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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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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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November 2017

Welcome back to our book club this month – and for our new joiners, hello, so happy to have you here.

 

It’s time to discuss The Madwoman Upstairs. Where to begin?

 

So the book opens and we’ve got Samantha, who is at times a painfully socially awkward student starting her first year at Oxford. And then of course there’s her suspiciously young, cranky tutor Timothy James Orville III, the best looking and worst named professor in the history of literature.

 

Though this is a contemporary story, it heavily borrows gothic elements – if you’re familiar with Jane Eyre as soon as you met Orville you’d have smelled an opportunity for a deeply repressed courtship (which I am obviously 100% here for).

 

There are many nods to classic literature in here, but that said, you don’t need to catch every single one to thoroughly enjoy this book.

 

The plot on its own is enough to keep you turning the pages right to the end, and that’s probably what I enjoyed most about Madwoman Upstairs. It’s got a pacey story but also some smart and interesting things to say about the Brontes and literature in general. There’s plenty of food for thought on these pages.

 

As with any novel where a character tells their own story, your enjoyment of this book really hinges on how well you can get along with the narrator. Samantha is smart but inexperienced, and this combination can be both endearing and annoying at the same time.

 

There were moments I loved and related to Samantha, and others where I felt like the title of the book might actually be referring to me rather than Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason because Samantha was driving me crazy.

 

Along with trying to cope with an unreliable narrator, to really get into The Madwoman Upstairs as a reader you need to accept a few – in my opinion – fairly fantastical things.

 

The first is that Samantha’s connection to the Brontes – when they don’t even share a last name – would be enough to make her a minor celebrity around campus to the point someone finds her interesting enough to put in the paper.

 

Thinking back to my first year of uni I don’t know if I would be aware of or care that someone was related – distantly – to a famous literary family. If anything her relationship with the university’s youngest and hottest professor would be a bigger source of gossip, and I suppose ultimately, it is.

 

Her complicated relationship with both her parents was the biggest risk of the book and not one that paid off in my opinion. Much longer novels have been devoted to simpler family dynamics than Samantha’s relationship with her estranged mother and dysfunctional alcoholic father.

 

That Sam is so disconnected from her mother that she’d go to boarding school rather than live with her when her father died, yet visit her in Paris when the going gets tough felt just a little too convenient, even accounting for the fact that we’re seeing her mother through the prism of Samantha’s own version of events.

 

And then there’s Rebecca. This character was also hugely problematic for me. Expecting me to believe this woman is simultaneously so loyal to Sam’s father that she’d keep her promises and so brutal in the final turn was maybe just a bridge too far.

 

Their altercation in Orville’s office and then again on the quad just seemed insane to me – we don’t know enough about Rebecca or her relationship with Sam’s father to justify her bitterness and without it the tension here just felt a little artificial.

 

While I can sympathise over her anger at the break in, it’s not as if she wouldn’t instantly know who broke in and stole her bookmark. Has this woman really been quietly toiling away in the mathematics department waiting for Sam to show up so she could ruin her? As a prestigious mathematician surely she’d have something better to do?

 

Samantha’s mother, father and Rebecca should make for incredibly complex reading, but these characters felt more like chess pieces; their behaviours help move the plot forward but if you try to examine them and their motivations, make almost no sense.

 

Problematic plot points aside, what I loved about the The Madwoman Upstairs is it made a nice point about the dangers of being stuck in your own story.

 

Samantha, her father, Sir John and Rebecca all are caught up in their own stories – and their versions ultimately prevent them from living their lives.

 

Sir John is so caught up in believing his version of the truth he loses his job and family. Rebecca wastes years of her life to extreme bitterness. Samantha jumps into a dirty well. In each instance the character is more attached to the idea of the story they’ve invented than living with the reality right in front of them.

 

And who among us hasn’t been guilty of creating our own version of events once or twice. How many times have you made something about you only to realise later it had nothing to do with you at all? In that sense, The Madwoman Upstairs resonated.

 

Last but not least, there’s Orville. Samantha’s older-but-not-so-much-older-that-it’s-weird-professor does his best to be the brooding Mr Rochester we all want him to be and he sort of is.

 

Again, we don’t really know what’s going on with Orville most of the time because all we have is Samantha, and she is not exactly the most perceptive narrator in history. But actually for the most part I loved Orville. Hot and grumpy is always a winning combination.

 

His relationship with another student, though you can very much argue it wasn’t like that, makes things with Sam very tricky. Their relationship is already at best completely inappropriate and to add in the fact that he’s dated a student before muddies the waters even further.

 

The author throws the revelation about his past relationship with a student in the latter half of the book as a big oh shit moment and never really gets resolved. It really took away from the triumph you should feel at these two characters getting together – instead I felt very much on the fence about whether this was a good thing or not.  

 

Orville does his best to hold strong but love wins in the end, career be damned. Considering he was a child genius and worked very hard to get to where he is that he’d just give it all up and move to Ireland didn’t quite fit with his character.

 

Again, it felt more like a convenient ploy to shoehorn in one last Jane Eyre reference (if you remember, Jane was going to *maybe* be shipped off to Ireland when Rochester decided to get married) rather than something that would actually happen. That he’d be fired and disgraced or Sam would switch to a different college would have been a lot more plausible.

 

For the fact that there’s so much back and forth about authorial intent it’s slightly ironic that a lot of the action towards the end felt very heavy-handed by the author.

 

And – last rant, I promise – the epilogue was just a firm no. A firm, firm no from me. Again, fans of Jane Eyre will recognise exactly why it’s there. But to me the story would have been a lot stronger if we’d resisted the urge to tie everything into a neat little bow.  

 

The thing is, even in spite of a few major plot problems, I really enjoyed the Madwoman Upstairs. I tore through it in just a couple of sittings and it stayed on my mind long afterwards. You can’t ask much more than that from a book I think.

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October 2017

Vinegar Girl is our first ever book club pick and if you’re reading this it means you’re part of a forever-VIP group known as the first ever book club subscribers for Rare Birds. I am very excited to have you here.

 

So, let’s talk about the book.

 

Now, before we dive in, we need to have a little discussion about the play that inspired it, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

 

Vinegar Girl was essentially commissioned as part of an extended marketing exercise to reimagine Shakespeare’s works to mark the 400th anniversary of his death. If you’re vaguely a fan of the Bard of Avon, it’s a series worth your time – Margaret Atwood recently published her take on the Tempest (called Hagseed) and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame is currently working on her retelling of Hamlet.

 

Now, like 10 Things I Hate About You, Vinegar Girl is a pretty charming take on a comedy that people mostly agree is pretty brutal.

 

The play starts out with a weird framing device that we’re going to completely ignore for the purposes of this review and tells the story of Kate and her sister Bianca, both daughters to the Baptista Minola, who is a lord in a place called Padua.

 

In a nutshell, Bianca is beautiful and popular, and Kate is the complete opposite. Bianca can’t get married until Kate does, and quite a few men are interested in marrying Bianca, so the scheming begins.

 

Along comes Petruchio, who decides he’s up for marrying Kate because he a) wants her dowry and b) he likes a challenge. He wins her over by pretending all the mean things she says are lovely – Kate decides he’s probably the only man who can keep up with her and the two of them get hitched.

 

Where the play takes a bit of a turn for the worst is after the wedding – Petruchio essentially takes her off to his country home and subjects her to all sorts of weird tyranny to transform her from a shrew into an acceptable wife.

 

For most readers, even making allowances for things being different back then there’s just too much misogyny at work here for this to truly be a feel-good happy-ending kind of piece, so it should surprise no one that Vinegar Girl stops at the wedding rather than wade into such tricky territory.

 

So the book begins and we meet Kate, who is trying not to get herself fired from a nursery school job she doesn’t seem to want anyway. Her dad is acting a little strangely and suddenly his formerly-unknown lab assistant starts popping up all over the place. We soon find out why.

 

What I loved about this book how Kate likes Pyotr in spite of herself. She sets out to hate him – and there is truly no reason why they should hit it off – yet oddly finds that he’s the only person in her life that seems to pay attention long enough to understand her.

 

They get engaged, and surprisingly – married. Am I the only person who was surprised the wedding actually went through? And in the end it was one of my favourite scenes in the book; Kate doesn’t want to get married but finds herself oddly let down when he doesn’t show.  

 

From the outside, Kate pretends not to care – and the writer does a really great job of describing the weird swing from hope to disillusionment and then back again that Kate feels before, during and just after the wedding.

 

The reason this book made the cut for me is because the point in life where Kate finds herself felt very familiar. Most of us know what it’s like to feel stuck – not happy, but not specifically miserable either.

 

At the start of the book Kate’s whole life is stalling; she doesn’t like what she has but doesn’t know what she wants either. Pyotr appears, and though it’s ridiculous to marry a stranger, it’s also an exit strategy – finally, something is going to change for her.

 

As she gradually starts falling in love with Pytor the way she starts to see him is also very touching. In her eyes he slowly transforms from an oddball into someone who feels just as lonely, scared and lost as she does at times.

 

The whole thing is handled very gently; it manages to be touching without feeling overly sappy or sentimental. I made it through the whole book without ever really rolling my eyes – which, if you love a rom com as much as I do, is rare.

 

Now, that’s more than enough from me – I want to hear your thoughts. This book club is a forum for us to chat about whatever we want, so don’t be shy. If you’re not sure what to say, let’s start simple: how did you feel about the ending?