Tag Archives: J. Courtney Sullivan

Six Degrees of Separation – from It to Mrs Hemingway #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Stephen King’s It which I haven’t read and have absolutely no intention of doing so. Far too cowardly!

I know very little about King’s novel but the blurb tells me it’s set in Maine which gives me the opportunity to scuttle quickly back into my comfort zone. J. Courtenay Sullivan’s novel Maine has a New England summer home setting and family secrets to reveal, both favorites for me.

Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of the best family secrets novels I’ve read. A multitude of clues are spilled finally revealing what’s been puzzling Ruby Lennox for much of her life. Atkinson’s beautiful structured, often very funny novel won her the Whitbread Book of the Year award back in 1995 before it became the Costa.

The eponymous Cathy from Anna Stothard’s The Museum of Cathy is also keeping secrets, this time from her fiancé. The arrival of a package with no name or note attached threatens to unravel her new life in this nicely taut novel which has some gorgeous descriptions of the natural world.

The Museum of Cathy is set in Berlin leading me to Gail Jones’ A Guide to Berlin in which six people – all Nabokov aficionados, all visitors to the city – gather together to discuss the work of their literary hero but begin by telling their own stories.

Jones is also the author of Sixty Lights about a woman’s fascination with the newly emerging photographic technology which leads me to William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, an homage to woman photographers. It follows the life of Amory Clay from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. You could think of it as the female equivalent to Any Human Heart if you’re a Boyd fan.

In his novel’s acknowledgements Boyd mentions the war photographer Martha Gellhorn, one of the three wives of Ernest Hemingway whose stories were fictionalised in Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway. I put off reading Wood’s novel for some time owing to my Hemingway antipathy but enjoyed it very much.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a fraught New England summer holiday to the South of France in the 1920s, equally fraught at times. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Books to Look Out for in August 2017

Top of my August list has to be Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark. I remember taking The History of Love on holiday one year and losing myself in it; one of those books that stayed with me for some time. I wasn’t quite so enamoured with Great House but hopes are high for this one which is about two people: a retired lawyer who takes off from New York for the Tel Aviv Hilton to the mystification of his family and a novelist who has left her husband and children in Brooklyn, heading to the same hotel – familiar from childhood holidays – in the hope of clearing her writer’s block. ‘Bursting with life and humour, this is a profound, mesmerising, achingly beautiful novel of metamorphosis and self-realisation – of looking beyond all that is visible towards the infinite’ say the publishers rather grandly.

Jonathan Dee’s The Locals also features a character fleeing New York, this time for a small town in New England just after 9/11. Hedge fund manager Phillip Hadi employs Mark Firth, recently swindled by his financial advisor, to make his new home secure. These two men are from very different worlds: one rural middle class, the other urban and wealthy. Hadi’s election to mayor has a transforming effect on Firth’s home town, one that will have implications for Firth and his extended family. ‘The Locals is that rare work of fiction capable of capturing a fraught American moment in real time. It is also a novel that is timeless in its depiction of American small town life’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing to me.

One more New York link then we’re off to Boston followed by two jaunts outside of the USA. It seems that the success of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko has prompted her publishers to re-issue Free Food for Millionaires which I remember reading and enjoying when it was first published here in the UK ten years ago. It’s about Casey Han, the daughter of working-class Korean immigrants, whose years at Princeton have left her with a decent education and a set ofCover image expensive habits but no job. She and her parents both live in New York but they inhabit very different worlds. ‘As Casey navigates an uneven course of small triumphs and spectacular failures, a clash of values, ideals and ambitions plays out against the colourful backdrop of New York society, its many layers, shades and divides…’ say the publishers. I remember Casey as a particularly endearing character.

Over to Boston for J. Courteney Sullivan’s Saints for All Seasons which follows sisters Nora and Theresa from their small Irish village to Boston. When Theresa becomes pregnant, sensible Nora comes up with a plan, the repercussions of which will echo down the generations for fifty years by which time Nora is the matriarch of a large family and Theresa is a nun. ‘A graceful, supremely moving novel from one of our most beloved writers, Saints for All Occasions explores the fascinating, funny, and sometimes achingly sad ways a secret at the heart of one family both breaks them and binds them together’ say the publishers which may sound a little over the top but I do love a family secret theme and I remember being completely engrossed by Sullivan’s previous novel, Maine.

It sounds as if dark secrets may be at the heart of Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I am Happy, a novel he’s translated himself from his native Danish. Ellinor is addressing Anna, killed forty years ago in the same skiing accident that felled Henning who was both Ellinor’s first husband and Anna’s lover. Anna’s husband, who became Ellinor’s partner, has died and Ellinor is taking stock, looking back over her life and confiding in her long dead best friend ‘because there are some secrets – both our own and of others – that we can only share with the dead. Secrets that nonetheless shape who we are and who we love’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.

Cover imageI couldn’t quite work up the enthusiasm for reading Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, for some reason. I’m not sure why. Lots of other readers seemed very keen. Johannesburg with its appealing structure sounds much more up my street. The events of the novel take place during the day Nelson Mandela’s death was announced in what sounds like a panoramic story of a scattering of the eponymous city’s inhabitants including a ‘troubled novelist called Virginia’, a polite nod of acknowledgement to Ms Woolf for borrowing her structure. ‘Melrose’s second novel is a hymn to an extraordinary city and its people, an ambitious homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and a devastating personal and political manifesto on love’  say the publishers.

That’s it for August. Let’s hope the sun will be out and those of us who hail from often overcast Northern Europe can get out and read in it. If you’d like to know more about any of the books, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis. I’m off on my hols for ten days on Friday morning, earlier that I can bear to think about, planning to post my Man Booker wishlist on my return.

The Engagements: A Brightly Polished Gem

Cover imageJ. Courtney Sullivan writes the kind of long involving books into which you can comfortably sink, surfacing now and again for a cup of tea or whatever you fancy. Maine was the kind of family saga which I feel slightly guilty about reading – a bit like being unable to keep your hand out of the chocolate box – but intelligently written and completely absorbing. Her new novel, The Engagements, is also about relationships structured around the idea of the engagement ring, a ‘tradition’ apparently manufactured via a clever advertising campaign back in the 1940s. It has four main narrative strands each of which explores a character’s relationship with their spouse, married or not, through which the story of Frances Gerety, the copywriter for the De Beers campaign who came up with the immortal phrase ‘A Diamond is Forever’, is threaded. Each strand is set in a different year: in 1972 Evelyn frets about her son who has left his wife and daughters, remembering her own marriages; James, a paramedic, works the Christmas Eve shift in 1987 worrying about money and whether his wife still loves him; in 2003 Delphine has left her rather dull husband in Paris for a much younger virtuoso violinist in New York and in 2012 Kate is delighted that her gay cousin is marrying his boyfriend but hates the institution of marriage. All four strands are neatly drawn together in the final section of the novel. It’s a clever structure which enables Sullivan to view the enormity of social change over the last sixty or so years through the lens of relationships and our attitudes to marriage. It’s deftly handled and utterly engrossing although the Frances Gerety sections are slightly clunky as if Sullivan couldn’t quite bear to let all that research go to waste.

Talking of intelligent women’s fiction, and non-fiction, the Huffington Post has a little slideshow called Ten Books Every Women Should Read which makes for interesting reading in itself. No sign of The Female Eunuch or The Awakening, and it was something of a surprise to see The Help as their second choice but good to see Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman there. Suggestions for must-read books for women gratefully received here – I’d like to add Kamila Shamsie’s brilliant Burnt Shadows whose female protagonist is one of the strongest I’ve come across in contemporary fiction. Much, much better than The Help.