verbalized,” from Prospect Park West by Amy Sohn.
Amy Sohn nails it: Marriage, motherhood, celebrity fixations and money anxieties, and always the value and meaning of real estate--Park Slope, Brooklyn now. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I read four novels including this one. Three, I love. Since I do not write about books I don’t love, I won’t tell you about the fourth. So many books, so little time—why write for the sake of honing my critical prose skills when I can be turning someone on to a wonderful reading experience instead?
In The Financial Lives of the Poets (Harper), Jess Walter gives us the gift of an entirely credible man whose life, including marriage is on the brink of collapse—and hilariously so. “Hilarious” is an over-used word in describing romantic movie comedies and blackly comedic novels but it is appropriate here. The character, Matthew, reminds me a bit of an old friend with whom I’ve recently re-connected. (Note to Rog: Stay out of 7-11s after midnight, okay?) Matthew is fresh from losing his newspaper job, broke from his wife Lisa’s shopping habits and his failed business venture, a poetry/financial advice website, and hiding their imminent eviction from their dream home from her—when he gets high for the first time in years with some kids he meets at the 7-11 on a $9 a gallon milk run. He decides to become a marijuana dealer. Here’s how he explains the plan to a friend:
“’It’s like prohibition,’ Matt says. ‘Pot is nostalgia for a lot of people our age. Selling weed is like opening a speakeasy in 1933.’”
Unusual in an author with a comedic gift, Walter also writes movingly of parenthood and of a man’s love and ongoing lust for a woman—and the difficulties of being married. When Matthew misses yet another chance to tell Lisa the truth, he thinks:
“There are always moments in which a person can stop, cross-roads where you can change course…there are those moments…until there aren’t any more.”
Yeah, I know something about that.
Amy Sohn’s characters in Prospect Park West (Simon & Schuster) are four very different young mothers. Surely you will relate to one of them. I could hang out with Rebecca and Lizzie and might possibly be enlisted to help remove Karen’s body from the crime scene. Karen is Nazi Mother personified—the woman who will harangue a stranger for not breast feeding or committing any number of other sins against her religious doctrine of motherhood. Plus—she’s a stalker. Meloria Leigh, the movie star mother of an adopted Asian boy, is a tabloid story come freakishly alive. Sohn skewers them all at one point or another, but not in a hateful way. (I get the feeling she is more kindly disposed toward Karen than I am.)
On page seven, Rebecca’s husband Theo astonishes party guests by saying he wouldn’t mind if she cheated on him.
“’I wouldn’t care if Rebecca cheated on me with another man—as long as she didn’t fall in love. I mean, as long as there are no feelings involved, I don’t care if she gets her pussy eaten by a businessman in St. Louis.’”
Rebecca is off and running to St. Louis, metaphorically speaking, of course. Longing for a sexually liberated past, she is surrounded by men like her husband, “neutered” because they were “children of miserable seventies divorces…” Now these “nesting, monogamous thirtysomethings had 1950s morals—New Victorians, a newspaper article had labeled them.”
She shares a few kisses with Lizzie, former lesbian or “hasbian” married to a black musician, before finding Mr. Big Trouble at the food Coop. The lives of the women and their husbands intersect, though sometimes tangentially. The random nature of the connections seems very real. Sohn gets it all perfectly right from the sex and longing to the ways in which women are mean to one another. Surely a sequel is in the works because she leaves loose ends, more like live wires downed in a thunder storm—and I want to know what happens next.
Like Sohn, author Colin Harrison lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the author Kathryn Harrison. (They are beautiful as well as talented—and how unfair is that?) Harrison is arguably the best literary thriller writer working the territory today. Manhattan Nocturne, The Havana Room, The Finder, Afterburn. If you haven’t discovered him, Risk (a Picador Paperback Original) that started out as a serial in The New York Times Magazine is a good place to starts. It’s lean and mean, written in his signature elegant prose—and thoroughly satisfying.
George Young, middle-aged attorney for a top insurance firm, is pressed into playing detective by the dying widow of the rich and eccentric founder, Wilson Corbett. She wants to know what her son was doing in a downtown bar for four hours before stepping outside and getting killed by a garbage truck backing up. In the standard thriller, that would be no accident, but in this one, it is. Murder is not the crime.
George’s wife Carol is not happy with his assignment. When George says he thinks that the ex-wife and girlfriend, a Czech hand model, were obsessing over the dead man, she says:
“’That’s a pretty typical male analysis…I think they’re obsessing over each other, actually.’
“’What is a typical male anyway?’” George asked her. “’Can you describe him?’
“’Yes, he’s nondescript…’”
You gotta’ love Carol’s honesty. Most middle-aged white guys are “nondescript.” But I like George. He plays a smart game—and he knows the value of what he has in Carol.
Buy books for holiday gifts! What gives you as much bang for the buck as a good book?
Some members of New York Writers have been posting their top ten book picks of 2009 on the group’s website.
Here are my picks (and it was hard to settle on just 10):
THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS by Jess Walker (Harper)
PROSPECT PARK WEST by Amy Sohn (Simon & Schuster(
IN THE KITCHEN by Monica Ali (Scribner)
THE YEAR OF THE COCK by Alan Weider (Grand Central)
RISK by Colin Harrison (Picador)
JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon)
THE BOY NEXT DOOR by Irene Sabatini (Little Brown)
THE AGE OF WONDER by Richard Holmes (Pantheon)
DREAMING IN HINDI by Katherine Russell Rich (HMH)
THANKS FOR COMING: One Young Woman's Quest for an Orgasm by Mara Altman (Harper Perennial)
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