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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
Doubleday
Aug. 7, 2012
978-0-385-53618-9
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.
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Wartime Women: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Cover image of Next to LoveWorld War II and the pre- and post-war years from the perspective of women in small-town America have already been well mined for fiction, but Next to Love by Ellen Feldman evokes the time and its social upheavals more subtly than The Postmistress by Jennifer Blake, although not quite as masterfully as Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh. Next to Love is set in the fictional western Massachusetts town of South Downs, but doesn’t have a strong sense of place. it is more of a universal story than a Massachusetts story; events similar to the ones in Next to Love were happening in small towns all across the country, and times were changing everywhere.

The title comes from the first epigraph in Next to Love, a quotation ascribed to a 1914 British war correspondent and lexicographer: “War … next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination.” The author doesn’t recreate battle scenes or women’s experiences overseas but imagines and describes the mostly unspoken-about psychological damage of war on soldiers and their families, in particular their wives and mothers, when husbands, sons, or close friends go into combat and come home changed or don’t come home at all.

Babe (known by this childhood nickname instead of by her given name, Bernadette) is the girl from the wrong side of the tracks with the funny last name (Dion) – the one who isn’t invited by her friends’ mothers to stay for dinner and the one whom the local librarian wouldn’t trust to check out more than one book at a time. She’s also the one whose boyfriend doesn’t propose marriage before leaving for the war while she’s bridesmaid at one friend’s rushed wedding after another before the young men of South Downs enlist or are drafted and also the only one of her circle of friends to take a wartime job. Having fallen in love with Claude Higgins, a local boy, Babe thinks, after traveling to meet him in North Carolina for a last-minute marriage before he ships out, that if it weren’t for the war he might never have crossed the class barrier and braved his parents’ disapproval to marry her, despite her intelligence and long legs.

Over the years during and after the war, she and her two childhood friends, Millie and Grace, remain loyal to each other, shedding some prejudices and overlooking others, trying to be good wives, mothers, and friends without losing too much of themselves. Here’s Babe, reflecting on their friendship, close to the end of the book:

They love one another with an atavistic ferocity, though, it occurs to Babe sitting in the sunporch, these days perhaps they do not much like one another. But she is asking too much of them. Friendship, like marriage, is not all of a piece. Sometimes she thinks she would kill for them. Sometimes she wants to kill them.

This novel would make a good book discussion book, touching as it does on issues of racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, feminism, and other topics on which there was a seismic cultural shift during the post-war decades. Next to Love is a bit too dark to be called women’s fiction – Babe’s outsider’s perspective and fettered intellect reminded me at times of Elizabeth Strout’s character Olive Kitteridge – but readers who enjoyed Laurie Graham’s book The Future Homemakers of America (as I did) or Baker Towers will probably like Next to Love.

Next to Love
Feldman, Ellen
Spiegel & Grau
Trade Paperback pub date: May 15, 2012
978-0-8129-8241-1
320 pp.
$15.00

Disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Next to Love from Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers‘ program.

Other opinions on Next to Love (mostly good):
Fluidity of Time
Man of la Book
nomadreader
So Obsessed With

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
Doubleday
Pub Date: April 3, 2012
978-0-385-52825-2
608 pp.
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Celtic Gothic – The Night Swimmer by Matthew Bondurant (Audio)

The audiobook edition of The Night Swimmer by Matthew Bondurant, narrated absolutely perfectly by Hillary Huber, will be the first on my list of best audiobooks of 2012 (if I get one posted this year.)
The Night Swimmer opens with excerpts from The Journals of John Cheever referring both to Revolutionary Road (about the dissolution of a marriage) by Richard Yates and to the accidental death of children by poisoning, so a reader will know right away not to expect this story – about a man’s winning a pub in a contest sponsored by an brewery and moving with his wife to start a new life in Ireland – to be a lighthearted story in the style of the TV show Cheers. The cover design of a ruined lighthouse on a rocky outpost on the edge of the Atlantic is another strong hint.
A heavy sense of foreboding hangs over the book from the start. The story is told by Elly, Fred’s wife, who carries The Journals of John Cheever like a talisman, and, like a character from one of John Cheever’s stories, is happiest when in the water. Narrator Hillary Huber captures the mixture of regret and remembered happiness with which Elly remembers life with Fred – the good times they had and the gradual coming apart – and how her deep passion for open-water swimming lures her away from Fred and his pub, The Nightjar, and into the dangerous waters off the island of Cape Clear.
Here are the opening lines:

It began with a dart, a pint, and a poem, three elements that seemed to demonstrate the imprecise nature of fate. When Fred stepped up to the line, the dart held loosely in his hand, you could see in the way he carried his body the assurance of a man who was well prepared. Fred was always lucky, but to say that now, seems to remove something essential from him. In fact, it is Fred who should be telling you this story, for he was the one preparing for this all along. Not me.

Now, listen to them as read by Hillary Huber on Audible.com.
I’m not going to outline the book’s plot because the inexorable unfolding of events (because they’ve already happened to Elly and her husband) contributes so much to the impact of this atmospheric, contemporary gothic. I’ll just say that the Ireland of The Night Swimmer has more in common with the feudal Ireland of the past or the mystical, myth-shrouded Ireland of the early saints than with the quirky Ireland of Ballykissangel, say, or the cozy Ireland of Maeve Binchy’s fiction.
The Night Swimmer would be great for a book group because it could spark spirited discussions of how the author intended the reader to interpret this part of the story or that, and also more lofty talk of chance, fate, predestination, national character, love, family, and human nature.
This was the first book I’ve read by the author of The Third Translation and The Wettest County in the World, but it really impressed me and I would like to read more. Its descriptive language, first-person point of view, and the subtle undercurrents of meaning make The Night Swimmer an ideal audiobook, especially with the right narrator. If you’re wondering whether to listen to it or read it, I recommend listening to it!

The Night Swimmer (audiobook)
Bondurant, Matt
Huber, Hillary (Narrator)
AudioGO, 2012
978-1-60998-746-6
9 hrs., 56 min.
8 CDs

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this audiobook from AudioGO. I would have liked The Night Swimmer just as much if I had bought it or borrowed it from the library, though.
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