Books to curl up with in cold weather – pt. 1, fiction

The holiday season signals a time for relaxation, fewer meetings, fewer blogs, and more time for friends, movies and reading. Here are some recent offerings in the latter category.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, author of Hamnet,  draws again on her ability to breathe life into an historical figure and lure the reader far back to the Renaissance. Set in 1560, it tells the story of Lucrezia de Medici, given in marriage by her family in Florence to Duke Alphonso II of Ferrare in order to consolidate power and wealth. Alphonso is also driven by the need to produce an heir, immediately.

A mere 15 years old, Lucrezia is forced into the marriage to take the place of her older sister, Maria, who has just died an untimely death.  New husband, Alphonso, arranges for Lucrezia’s portrait to be painted, and that portrait reveals a compliant, self-assured young duchess, beautiful, outwardly reserved and inwardly defiant. Untamed as a child, non-compliant, and ultimately not producing the heir Alphonso needed to secure his power for future generations, Lucrezia confronts danger, does deep dives into painting, and expresses nuanced psychological understanding…a very interior novel within the framework of a riveting 16th century thriller.  O’Farrell’s deep research into the time period, her painterly writing, her gift for story telling make this a must read.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams was written five years before his novel This is Happiness.  Both are set along the River Shannon in the rural town of Faha, in Ireland’s County Clare. At its simplest, the narrative is told by Ruth Swain, an invalid confined to her bed on the top floor of the modest family home. Her physical connection with the world is through a skylight and the unrelenting rain and mist. Her comfort comes from the books surrounding her, largely provided by her eccentric father. Guiding the story is her desire to write a memoir of her family, especially of her father, a deep-thinking, deep- feeling man who expresses himself through writing poetry and salmon fishing. Her style is often discursive, as often happens with Irish story tellers. The novel is laced with literary references and marked by humor, especially in the Dickensian caricatures of the town’s denizens. This book is amazingly rich and distinctly Irish, – dark, funny, tragic and emotionally affecting. As Ruthie says, “We are our stories.”

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout builds on the character of Lucy Barton from Strout’s previous books.  This follows closely upon “Oh, William,” and takes place during the Covid pandemic. Lucy’s ex-husband, William, insists she leave her cosmopolitan life in Manhattan and accompany him to a house he has rented in a small fishing village in Maine to avoid the perils of the pandemic.  Her exploration of people extends from William to her grown daughters to the characters she meets during their extended stay in small-town (Trumpian) Maine. Strout even tucks in a few references to one of her most beloved characters, the quirky Olive Kitteridge, now living in an assisted living facility.

When I started reading the book, I wondered, do I really want to return to these familiar characters?  In short order, I was lured in by the simplicity and elegance of her writing and the empathy she feels for all of the residents of this hard-scrabble region, populated by people at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Lucy. This is about love, understanding, and digging deeper into what connects us to others.

The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz is an intriguing story about the affluent Oppenheimer family of New York, a father driven by guilt stemming from a fatal accident in which he was involved as a student and defined by his acquisition of “outsider” art; a mother desperate to help assuage his guilt and to bring children into the world to create a meaningful family; their in-vitro triplets, a “latecomer” child and assorted other relationships. In the process of unraveling the secrets behind all the family dysfunction and loathing, Korelitz lays bare the characters’ obsessions with academic achievement, the excesses of liberal education, the arrogance of certain conservative thinkers, the underlying web of hypocrisy and discomfiting shame underlying so many lives. Korelitz laces these troubling relationships with wit. No class, gender, race, or other sub-group on the American landscape escapes her sharp eye. Her ability to move from character to character and back again is Chaucerian. It’s a large book that invites a rereading to truly appreciate what the author has achieved.

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng is very different from her previous two books, Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You. It’s about a 12-year-old boy, Bird, whose Chinese mother has abandoned him to avoid his being taken by social services because her political activities make her unfit.  He lives a lonely life with his father, a linguist working for a university as a librarian. It is a time of economic angst, racism and xenophobia. America’s ruling ethos is colored by laws like PACT, Preserving American Culture and Traditions. Legacy books are routinely banned. Neighbors are spying against neighbors. Discrimination against Asians is often expressed through violence. Artists, including poets like Bird’s mother, who use their art to deliver political messages are deemed unAmerican and are persecuted.  The erosion of democratic freedoms is no longer merely theoretical. Ng’s warning about the dystopia to which today’s extremism could lead is disturbingly reminiscent of Margaret Atwood or George Orwell. This new offering from Ng is provocative and uncomfortable, good for book club discussion and daytime reading, but not necessarily for curling up with as you drift off to sleep at night.

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