I know, It’s been a foreva! I blame a time-consuming hurricane and a dearth of blog-worthy reading material, but hopefully you’ll find the wait was worth it. Per usual, I’m a sucker for family drama and this one is a doozy. And, just in time for Halloween, I’m liking both a haunting ghost story (but not the scary kind!) and a novel filled with magic by one of my favorites authors. Happy Fall!
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Take one upper class family of six, introduce a gypsy-artist single mom with a teenage daughter and watch the classes collide. This well crafted novel touches on the many facets of what makes a “happy” family and more importantly, that appearances are rarely what they seem.
Elana, known with a wink throughout the story as Mrs. Richardson has, by design, the perfect family. A respected attorney-husband, a career as reporter for the local paper and four gifted, beautiful teenagers. You get that we’re supposed to hate her, right? When Mrs. Richardson rents out their investment rental to a young mother and her teenage daughter, she sees it strictly as a form of philanthropy. Shouldn’t even the underprivileged have a chance to live in her idyllic enclave? Mia is a drifter with a secret she fiercely keeps hidden from daughter Pearl, they’ve moved from city to city, based on the length of Mia’s latest art project, which she then sells to a dealer in New York and moves on. But brainiac Pearl wants to stay put for a while, at least to get through high school and Mia relents…for now. Mrs. Richardson’s son, Moody, is soon besotted by Pearl, and she becomes a fixture at the Richardson household, carrying a crush for oldest brother, Trip, and befriending their dramatic sister, Lexi. The only stand alone is Izzy, the youngest, an impulsive black sheep, who thrives on driving her mother to distraction (like Mia, clearly one of the most interesting among this cast of characters). When Mia starts working at the Richardson’s as a housekeeper, she takes Izzy under her wing as an artist’s apprentice, but more importantly, teaches her the importance of passion and independence, not exactly a direction Mrs. Richardson would support. Once these characters and relationships are formed, both family and community are divided by a local couple in the process of adopting an abandoned baby, and the mother who returns to claim her child. On both personal and ethical levels we are given various sides of what defines a mother, which ultimately delves into Mia’s mysterious back story and the shattering of the Richardson’s perfect facade. So well done.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
The author’s descriptions of life, nature and pain in this ghostly narrative…poetry! Jojo, all of 13, is faced with a lot of family turmoil as he enters manhood, with each family member haunted in their own way. Raised primarily by his caring grandparents, Pop and cancer-stricken Mam, in rural Mississippi, Jojo’s mother, Leoni, is an inconsistent, drug-addicted presence in his life (come to think of it, she’s kind of a ghost in her own sad way). Through his weariness with his mother’s neglect, he watches over his toddler sister, Kayla, who strongly prefers him as caregiver to Leoni, who chafes at their bond, a constant reminder of her own brother, Given, who died tragically when they were teenagers, his death a catalyst to her eventual meth use. We quickly learn that the ghost of Given silently visits Leoni every time she gets high. Meanwhile, Pop has been telling Jojo stories of his youth, about Richie, a boy about Jojo’s age, who Pop looked out for when both were sent to Parchman prison for ridiculously race-based crimes. When Jojo’s father, Michael, is released from Parchman after serving time for drug dealing, Leoni insists she and the children need to fetch him from jail. When they arrive at Parchman, Jojo is visited by the ghost of Richie, who has no recollection of what became of him on earth and is looking to Jojo – and Pop – for answers. The ghostly visits culminate once everyone returns home to find Mam on her deathbed, while people, and spirits, seek some semblance of peace. Sadly, not everyone will find it.
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
I love Alice Hoffman most when she’s in real magic mode and twenty years after Practical Magic, she revisits the Owens family, the cursed clan of witches descending from Salem, Ma. This prequel focuses on the “Aunts,” Franny and Jet…and their brother, a rare wizard in the coven! If you haven’t read it, no worries, this is fine as a stand alone novel so read them in any order (but don’t cheat and watch the movie…as in most cases it was no match for the book!) To recap the overall gist of PM, the curse was brought about in the 1600s, after Maria Owens was cast out by her awful, married lover and (ya know, being a witch,) placed a hex on any man who dare to love any Owens woman. Fast forward to the 1960s New York City (a very cool setting for this wicked tribe), where Suzanne Owens has escaped from her own failed love story to raise her three children and protect them from their wiccan legacy. While as children Franny, Jet and Vincent would love nothing more that to be “normal” puberty is provoking their powers and pretty much making “normal” an impossibility. Franny can control birds, Jet can read people’s thoughts and Vincent can see the future and, as a whole, they can pretty much control weather and are equally apt at telekinesis. It comes as a relief one summer when they are summoned to spend a few months with mysterious Aunt Isabelle, who resides in Maria’s family manse, casting spells and mixing potions for love-sick locals. Here, they learn some family history…including the love hex. Upon returning to New York, each must decide for themselves how to live with – or without – true love. Franny tries desperately to keep her childhood sweetheart from harm by pushing him away. Jet goes all in and won’t be denied true love, obviously with tragic results and poor, tormented Vincent just wants to figure out where he belongs in his strange world. I must say, I felt the second half of the story felt long and, oddly for this author, the writing a bit clunky, but I did appreciate the way the stories wrapped up and once Practical Magic’s young Gillian and Sally arrive in need of help from the “Aunts” I was down right weepy. Good Halloween fun.