Summertime reading, pt. 1 of 3: fiction choices

Instructions for a Heatwave  is another intriguing narrative about a dysfunctional family by Northern Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell. Set in a 1976 heatwave in the U.K., the novel focuses on the family of Gretta Riordan, an Irish grandmother, conservative socially and religiously, a woman with clear-cut ideas about right and wrong that she has worked hard to inculcate in her family. The story line involves her husband, Robert Riordan, who one day suddenly abandons Gretta’s and his London home with no explanation. Her three adult children, – Michael (whose marriage, the family suspects, is on the rocks), Monica (the “good girl” of the three, who has secrets of her own from her first marriage) and Aiofe (who lives an offbeat life in New York and has managed to hide a disability plaguing her for years) – all return to the family home to aid Gretta in finding their father.  Gretta, it turns out, has the deepest secret of all, giving the lie to all the bromides and dicta with which she has smothered her children their whole lives. “Strange weather brings out strange behavior,” writes O’Farrell. This heatwave doesn’t change the characters; it intensifies who they are and what has lain below the surface all along.

It’s a novel about how we hide our inner selves even from those closest to us, how we can learn to forgive each other and ourselves. It’s about truth and lies, tradition and modernity, the details of our domestic lives and how they tell just one part of our stories.  O’Farrell is a gifted story-teller, and this book only confirms what I have written about her in the past.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro is way out of my comfort zone.  I do not have a taste for science fiction. Klara is an AF, that is, artificial friend.  Imagine bringing home a robot to be a sister-like friend for your daughter, in this case, 14-year-old Josie, a sickly child. AF’s are powered by the sun, which seems to have a central, perhaps even religious significance. Josie’s mother buys Klara in a desperate search for help revitalizing Josie and bringing her back to health.  Most of the children in this fictional (duh) community are “lifted up,” that is, genetically modified to ensure their success. Those who are not “lifted up” are scorned by the others and deemed unlikely to succeed.  What binds the reader to the story are AF Klara’s intellectual curiosity, seeming fear, joy, grief, and apparent capacity for love. 

But she is digital, not human, an aspect that is more subtly manifest throughout the book.  Her emotions are limited by her digital design, but the reader longs for more for her.  Klara, as the innocent narrator, draws us in to her fascination with human behavior despite her inability to experience authentically what it would mean if she herself could be human. The book addresses big issues we face in our technological, class-driven era, but cleverly projects such challenges into the future to make them more intense and more fearsome. Much to my surprise, I was spellbound by this new Ishiguro novel.

The Mecca Plan by Nelson Lipshutz is a political thriller about a Columbia University student named David Hirsch, whose observant parents whisk him off to spend the summer with relatives in Israel because he is involved with – gasp – a Muslim woman. (Hirsch’s father, a New York diamond dealer, is less concerned about the relationship than is his mother but goes along with the idea because sending David to survey an Israeli diamond factory makes the trip tax-deductible!) Unanticipated by his parents, David’s Muslim girlfriend also ends up in Israel for the summer because her father is suddenly hospitalized there. In Israel, David finds himself in the midst of two converging terrorist plots, one by a Hamas cell and the other a rogue group of Israeli Defense Force officers. Both plots focus on breaching an Israeli nuclear silo with the goal of launching a nuclear missile. Both launches are secretly scheduled for the first day of Ramadan. The Hamas target is Tel Aviv; the IDF target is Mecca.  Both groups of terrorists are driven by hatred and revenge; both  are spurred by the imminence of peace talks. (Sound familiar?)  If either succeeds, the resulting chain of events would end up threatening the existence of much of the world.

The Mecca Plan feels as if it could have been written yesterday rather than 2014.  Lipshutz is steeped in Judaism and Islam.  As a nuclear physicist, he can make the intricacies of nuclear technology clearly understandable to the layman and no less horrifying.  As a very good wordsmith, Lipshutz has an eye for detail and the ability to create vibrant word pictures. And, as a storyteller, he’ll have you on the edge of your seat, turning the pages (swiping the Kindle) to find out what happens next.  Lipshutz, who is a neighbor and friend, is self-effacing and dismisses his work as an “airplane book.” But The Mecca Plan is much more than that and a really inviting summer read.

Tomorrow’s blog will look at some non-fiction selections with contemporary relevance.

I welcome your feedback and book recommendations in the comments section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ on the home page on marjoriearonsbarron.com.

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