While my mother reads nothing but Regency romances, I prefer murder mysteries. Occasionally I read a bestseller or a novel recommended by a friend or Oprah, but lately I have inadvertently chosen woman’s books. I seem to be straying from the norm.
Within a week I finished The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy and A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton. Neither of these are new books; I bought them and dozens of others at the two-day “Friends of the Library” book sale last month.
Marge Piercy is a fabulous author. She writes with utter insight, richness, and flow. Her three main characters – Leila, Mary, and Becky – come to life immediately and stay with you throughout the book, which ends with solid satisfaction. By this I mean, you don’t need to follow them throughout the rest of their lives.
You know Leila, a professor and an author of nonfiction, is going to be okay for the rest of her life. She has worked through the demise of a bad marriage and rediscovered herself as being content with an understanding man and her cats. Homeless Mary, Leila’s former housekeeper, has found the perfect live-in housekeeper position with Leila’s needy, oft-pregnant sister in California, making herself indespensible. Becky, whose life and crime Leila has been researching for a book, continues living in her nobody-else-but-me-matters world, which will never change.
Piercy’s clarity and insights into the human psyche are unerring, her writing flawless.
Jane Hamilton’s novel is fraught with human angst. Her married couple, Alice and Howard Goodwin, are disconnected. There is something psychologically wrong with Alice, but we never learn exactly what or its underlying cause. Neither adult is prepared to be a single parent. Howard raises dairy cows and man the farm single-handedly but cannot clean the house or his young daughters. Alice and Howard are disconnected from each other at the start of the book. The presentation continues from both sides, but it doesn’t really help. You feel sorry for the children most of all, as the dysfuntion deepens into neglect.
Before you have become to know the two main character, Hamilton throws the tragedy of a neighbor’s child accidentally drowning in the Goodwin’s pond at you, and then having Alice, a part-time school nurse, arrested for sexual assault. It is sad, disturbing, and heart-wrenching, filling the reader with despair for the characters, as well as oneself. I am sure that was not the author’s intention. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read it in the gloom of winter.
The latest two books I have read are VELMA STILL COOKS IN LEEWAY by Vinita Hampton Wright and A PATCHWORK PLANET by Anne Tyler. Wright is a Christian author who ends most of her chapters with a recipe. The main character, Velma Brendle, lives in small Leeway, Kansas and is the owner of the only restaurant in town, Velma’s Place. Velma is a widow who is having trouble letting go of her husband; sometimes he even “talks” to her. The book is about the goings on of Leeway’s residents. Velma takes in her dying nephew-in-law and gives help to a pregnant teenager, who lives next door with a mother who is not successfully dealing with having been left by her husband. Velma tries to help everyone, while trying to forgive God for letting her husband be hit by a truck.
Anne Tyler is the author of The Accidental Tourist and about 17 other books. Although I could not figure out from the book’s content what the title, A Patchwork Planet, relates to, it was otherwise worth reading. Barnaby Gaitlin, a likeable, good-hearted man, with a juvie past is intentionally the black sheep of a well-to-do Baltimore family, who cannot understand why he choses to work for a low-paying job helping elderly people instead of going into the family business and being well-paid. As the book progresses, it becomes quite obvious that his family, especially his mother, drove him to it. Barnaby, the divorced father of Opal, turns thirty not long into the book and has a difficult time making ends meet. He has a hard time with relationships, as well, which is entirely understandable, but he is loved and depended upon by his not-long-for-this-world clients.