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July 2018

Greetings everyone and welcome to our July Book Club! I can’t believe it’s July, we’re part way through summer already. Where is 2018 going?

 

So up on the block this time around we have Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, which stands out as one of the funniest books I’ve read in the last year, and one that manages to be fantastically entertaining despite the fact there isn’t a huge amount of action.

 

At its heart Standard Deviation is very much about main characters Graham and Audra’s marriage. This is really the sun around which the whole novel rotates, so let’s start there and work our way outward. but interestingly isn’t a story about a marriage in crisis.

 

Novels that focus on relationships tend to capture a big event or take a snapshot of a significant moment in time. That’s why romance novels often cover the courtship or why some of the more prominent novels focused on the intricacies of a relationship centre on a marriage in crisis; both events have the capacity to be filled with tension and drama.  

 

In every novel, there’s a catalyst that makes the story worth telling – in stories fixated on relationships a couple need to meet and fall in love, or a relationship needs to crumble so that we have something to read about.

 

Movies and books often ignore the middle bits of long relationships because they don’t necessarily make for entertaining reading. So in this sense, Standard Deviation is already offering a unique perspective.

 

Graham and Audra are more than a decade into their marriage and are neither particularly happy or unhappy. They’re just getting on with the business of living, and the narrative is zoomed all the way in on the miniature daily dramas that make up a life.

 

On the surface, these two characters couldn’t be more opposite, and their differences are all the more glaringly obvious when Graham’s ex-wife, Elspeth, comes into the picture. (We’ll come back to her in a minute.)

 

So Audra and Graham are living in Manhattan and raising their 10-year-old son, Matthew, who has Aspergers. How Graham and Audra think about Matthew is where we really come to understand their differences in personality. Audra is determined to clear a path for Matthew to make his way into the world, while Graham mourns the fact that Matthew will never get to be ‘normal’.

 

Normal is an interesting idea in and of itself. Is being normal good or bad? At times all you want is to be normal, to fit the mould, to be like everyone else. Other times, being normal is the worst thing in the world, you want to be seen as an individual, not like everybody else. This question of normal says a lot about Graham and Audra’s worldview. When Audra thinks she might be pregnant, Graham worries their child might not be normal. Audra worries that they will be.

 

In the year or so we follow the family, there’s a few different things that could have easily turned into major issues – Audra’s emotional affair with the mysterious Jasper, as well as Graham’s growing closeness to his ex-wife Elspeth. Both have the opportunity to stray from the marriage, and both turn back at the last second. They weather the storm and move on.

 

I loved both these characters – by the end they felt like members of my own family – and something I particularly admired about the writing was how authentic they both felt.

 

They were likeable but distinctly imperfect. They said the wrong things and made mistakes. Audra could be tactless, Graham could be cold, and though they were each walking contradictions you ultimately came to like and accept them for who they were.

 

Their son Matthew was equally wonderful, and the scenes that revolve around him – his origami club, their trip to the origami convention, his visit to camp, the fishing expedition – were often charming, life-affirming and bittersweet.

 

My single favourite moment in the novel is when Matthew arrives home from camp, breathlessly announcing: “Camp–was–fantastic!”

 

I could vividly imagine Matthew bursting into the apartment and loved how beautifully the author captured this moment. Before Matthew arrives home Graham is restless, irritable. But that’s completely forgotten the second Matthew runs in, happy and disheveled – Graham’s joy is an extension of Matthew’s joy. And isn’t that always the way with the people we love? Their highs and lows become our own by association.

 

The final piece of the puzzle is Elspeth, Graham’s ex-wife. I have mixed feelings about her and the role she played in the story. She was the source of several plot twists – when she enters into their lives, when she invites Graham to have an affair, when she suddenly dies – but we’re still very disconnected from her.

 

Graham and Audra manage to spend more time with Elspeth and Bentrup than I do with several of my good friends, but we’re never privy to these interactions. We see snippets of conversation but the rest is told to us in summary.

 

Elspeth is actually very vividly rendered, we do get a sense of who she is – for example, when she abandons her cart in the grocery store because she doesn’t want to deal with running into Audra and Graham. That small interaction spoke volumes.

 

What bothered me about her is how little lasting impact she left on Graham and Audra. Graham is deeply shocked when she dies, but to call either him or Audra heartbroken would be a huge exaggeration. When they go into her apartment so Graham can choose one of her possessions, he’s more fixated on keeping score, spooling back through old arguments, than he is grieving her loss (though you could make the argument those two things are one in the same). And Audra seems not to care at all – she’s really just there to snoop around.

 

So if I was going to make one criticism of the story that would be it. Why after the story has spent so much time invested in Elspeth does no one seem to care when she’s died? She is a huge source of plot in the novel, then exits with a whimper rather than a bang.

 

There are dozens of small moments that pack huge emotional punch in this book. That’s what made it so fun to read; you feel the full force of Audra’s personality and all the people she brings into her orbit.

 

There is a very clear editorial decision being made here; there’s plenty of potential tension but the edges are always dulled, quickly passed over to make room for the novel’s true strength, which is observing family life and pulling at the things that are universal. The characters and their situation are unique, but also deeply relatable – we recognise the emotions they encounter, even if the experience itself is very different to our own situation.

 

There’s so many other things I could touch on – Graham’s assistant, the origami club (and the symbolic meaning of origami in general) – but it’s time for me to hand it over to you. What did you think of Standard Deviation? What bits stood out for you?

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June 2018

I am very excited to talk about the Upstairs Room – I’ve been patiently waiting for everyone to finish this one so we could talk about what happened here. It’s all so subtle that even weeks later I’m not entirely sure.

 

In the introduction to this month’s book I told you that how you felt about this book would depend on if you believe ghosts are real, and I want you to be ready to share your opinion – and whether your opinion changed as you read The Upstairs Room.

 

Modern ghost stories aren’t that easy to pull off because it’s often difficult to make them seem realistic.

 

Ghosts feel at home in historical novels – there’s room for plenty of misunderstandings without technology like the internet and telephone, and any era where there’s room for superstition is fertile ground for ghosts and hauntings.

 

So in this sense I found The Upstairs Room very satisfying – it managed to genuinely creep me out several times without my brain going screaming at me that would never happen.

 

The other great thing about the mysterious events in The Upstairs Room is you could argue they aren’t mysterious at all. Is something strange about the house or simply the people who live in it?

 

Let’s look at our two main characters and where they are; Richard and Eleanor are are both suffering from a bit of individual disillusionment as the gap between who they are and who they want to be gets wider.

 

Richard has dreams of being an academic, but can’t motivate himself to get there. Eleanor is married to someone she knows she doesn’t really love and is finding motherhood challenging and understimulating.

 

Her strategy with big decisions seems to be to simply choose the path of least resistance; we see this in real time when she agrees to buy a house she privately hates, and also through memories when we learn more about her ambivalence towards her marriage.

 

So when she starts feeling mysteriously ill, but the doctors can’t find anything wrong with her, it does raise the question (and Richard certainly raises it several times): are you ill or is this something else? Is this simply a case of her unhappiness, anxiety and stress manifesting in a very physical way?

 

That’s where Zoe becomes an interesting addition to the household. Unbeknownst to Eleanor, Zoe is also finding the house a little bit off, which makes it harder to simply shrug Eleanor off.

 

But then again, Zoe is also in the middle of an enormous upheaval; she’s left her long-term relationship and has basically decided to start over in the hope that she can build the life that she wants, even if she’s not sure yet what she really wants or how to get it.

 

You could very easily make the argument that it’s not the house or some supernatural force that’s causing it – it’s just Zoe working her way through a weird time.

 

And the let’s not forget Richard – Richard is completely oblivious to the weird goings-on of the household. He’s not feeling ill or having weird dreams or feeling oppressed by the house in any way (aside from feeling oppressed about how he’s going to pay for it). How is it that Eleanor and Zoe are struggling and he’s not?

 

As readers we also know that some of the creepy things aren’t creepy at all – Zoe doesn’t realise that some of what is freaking her out is just Richard rifling around in her room. And likewise, Zoe’s visit to the upstairs room is the cause of the door being open rather than it opening on its own. So we know at least some of what’s going on has a very straightforward explanation.

 

But then again there’s the dozens of other strange little things happening that aren’t as definitively explained – the name Emily scrawled all over the walls, objects moving around the house, the dead bird that falls from the ceiling, Rosie’s changed behaviour, comments from the neighbours, the fact that the real Emily keeps returning. Eleanor’s bizarre conversation with the woman that used to live there. What do we file all that under?

 

It’s also made more complex by the fact that Richard and Eleanor are on completely opposing sides – and that their confirmation bias is preventing them from considering other possibilities.

 

Every strange thing that happens reinforces Eleanor’s conviction that there’s something wrong with the house – as the book goes on it becomes an obsession with her.

 

For Richard, every strange thing that happens has a reasonable explanation – it reinforces his conviction that the problem starts and ends with Eleanor.

 

In all honesty, I hated Richard – he never listened to Eleanor. He didn’t really make the effort to try and believe her or come to any reasonable, helpful compromise. Telling her over and over that she’s just tired or would feel better after she rested drove me bananas.

 

And let’s not forget he also does eventually feel weird about the house too – in time he notices that something feels off and is also incredibly freaked out when the dead bird drops onto his desk.

 

So the fact that he still refuses to have an honest conversation or believe Eleanor when she tells him what’s happening was even more unforgivable. Because really, at the end of the day, whether you believe in it yourself or not – if it was so important to Eleanor, couldn’t he have simply got on board with bringing a medium into the house? Would that have been so hard?

 

And yet, when I really think about it, I wonder if I would behave much differently in his shoes? If you sunk all your money into a house that your wife swears is making her sick, yet the doctors say she’s fine and there’s nothing wrong with the house, what would you do? And if she became obsessed with the idea – how would you handle it?

 

Remember, this isn’t taking place over a weekend – Eleanor is on this for months. Even though I think Richard is wrong, I have to also admit that sustaining that much patience and empathy would be an extreme challenge.

 

And what about Eleanor? As readers, should we take Eleanor at her word? Or like Richard should we search for another explanation?

 

As a reader I was inclined to believe Eleanor, but as the book goes on the author makes it harder for us to stay on Eleanor’s side.

 

Just when you’re starting to feel like maybe this place is truly haunted, we get another glimpse into Eleanor’s psyche. As we learn more about how passive she’s been in all her biggest decisions, the idea that maybe she’s just having a panic attack about her life seems more plausible.

 

Is this the story of a haunted house or of a woman feeling suffocated by the decisions she’s made?

 

For example, let’s think about the (horrible, horrible) incident with the baby. It would be very difficult to argue that this is anything more than an accident, but for Eleanor this is the absolute last straw.

 

Unlike other incidents – like when Emily appears in front of the house – when Eleanor spills hot coffee on the baby what happened wasn’t really up for debate.

 

At the end of the day the single most tangible, terrifying thing that happens in the entire book had nothing to do with Emily or the house or Eleanor’s illness. Is this place haunted at all?

 

The characters are so preoccupied with the possibility of some malevolent force in the house that they’re missing the really scary things happening to them in reality.

 

Their unhappy marriage has the power to do a lot more damage, but they’re not paying attention enough to even realise it.

 

This is what I loved about The Upstairs Room. There’s something so clever and subtle going on here. I spent the entire novel terrified, reading with my shoulders tensed, wondering what was coming around the corner, but for most of the book the possibility of the supernatural was much more powerful than any actual supernatural events. I’m not even sure any supernatural events took place.

 

But then I think: how much proof does someone have to give to be believed?

 

Because this is a major theme in the book; proof and belief. Zoe is ultimately the only person who believes Eleanor and who treats Eleanor’s explanations with respect and openness.

 

Like Richard, she isn’t really sold on the whole exorcism thing – she wants to pull out – but she doesn’t. She believes Eleanor with very little proof. Which is more than we can say for Richard and more than I could say for myself at times too.

 

Is Eleanor entitled to be believed? Because if you believe Eleanor from page one, The Upstairs Room is very much a ghost story. If you don’t, then it’s a little less clear – for example, how do we account for the fact that everything went happily back to normal as soon as they moved?

 

Those are my thoughts – now I want to hear yours. Are ghosts real, yes or no?

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May 2018

I’ve been so excited to share Julie Buntin’s Marlena with you all this month – there are lots of Rare Birds out there who were looking for something a little darker and I knew this book would fit the bill.

 

The subject of female friendship, particularly teenage friendships and coming-of-age stories are enjoying a real moment right now in the book world.

 

I hesitate to call this a trend – stories about friendship will never truly go out of fashion – but nevertheless, Marlena is one of several books with a similar hook that have been published in the last little while.

 

It’s not hard to understand why; there’s so much to say about intense female friendships and how they shape our lives.

 

There were a few things I liked about this book in particular though that I think give it the edge over others in the same vein.

 

First, the writing style. The author does a brilliant job here of creating atmosphere and the way in which the story was told I thought was incredibly impressive and really added to the story overall.

 

Though it’s called Marlena, this novel is actually the story of Cat and what she defines as the most significant chapter in her life thus far.

 

The title alone tells us everything we need to know. This is Cat’s story – but the memory of Marlena looms so large that it literally eclipses everything, even at times, Cat’s identity.

 

The entire story is told in the present tense, but we alternate in time between the now, where she’s a 30-something self living in New York, and the memory of back then, when she’s a 15-year-old girl living in rural Michigan.

 

Cat begins at the beginning. She’s a lonely teenager in the midst of a family crisis, and it’s at this pivotal moment that she meets Marlena, the beautiful and mysterious girl who lives in the dilapidated barn next door.

 

At first it seems as though the book will wheel out the same old well-worn cliches about the Manic Pixie Dream girl; Marlena is beautiful, mysterious, damaged. And no one is more attached to the idea than Cat – she is completely enthralled by Marlena and drawn to the danger she represents.

 

But then as the story begins to move forward, we realise we’re not getting the ultra-romanticised story of a bright star that burns out rather than fades away.

 

Instead, the book establishes the cliche so that it can dismantle it piece by piece by showing us the bleak reality underneath. By the end Marlena’s death doesn’t read like a senseless tragedy but rather a sad and predictable conclusion that was already in motion long before Cat entered the picture.

 

Even though on the one hand Cat seems to know this, as an adult she wrestles so much with how to remember and represent Marlena, even to herself.

 

Her memories are steeped in a powerful combination of guilt and devotion. She tries again and again to avoid or forget the inconvenient truth about who Marlena was – first depicting her one way before forcing herself to fill in the blanks and acknowledge what was there in front of her all along.

 

It really made you think about memory and how we can manipulate memories to tell different stories by adding or leaving out a few details.

 

Cat is constantly remembering – amplifying certain moments, minimising others – and each time she does, she alters the truth slightly until how things were and how she remembers them are two very different things.  

 

Take her first real day of school as an example – on first telling, she and her friends seem like normal teenagers. Greg, Tidbit, Marlena and Cat have an uneventful day – what really strikes us is how happy Cat feels to have found a small sense of belonging. It’s touching and sweet.

 

But then with Omissions, Cat comes back and fills in all the other parts she left blank, forcing herself to share the things she’d prefer to forget.

 

Really, the whole novel is a drawn-out episode of Cat combing back through her memories and searching for a neater version of events. A sequence that makes sense. A happy ending. Some tangible cause and effect.

 

In telling her story she’s looking for the order she finds on the pages of the novels she reads. But real life doesn’t offer her a simple beginning, middle and end. She can never quite find that one definitive moment that could have changed everything.

 

What she really has are a series of memories she’s been able to go back and attach extra significance to. In each one she sees the foreshadowing and the part she played – the mistakes she made and how she contributed to Marlena’s demise.

 

Cat sees this period in Michigan as the beginning of her life, but often fails to recognise it wasn’t the beginning of Marlena’s. Marlena didn’t move into town; she’s been there all her life.

 

She was already into drugs and alcohol before Cat showed up – in fact, the only thing that really changed for Marlena is that she now had a close confidant to navigate and experience life with.

 

The question of how much Cat is to blame is also an interesting one, I think. How accountable should we hold Cat for what happened to Marlena?

 

She kept quiet when she could have helped and instead of using her privilege to steer her friend in a more positive direction, she leaned into the fantasy of rebellion and cast herself in the role of devoted spectator.

 

But then – can we really hold a fifteen year old girl responsible for being someone’s savior? Cat is painfully aware of each wrong turn she takes, and as a reader there were moments I wanted to hurl the book across the room in frustration.

 

But then again – she was also just a scared and lonely teenager trying to figure herself out and her place in the world. As an adult, Cat relays each story implying that deep down she knew she could and should behave better.

 

But how true can that really be when you’re 15? There’s a difference between knowing when something is wrong and really understanding the consequences. Both she and Marlena just didn’t have the tools to navigate the incredibly adult situations they found themselves in.

 

Addiction in particular isn’t something you can just wish away – it’s not as simple as turning to your friend and telling them to stop. Whether or not Cat made different decisions, she couldn’t ultimately control what was so much bigger than her.

 

Think about the guilt she feels about that pillbox pin – when she recalls giving it back to Marlena she also implies this is the moment that derailed her recovery.

 

She was on the road to becoming clean and sober and on some level Cat – still, as an adult – truly believes that her actions interfered with that. She might be right; maybe the pillbox tempted Marlena back to using prescription pills on some level.

 

But had she simply given her, I don’t know, say, a cardigan instead, can it honestly be said Marlena would have never touched a drug again in her life? Probably not. That’s the thing Cat misses when she sentences herself to a lifetime of guilt. She can change the details as much as she likes; the outcome is always the same.

 

The weight of the burden Cat is carrying has huge ramifications on the rest of her life. The trauma of Marlena’s death means Cat isolates herself instead of making new friends.

 

As an adult, she uses it to quietly justify her alcoholism, chasing the feelings from her teenage years. She also carefully guards Marlena’s memory as her own private secret – even her husband barely knows who Marlena was or what she meant to Cat. And then the one person who could truly understand and help Marlena heal – Jimmy – she keeps at arms length.

 

I want to talk about Jimmy in general, because of all the characters I think he deserves more than what he got from his sister.

 

Cat eventually comes to understand and value her mother for who she is, and recognises how reliable her mother is. Though she’s not perfect, Cat comes to realise her mother is the one who never leaves.

 

But let’s look at Jimmy in contrast. There’s four years between them but when the story takes place he’s also still a teenager – his life is also not going to plan. He puts his future on ice to take a job in a factory instead because he feels a huge sense of duty to support his mom and sister. This is not an easy reality for a kid of 19.

 

Both then and now Cat never truly bothers to know him – she disengages and pushes him away even in moments where he’s trying to connect.

 

The two of them are both very close to Marlena and her death shatters their lives in different ways. By sharing their pain openly the two had an opportunity to help each other heal. Instead, she’s fixated – again, possessive, even years later – about knowing Marlena’s last movements.

 

What she wants is to crawl inside that relationship and observe it, rather than respect that what unites them is that they each knew and loved Marlena in their own way.  

 

That even as an adult Cat can’t answer the question about whether or not Jimmy is happy is one that bothered me – I was attached to him and felt he deserved a lot more than what he got, both in life and from his relationships with his family.

 

If you were a fan of this one and are looking for something similar, let me point you in the direction of Emma Cline’s The Girls. This one follows a similar trajectory, but instead of rural Michigan it’s set in California in 1969 – the story is imagined right alongside the Charles Manson murders.

 

If friendship is a topic you like reading about, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is very much worth your time. Don’t let the slightly lacklustre cover of that one fool you; there’s lots to sink your teeth into.

 

There’s a ton more I could say on Marlena one but I’m going to leave it there and turn it over to you. What did you think of Cat and Marlena? Did you recognise any of your own teenage friendships in theirs? What about the topics of addiction, privilege, and memory? What stood out for you?  

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April 2018

Conversations With Friends has been on my radar for a long time – I was really excited to share this one and am excited to hear what you all think!

 

There’s a couple of reasons I picked this one. The first is that it’s incredibly readable; as a narrator Frances is just straight to the point. There’s no time wasted on detailed descriptions – you launch straight in and very quickly there’s a lot going on.  

 

The second reason I knew this would be a great book club pick is because it challenges how we think and points out all sorts of absurdities about people and relationships both in large and small ways. This book is a masterclass in sharp observation, and I don’t just mean the observations Frances makes directly.

 

I loved the small passing ironies – like how at a dinner party our characters end up talking about the evils of society and capitalism, yet they’re all wealthy, privileged and benefitting hugely from many of the things they claim to hate.

 

Or the bigger themes that we confront again and again.

 

Take communication for example. This book has a lot to say about how we have conversations and how what’s left unsaid can often be just as strong a form of communication as speaking directly.

 

In the novel, technology facilitates communication between characters – many of the most important conversations happen not face to face but through a phone or a screen.

 

This is especially true of Frances and Nick.

 

Without email and text their affair wouldn’t have been a possibility – a huge chunk of their relationship is spent chatting or emailing back and forth. Technology allows them to communicate but eventually also prevents them from communicating honestly.

 

From behind their screens they’re each able to present a version of themselves and leave out anything that’s messy, inconvenient, or doesn’t fit with their portrayal of themselves to each other.

 

Think about what Frances is doing when she’s talking to Nick. She feels deeply about Nick – it’s almost an obsession – but uses technology as her shield to pretend she doesn’t feel anything at all.

 

In this form her conversations with Nick aren’t just words; they’re keepsakes. She scrolls through texts and emails again and again, analysing and re-analysing the things they’ve said.

 

I love this idea – it’s so relevant. How many times have you had an argument with a friend over text or tried to squeeze every last drop of meaning out of an ambiguous text from a love interest?

 

We hold on to emails and texts and use them as clues, momentos, evidence. When we speak in person words are spoken, then forgotten; they evaporate. When we speak to each other through a screen they can be memorialised and revisited again and again, interpreted each time in different ways.  

 

Or let’s look at it from another angle. Frances struggles to communicate using her voice yet can powerfully communicate using her words. Her relationship with Bobbi is unbalanced because Frances can rarely find a way to communicate what she’s thinking and feeling – their friendship fractures because Frances is able to write about Bobbi but not share any of that information with her directly.

 

Or how about how a lack of communication can also be a powerful weapon. Bobbi knows how to use secrets to keep the upper hand in their friendship, and Frances also eventually follows suit. The two of them both use secrets to show their power over the other.

 

I’m just scratching the surface here. Appearance and the body are other interesting themes you could explore. Think about how Frances thinks of her body, and how she uses it. She harms herself in an effort to control her body; her body controls her actions by desiring Nick.

 

Or take the fact Nick is so good looking. He’s not described in terms of anything else. For the fact he’s such an important character in the novel we know comically little about him. That he’s handsome seems to be his defining characteristic. We’re reminded of it again and again and again.

 

When Frances is talking to Nick she relentlessly looks up photos and videos of him. For much of the book he’s closer to a fascinating object than an actual living, breathing (and flawed!) human being.

 

The biggest theme though, of course, is relationships. There’s just so much to unpack here.

 

Let’s start with what we accept as good, bad and normal when it comes to relationships.

 

In broad strokes: affairs are bad. Close friendships are good.

 

Now let’s look at how the novel manages to turn these ideas upside down.

 

Nick and Frances more closely fit the profile of what we’d traditionally call a dysfunctional relationship – they’re having an affair, after all, and that by definition is ‘bad’.

 

Yet by the time they’re dating openly their relationship is actually very functional and stable.

 

Contrast this with Frances and Bobbi. On the surface these two present like best friends and creative partners, and are treated by almost everyone who knows them as a unit. We see this as normal, healthy, good.

 

Yet the dynamic between the two of them is completely dysfunctional. They’re jealous and possessive of one another and Frances really struggles to relax and show her true self to Bobbi most of the time.

 

They’re both obsessed with being clever and having intellectual conversations, yet are never really able to discuss the things that are actually most important to them.

 

Or take at how the book approaches the concept of marriage.

 

Nick and Melissa are married, but Bobbi and Frances both see this relationship as dysfunctional and failing.

 

Whether it is or not is a point we could argue – the number of times they’ve had affairs or been on the brink of separation certainly suggests their marriage is a mess.

 

Yet in other ways it does seem to work for them. Frances and Bobbi’s take on their marriage is naive; it doesn’t make many allowances for the complexities of adult relationships.

 

When sifting through the evidence even Frances is eventually forced to acknowledge that they clearly love each other. Nick’s loyalty is ultimately to Melissa even when he’s having the affair. And if you want to take it one step further – it was only when Melissa found out about their affair and ultimately granted Nick permission that him and Frances began to thrive.

 

Is this a marriage that’s failing or a snapshot of a complicated couple working through a difficult time?

 

So jump forward to the end of the book and it feels a bit like we’ve hit the reset button in a way. Nick and Frances are finished. Nick and Melissa are still together and moving forward as a unit of two.

 

When Frances hits rock bottom, it’s Bobbi who is there, and the two of them start turning a corner. They’re back together and for a minute it feels like everything is as is should be.

 

But then Bobbi refuses to acknowledge that the two of them are back together, and before Frances has an opportunity to make meaning of that she finds herself back on the phone with Nick.

 

The two of them have their most honest conversation in the book ever – notice how Frances is able to confide in him and in return how vulnerable he ends up being with her.

 

We end on a bit of a cliffhanger – I actually found myself yelling out nooooo when Frances asks Nick to pick her up.

 

I liked Nick – but ultimately as a reader my loyalty is to Frances. And by the end of the book I firmly felt that Frances needed to get away from both Bobbi and Nick. These relationships weren’t healthy for her.

 

And she has some incredibly complicated and unresolved issues to deal with by the end of the book – with herself, with her health, with her family.

 

I couldn’t help but feel the best thing for Frances would be to go and get herself a job somewhere else and figure out who she is on her own.

 

I have now said more than enough – it’s over to you! What did you think of Conversations with Friends? And, more importantly – do you think Nick picked her up?

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January 2018

It’s our first book club of 2018 and we’re kicking the year off with Rebecca Mascull’s The Wild Air.

 

There were a few reasons I chose The Wild Air, one of them being that it offers lots of food for thought. Whether you loved it or it drove you mad I knew there would be plenty we could find to talk about.

 

Before I jump into the plot and characters, I want to point out what I think is the strongest element of this book: the details. A ton of research clearly went into the making of The Wild Air and it shows.

 

The same way they say you can tell a great restaurant by the way you don’t notice the staff at all, you know a novel is working when the research comes together to make the experience seamless for the reader.

 

There are hundreds of tiny details sprinkled throughout the book that add up to give us a vivid sense of the world Della lives in. I have almost no interest in flying or aviation, yet the novel managed to make it interesting and deliver up enough detail that it all felt real.

 

Della herself is a completely fictional character, but many of the other pilots we meet and hear about in the novel – Hilda Hewlett, Melli Beese, The Wright Brothers to name but a few – are all real people in history.

 

It’s these little things that anchor us to the story and create a world that feels like it could easily be real.

 

And it’s a good thing, because within the first three pages we know that the novel is going to span, at the very least, the better part of a decade. The prologue opens in 1918, but chapter one starts in 1909.

 

For a novel that’s less than 400 pages that’s pretty ambitious. We’ll come back to whether or not the story bites off more than it can chew in a minute or two.

 

Let me begin with Della. I love Della, I loved her pretty much from page one. I have a huge soft spot for quiet heroines – Jane Eyre and Persuasion’s Anne Elliot would be two other notable examples – because I typically relate to them more so than the bold, fearless characters we tend to bring to mind when we use the word heroine.

 

And for all that Della doesn’t see herself as clever or special or brave, she still is. She has the courage and conviction to follow her dreams despite the fact that the idea of a woman flying  makes her pretty much a laughing stock.

 

She’s strong-willed but rarely forceful. She gets on with it in spite of some pretty strong opposition – from her father, from her instructors, from other pilots – and kept at it even when working towards her goal was tedious, mundane and frustrating.

 

Della could both love flying but also find the sacrifices she made to do it boring at times – she wasn’t universally grateful for what she was doing and had to face down loneliness and self-doubt despite the fact that she was a talented pilot.

 

That the novel didn’t gloss over this to make the ‘adventure’ seem more exciting for the reader was another reason I chose this one to kick off the year. So often when we talk about pursuing dreams we use a glossy, Instagram-worthy version of the truth that ignores just how unpleasant the journey can be at times.

 

As a reader we get to experience the joy of her triumph but must also learn to stick it out when things aren’t going to plan.

 

For me, the Meggie Magpie years are definitely a highlight of this novel. I loved watching Della mature and rise up to meet her ambitions and had huge sympathy for her as she had to learn to navigate her relationships with the men around her.

 

Look at her relationship with Claude Grahame-White for example; she admires and believes she has fallen in love with him at first, only to later realise that the two would never be equals. She gives him too much credit, and he doesn’t give her enough.

 

And of course, Dud. It was only a matter of time before I got to Dudley – he becomes more and more important as the story goes on.

 

Though their relationship features heavily in this book I still wouldn’t necessarily call it a love story. That’s not where the tension comes from – once they decide to be together we never have cause to question the strength of their relationship again. Dud’s loyalty and devotion is simple and obvious.

 

So Della’s career is going on well, and then the war arrives and obliterates pretty much everything. After spending so long touring around Europe, Della is at home and grounded, left to kick her heels and wait.

 

At first, the excitement is palpable – the naive belief that the war will be over and done with before anyone sees any real action is perfectly captured through Della’s brother Puck, and even, to an extent, Dud’s botched proposal.

 

And then reality starts to creep in. The war drags on, Puck is killed and the family is plunged into grief. Dud returns battered and shell shocked and Della is really fearful he might be lost to her for good.

 

We get a brief respite from this when she teaches him to fly, but once Dud’s training is finished the honeymoon is over – he’s sent back to the war and she’s once again left behind in anxiety and frustration.

 

Notice how we share that frustration as readers – we have little more to do than wait for news through Dudley’s letters for a huge chunk of the novel’s second half. I found myself impatiently reading through this section because, like Della, there’s really not much else we can do.

 

Thanks to the prologue we know that something serious happens to Della in 1918, and I was busy anticipating that while we wait as the war unfolds.

 

In general I’m not a huge fan of a prologue – it seems to rob us as readers of the dramatic tension. For example, until Della went across the Channel to rescue Dudley, I never once truly worried whether or not he’d be alright – I had been told as much on page one.

 

Which brings us to what I anticipate will be a key sticking point for many of us  – Dudley’s rescue.

 

For a book that was so rooted in reality her rescue of Dudley felt ridiculously far fetched. When I first read it I didn’t find it believable in the least – there were so many potential disasters and everything was just fine.

 

Is it truly plausible that Della would just fly over to France, find Dudley on the run despite having no real information to go on, and face no opposition getting him home? Too much fell into place too quickly and too easily.

 

But then later I had to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth as a reader: would I have found it as unbelievable if the tables were turned?

 

What if it was Dudley who went off and rescued Della? He says it himself – wives shouldn’t be rescuing husbands – and though I thought this scene could have played out much better in general, I wonder if it would have jarred me as much if the shoe was on the other foot.

 

There are several books in our Rare Birds bookstore that feature more ridiculous rescues than this and I accepted them without a second thought. It’s not lost on me that the rescues are usually the hero going after the heroine.

 

It’s an interesting question to grapple with, especially considering the novel directly and indirectly questions the role of women and what’s considered acceptable again and again and again.

 

We see it in Della’s treatment by the other pilots she encounters, but there are also dozens of smaller, subtler ways the author puts the question to us as readers. Even when I felt the plot wasn’t working – like in the rescue scene – I can admire the fact that it forced me to acknowledge that even as a reader (and a woman!) this was a moment I was all too ready to believe this was a bridge too far.

 

The other major criticism I have for this book was the treatment of Betty.

 

Betty, who helped bring Della out of her shell. Who introduced her to flying and encouraged her to pursue it, and believed in her and showed her a model for what a woman could be. Betty who was responsible for encouraging the friendship between Dudley and Della.

 

Secondary characters are notoriously tricky, and this is often true with novels of this length – we don’t have enough time and space to round them out. They end up as two-dimensional plot devices that enter the story to get our heroine from A to B.

 

This is where covering so much ground in one book can come back to bite you – Betty deserved better than to be treated as a plot device, and considering we spend so much time with her at the start of the novel it felt hugely unfair that she just disappears.

 

We learn about Betty’s death in a letter, and though Della explicitly acknowledges how hollow she feels at not being there, it takes her little more than a paragraph to come to the conclusion that the greatest tribute to her is to continue flying, and that’s Betty consigned to history.

 

I really felt like we could have dispensed with many of the war chapters and instead spent more time exploring Della and her Great Aunt’s relationship and how both women see an ambition achieved as Della begins to fly professionally.

 

That’s plenty from me – it’s your turn. What did you think of the Wild Air? Did you like our heroine Della? Did you fall for Dudley?