The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman

chalk artistAllegra Goodman is on my auto-buy list. I really, really liked The Cookbook Collector about a pair of sisters in California, a bit of a taking down of dot com business culture, a bit of a love story with smart characters. I like her for the same reasons as I like Meg Wolitzer: sweeping drama, smart people, over a lengthy period of time. The Chalk Artist, unfortunately, didn’t quite work for me.

The Chalk Artist deals with a group of teenagers and a group of adults all somehow connected to Arkadia Systems, a videogame company. Goodman is so sympathetic towards her characters, and in that way it reminds me of My So-Called Life or other Herkowitz show. But I didn’t love the story because I’m not really into fantasy or video games, and while I was impressed by a couple of the scenes describing the immersive gaming-in-the-round universe of UnderWorld, I ultimately didn’t love it.

Another thing that sort of annoyed me is that the young-teacher storyline turned a bit into a teacher-as-savior story, which I loved when I was say, under 25 years old, but I don’t now.

My criticisms are because I loved other parts of the book. An intelligent take on young love was great- it’s what was missing from say, Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. The art stuff was very cool and very vivid. The technology part was sort of cool but I felt distanced because gaming is not my thing.

The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman

Dial Press, June 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Long May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White

long may she reignLong May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White

Feiwel and Friends, 2007

The President’s Daughter book 4

I bought my copy of the book.

Sometime well into adulthood I discovered The President’s Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White. Written in the 1980’s, they feature Meg Powers,  the teenage daughter of a female senator and then first female President of the United States. They are full of teen angst, complicated family relationships, and, in White House Autumn, a horrible crime. Meg is kidnapped and held hostage, and then the series was on hiatus for over ten years. In 2007, Emerson White published the next installment in the series, and it feels like an adult book. Meg is coping with the physical and emotional effects of her capture and imprisonment, and after a long section at the White House, she leaves for college in Western Massachusetts.

It is very much a political novel (Meg is quite interested in a political future), it’s very much a novel about coping with something horrible that happened to you and processing it– that alone allies it with the vast majority of crime novels I’m drawn to. I’m always curious how characters cope with such senselessly horrible things that happen to them and their loved ones. Finally, it’s a novel about growing up and going away to college. The very interesting character of Meg is what kept me going in this long book that has quite serious moments as she deals with her family and friends as she’s coping with trauma and rehabilitation. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s stubborn: she is a messy character, and I find those so refreshing.

I simply adored this book: it felt like a long, thoughtful book revisiting characters I was very fond of some time ago instead of a rushed novel. I like series in general, and this one is one of my favorites because the conclusion was so damn good. My only regret about the book was that Meg abandoned her beloved drink of choice, Tab, for the more 21-century-appropriate Coke in this novel, but that doesn’t even rise to the level of real regret.

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Seating Arrangements should have been a book I loved, but I ended up feeling ambivalent about it.  It’s about a family of repressed WASPs gathered on an island off Cape Cod for the eldest daughter’s wedding.  The repressed characters and the closed-off location made me expect lots of juicy family drama, and that there is in this book.  Shipstead is a psychologically astute writer, for which I am grateful, but at about the halfway mark I started losing interest in these characters.

The bride and groom are Daphne Van Meter, seven months pregnant, and Greyson Duff (the characters have very apt WASP names), but while the dramatic action centers around their nuptials, the psychological hearts of the novel are Daphne’s dad Winn, some sort of banker who is obsessed with membership in clubs (golf, eating clubs at Harvard, etc) and who is infatuated with on of Daphne’s bridesmaids, and Daphne’s younger sister Livia, a college student who recently endured a breakup and more.  The book is a portrait of marriage:  Winn and Biddy’s, which should not be a hopeful beacon for the bride and groom to be.

Why did I lose interest at the halfway mark?  I didn’t feel much sympathy for Winn until nearly the end, but even then, he wasn’t a character I really felt for.  Bumbling older men trying to live an authentic life don’t always work for me.  One notable exception is Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon.  Also, once I found out Winn’s family’s secret, I wasn’t that interested.  He just seemed hell-bent on treating his wife badly.  Secondly, I knew not much was going to happen, which kind of turned me off.  I don’t expect every summer-home/wedding book I read to be filled with action, but I do expect to care about the characters.  I really liked Ayelet Waldman’s Red Hook Road, which I listened to a few summers ago:  it’s the story of the aftermath of the death of the bride and groom en route to their wedding reception in coastal Maine.  It’s a book about class, town vs. vacationers, and grief.  Most importantly, it’s not about repressed WASPs.  I also really liked J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine, which centered on a few generations of women (Catholic) and their lives and a summer house in Maine.  The stakes seemed higher for the characters in those two books than they seemed in this book.

I will try Shipstead’s next novel, but I hope the characters are some that I care about in the next book.

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Knopf, June 2012

Source: library copy

DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay

Defending Jacob is the story of Jacob Barber, a fourteen year old from Newton, MA, accused of stabbing one of his classmates to death.  Andy Barber, Jacob’s father and an assistant district attorney narrates the tale, covering the roughly six month period between the murder, the trial, and its aftermath.  It’s a fast read if you’re in the mood for a courtroom saga with plenty of twists and turns.
Andy is pretty prickly and unlikable.  It was hard for me to empathize with him in the first 100 pages. He seems so blinded to the possibility that his son may be guilty that he’s a bit hard to take.  He’s also a bit hard to take because he doesn’t seem to realize what’s going on with his wife Laurie or his son Jacob as they suffer through this ordeal.  Maybe the whole point is that he’s supposed to be so thoroughly unlikable and so thoroughly blind to the possibility that his son is a killer:  we the readers are in the same place his wife is in.
Another reason it’s hard to empathize with any of the characters in the book, most of all Andy, is that the book is driven by dialogue.  It feels very much like a screenplay:  lots of dialogue, lots of short scenes.  Of course any crime thriller involves a lot of conversations or interrogations with witnesses and suspects, but not every thriller contains mostly dialogue.  It’s harder to get a sense of the characters’ interior lives because there’s more dialogue than narration.
The main asset of this book is the plot, which is laden with twists.  I think the book definitely picks up once Jacob’s trial begins.  Landay doesn’t spend as much time delving into Laurie and Jacob’s minds, which I think is a disadvantage of the book.  Defending Jacob is more of a thriller than a psychological thriller.  For books that take on being the mother of an accused killer, I also recommend We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and Before and After by Rosellen Brown.
DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay
Delacorte Press
Publication date: January 31, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley