2012 REVIEWS GENERAL #1

SAN MIGUEL
Author: T.C. Boyle
Bloomsbury $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

San MiguelLIVING on a remote island would be heaven to some people, but hell to others. San Miguel is a stark, atmospheric examination of the effect life on San Miguel, a desolate island off the Californian coast, has on three women. The novel is told in two parts – the first set in the late 1800s and the second set in the 1930s.

The story begins when the schooner from Santa Barbara arrives at San Miguel bearing Maranatha, a 38-year-old woman suffering from consumption, her controlling sheep farming husband and her wayward teenage daughter, Edith. She quickly realises it’s not the paradise her husband, a Civil War veteran, promised. Instead, it’s damp, windy, unforgiving and unbearably lonely; at first she tries to make a go of it, but as her lungs grow weaker she pushes for a return to the mainland. Her husband resists her efforts, focusing his attention away from her and onto the island which has him in his thrall; their relationship becomes increasingly strained as they work against each other, both feeling trapped by the others’ wishes.

Two years later, Edith has been forced back to the island by her adoptive father. She’s needed to feed, clean – do ‘women’s work’ – but it’s the last place the aspiring actress wants to be. Trapped, lonely and missing the social life and independence she craves at her young age, she resolves to get away from the island as fast as she can, whatever it takes.

The second part of the novel is set in the 1930s. Elise Lester, a librarian from New York City, and her husband Herbie, a World War I veteran full of manic energy, arrive on the island full of dreams. They soon achieve a celebrity of sorts when news cameras take an interest in these wayward people living in the wild. But the unyielding island is haunted by its history. Will the family be able to cling together as a new war threatens to pull everything apart?

San Miguel is a character-driven novel in which the island emerges as the strongest character; wild and rugged, it will survive long after those who try to tame it are gone. It has no interest in whether people like it or not – it is as it is. The women who live on the island have quite different reactions to it; the novel is less about how they lived on the island than how they felt about it. For that reason, the book is slow-paced, reflecting what life must have been like (depending on their outlook). Were the days interminably long? Did they feel the same day in, day out? Or did the wind breathe in fresh excitement and new challenges? It all depends on how you view the world and your circumstances.

A book vivid in description and characterisation, San Miguel is a haunting story that will appeal to lovers of literary fiction. It’s not for those who want a plot-driven page-turner. I found this one beautifully written, but a bit slow-going at times.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.


THIS IS LIFE

Author: Dan Rhodes
Canongate RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

This is Life
In Paris, art student Aurelie Renard throws a stone while exploring the nature of random selection. Her ill-thought act sets in motion a chain of events that will turn her life upside down. Suddenly finding herself in charge of a stranger’s baby, and with no idea how babies work, she calls on her gun-toting best friend and her art professor to get herself through the weirdest seven days of her life.

Through her art professor, Aurelie meets Le Machine, an artist who has a unique way of showing people what it means to be alive. There is a tragic story behind his artistic choices, which is the only dark element of the novel. Otherwise, it is a light-hearted and comical novel, full of far-fetched, unpredictable events (strangers handing over a baby, for example) that somehow glue together to make a strange kind of sense. Which is what life is like really. It can be strange, absurd and unpredictable. That said, I couldn’t quite get my head around the scene where Aurelie accidentally shoots the baby…it was suspending reality a bit too much for me.

There was more than one dig at the pretentious nature inherent in the art world, particularly in the creation of Le Machine.I found that aspect amusing, possibly more so than anything else in the novel. The rest was fluffy – funny in a shallow way, like a lot of Hollywood movies. The Le Machine story and characterisation also had the most heart, based on the back story of two small boys holding their breath while watching a cormorant dive. Strangely, it was Le Machine I felt was most developed as a character. The other characters were likeable enough but lacked depth; they were there for the laughs, like sidekicks. Aurelie was engaging enough, in a one-dimensional flit-in-an-out-of-your-life way; she’s not a character that will stay with me forever.

Aside from the art-world theme, the story also focuses on the search for love – both in the sense of the adult characters wanting to connect with a life partner, and indirectly, the sense of a mother searching for her missing baby. This theme is lightly treated and reminded me of a stock-standard rom-com in parts. I didn’t really get the sense of deep, abiding love; it had more of a “in love with love” feel.

This is Life is not meant to be taken too seriously though, and perhaps that was the author’s intention all along – to remind us all that we don’t need to take life too seriously. To celebrate the unexpected and “go with the flow”. To laugh at the absurdities rather than analyse them. In that case, he has certainly met his objective. Rhodes is a skilled writer and I’m interested to compare This is Life with some of his earlier novels. That said, while this novel was entertaining at times, escapist to the full, it didn’t quite bring me the pleasure I had hoped.

This is Life is available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE
Author: Helen Schulman
Atlantic RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

resized_9780857896230_224_297_fitsquareWHAT if one email ripped your family apart?

When the Bergamots move to a new well-to-do neighbourhood, they’re unsure how well they’ll adapt. Soon though, Richard is consumed by his executive role and Liz, who has given up her academic career, is hectically playing mother to four-year-old Coco and fifteen-year-old Jake. But the day Jake unthinkingly forwards to his friend a sexually explicit email sent to him by a young girl is the last day of the Bergamots’ comfortable middle-class existence. Faced with impossible choices, what Richard and Liz do next risks destroying not only their marriage, their daughter and their place in the community, but also Jake – the child they have set out to protect.

If it was you, your son, what would you do? This is the question I asked myself as I read this book. I have sons in this age group and the idea that they could be caught up in something like that horrifies me. As the characters make their choices, it’s easy to judge them, but realistically, would you, caught in the same unfolding situation, do any better? Would I? Would my kids? I hope so – so much that I had to bring up the topic with the boys after I finished the book.

On many levels, this is a devastating novel, one that stayed with me for a long time after I finished. Faced with scandal and a no-win situation, the family makes individual and corporate choices that in turn jeopardises their family unit – nothing is ever the same.

Author Helen Schulman skilfully explores themes of privacy, family, morality and changing relationships with acute insight and sensitivity. Her writing is sharp – simply said, this is a hard book to put down, despite its confronting nature.  This Beautiful Life is such a well-timed book, with increased media focus on the impact of cyber-bullying. I would recommend this for all teachers and parents of teenagers. Its potential for debate would make it an excellent book club read, or even senior secondary novel.

Available now from Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.


ADA’S RULES
Author: Alice Randall
Bloomsbury RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Ada's Rules: A Sexy Skinny NovelAda’s Rules is a little bit self-help, a little bit self-discovery, a little bit diet manual and a whole lot of warm, fuzzy feelings – it’s one of those like-it-or-not books where some of the deeper issues may be hidden by an overload of sweetness.

Ada Howard is the wife of the preacher – “Preach” – at Nashville’s Full Love Baptist Tabernacle. Between juggling family (grown daughters and two ailing parents), church duties and her role at KidPlay daycare centre, there’s hardly any time to take care of herself. Over the years she has gained a lot of weight – in part due to her lifestyle, but also because the big women in her community are the ones who people look up to. Her husband says he likes big women, so it’s also a way to keep his eyes on her. Not that he’s been doing that much lately …

When she is invited to her 25-year college reunion by her old flame, she decides it’s high time she made some changes for the better. There’s no way she wants Matt Mason to see her as an ageing woman with more curves than a rollercoaster. And if he likes what he sees … Ada’s a Christian woman, but with excitement lacking on the home front, and the dreaded 50th birthday looming, she’s wondering if there’s any excitement left for her – and if there is, she wants some of that.

So Ada sets about laying down the rules that will change her body and her life, starting with Don’t Keep Doing What You’ve Always Been Doing. It’s a journey that others in her circle find hard to understand – especially her husband – but one which she is determined to follow through to the end. Is it possible to remake herself and hold on to her status in the community, and more importantly, at home with her husband? Is it possible to change her body without appearing that she is buying into the predominantly white “thin is beautiful” concept (and therefore betraying her culture)?

Ada comes to the point where she realises that her body is her body. In changing her body, she’s changing so much more – she’s allowing herself to be important instead of putting others at the forefront to her own detriment. For the reader, this is a key part in understanding that the novel is not just a light-weight (pardon the pun) “How to lose weight” book. It does give off that feeling, particularly with the chapter headings that border on the happy-voice infomercial side (that aside, they are commonsense tips that we could benefit from whether we wanted to lose weight or not). However, the novel is also an exploration of cultural and social attitudes to the body that is topical and relevant in contemporary society.

As a character, I really admired Ada’s strength and determination. She’s a giving woman who has looked to others’ needs first and it’s a fair call for her to want to make some changes. What I liked is that she just got on with doing it, rather than thinking about it. I did question her motivation at first; I didn’t like the possibililty of an affair with an old flame being used as a catalyst. Through the book, whenever that came up, I felt it was dischordant with Ada’s character.

There were quite a few giggle-worthy moments in the novel – Preach’s sermon about entering Eden was fantastic and I’d love to have been there when it was delivered. I imagine I’d have been in fits of laughter when I realised what he was talking about.

Overall, I enjoyed this book for what it was – a little bit self-help, a little bit self-discovery, a little bit diet manual and a whole lot of warm, fuzzy feelings. It didn’t rock my world, but it did inspire me to make a few changes (I am embarrassed to admit that I sat here eating potato chips in between paragraphs, but that’s just between us) and it did make me laugh.

Available from good bookstores and Bloomsbury. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia.