The name "Karen" has such a specific, unfortunate connotation in the current media that when I started reading A Stranger in the House, I felt an immediate distrust, dislike, and annoyance toward the main character. Karen - who is a generic office worker who makes dinner for her husband and is obsessed about keeping a clean house - seems unabashedly normal at first. That is, until, she gets into a horrific car accident on the "bad" side of town, rendering her in the hospital with amnesia. With no recollection of why she left the house in such a hurry - stove on, pasta water boiling, her purse and ID left behind - her husband, Tom, wonders what secrets his wife may be keeping.
The plot thickens when homicide detectives discover an unidentified body at a crime scene near the site of Karen's crash, leaving the reader continuously turning pages in hopes of solving the mystery. Is Karen involved in something larger than herself? Does she truly have amnesia, or is there more she can remember? Written in oscillating perspectives using the close third-person, Lapena does an excellent job of inhabiting the minds of her characters. Most chapters are from Karen or Tom's perspectives, but some of the story unfolds through the eyes of Detective Rasbach or Karen's neighbor/friend, Brigid.
Cloaked in uncertainty, this mystery is exactly what anyone reading a mystery novel hopes for: an exciting, suspenseful thriller with well-rounded characters whose hidden lives intersect in a variety of complex ways. I spent the summer reading this book on and off, so much so that its paperback cover is slightly warped from wet, chlorinated hands and shuffling around in my pool bag. Books that no longer look pristine have been shared and well-loved; a warped cover is perhaps the greatest cover an author can receive.
It has been quite a while since I've posted anything here, but that is only because I have been reading about three books at once for the last few months, unable to finish any of them due to a reduced attention span and lack of time. That is, until I stayed up late two nights in a row to complete Want by Lynn Steger Strong; that fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the quality of this novel.
I've mentioned Strong's other novel Hold Still on this blog before when comparing the writing style found in Jocelyn Jackson's Never Have I Ever, so it might be obvious that I am a fan of her work. In the interest of full disclosure, I have also been a student of Lynn's (yes, we're on a first-name basis) at Fairfield University where she teaches in the low-residency MFA program. She was my first mentor as well as the director of my last workshop where I was able to be her teaching assistant. In a way, she book-ended my experience in graduate school, and I couldn't be more grateful to her for being a teacher, mentor, and friend of mine for the last two years.
That being said, Want has merits of its own that do not relate at all to my connection with Lynn. I mean, I fell in love with the novel the minute I saw the gorgeous cover. There is something to be said, however, about reading a book by a person you know in real life. It's hard to separate character from author, or at least it was for me. Lynn is also a teacher in New York with two daughters, so it was difficult to see the main character, Elizabeth, as a separate entity. Regardless, the voice in which this novel is told is so straightforward, bad-ass, and severe that it makes a story about finances, education, and female friendship more than just that; it is a relatable discussion of the hardships of post-graduate life from a jaded, often unhappy, individual.
Even though I see bits of Lynn in the story, I also see bits of myself, bits of my mother, my neighbor, my own best friend from childhood. It is a story that highlights the relationships between women and - through an almost anthropological lens - celebrates them in their weirdness and complexity. If you enjoy a candid narrator telling a story we can all relate to, flawed characters embracing their issues, and a story that weaves into itself like a well-crocheted blanket, this is a novel for you.
Despite my love of reading, I had never been part of a book club until quite recently. Last month, my friend asked me if I wanted to join her virtual book club to keep people connected through literature during the quarantine. An excuse to read books and talk about them with other people? I was in.
She named the club "Waiting for Merlot," both an accurate statement and a play on words. The members of the club received an email with a list of genres and potential time periods. After the vote, we ended on a contemporary mystery. As luck would have it, Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson is a contemporary mystery about none other than a suspenseful event that begins as women meet one evening attending their local book club. What book could be more appropriate?
Admittedly, I haven't finished the book yet, but I am super close. Jackson's words flow into one another like water, perhaps reflecting the metaphorical importance of water in the text. The main character, Amy, is a diving instructor, and underneath the water is her safe place. She feels safe from the world, from her misdeeds, from her mysterious past. It is this mysterious past that threatens to break up her perfect little suburban-mom life should her husband, Davis, her stepdaughter, Madison, and her best friend, Charlotte ever find out.
I won't give anything away, but if you enjoy layered writing with complex symbolism and multiple plot twists that reads like a mixture of Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong and In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware, this is a book you would enjoy. Despite the heavy, lyrical quality of the writing, the book moves quickly. For perspective, I generally read slowly, and I got to page 200 in a day and a half. Even after two glasses of Moscato made my eyelids heavy, I read long into the night. If anything is a testament to the quality of this novel, it is the fact that it has kept me reading, exploring the layers of Amy's life. I am eager to solve the mystery.
MENTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT/ABUSE
SPOILERS FOR ANDERSON'S PREVIOUS NOVEL, SPEAK.
When I was in the eighth grade, a friend of mine was reading a book whose cover I admired very much. I have always been someone who judges books by their cover, I'm sorry to say, but the people in the marketing department work very hard on those designs for a reason. The book cover was mint-green and gray with raised leaves and a pair of glassy eyes staring out from between branches of a skinny, twiggy tree. Below the eyes, there was a nose, but below the nose, the trunk of the tree covered the person's mouth.
The title of the novel - Speak - struck me as odd due to the cover design, and I did some research on it. The story summary on the back of the book intrigued young me; the main character, Melinda, calls the police while intoxicated at a party over the summer, invariably getting everyone else in trouble. When they arrive, she doesn't say anything to them about her reason for calling. Afterwards, she is ostracized from all friend groups and hated by virtually everyone in her high school. The reason she calls the police in her inebriated state is because she is raped at the party by one of the upperclassmen. However, things are mildly hazy because of the beer and the trauma, and like many survivors of sexual assault, she has a hard time coming to terms with what happened to her.
Through this book, Laurie Halse Anderson started something important; she shed light on the experiences of women who experience sexual violence. Often times, it is just too hard to speak. Now, decades later, I was wandering Barnes & Noble as I often do when I came upon a hardcover book with a black jacket upon which bright, orange vines weaved across the title. I was instantly drawn to the cover. When I saw Shout and Anderson's name, I purchased it without even reading the description.
Later upon reading the book jacket, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the intricate gem I'd found. A nonfiction memoir written in verse - a rarity in the book world - that touches on the subject of sexual violence. A book nerd like me is excited by the prospect of a poetic memoir, but a poetic memoir that advocates for change in an important subject matter? Sign me up.
I haven't cracked the spine yet, but I am both looking forward to it and dreading it. I am thrilled that a book like this exists, but I know myself, and I know I will sob heavily while moving through the pages. I will feel empowered and disgusted and cleansed and inspired, perhaps simultaneously. I will confront my own experiences, recall others friends have told me about, remember the alarming number of people I follow that tweeted #MeToo. I will be thankful for this book and all it has the potential to do in a world where the events described in its pages are still happening far too frequently.
And I will understand if you don't read it because you don't have to and because it could do more harm than good depending on the stage you're in of your healing process. I will hope that you come to terms with your past, that you allow yourself to grieve, that you heal and grow and change. I hope that once you learn to speak, when you're ready, you also learn to shout.
How I came across this book is nothing short of a strange, almost fated, coincidence. Like many others who still add "emerging writer" to their cover letter, I entered my flash nonfiction in a writing contest for The Pinch, a literary journal that holds annual contests for both fiction and nonfiction. I'd heard of the journal in passing and read over some of the pieces on the website just like you're supposed to do before you submit anywhere, and this time I spent extra time researching the judge who was to decide if my work was worthy of publication and a $1,000 cash prize. This judge was Esmé Weijun Wang.
I didn't have to look far to research; the website provided information about Wang right on their contest page. At first glance, she's instantly impressive. She won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize which is - to put it mildly - kind of a big deal. At the time when I was doing this research, I'd just finished a publishing and editing workshop where Graywolf was one of the small presses we spent eons discussing; it is one of the "big" small presses, and that will only make sense to other writers looking to get their start at a reputable establishment. I'd come to learn that not only did she win the prize, but she won it for this book, The Collected Schizophrenias.
This caused immediate interest because of the subject matter and the small fact that she was controlling the fate of my own writing, but I'd had too many books staring at me from my to-be-read pile to invest in another paperback that would collect dust in the corner. Then, writer Twitter - a small, enclave of the internet that posts daily quotes and submission deadlines - presented my feed with a retweet from none other than Esmé Weijun Wang. The world was getting smaller, and let's face it, I'd already put the book in my Amazon cart for a later date. This tiny, seemingly innocuous act of viewing a tweet told me that the stars had aligned enough for me to "check out," my cart full of new reading material.
Since then, I've started the book, and am loving it even more than I thought I would. The mixture of scientific information, research, and personal anecdotes creates an atmosphere that certainly I have never seen before. My best comparison I can muster with what I have read is as follows: if you enjoy writing that could be from the lovechild of Oliver Sacks and Lucy Grealy, this is the book for you.
Oh, and I didn't win the writing contest. The Pinch did send me two copies of the print magazine and an adorable pink-and-blue pin of an oyster with a small saying engraved underneath. It says, "no pinch, no pearl." It lives on my school ID lanyard as a reminder to work hard each day to create, to inspire, and to learn.
It is the most perfect consolation prize.