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Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

Cover image of Goodbye for NowIn Laurie Frankel‘s second novel, Goodbye for Now, there are many moments that will bring a tear to your eye, but not a single sappy sentence. I loved it. When an advanced reading copy came in the mail last week, I bumped it to the top of the TBR pile and read it in two days. To shower some of my highest praise on this book: Goodbye for Now reminded me of Laurie Colwin.

Although I haven’t read Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time;  Shine on, Bright and Dangerous Object; Family Happiness; and Goodbye Without Leaving in years, they remain among my favorite novels of all time. Although they were about relatively privileged New Yorkers in their late twenties and early thirties, the novels made the domestic lives of these smart, witty people, who were also down-to-earth and kind to each other, so irresistibly appealing that readers were drawn in and forgave them any faults, wanting only the best for them all. Throw in computer technology, social media, and improved  forms of electronic communication and you’ve extended the boundaries for a contemporary comedy of manners with family, friends, colleagues, and beyond. In Goodbye for Now, the author’s tweaking of the geek-boy-meets-geek-girl theme and the characters’ philosophical musings on digital afterlives (when we die, our Facebook pages remain) add to the humor and the pathos of the characters’ everyday lives.

The main characters in Goodbye for Now live in Seattle, not New York, but Sam Elling and Meredith Maxwell seem as made for one other as Laurie Colwin’s couples did (Sam’s new online dating algorithm doesn’t go wrong.) Here’s Sam, a lonely software engineer, meeting Meredith for the first time, having tried his newly developed software on himself:

The next step for Sam, of course, was to try it himself. He wanted to know if it worked. He wanted to prove that it worked. But mostly, he wanted it to work. He wanted it to search the world and point, to reach down like the finger of God and say, “Her.” How good was this algorithm? First time out, it set Sam up with Meredith Maxwell. She worked next door. In the marketing department. Of Sam’s own company. For their first date, they met for lunch in the cafeteria at work. She was leaning against the doorframe grinning at him when he got off the elevator, grinning helplessly himself.
“Meredith Maxwell,” she said, shaking Sam’s hand. “My friends mostly call me Max.”
“Not Merde?” Sam asked, incredulous, appalled with himself, even as he was doing so. Who made a joke like that–pretentious, scatological, and French–as a first impression? Sam was awkward and off-putting and a little gross.
Incredibly, Meredith Maxwell laughed. She thought it was funny. She thought Sam was funny. But it wasn’t a miracle. It was computer science.

Both in their early thirties and unattached, Sam and Meredith (forever known to Sam as “Merde”) fall in love so easily and undramatically that when events conspire to have them moving in together, it makes perfect sense to start the living-happily-ever-after part of their lives right away, now that the wonders of computer technology and Sam’s programming genius have brought them together. It’s best not to know much more of the plot in advance because serendipity and bolts from the blue play a major role in how the story goes, so I won’t say much more here, except that the theme of loss runs through the novel starting with the sudden death of Sam’s mother when Sam was only thirteen months old, leaving Sam’s father (also a software engineer) to miss her for many years and Sam with a hole in his life where his mother should have been and no memories of his own stored up.

I hope Goodbye for Now won’t be marketed as a romantic story for women, because there’s so much more here…about grieving, marriage, friendship, artificial intelligence, and (of course, as in all the best novels) the motives of the human heart. Male readers of male authors who write humorous yet sharply observed novels and sometimes touching novels like Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby, and Tom Perrotta, should also like Goodbye for Now. (Look! There are model airplanes on the cover, not shoes or a thin, pale white woman in a dress.) If you are a reader of either sex who likes novels by Meg Wolitzer (Surrender, Dorothy), or Carolyn Parkhurst (The Dogs of Babel), or Laurie Colwin, you should also pick up Goodbye for Now as soon as it comes out.

Goodbye for Now
Frankel, Laurie
Aug. 7, 2012
288 pp., $25.95 U.S./$30.oo CAN

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of Goodbye for Now from Doubleday through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.

Guilty English Pleasure: More Than You Know by Penny Vincenzi

English author Penny Vincenzi‘s books are like granola bars – not much more nutritious than candy, but their mini chocolate chips and tiny marshmallows or sweetened dried cranberries satisfy a candy craving, with a few nutritious oats and nuts tossed in.
None of the author’s later books have ever appealed to me as much as The Spoils of Time trilogy, a saga of the Lytton publishing family in London. (The start of the trilogy, No Angel, was the first of her books to be published in the U.S. – in 2004 – and several books later, that’s the one that’s still mentioned on the cover of this one.) But I still find her books addictive, and whip right through each new one.
In More Than You Know, fashion journalism and fashion design in the sixties (which the author had first-hand experience of) form the backdrop of the drama that plays out when headstrong career-girl Eliza Fullerton-Clark – whose shabby genteel parents are struggling to maintain their large village house, Summercourt – falls for the working-class, chip-on-his-shoulder Matt Shaw – who is well on his way to making his first fortune in property development. Money and class; marriage and career; tradition and changing times…all these make for a stormy relationship between Eliza and Matt, eventually bringing them to the brink of the vicious child custody battle alluded to at the beginning of the book.
But that’s just one of the multiple story strands that readers of More Than You Know will be following. Along with the relationship ups-and-downs of Eliza’s brother and Matt’s sister (not together), Eliza’s ex-beau Jeremy (handsome and rich, like Matt, but from Eliza’s upper-class world), and friends of Matt’s or Eliza’s, there are soaring or flattening career arcs – with Eliza caught between motherhood and her burgeoning fashion journalism career and Matt working with cutthroat competition (sometimes within his own office) – the siren call of the kinds of temptation that the swinging sixties and seventies were rife with, parenting struggles, and too many other plot threads to mention, all switching back and forth across each other.
Penny Vincenzi is a master of the sexy, literary potboiler. More Than You Know will be devoured by her fans, but it might not be the one to hook a new reader unless the London fashion scene is a big draw. I still recommend No Angel if you’re trying to decide whether you’ll like Penny Vincenzi or not.

Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.

More Than You Know (published as The Decision in the U.K.)
Vincenzi, Penny
Pub Date: April 3, 2012
608 pp.

Time Capsule of Love: The Twoweeks by Larry Duberstein

The Twoweeks by Larry Duberstein is written artfully, almost archly, in onion-like layers. The beginning and ending form the outer layer, which wraps around the book; the beginning makes a lot more sense after you’ve read to the end.
At the beginning, readers have no idea who Jake & Cecily, Hetty, Iris etc. are except that they’re adult children driving together with their own children through the snow to spend time with the extended family in Vermont during Christmas week, 2008. And just when readers have gleaned something about these travelers from their banter in the car, they drop completely out of the narrative (except Jake and Hetty as children) until their brief reappearance at the very end. Cal and Lara – the parents, the real main characters – take over the story.
Cal and Lara’s reminiscences about and parsing of events before, during, and after the experimental two weeks they spent together over three decades ago (each married to someone else at the time) form the second layer of the book. Journal pages recording Lara’s memories about each day of “the Twoweeks,” as they called it, which were stored and forgotten for decades, and only just unearthed from a dusty box in the barn form the innermost layer of the book, form the center of the narrative.
The Twoweeks is written in experimental style, almost more like a play than a novel. We seem to be expected to be completely familiar with Cal and Lara’s current situation, although the novel doesn’t concern itself much with that. Readers listen to Cal (an actor) and Lara (a poet) correct and contradict each other’s memories of the Twoweeks –that shared time outside of normal life – as they read (we along with them) in the present, pages that present Lara’s perspective at the time. It’s a love story of sorts, but The Twoweeks is actually a pretty unsentimental dissection of what turned out, to everyone’s surprise, to be a grand passion, although it does gloss over the pain the actual divorces must have inflicted. The divorces are long in the past; everyone has survived and moved on.
So what, exactly, did I think of The Twoweeks? After I got over being annoyed with the author for not developing his characters in the traditional, novelistic way, it grew on me! I went from seeing Cal as self-centered, clownish, and full of himself to seeing him as a flawed but well-meaning person, basically mirroring Lara as she goes from seeing Cal as someone to get out of her system and forget to recognizing him as (if she believed in such a thing) her soulmate. By the end of their Twoweeks, I was wishing them both the best.

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of The Twoweeks through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. (In this case, calling it the “Late” Reviewer program would be more appropriate. Sorry, LibraryThing!)

The Twoweeks
Dubersteien, Larry
The Permanent Press
November 2011

Bittersweet Love: Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

Like a magic trick, Vaclav & Lena, a first novel by Brooklyn author Haley Tanner, is quietly dramatic and deceptively simple — satisfying the human craving for the mysterious and the straightforward at the same time. A best-book-of-the-year review from Hey Lady! got me to read this book despite its bland title and even blander cover, and I’m glad I did. Books about magicians are big right now, but this novel is determinedly down-to-earth, non-fantastical, a realist’s romance, a love story with the illusion of disillusion. There’s a touch of fable in the author’s writing style, but the only magic is Houdini-esque, not Potter-esque.
As young children, Vaclav, a child of Russian-immigrant parents and Lena, who entered school speaking no English, become friends by default. Vaclav is shy and a bit strange, with his magic tricks and obsession with Harry Houdini; little Lena is quiet, still more comfortable speaking Russian over English. Vaclav’s workhorse of a mother, Rasia, who singlehandedly wrested her husband and son out of Russia for a better life, sees that, in America, Vaclav is going to need a friend and that parent-less Lena needs rescue.
For Lena, it’s a relief and an escape for Lena to visit Vaclav’s family after school every day. For Vaclav, it’s settled: when they grow up, Vaclav will be a famous magician and Lena will be his beautiful assistant. Knowing she is necessary to the act, Lena occasionally resents her secondary status, but Vaclav’s better command of English gives him power over the list-making and plans. For Rasia, it’s a worry every time she has to bring Lena home where she is neglected by an aunt.
This is how it is until adolescence when everything changes; the children are separated. The story skips over a gap of years and resumes when Vaclav and Lena are seventeen years old, moving along faster after the halfway point. Everyone’s English skills have improved, but the ability to communicate feelings to one another hasn’t much. Painful secrets are too hard to discuss, whether in Russian or in English.
The novel touches frequently on assimilation (which Rasia wants for Vaclav), and the author has said in interviews that the experience of immigration is part of being American already, but Vaclav & Lena isn’t intended to be a detailed portrayal of the Russian immigrant experience in Brooklyn. (For novels about the immigrant experience, go with Jhumpa Lahiri or one of the many other novelists listed on this list from Cornell University, for example.) Love — romantic and maternal — is the central theme in this story. Some reviewers have complained that the Russian-American characters are either too stereotyped or too atypical. Others have pointed out that Vaclav is a Czech name and that Vaclav’s mother’s name should be “Raisa” not “Rasia”, but these are minor flaws that can be forgiven in a first novel.
Vaclav & Lena is recommended for readers looking for a contemporary love story or family story, not a novel about the Russian-American immigrant experience. It is sweet — in many ways unbelievable — but it is a touching story that sheer grit (especially in the characters of Rasia and Lena’s aunt) keeps from veering into sentimentality.

Read The New York Times review of Vaclav & Lena.

Other opinions about Vaclav & Lena:
Hey Lady!
The Indextrious Reader
That’s What She Read

All Clear by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of my favorite writers, so I was ready to accept her word that the story she started in Blackout (Feb. 2010) of time travelers stuck in the London Blitz needed to stretch over two books (500+ and 600+ pages, respectively) and would be continued in All Clear (Oct. 2010). Having just come to the end of All Clear, I’ll concede to the few complaining, online customer reviewers that the two-book saga could probably have been edited down to one long book, but some of the reader’s sensation of total immersion in the day-to-day of Londoners living through the Blitz — not knowing which way the war would go — would have been lost.
For most of the two books, a few young time-traveling historians from 2060 are bravely facing down the fact that they have no way of getting back to their own time, yet still try frantically to rescue at least the others. Even more alarmingly, their meddling in the past may have changed the future irrevocably, including the outcome of World War II, as well as whatever events led to the discovery and invention of time travel at Oxford University.
As for the two-book story, if you’re a fan of Connie Willis’ writing, her light touch with the most serious of topics and her haplessly heroic characters, the more words the better.
Here’s how Michael Dirda, writing in the Washington Post, recommended Blackout to readers:

If you’re a science-fiction fan, you’ll want to read this book by one of the most honored writers in the field (10 Hugos, six Nebulas); if you’re interested in World War II, you should pick up “Blackout” for its you-are-there authenticity; and if you just like to read, you’ll find here a novelist who can plot like Agatha Christie and whose books possess a bounce and stylishness that Preston Sturges might envy.

And here’s what Julie Phillips writing for the Village Voice, says about Connie Willis:

Not all science fiction looks like science fiction. Connie Willis has won more Hugo and Nebula awards than almost anyone in the field, but her books are often set in the past, while her style is more Dorothy Sayers than Neil Gaiman. Still, she belongs in genre more than in literature, because genre fiction—SF, YA, mystery—is the traditional home of narrative pleasure, and Willis can tell a story like no other.

I should mention that Oxford University time-traveling historians and even a few characters from Blackout and All Clear appear in earlier books and stories by Connie Willis, most famously in The Doomsday Book (1992). Click here to read an eloquent post about The Doomsday Book by a book blogger at Things Mean A Lot.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Like the summer peaches on the cover, the love story in The Cookbook Collector ripens slowly. The Cookbook Collector is the story of two sisters, Emily and Jess — East Coast transplants to California whose mother died young, and whose father remarried and started a new family and whom they fly back to Massachusetts to visit occasionally.
Emily, the older sister, is a financial wizard heading up Veritech, a successful Silicon Valley start-up, and Jess, the younger sister, is a dreamy, bookish, philosophy student at Berkeley. The novel is set in the late 1990s’ boom time, before the 2000 dot-com collapse, when young people just out of college owned tech stock that suddenly made them millionaires. While relating the ups and downs of the young women’s work lives and romantic entanglements, the novel captures this time period for a segment of American society perfectly: the heady, guilty feeling of being rich, the sense of missing out by older people who weren’t part of it, the disbelief when the stock market began to crash, the shock of 9/11.
The two different sisters make different choices in life and love. Not always good ones. Emily, as CEO for a tech start-up, is a woman in a world dominated by men, but so is Jess, working for a rare book dealer. The author dwells on the time-consuming minutiae of these two fields, giving readers an inside look at them and at women and men trying to balance demands of career and family/personal relationships.
The men in The Cookbook Collector are also fully fleshed-out characters. Imperfect creatures, but – as required by the conventions of a love story – they are also as handsome as the sisters are beautiful. And they are rich. As rich as Mr. Darcy (in U.S. dollars and adjusted for inflation), which is always nice in a love story.

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