UPDATE ON 8/27: The in-person book club will now be meeting on 9/20 to accommodate Yom Kippur!
Howdy! First up: next month’s book will be Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us. I was deeply compelled to select this book after Sarah Jessica Parker’s stirring, evocative description of it on a Goop podcast. I occasionally “hate listen” to these podcasts, but this one was a full-on love listen. I have such respect for SJP. She is articulate, deeply kind, self-aware, ingenuous, elegant, razor sharp. Her way with words is deeply moving. (You should follow her Instagram account, where the captions read like poetry.) SJP recently launched a new imprint under the Hogarth book imprint and Mirza’s novel is the first book she has published. Listening to the book’s provenance on the Goop podcast left me especially hungry to read it; I am normally blind to such backstories, and I found it thrilling. A young author fresh out of a prestigious writing program with multiple imprints vying to publish her book: what! And hearing SJP’s shockingly accessible and self-deprecating description of how nervous she was dealing with the author’s esteemed, blue-blooded agent and how surprised and fortunate she felt when Mirza “picked” her imprint after multiple extended conversations–it all reminded me of the principle lesson I learned while in the formal working world, which is that everything is personal in business. You cannot redact the human element in decision-making, even as it pertains to the most number-driven of transactions. At any rate. I was so tickled by the entire story, and by SJP’s loving stewardship of this book and this author, that I must read it. So that will be our September book club pick. Let’s plan on finishing by September 19th.
Local ladies: email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like to be on the list for the next in-person book club. If you’ve already attended or expressed an interest, I’ll include you on the invite, so no need to email me. We’ll meet possibly for the last time this fall on Wednesday, September 19th, in Central Park at 7 P.M. Thereafter, we’ll need to come up with an indoors convening space owing to dropping temperatures!
Now, onto the reviews…
Book Review: My Cousin Rachel.
Four stars. This book was a fem lit thriller on steroids — the writing excellent, the plot tightly knit, the characters rich and round and curious, the narrative layered. I cherished the central conceit of the novel: DuMaurier’s inhabitation of the mind of a young, presumptuous 24-year-old at his first brush with love, sex, and adulthood. This move was nothing short of brilliant, as it enabled DuMaurier to make sly, pointed, and often hilarious commentary on misperceptions of the opposite sex. (At one point, Rainaldi tells an impressionable Philip: “A woman of feeling does not easily give way…their emotions are more primitive than ours.”) We watch as Philip comes to his own conclusions about “the way of women” — our impulsiveness, our moodiness — just as we watch him demonstrate the self-same qualities to extreme. (I also laughed out loud on multiple occasions during one visit to my nail salon as Philip described Mrs. Pascal’s “horselike face” and “hands like boiled hams.” DuMaurier completely nailed the boyish immaturity of the protagonist!
But, moving beyond the book’s genius mechanics, I also found the interwoven themes of ownership, inheritance, gender, identity, duplicity and duplicitousness, secrecy, illness, sex, and transgression a rich tapestry. It’s interesting to think about the plot stripped down to its basics: at its core, a widow deprived of an inheritance for reasons unclear; an inheritance in limbo until its heir comes of age; a dramatic re-gifting of the inheritance; and then a return of the inheritance to the original heir through an “act of God,” an accident, deus ex machina. In each of these stages, we go back and forth trying to determine whether Rachel has caused these happenings or not. Did she poison Ambrose? Did she fritter away his money? Or were these the confused suspicions of a dying man? And then: Did she manipulate Philip? Or was he a naive, lusty boy of 24 who might have fallen in love with any woman in such close proximity? And then: Did she poison Philip? Or, again, were those the fancies of an ill boy? All in, we watch “a man’s world” — inheritances, property, guardianship — dismantle itself at the feet of a bewitching woman who DuMaurier prevents us from fully knowing. She is always “shawled and secret,” behind a veil not just because she is in mourning but as a general proposition. She is maddeningly unknowable.
On its surface, owing to the spectre of the hanging criminal we meet in the first few pages, the book seems a cautionary tale against getting too caught up in the heat of the moment. Ambrose warns a young Philip: “See what a moment of passion can bring upon a fellow.” Of course, Ambrose later ignores this advice, instead chasing Rachel until his own ruin — and then Philip discards it as well, following in Ambrose’s footsteps. And so we are left to conclude that passion can be ruinous and in any case should not be trusted.
But there is more to this book, I think. There are insightful observations about the mechanics of relationships, about the perceptions and misperceptions of the opposite sex, about the unknowability and mystery of another person. Time and time again we find characters puzzling over one another, musing over facial expressions, misinterpreting body language, reacting to tones and subtexts. These passages were often the truest to me, the way we tenderly take in those around us, working to unpack the smallest cues and gestures. The novel’s many doubles, secrets, veils, and hidden lives place all of these very human negotiations in high relief.
Reading Questions: My Cousin Rachel.
+What do you make of the title of the book, and Philip’s use of the moniker throughout the novel? (Why not just Rachel? Why not cousin? Why not Mrs. Ashley?) Why not something more thematic (“Passion”)? Why not something geography based (“On the Estate”)? Etc.
+There are many instances in which items, property, etc. change hands in the novel: a hat of Ambrose’s left behind at the villa and gifted to Philip; the trunks of clothing belonging to Ambrose and redistributed to the townspeople; the strand of pearls worn by Ashley women gifted to Rachel and then rescinded; the property itself. What do you make of the book’s attentiveness to these transactions and exchanges?
+Rachel mentions offhandedly that her first husband, the Count, originally intended to marry her mother, but that she aged poorly and Rachel stepped in to wed him instead. Why do you think DuMaurier includes this detail? What’s going on with the theme of interfamilial, intergenerational relationships?
+Why did DuMaurier choose to write from the perspective of the young man versus Rachel? What was your reaction to this strategy, knowing — as we do — that the author is in fact a woman? Do we think that this book would have been as well-received today in the context of more highly contested identity politics?
+Why is Louise in the book?
Book Review: When Life Gives You Lululemons by Lauren Weisberger
Two stars. It was a light reading month for me. This was pleasant but forgettable — in fact, I can scarcely recall much about the book except for that I found, as one of you mentioned in book club last month, the invocation of the Miranda Priestley character an entirely gratuitous nod to Weisberger’s wildly popular Devil Wears Prada. The rest felt vaguely enjoyable in its label-dropping and can-you-believe-how-rich-and-bored-some-of-these-suburban-moms-are vibe. One thing I found interesting was the book’s treatment of working mothers versus stay at home moms, a topic never far from the mind or heart of any mother, regardless of what decisions she has made with regards to childcare. The plot implies that women with brains and drive should find some way to keep their professional identities alive in order to achieve a kind of balance — a takeaway at once optimistic and offensive. It was annoying, too, that it wasn’t the protagonist’s own agency that led her to find this new “balance” of home and work life; it was her husband’s furtive, behind-the-scenes maneuvering. I wish Weisberger had omitted that plot point, as the protagonist seemed intelligent and self-aware enough to come to such conclusions on her own. Instead, there was a sanitized regressiveness to the decision: “Oh, this is what’s happening because my husband approved it and arranged it for me — la ti da!” The more I think about this, the more my eyes glaze over. Yes, two stars.
Book Review: Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman.
Three stars. I was so bored by the first third of this book that I almost stopped reading it. Once the character gets to her honeymoon, though, we were off to the races and I was laying in bed feverishly turning the pages into the wee hours of the night. I even read a part of the book to Mr. Magpie aloud! Steadman can write some seriously gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing prose; I don’t think I’ve ever reacted so viscerally to the poor decision-making of a character! I was biting my nails and gritting my teeth for entire chapters. For these reasons alone, I strongly recommend this if you’re into the thriller genre; this one is particularly cinematic (did anyone else love the scene where she shops at Chanel!?) and evocative. I took issue with the protagonist’s character in a recent #turbothot, but I found book’s take on criminality intriguing (spoiler alerts ahead). Steadman blurs the lines between good and evil and the legal boundaries that zigzag through both. For example, the gang leader (forgetting his name and too lazy to check) proves helpful — even kind and fatherly — when the protagonist is struggling to outsmart her sinister husband. And yet he has killed scores of people, including in his own home when his daughter was a room away. His daughter cleans her hands of him and sets out to live a straight-and-narrow life, but she is also quick to state that her father was “a good father” and ultimately reconnects with him. And so we are left to muse over what it means for a cold-blooded killer to simultaneously be a loving father. And then there is the confused arsonist who seems more caught up with the wrong crowd than truly evil — and an inmate who helps her mother commit suicide out of empathy with nary a bad bone in her body. We are even led to question the ethics of the protagonist, who contemplates running off with the bounty herself and leaving her husband high and dry. Are we supposed to think she’s no better than her husband? Or that because she decides not to run that she’s better than he is? Or that all humans have these impulses but some of us are able to suppress them? All in, the book makes its point a number of times, and loudly: we should be careful when categorizing people as criminals.
On My Reading List.
+Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. The next thriller on my radar, currently available in an HBO miniseries as well!
+Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel. Because we are beginning to navigate the process of applying to schools in Manhattan.
+Battleborn by Claire Vay Watkins. I have long been fascinated by the literature and history of the American West, and this acclaimed selection of short stories engages with and reimagines its mythologies. Also, the author is my age (!) and has won a number of awards. Curious to check her out.
+I am wearing this dress to book club tonight. Or, as of now, am planning to. (I occasionally succumb to Rachel-like fickleness myself. HA!) How can you resist that sale?! I am also contemplating this dress. Such a good price for such a lovely piece!
+Speaking of RT — this $80 stunner looks like it might be one. So elegant with that slightly puffed sleeve. Love!
+I mentioned at some point in the last week that we ordered these darling gingham blackout curtains for mini’s nursery — AND THEY WORKED! She is now sleeping until 6:30 or even 7. Hallelujah. We also considered these, which are precious and elegant all at once.
+Check out the incredible reviews on these pajamas! They look ultra-soft. I like the gingham. I think I might order them for a newly pregnant mama friend of mine! They look perfect for the second trimester and then for post-partum lounging and nursing.
+Speaking of maternity-wear: this duffle coat! So chic!
+This would be a lovely addition to a shower without a seat in it. (Girl’s gotta have a place to prop up her leg while shaving!)
+Looking for more books?! Wander through these…