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Finding Family, New & Old: So Far Away by Meg Mitchell Moore

Cover image of So Far AwayFor Meg Mitchell Moore‘s second novel, So Far Away, she has created historical diary entries from an Irish immigrant maid’s found notebook, as well as believable contemporary characters ranging in age from 57-year-old archivist Kathleen, to Kathleen’s 30-something friend and coworker Neil, down to 13-year-old Natalie, who travels by bus from her suburban Newburyport home to Boston to visit the Massachusetts Archives in Boston on her own. She brings a crumbling notebook filled with handwriting too spidery for Natalie to read that she found hidden away in her basement – which turns out to be a gripping personal account from a Bridget O’Connell Callaghan (writing in 1975 as an elderly woman) about her position as a young maid just over from Ireland in a Boston doctor’s household.
Natalie (whose parents have separated and haven’t been showing much interest in her life) is investigating her family history for a school project and as a way of escaping bullying classmates who are tormenting her with malicious text messages. Kathleen, living alone with her dog Lucy after losing her teenage daughter years ago, becomes concerned about Natalie, but isn’t sure whether or how to intervene.
The author skillfully brings together several different story lines – historical and contemporary. Readers who liked The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve, or novels by Laura Moriarty or Joanna Trollope, will also like this moving novel about how easily families can break apart and how hard it can be to create new ones.

So Far Away
Moore, Meg Mitchell
Reagan Arthur (Little, Brown)
May 29, 2012

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of So Far Away from Little, Brown through NetGalley, but plan to purchase my own hardcover copy at an author signing at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library this month. Additional disclosure: I’m friends with the author’s mother-in-law, but I don’t think that influenced the review!

Other opinions of So Far Away (mostly good):
Amused by Books
Coffee and a Book Chick
Devourer of Books
Everyday I Write the Book
Jenn’s Bookshelves

Life as Art: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Artists aren’t thought of as the best parents, seen as expending more energy on making art than on creating a stable family life for children. In The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, Annie and Buster Fang grow up with not just one artist parent, but two. And not just artists, but performance artists, who require their children’s participation — however reluctant — for the success of their live pieces.
Scorning the “dead” forms of art like painting and photography, performance artists Camille and and Caleb Fang live for the thrill of making a scene in public, never letting on to the bewildered portion of the public, unsuspectingly participating, that this is an improvised enactment of a planned scene — an experience of spontaneous art — with the ensuing confusion or chaos surreptitiously recorded for later review.
As children, alternating between pride and embarrassment in their parents’ theatrics, Annie and Buster were known in their parents’ art circles and (more often than not) to their parents as “Child A” and “Child B.” As adults, Annie and Buster distanced themselves from their parents’ art. Annie is a talented actor who performs well but has a tendency to shock others by behaving unconventionally when off-camera. Buster is a two-time novelist suffering from writers’ block, supplementing his meager income by writing magazine articles about people with strange hobbies, like shooting potatoes from guns. After years away, Buster and Annie both end up at the Fang family home. But in a weird twist on the adult-children-returning-to-the-nest theme, their parents almost immediately disappear, leaving behind a scene of violent foul play.
Their disappearance reopens old wounds in Buster and Annie. How many times had their parents not told them the full plan, keeping their children as unsuspecting as the general public for the purposes of performing spontaneous art? They can’t tell if what seems to have been a violent abduction was real or staged. (They can’t believe it’s real; everything their parents do is in the service of their art. Isn’t it?) But if the whole scene was staged, why didn’t Caleb and Camille let Annie and Buster in on the plan? Why were they kept in the dark the same as the police and the public? Is it their punishment for deserting the family Fang to pursue their own interests? Is there even a real Fang family, or has it all been one long performance piece by their parents, with Child A and B roles that could have been filled interchangeably by children at random?
Similar in some ways to Mr. Toppit by English writer Charles Elton, The Family Fang is a darkly comic novel about adult children overshadowed by larger-than-life parents. Although The Family Fang comes down more firmly on the side of comedy than the much darker Mr. Toppit, both novels nudge readers to ponder the nature of family, the meaning of art, the culture of celebrity, the transience of life, and the possibility of happiness.

Browse inside The Family Fang at HarperCollins here.

Other opinions on The Family Fang (mostly good):
Algonquin Books Blog
Beth Fish Reads
The Broke and the Bookish
The Washington Post
(Ron Charles)

Whine & Cheese

Domestic Sturm und Drang: Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope

Joanna Trollope became one of my favorite authors years ago when I first read The Best of Friends or maybe The Men and the Girls (since that was the first of her novels to be published in the U.S.) and then proceeded to read every Joanna Trollope novel I could get my hands on. (She also wrote historical novels under the name Caroline Harvey.) She wrote about young marrieds, or siblings, or May-December couples, or illicit romances with a kind of touched-up realism, showing readers the characters’ faults but never crossing the line into utter ugliness. And the British characters were so smart (in both the English and American senses of the word)! But starting with Friday Nights (2007) and The Other Family (2010) and now with Daughters-in-Law (2011), her characters’ faults came to seem mostly minor and forgivable and their problems too easily resolved by love or money…preferably both. (Yes, I’ve gotten older, but so has the author. Have her books gotten lighter, the more popular they became?)
It turns out that Joanna Trollope is known in England as the “Queen of the Aga Saga“, an offhand but catchy tag from a male literary critic that stuck, relegating her novels of middle-class English country life to a subset of fiction known as the “family saga“. Usually referring to long or multi-volume novels covering multiple generations, such as The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy or The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, the best family sagas eventually get made into public television miniseries, sometimes more than once. (Hey, BBC, what about Penny Vincenzi’s Lytton Family trilogy?)
A few years ago, Joanna Trollope and another popular English female author beat Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner to the punch in wondering why their best-selling domestic dramas weren’t ever even shortlisted for prestigious literary prizes — cleverly labeling the usual prize-winners “grim-lit”. This caused the literary critic who coined the phrase “Aga saga” to wonder why the bestselling novelists couldn’t be happy with the big royalty checks from their books when most literary fiction is quickly consigned to the remainder tables unless it wins recognition from a prize committee.
In Daughters-in-Law, the author examines a mother’s relationship with her three adult sons and their wives, as well as the dynamics of marriages with children. She details the crises of everyday life and the moments when choices between conflicting loyalties must be made. There were moments, reading Daughters-in-Law, when I thought the book might break out of its genre conventions and have the characters not all neatly work out their issues and messy entanglements by page 319, but if it had, the untidy ending probably would have upset more readers than it pleased.
I would recommend this one to women’s book clubs because there are plenty of characters and their motivations to discuss. A reading group guide is included in the softcover edition.

Click here for a funny riff on the family saga and chick-lit labels from a male columnist for The Independent.

Other opinions about Daughters-in-Law (mostly good):
The Hungry Bookshelf
I Prefer Reading
Pickle Me This

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