Tag Archives: novel

Ann Leary’s The Good House touches the heart

houseAuthor Ann Leary has written a funny, touching and true novel about alcoholism. No, keep reading!  It’s not soppy.  It’s not tragic.  It’s not full of I-told-you-so’s and lessons learned.  And it’s definitely not a Lifetime movie.

What it is, is this:  A wonderful story.  Massachusetts real estate agent Hildy Good is the descendant of a Salem witch, and she’s a little bit witchy herself, with the ability to “read” the truth that others can’t hide.  She’s also divorced from a man who turned out to be gay (so much for her ability to “read the truth!”), the mother of two grown daughters, and jealous “gammy” of one adorable toddler.  She’s also just out of rehab for a drinking problem she doesn’t think she has.

Enter Rebecca McAllister, the beautiful, charismatic, and somewhat-off-her-rocker wife of a uber-rich guy.  Shortly after meeting steadfast (and married) local psychiatrist Peter Newbold, they’re in love.  But when Peter wises up and calls it quits, Rebecca doesn’t give up quietly.

Meanwhile, Hildy’s pretending she’s still sober while rekindling a long-lost romantic relationship with the badly weathered and decidedly unsuitable garbageman, Frank Getchell.  A straight-talker, Frank doesn’t take much baloney from Hildy.

The Good House is written in first person from Hildy’s point of view.  She’s a terrific voice, and needless to say, unreliable in the extreme.  Of course, one hallmark of alcoholism is the ability to lie to yourself as well as others, and believe it while you’re doing it.  The habits of the secret drinker are truly presented, and interviews with Leary make it clear that, sober now, she is drawing on her own experiences.

That she’s been able to transform those experiences into such a warm, witty, and heartfelt novel is remarkable.  There’s tragedy and grief, but also hope and joy.  Life in a nutshell.

Leary’s previous books include An Innocent,  a Broad, a hilarious memoir, and Outtakes from a Marriage, a comic novel.  All three: totally worth reading.

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Quick review of The Round House – last post for a while!

I’m going to be out of the blogosphere for a few weeks due to vacations and other commitments, but I couldn’t close my laptop without sending a final message out to everyone to read Louise Erdrich’s latest, The Round House.  It’s phenomenal.  Set in 1988, the story is told in retrospect by the now-adult Joe Coutts, who was the 13-year-old-son of a respected Native American couple when his world turned upside down with the brutal rape and near-murder of his mother.  The repercussions of that assault, Joe’s quest to reveal the truth and seek vengeance, make the book a mystery (although not classified as such).  A literary mystery, I suppose some would say.

Making The Round House deeper, more layered, and more compelling is the portrayal of life on the reservation and the many interconnections that serve to both illuminate and render unremarkable the beauty and the evil that are woven into daily life.  Erdrich is masterful in revealing the characters in all their compelling complexity, and I marvel at her ability to show the workings of the world as seen through the eyes of a pubescent boy.

I’d love to do a more thorough review, but I’m very short on time, so I’ll just say – The Round House is highly recommended!  And if you’ve not read Louise Erdrich previously, you might want to start with her earlier books, particularly A Plague of Doves, which features some of the same characters as The Round House.  

The Grief of Others: affecting!

It was quite a shock to read the opening scene of The Grief of Others, the poignant and uplifting novel by Leah Hager Cohen.   That’s because the premise – the death of a newborn born with a birth defect – was one I had just recently explored in a short story.  Even the birth defect used was identical; with anencephaly, there is no brain development.  The condition is “incompatible with life,” and after the delivery, the child typically lives only a matter of a few hours.

The short story I wrote focused on those few brief hours, and with my predilection for Sixth Sense sensibility, is written to withhold from the reader that the mother’s imaginings of her newborn daughter’s life reflect a life she will not be there to live.  I like the story but put it aside, because I couldn’t imagine how it might be publishable.

But, heavens, Cohen does a fabulous job of doing just that – by placing this sad event in the context of a more complicated story.   In The Grief of Others, the prologue addresses the baby’s birth.  It is lovely, lyrical and sad.  The rest of the book tells the complicated story of the imperfect Ryrie family and how the baby’s death is the catalyst for further complications.

Mom Ricky has a high-paid job in finance and commutes to the city.  Her husband is a set designer, and this imbalance seems to trap them both.  They have a passionate relationship but a lack of trust, and Ricky has a secret that undermines their ability to grieve together:  she learned of the baby’s condition and decided against having an abortion, withholding this information from John so as to avoid having to include him.  To lessen her guilt over keeping this secret, Ricky distances herself from John by focusing on his imperfections.  And learning this secret rocks John’s world, causing him to question the basis for their relationship and putting the marriage in jeopardy.

John and Ricky  have two children.  Paul is suffering silently in high school, bullied daily, wondering just when it was that he became the object of everyone’s scorn.  He has just one good friend, Baptiste, a Haitian immigrant who lives with his grandmother.  They write graphic novels together.  Ten year old Biscuit – short for Elizabeth – is quirky and willful, prone to skipping school.  She’s been powerfully affected by the baby’s death and desperately searches for a way to bring closure to her grief.

Add to the mix Jess, John’s daughter from a college girlfriend, who arrives on the Ryrie doorstep pregnant.  She slides surprisingly smoothly into their family life.  Also included are Gordie Joiner and his father Will, who are struggling with Will’s illness and death during the novel’s timeframe.

Cohen does a beautiful job of revealing each character, complete in their complexity, in a way that can be achingly real.  How these interconnected individuals struggle, lose their way, and come together again is what makes The Grief of Others a special novel.

Still!  I don’t want you to get the idea that The Grief of Others is overwrought, sentimental, or – heaven forbid – a drag.   There’s a great deal of humor in the novel, as well.  Take, for example, how Cohen addresses lonely Gordie’s attraction to the Ryrie family.

“In fact, he’d taken Ebie walking in Memorial Park several times over the past ten days, at calculatedly varied times, in hopes of ‘running into’ any of the Ryries.  He’d spotted Jess that morning first thing on arrival, and if he’d had any doubts that it was she, Ebie dispelled them by trotting right over, tail awag in recognition.  He’d called her sharply away, mortified to think that the dog’s forwardness might be construed as his own.

And then, thought he’d observed from the corner of his eye Jess prop herself on her elbows and study them, Gordie had pretended not to recognize her:  he’d given Ebie all his attention, immersed himself in this game of stick throwing with unusual intensity, the result being every aspect of it felt foolish, artificial.  Here I am , athletic and good-natured.  Here I am, loving my dog, who loves me.  Here I am, lovable.

Leah Hager Cohen has written several other novels; based on my enthusiasm for The Grief of Others, they’re definitely on my “to read” list!

E-mail Speeds Up Agent Search

What do you do with 2 1/2 novels?  If you’re me, you put novel #1 in the drawer to be re-worked at some future date, and you focus on pitching novel #2 while you work to juggle all the plot threads and characters while building tension and trying to deliver both plot and insight in novel #3.

First, a little background.  Novel #2 is a mystery titled Character-Driven.  It features a former actress, Paula Berger.  Paula lives in Oak Park (conveniently, so do I).  Smart, funny, with a flair for undercover work and access to the costume cupboard at the community theater where she’s the part-time box office manager, Paula takes on the job of investigating the odd behavior of a friend’s husband.  She’s an expert in husband investigations.  When Paula’s own husband, accountant Mike Berger, left her for a buxom bimbo, he had taken the lion’s share of their marital assets and claimed his business was failing. Desperate, she turned to an investigator she couldn’t afford, and he advised her to “do it yourself!”  She discovered Mike was not only bilking her, but his clients – and in Character-Driven, Paula deals with Mike Berger’s felony conviction and its affect on their 11-year-old son, Danny.

Paula jumps into the investigation of Dr. Jerry Stein, making liberal use of her improv skills as she tails the doctor, using “social engineering” to get financial info about him, and sneaking into his office to rifle his desk, all in the hopes of uncovering a minor transgression to set friend Betsy’s mind at ease.  But the light-hearted sleuthing takes a dark turn when Jerry disappears.  Suspects abound, including a scheming lawyer and a couple of mobsters.  Paula, on a self-improvement kick since her divorce, is delighted by two emerging love interests: she’s drawn to Jerry’s charming partner, even while recognizing the surgeon is a self-centered know-it-all, and also meets and dates her hunky-and-sweet neighborhood cop.  On hand for practical help is flamboyant Ned Hinshaw at her local Spy Shoppe (a handy guy to know when high-tech, high-priced surveillance equipment is needed and your Mastercard is maxed out) and private investigator Frank Tucker.  Frank provides key information, but counsels Paula to drop the investigation.  That’s good advice, but headstrong, impulsive Paula barrels ahead.

Just as in real life, in Character-Driven, everybody does exactly what their own personal psychology requires.   Dr. Stein sticks to his ethics, his partner looks for a way to reinforce his own grandiose vision, a patient tries to make a buck and ends up dead, Paula can’t help sticking her nose in, and shady attorney Warren Gold piggybacks on others’ schemes.  At the end, everybody gets pretty much what’s coming to them based on their own actions… the kidnapped Dr. Stein is safely back at home, Paula’s had some very scary moments, and Mr. Gold walks away $5 million richer.

So.  The last time I went agent-searching, I was fortunate enough to grab the attention of a really big name agent.  He read my query, read the book, and came back with some very positive comments but ultimately passed. The whole process took 3-4 months, during which I quit sending it out to anyone else.  Rejection.  Augh!  Devastation.  Why did I put all my metaphorical eggs in that basket?  Whatever the reason, a couple of years have now passed (okay, almost 3 years) and it’s time to go egg-hunting again.  To make sure I wasn’t nuts for doing so, I asked my friend Deb (she of the “books read since 2003 list”) to read the book.  “It’s as good as (mystery series name redacted here),” she said.  “If I saw this book in the bookstore, I’d buy it!”

So, thanks, Deb.  I’m out there again, thanks to your encouragement.  And boy, have things changed in that time!  First of all, although many agents would prefer that you not make simultaneous queries, they understand that as long as you aren’t just shooting out the query letters higgeldy-piggeldy, it’s not a mortal sin.  Second, the advent of e-queries has made the whole process so much less painful!

Here’s what I did last time:  painstakingly research, identify 2-3 agents that might be interested in my novel, write query letters that conform to each agent’s specifications, print off the letters as well as whatever they want sent along (first 5 pages, first 10 pages, first 50 pages, chapter-by-chapter synopsis, 2-3 page synopsis – you get the idea).  Include self-addressed, stamped envelope.  Package it all up, go to the post office.  Wait 6-8 weeks.  Collect form letter rejection slips that come in the mail.  Occasionally one will have a hand-written signature or a note that makes it clear they actually read what you sent, which is heartening but doesn’t ultimately get you anywhere. When two months have gone by, it’s time to do it again, with 3-4 more agents.

Today, the majority of agents take e-mail queries.  Sometimes they want just the pitch, sometimes they want you to paste in some of the novel, the synopsis, or both.  The exciting thing?  If you’re not right for them, you get a response quickly!  Wow!  You do the same research, put the same thought into your pitch, send out 3-4 queries and get rejected within just a few days!  (This is actually a huge improvement.)  Of course, some literary agents still want to receive queries by snail mail… and some of these folks are the people who have been in the biz a long time and are very successful.  And some offer you the choice, but if you want to send more than just the letter, they prefer the good ol’ USPS.

Anyway, I am excited as all get-out, because a reputable agent who is interested in mysteries sent me an email today asking for the first 50 pages!   I’d queried her by snail mail with a letter and the synopsis.  I was thrilled to hear from her so quickly, and promptly sent her the pages in an email attachment, as she requested.   I am very interested in her feedback, hoping for the best (she’ll sign me!  She’ll sell the series!  I’ll get a six-figure, three-book deal!) but being realistic and prepared to continuing searching.  Wish me luck.