Tag Archives: Europa Editions

The Hazards of Good Fortune by Seth Greenland: A twenty-first century Bonfire of the Vanities

Cover imageA few years ago, I reviewed Seth Greenland’s I Regret Everything, a smartly witty love story which I enjoyed very much. I’d intended to track down the rest of Greenland’s novels but somehow never got around to it so when The Hazards of Good Fortune popped up in Europa Editions’ catalogue I jumped at it despite its doorstopping 600+ pages. Greenland’s novel is the story of Jay Gladstone, a fabulously wealthy man whose staunch belief in his own integrity leaves him primed for a fall.

Jay is the head of the corporation his realtor father set up. The family business has property throughout New York City but its influence has expanded far beyond the expectations of the son of a Jewish refugee plumber. A proud liberal, Jay is a respected philanthropist. He’s played golf with the President and has plans for a legacy which will tower over Brooklyn but his dearest love is his basketball team whose star player is not quite delivering the goods. There are other troubles in paradise: Jay’s cousin may well be cooking the books; his daughter ignores his texts and his wife of five years seems a little too fond of a drink. Nevertheless, when Jay takes off for South Africa to check on the eco-development he hopes to expand, all seems set for a continuation of his glittering life. When business concludes early, he boards the plane reconsidering his decision not to have the child Nicole seems suddenly so desperate to bear and arrives home planning to tell her so. What he finds will lead to a catastrophic downturn in his fortunes involving an ambitious District Attorney, a frustrated activist and a media who smell blood.

Beginning in 2012, just a few weeks after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, The Hazards of Good Fortune explores racism within the framework of Jay Gladstone’s story with a pleasing satirical edge. Christine Lupo weighs the indictment of a policeman for the shooting of a disturbed black man against Jay’s case in terms of political traction. Black anti-Semitism is put under the microscope at an excruciating Passover to which Jay’s daughter has brought her black activist girlfriend. Jay prides himself in his relationship with his coach and players then discovers he has no black friends. Swipes are taken at the media, social and otherwise, eager to celebrate the downfall of a man who has so publicly prided himself in his integrity but who falls into desperate legal and moral straits. Garland is careful to avoid caricature with Jay, painting him as essentially a good man but one whose self-belief blinds him to reality. All of this is wrapped up in a story which bowls along nicely if rather wordily: there were a few too many long contextualising descriptions for my taste. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler Bonfire of the Vanities came to mind a few chapters in but despite its bagginess The Hazards of Good Fortune is very much better than that.

Ties by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri): Three sides of a marriage

Cover imageI seem to have reviewed several books about marriage in the first few months of this year – from the comparatively happy Wait for Me, Jack, to the decidedly bleak First Love, to the seemingly inextricable entanglement of A Separation – each one very different from the other, as are relationships of course. Domenico Starnone’s Ties is about another marriage, first broken then apparently reconciled. I’d have been attracted by it anyway but when I found out that it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s first piece of translation I had to read it having been intrigued by In Other Words, her memoir about her love affair with the Italian language.

Vanda and Aldo have been married for well over four decades. They live in a comfortable apartment in Rome with a view of the Tiber. They married in their early twenties and have two children, Sandro and Anna. Twelve years into the marriage, when Sandro was nine and Anna five, Aldo confessed his infidelity with Lidia, a passing fancy or so he thought. Furious, Vanda threw him out, lambasting him for his betrayal and eventually winning full custody of their children. Four years later, Aldo began to feel that he’d let his children down, resuming some sort of relationship with them and eventually proposing a rapprochement with Vanda. Reconciliation came at a high price: Vanda commandeered the moral high ground while Aldo lay low, accepting whatever punishment was doled out to him, quietly continuing along his path of infidelity. Their children grew into unhappy adults: Anna, filled with bitter resentment and determined not to have children; Sandro charming all and sundry, leaving a trail of ex-partners and children in his wake. Things come to a head when Vanda and Aldo return from their summer break to find their apartment ransacked and their cat missing.

Vanda and Aldo’s marriage feels very much of its time: Vanda finds herself financially dependent on Aldo, keeping house and looking after the children while Aldo is surprised at her angry reaction to his infidelity, assuming that she will tolerate his self-expression in the new era of sexual liberation. Starnone cleverly structures his novel to reflect the repercussions of their actions. First there are the angry letters from Vanda to Aldo during their separation, so filled with fury that they feel like a smack round the head. This short, very sharp, section is followed by Aldo’s version of events as he searches for photographs of Lidia tucked away for years but now missing in the disorder of the wrecked apartment. The third brief section offers Anna’s point of view, filled with bitterness at the behaviour of her parents and its apparent acceptance by her brother. Each of these narratives is in the first person making them all the more powerful. Starnone deftly switches perspectives, reflecting his characters’ point of view through language, from Vanda’s viscerally furious letters to the slightly puzzled, faintly martyred tone of Aldo’s musings. What’s missing is Sandro’s version which left me feeling that the novella was incomplete. That said it’s an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, elegantly slim but delivering a sucker punch.

The Golden Age by Joan London: The healing power of love

Cover imageBoth Joan London’s previous novels – Gilgamesh and The Good Parents – stand out for me as fine examples of clean, elegant writing, free of unnecessary ornament. Both also share the theme which runs through The Golden Age: the plight of the outsider, or in this case, outsiders. Frank is the thirteen-year-old son of Jewish-Hungarian parents, refugees settled in 1950s Australia. He and Elsa are patients recovering from polio in a children’s convalescent home, both of them now shunned by society. Set in the years immediately before the discovery of an effective polio vaccination, London’s novel quietly and compassionately explores the far-reaching effects of this devastating illness.

Converted from an old pub on the outer edge of suburban Perth, the Golden Age is Frank’s second rehabilitation home. He left the first shortly after the death of Sullivan, the eighteen-year-old who had shown him the way to what he is convinced is his vocation as a poet. Frank is a determined boy, zipping around the Golden Age in his wheelchair, wanting to know what’s going on and zeroing in on Elsa who, like him, is one of the oldest patients. Frank’s parents came to Australia from a refugee camp in Vienna, both scarred by the war. Elsa’s mother struggles with her strong-minded sister-in-law while her father is the one who visits Elsa. Frank and Elsa draw closer together then they are to their families, sharing confidences and coming to an understanding that their futures will not be quite as they had planned. Life at the Golden Age is lived in a bubble, the background hum of the Netting factory sending the children to sleep at night under the quietly watchful eye of Sister Penny, to be woken next morning for their rehabilitation routines. This peaceful rhythm is broken when Frank and Elsa’s relationship wanders into territory deemed inappropriate by the institution’s governors.

London’s story is told largely from Frank’s perspective, punctuated by his memories of life in wartime Budapest and his friendship with Sullivan. Her characters are beautifully observed, fleshed out with lightly yet clearly sketched detail: Frank’s father’s feelings of dislocation and loss; Nurse Penny’s compassionate care of the children and her occasional escape into sex; Ida’s struggle to keep Frank safe in Budapest and her disappointment with Australia. The writing is gracefully restrained yet often vivid: ‘Soon, in a bright swarm they would descend on the children and leave them splinted, smoothed, kissed, the curtains drawn against the dark’ beautifully describes the young nurses preparing the children for bed; ‘There was something lonely yet resolute about the way they stood there. It was not quite hope’ remembers Frank of his parents on board the ship bound for Australia. The aloneness of these children is achingly apparent as they share their ‘onset stories’, knowing that the healthy have stigmatised them and their families out of terror of being struck down themselves. London’s novel conveys the horror and sadness of this terrible illness with great humanity offering the solace of love and hope of recovery.

I Regret Everything by Seth Greenland: A love story

Cover imageI was surprised to find Seth Greenland’s novel on the Europa Editions list. They’re the publishers responsible for publishing the Elena Ferrante novels which took the literati Twitterati by storm last year and it’s still raging, although rhapsodising would be a better word. I’d associated them with fiction in translation but I see that at least one of Greenland’s previous novels is also on their list. He was once a screenwriter for HBO and it was that, and the withered red rose on its cover suggesting a particular kind of love story, which made me want to read it. It’s the story of Jeremy Best, a thirty-three-year-old lawyer who moonlights as a poet, and Spaulding Simonson, the nineteen-year-old daughter of his boss, who’s looking for a patron in the arts.

Jeremy specialises in preparing wealthy clients’ wills. He’s become an expert over the past five years, entertaining hopes of becoming a partner. He’s also a published poet in a small way, hiding his work behind a pseudonym, carefully keeping it under wraps from both colleagues and clients. The day that Spaulding appears in his doorway, he’s a little preoccupied, still disturbed from a vivid nightmare and a little disconcerted by the lump he found when showering. Spaulding, attractive and a little flirtatious – ‘a perfectly designed temptation’ – could well spell trouble but Jeremy’s learned to compartmentalise his life, including his emotions. Spaulding, however, is not there to offer temptation. She’s done her research, knows that Jeremy is also Jinx Bell and wants to get to know someone who may be able to guide her into the poetry world. Still medicated after a spell in a mental hospital, Spaulding seems at first to be the typical product of rich, several times divorced parents but such quick judgement would be a mistake. Mismatched as they are, these two are the subject of Greenland’s witty love story, told in Jeremy and Spaulding’s alternating narratives.

The stratospherically rich aren’t usually my cup of tea – in fiction or otherwise – and although Jeremy and Spaulding aren’t in that league they’re undeniably both privileged and moneyed. Jeremy is the son of a gay lawyer whose portrait by Andy Warhol he’s inherited; Spaulding, although constantly told she needs a plan by her father, manages perfectly well without a job. Such is Greenland’s skill with characterisation that as their story develops so do their characters until our sympathies are fully engaged. Spaulding and Jeremy’s misconceptions about each other are handled expertly in their separate narratives and Greenland has a knack for a well turned phrase. It’s very funny in places but what begins as a light comedy acquires a dark edge giving it a bite which lifts it well above the sentimental. Time to check out those other Greenland novels, I think.

Walking in the Dolomites, the pleasures of the pudding buffet and a few books

View from Hotel Freina, SelvaI’d love to board a train at my local station and travel all the way to the Dolomites by rail but that would entail a good deal of time, organisation and probably money so we did the next best thing and flew from our local airport to Munich where we spent our first evening having dinner outside in the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the middle of the city, then caught the train through Austria over the Brenner Pass down into Italy the next morning. We stayed in two different places, first in the tiny village of Badia then moving on to Selva which felt like a metropolis in comparison although it’s not much more than a village itself. We walked our socks off and then some, which was just as well given the five course meals in the second hotel not to mention the pudding buffet laden with seductive treats.

The flowers were stupendous, undoubtedly our favourite part of the holiday. It was like Alpine flowers - dolomiteswalking through someone’s magnificent garden. Each time we thought that we’d seen all there was to see we spotted another species. The secret, so I’m told, should you want to sow your own wild flower meadow, is to strip out all fertilisers Alpine flowers - Dolomitesotherwise grass will take over. Consequently there were many more flowers where there were no cows, if you get my drift. It’s entirely spoiled me for walks through British meadowland where I’ve oohed and ahhed over cranesbill, chicory and poppies which now seem a bit tame but I’m sure I’ll get over it in time, just as I’ll get over the absence of the pudding buffet every night.

And, yes, I did manage to fit in a little holiday reading while H pored over maps and walking guides which is his particular way of relaxing. Thumbs firmly down for Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, I’m afraid, over written and over-rated. Had I not been hit by a wave of horror that I might run out of books I’d have given it up. Thumbs up for Ellen Feldman’s empathetic and absorbing Next to Love about three American women dealing with the fallout from the Second World War; for Beth Gutcheon’s elegant, quietly understated Gossip, about friendship, love and social mores which has a surprisingly dramatic conclusion; and for Karl Taro Greenfield’s acerbic Triburbia about a group of men living in New York’s Tribeca who think of themselves as Cover imageartists, far superior to the men in suits moving into the area. Richard C. Morais’s Buddhaland, Brooklyn was a nice easy read about an inward-looking Japanese monk transplanted to America and his gradual unbending, while Tim Glencross’s Barbarians – the state-of-the-nation novel I mentioned in my second books to look out for in May post – was entertaining but enjoyed much more by H than me. Last, but far from least, I’d been saving Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend set in 1950s Naples for this holiday – very different from the serenely beautiful, alpine beauty of the Dolomites but Italy nevertheless. It’s the first in a trilogy about the intense, sometimes bumpy friendship between Elena, who narrates the novel, and the fiercely intelligent Lila, struggling with the violence and poverty which characterises their neighbourhood. I finished it yesterday evening – what an ending!

Re-entry into real life has been very much eased by finding that I’ve been nominated by several bloggers whose posts are always stimulating for a Very Inspiring Blogger award. What lovely news to come back to. I’ll be nominating my own VIBs next week.