July 9, 2015

June Reading Recap

I had another excellent reading month in June:

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng: Lydia is the beloved middle child of the Lees, a mixed-race couple in a small Ohio town in 1977. Her white mother has groomed her for the academic and career success she was prevented from achieving herself. Her Chinese-American father dreams of Lydia attaining popularity and fitting in socially as he never could. Her older brother is Lydia's greatest ally against the parental pressures, but he's also deeply jealous of the attention she receives. Her younger sister, a quiet and thoughtful child, is largely ignored within the family. When Lydia is found dead shortly after her sixteenth birthday, the Lee family is ripped apart by the loss and by the realization that none of them knew Lydia -- or each other -- very well at all.

This beautifully constructed story is a mystery at heart, but just as prominent as the question of what led to Lydia's death is the puzzle of what drives the behaviors and emotions of every member of the Lee family. The narrative focuses on each of them in the months after Lydia's death, as well as exploring events in the years before, gradually revealing clues that add up to terrible consequences.

I admire so much about this novel. Ng's characters are real and unexpected, and their relationships are carefully developed. I especially appreciated the strong, though sad, depiction of sibling dynamics. This might be the best story I've read that revolves around misunderstandings and different interpretations of situations, a premise that's difficult to pull off well. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is heartbreaking, so it's not going to be right for every reader, but it definitely joins my list of favorite novels.

A GOD IN RUINS is Kate Atkinson's followup to the brilliant LIFE AFTER LIFE (my review), in which Ursula Todd keeps re-experiencing her lifetime until she gets it right. This companion novel follows Ursula's beloved younger brother Teddy, who serves as an RAF bomber pilot during World War II, beats the odds to survive the war, and goes on to have a long life, a daughter he struggles with, and two grandchildren he adores.

Unlike Ursula, Teddy lives only once, and he moves through time in an exclusively forward direction. However, the story constantly jumps back and forth across the years and between the perspectives of Teddy and his family members to gradually present a non-chronological account of their major life events. A scene focusing on Teddy in his old age might suddenly leap back to a wartime episode, mirroring the nature of memory. At other points, the text reveals incidents the characters haven't yet experienced that will take place decades later. It's a difficult narrative technique, but Atkinson skillfully wields all the threads of time and point of view to tell a fascinating story of the Todd family over the span of a century.

The Todds are a great set of characters with a range of conflicting personalities, and I was happy to reunite with the family members from the earlier book and meet the new ones. Again in this story, Atkinson excels at placing characters in historical context and particularly portraying how WWII redefined their lives. The scenes set during the war are vivid, and several intense chapters portray Teddy's harrowing experiences piloting bomber planes over Europe. There are many deeply sad episodes, both during and after the war, but Atkinson finds the wit and absurdity even in these moments, and the book contains a great deal of humor.

I guess you could enjoy this novel without reading LIFE AFTER LIFE, but there's no reason to, when the first book is so wonderful and this story points back to it in so many ways. Read them both! A GOD IN RUINS didn't delight me quite as much as Ursula's story, but I was thrilled by how close it came. I look forward to discussing it with others, because like the first book, the new one also leaves readers with much to ponder.

IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT by Judy Blume: In the winter of 1951-2, three commercial airplanes crashed in Elizabeth, New Jersey in less than two months. This real event loomed large in the childhood of Judy Blume, who grew up in Elizabeth, and she's built her latest novel around it. The details of the strange series of crashes are all historically accurate, but the rest of the book is fiction that follows a large cast of characters as their lives are shaken up by witnessing the falling planes or losing loved ones.

Miri, who is about to turn 15, is at the center of the novel, so there's a strong coming-of-age component to the story, and of course Blume is in her element writing about teens and their emotions. The adults in Miri's family, as well as the members of several other families, also play large roles and have plotlines around grownup concerns. I enjoyed the mix of characters and the various issues they face, some related to the planes crashes and some not, some particular to the 1950s and some timeless. Earlier in the book, I was occasionally bored when the focus wasn't on the crashes, but the less interesting plots eventually grew stronger, and by the end I was invested in every storyline.

Overall, this is an engrossing novel, most notable for depicting a very unsettling time in one city's history. The personal stories of the characters aren't the most nuanced, but they make for a good read. I grew up with Blume's books, and I'm glad that after a long career, she decided to use her memories of the plane crashes in a novel. It was great to hear her talk about it all last month at the Bay Area Book Festival.

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