Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Cleaner of Chartres by Sally Vickers

The Cleaner of Chartres.  Sally Vickers. Viking Adult. June 2013. 304 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780670785674.

Agnes Morel is a quiet, gentle soul who arrived at the famous Chartres Cathedral and wound up a steady presence as a cleaner and as an inspiration to many who were daily visitors to the cathedral.  There’s Abbe Paul who has lost his faith in God after the death of his parents but who begins to see the face of God again in this young faithful cleaner.  No, it’s not her faith in God that is so moving; it’s her constant presence and quiet, gentle support. She seems to know exactly what to say and when to say it – or when to keep silent and just listen or “be” present to the Abbe as he talks and talks and talks.

Then there’s the restorer of the cathedral ceilings and walls, Alain Fleury, who is an artist in his own right in some ways as he describes the careful work he does. He find strength and companionship in Agnes whom he can always see from where he works.  And there is the Professor whose home is desperately in need of being put in order and the arrogant woman who hires Agnes looking for scandal in the ugliest way possible.

But just as one is unsure where this is going, the author begins to interweave past scenes from Agnes’s life, a life of abandonment, torture, predatory attack, and the consequent mental collapse she suffers, told in the most eloquent, heart-rending scenes.  Then and only as this past story evolves does one realize how amazing it is that Agnes has come out of this hellhole of darkness to become the saint-like human being she is; let no one believe it was an easy journey and there was certainly no known plan that led her to this point.  One may only speculate that somehow the hand of God often appears in the goodness of men and women and in spite of the worst one can imagine in other men and women as well.

The Cleaner of Chartres is an amazing, beautiful, harsh, peaceful, gracious story with such a profoundly sensitive yet real depiction.  Quite simply astonishing and highly recommended!

Sisterland: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland: A Novel.  Curtis Sittenfeld. Random House Publishing Group. June 26, 2013. 416 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9781400068319.

Kate and Vi are identical sisters who have the unusual ability to sense future events externally and in people’s lives.  While Vi totally embraces this ability, Kate has had a memorable experience that leads her to avoid even thinking about her ability.  The two sisters are very close, as identical twins very often are, but begin to grow apart as Vi becomes more and more strange, bohemian, and just plain shocking in her behavior, much to the consternation of Kate and her husband.

In the present, Vi’s job as medium increases as her TV appearance coincides with a scientist’s talk about a potential earthquake.  Given the public’s fascination with the weird and disastrous, it is Vi’s prediction that goes viral.  As the ramifications of this exposure grow daily, Kate must confront her past and the development of Vi’s “gift,” with all of its confusing and complex realities.  And so the story reverts to the past, to how both sisters recognized they could sense things, their discovery of its familial origins, and their attitude to it all.  Vi uses it, amazingly in one specific case that gets public exposure, and Kate just wants to be “normal.”  

Weaving back and forth between the past and present, the sisters’ stories weave with reality.  Kate in particular is dealing with a relationship with two dear friends, one of whom will be dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the other being more than just a friend for a brief time.  Nothing is simple it seems, but could these experiences have been predicted, prevented, or developed in a different way? Silence is often as important as speaking when considering loyalty and betrayal, but the line can be thin indeed as Kate and Vi learn.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s presentation of characters is excellent, exploring the overt and covert connections that develop relationships, that which binds and severs closeness, the multiple random and deliberate misunderstandings that so strongly affect both one’s past and future life, the humor vital to defusing hot moments and drawing closer, and so much more!  This is an intriguing read of contemporary fiction with elements of mystery that totally engage the reader into the story until the very last page! Very well-done, Curtis Sittenfeld!

The Silent Wife: A Novel by A. S. A. Harrison

The Silent Wife: A Novel.  A. S. A. Harrison. Viking: Penguin Group (USA). June 2013. 336 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780143123231.

Jodi and Todd, a psychologist and builder, seem like the proverbial happily married couple.  Their lives are highly ordered and have no lack, except for the children Todd wants and Jodi cannot give him.  Still they stay together and really do love each other deeply.  This is the story of their unraveling marriage but not told in the stereotypical way so frequently found in other fiction.  The control Jodi and Todd exert in their lives harbors anxiety, denial, rage, and so many repressed memories that are about to surface!

First we learn of Todd’s extra-marital activities which he sees as absolutely harmless.  But that’s about to change when he dates the daughter of a good friend and that young woman becomes pregnant.  That is what at first horrifies him and then serves as the impetus for his leaving Jodi and making plans to wed Natasha.  At first Jodi handles it with equanimity but little by little she starts remembering more of her own past therapy, her own family memories, her own repressed, ultra-state of denial.  Many more secrets lie in these pages, exposed like an onion being peeled and yielding a stinging, teary, piercing affect!

Todd also begins remembering more, especially when he undergoes quite a fright over something he never deemed possible and Natasha’s tender love turns into nagging and harshness.  She even wants to be friends with Jodi, which is one of the most incredible moments in the novel. Todd seems to think he can stay friends with Jodi even though he has his lawyer give her thirty days to leave their former home.

On and on it goes, a study in what really drives people to violence and revenge.  But it’s done with such graceful, gradual subtlety that the reader knows what’s coming and yet is crept forward toward the shocking end inch by inch by inch! 

Jodi is about to become an amazing woman, in more ways than one for sure! The Silent Wife: A Novel is a superb crime or psychological thriller crafted by someone who truly knows her topic and can write a stunning plot as well! Superb writing and consequently reading!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Transatlantic by Colum McCann

Transatlantic.  Colum McCann. Random House Publishing Group. June 2013. 320 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9781400069590.

Four stories are interwoven in this novel of escaping the boundaries of earth and soaring to a peaceful yet ecstatic state of mind and soul.  Yet this is the stuff of history so often given noble status and sometimes just ignored as a cog in a wheel.  Colum McCann gives all equally dignified and seminal status!

First we read about the first flight in 1919 from England to Ireland of Arthur Brown and his transatlantic team, flying a former bomber plane used in the First World War.  One carries a letter that never gets delivered but will show up years and years later to be given dubious recognition. 

Then we meet Frederick Douglass who arrives in Ireland in 1845 and again in 1846 to speak and listen about the emancipation of slavery while he observes the beginning of the Great Famine and the hatred between Ireland and England over the fight for Irish independence.

The story of George Mitchell’s diplomatic quest in 1998 for Irish Independence is told from multiple perspectives, but it’s mainly Mitchell’s perseverance and frustration that stands out vividly in a cause with so many points of view and demands that it’s mind-boggling.  It feels hopeless yet Mitchell never gives up hope, even as he truly yearns to be home in America with his wife and infant son.

 One young woman is inspired by Frederick Douglass’s eloquent speech about freedom and her story is the multigenerational story told for the last portion of the novel.  This is a story about women whose strength is what forges great nations behind the scenes and beyond the ephemeral talk and ideas of politicians, poets and storytellers themselves.

It takes a bit of time before one begins to connect the dots in this very fine historical and contemporary novel.  It’s truly a timeless classic work of fiction presented in a highly literate yet readable style.  While it doesn’t brook foolish theories or deny the negative aspects of people or issues, it dreams larger than the muck it seeks to surmount.  For that it deserves great praise and high recommendations!!!