A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein

A Friend of the FamilyA Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein
Published by Algonquin Books

This novel centers around Pete Dinzinoff, a fortysomething doctor who loves his wife and his teenage son, Alec, and is content with the choices he’s made to offer the kind of life he has always wanted for his family. Pete’s best friend has a daughter, Laura, who was estranged for the family for years, but has recently moved home while putting the pieces of her life back together. The book explores what happens to these two families, and to Pete specifically, after Laura has returned home.

The summary I provided here is extremely vague, because while this seems like an ordinary story, there’s a lot more than meets the eye, but to say exactly what the “more” is would be giving too much information. The summary on Goodreads gives too much away, in my opinion, while the summary on my book jacket led me to believe that the book was going to be something completely different from what it was. So – if you’re going to read this book, skip the summaries.

Anyway, I am not sure what to think of A Friend of the Family. For one thing, it is a very character-driven novel, and I really didn’t like any of the characters. The reader spends almost the entire book inside Pete’s head, and to be honest, Pete is pretty much a jerk. He’s self-absorbed, thinks his way is the only right way in just about every situation, and believes strongly that he gets to make major decisions for his son’s life, without giving a shit about what his son actually wants. He annoyed the crap out of me. And since the reader only sees the other characters from his point of view, it’s difficult to really get to know any of them. It’s like a half-assed version of the characters, because Grodstein presents them with some complexity, but it’s almost exclusively through Pete’s eyes so these characterizations aren’t exactly reliable.

I really did like Grodstein’s writing – the way she described things, the simplest of moments and interactions between people became super poignant with her talented writing style. I had a difficult time with the plot itself at times – it was slow throughout much of the book – but the way she twisted things towards the end of the novel, barreling towards a shocking conclusion, really impressed me. The ending was unexpected and really threw me for a loop, in a good way.

I think overall A Friend of the Family was just okay for me. Ultimately I will read more by Grodstein, because I think she is certainly a talented writer, but the main character of this novel was just so insufferable that I could barely stand it and the plot left something to be desired. The ending was good, but didn’t make up for those two major negatives for me.

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We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

We Never Asked for WingsWe Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Published by Ballantine Books

Letty Espinosa is a young mother who has worked multiple jobs at a time to take care of her family financially while her mother has raised her two children, Alex, fifteen, and Luna, six. When her parents decide to return to their home country of Mexico, Letty is forced to step up and be a parent to Alex and Luna for the first time in her life, while navigating her many jobs, trying to pay the expensive rent and bills in San Francisco where they live, and creating a future that she hopes will result in a better life for her kids.

I really thought this book was going to be too sad for me to enjoy. It starts off on a horrifying note – Letty’s parents leave overnight without warning, and Letty makes the insane decision to drive to Mexico to find them and beg them to come back to San Francisco, leaving her kids alone for DAYS. Reading these pages was torturous for me as Alex tries to feed and care for his little sister with zero support and zero money – it was heartbreaking. Thankfully, while things with this family take a while to improve, Letty does come to her senses and decides to mother her kids. Once Letty makes the decision to do this, the book takes a turn for the gorgeous.

The novel is essentially a book about growing up, in many forms. Letty is the center of it all – for her entire life, her mother has taken care of everything for her. All Letty had to do was go to work and bring home a paycheck, and her mom did everything else – cook, clean, pay the bills, take full responsibility for raising Letty’s children – so when her parents are gone, Letty has to learn how to do all of those things at once. Her determination to figure things out, to scrounge and save enough money to not only pay the rent but give her kids the clothes, school supplies, and the occasional treats they needed was admirable and so beautiful to read. The journey she takes throughout this book is nothing short of remarkable and it was such a joy to watch her grow up over the course of the novel.

Letty’s son, Alex, is growing up throughout the book as well. He’s a teenager when his mother decides to start mothering him, so he really can’t deal with her telling him what to do or even caring about him in general. Watching their relationship develop from barely knowing one another to hesitant friends to mother and son was so sweet and melted my heart. Letty made some mistakes with this relationship, sure, but Alex really stepped up as a son and as a crucial member of this family to work on getting things where they needed to be. Talking more about the specific choices Alex made would give spoilers but it was so clear that he made the best decisions he knew how to make and it was great watching him learn and grow from the (good and bad) choices he made throughout the book.

We Never Asked for Wings is such a gorgeous novel, one that I wanted to savor but I couldn’t put down no matter how hard I tried. These characters crawled into my heart and I’m still thinking about them. Diffenbaugh has an incredible talent for creating flawed characters that are so relatable you feel as if they are your friends by the time you’re finished with the book. This book is just so very human, and for that I adored it.

All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin

All We Ever WantedAll We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
Published by Ballantine Books
Review copy provided by Netgalley

One decision by a high school student with his entire life ahead of him changes everything for the characters in this book. Nina Browning is happily living in a rich person’s bubble in Nashville – her husband sold his company for millions, she spends her nights at galas, and her adored teenage son is headed to Princeton next year. Tom Volpe’s daughter, Lyla, goes to the same school as Nina’s son, but Tom lives a much different life – working super hard to support Lyla as a single father after her mother left when she was little. When Nina’s son takes an incriminating photo of Lyla and posts it with a racist caption, their lives collide and none of them will ever be the same.

This is going to sounds strange, but for me, All We Ever Wanted was equal parts entertaining and obnoxious. It has all the classic elements of an Emily Giffin novel – intriguing characters who make interesting/horrible choices and learn from their mistakes, snappy dialogue, a smart female lead character, plots that feature elements of stuff that could happen to just about anyone, and a tidy resolution that leaves everyone feeling (mostly) happy at the end. I may be simplifying things a bit, but for me this was a really basic story. Where it gets interesting is what Giffin chose to do with the development of the characters over the course of the novel.

In the beginning of the book, Nina is, to put it bluntly, selfish and spoiled. She wants to believe she’s a good person, because she was raised modestly, loves her family, donates to charity, all of that jazz. But her husband made a TON of money and now they are living an insanely fancy life that she doesn’t exactly know how to handle. She and her husband have indulged their son to the point where he thinks he can do whatever he wants and can buy his way out of it (he can, and they do). At some point Nina realizes that she can’t go on living her life in this way, but it was annoying to me that she only realized this when she started believing her husband was cheating on her and the fact that her son is not a good human being was thrown in her face by this horrible thing he did. It took these huge things to happen to her for her to look at her life and begin to rethink what her priorities are/should be. I did feel for Nina but I couldn’t help being so annoyed by her for so much of the book. She was so oblivious to the realities of her own life, although once she started to rethink things, I did like the person she started to become.

The whole wrong side of the tracks thing about Tom and Lyla was also not my favorite element of the book. The mixed-race girl lives in the poor side of town while all of the white kids life in the rich part? Boooooring. I don’t know. It was just too predictable and a bit overdone in my opinion. I liked Tom and Lyla but there was nothing about their story or their relationship that really surprised me or made me think.

I know it seems like I’m hating on this book but I did enjoy the reading experience. I liked getting to know these characters and following their trajectory through what was a very difficult time in all of their lives. Giffin can be a bit formulaic but the formula really works for her, and I can see why she has so many fans (I’m one of them!). While All We Ever Wanted had some issues, I definitely had fun with it and liked the book.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark WoodIn a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
Published by Harvill Secker

Nora and Clare haven’t seen each other for ten years, so when Nora gets an invitation to Clare’s bachelorette weekend, she is surprised and confused. Upon talking to a mutual friend, she decides to go on the weekend trip despite her trepidation. Immediately upon her arrival at the cabin in the woods where the party is to take place, Nora knows something is off, but can’t quite put her finger on what.

Everyone raves about Ruth Ware’s books so I finally decided to read one. There were elements of this book I really loved, but other things about it that really disappointed me. Let’s start with what I loved. The creepy vibe is off the charts in the novel and I absolutely loved the ominous feeling that the book gave me. It’s incredibly clear from the very beginning that shit is going to get crazy within these pages. Nora knows this, she can feel it from the moment she drives up to the cabin, but decides to stick around anyway. There are so many moments throughout the book where Ware gets the tension SO high – to the point where I was biting my fingernails in terror/anticipation of what could possibly happen next. This feeling is exactly why I read these kinds of novels, and I absolutely loved it.

I also really liked how the history of these friendships played a huge role into the mystery itself. There are secrets they are keeping from each other, and from the reader, and it was so much fun to guess at what these secrets, that had kept these friends apart for ten years, could possibly be. All of the hidden things twist into the scary parts of the novel, so I loved that it wasn’t necessarily a “bad guy” situation but a build up of long-standing issues within these friendships leading to majorly scary events.

The issue I had with the novel is that I predicted exactly what was going to happen (and I’m not very good at predicting these things). There’s a point in the book where a clue is “sprinkled in” – but I thought it was annoyingly obvious and the opposite of subtle. As soon as that clue showed up, I knew the entire plot of the book, and I turned out to be completely right. I thought it was so obvious that I ended up super frustrated and annoyed with Nora that she couldn’t see it herself. That ONE thing severely limited how much I was able to enjoy the book.

Even though I enjoyed the experience of reading In a Dark, Dark Wood, I was disappointed overall by how predictable I found the plot to be. I am open to reading more books by this author because I absolutely loved her style, but I really hope they are more mysterious than this one was.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The NestThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Published by HarperCollins

The four adult children in the Plumb family are anxiously awaiting the day that the youngest, Melody, turns forty, as that is the day that the trust fund, which they call “The Nest”, their deceased father set up for them will pay out. Just a few months shy of that date, the oldest, Leo, gets himself into a major car accident while drunk and has to pay out the family of the nineteen-year-old he injured who he was fooling around with when the accident occurred, using all of the money in The Nest to do so. This of course leaves the other three siblings shocked, angry, and resentful – and holding Leo accountable to figure out how to pay them back.

You would think that reading a story about rich people making stupid decisions that harm other people and not seeming to care too much about that would SUPER annoy me. And usually it would, but in Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s hands, I enjoyed every second of this book. It’s more about the family dynamics between the four siblings – Leo, Jack, Beatrice, and Melody – and how each of them desperately needs the money in The Nest but doesn’t want to reveal to everyone else just how desperate they are. In Jack’s case, he mortgaged a second home without telling his partner and needs the funds to pay that mortgage off so no one will ever know what he did. In Melody’s case, she has spent her entire adult life trying to keep up with the Joneses and needs to figure out how to get her family back on track financially while simultaneously paying for her twin daughters’ college tuition. Bea has been floundering as a writer for years and would love the opportunity to just focus on her true love of writing a novel instead of working at a job she hates. And Leo, well he didn’t really care about the money before, but he certainly does now that he’s facing a divorce and financial ruin.

This is a page-turner for sure. The family dynamics are mostly what you’d expect in a rich people behaving badly type of book, but there were a few surprises and some major reveals that made the book deeper than I was expecting. Everybody in the family has their own issues (and some of them are ISSUES) but at the end of the day, they do try to come together and find a solution because in their own messed-up ways, they do really love each other and want the best for one another. It was funny to me to see the siblings fall into some classic oldest, youngest, middle categories in some ways and completely defy them in others – for example, you’d expect that Bea, one of the middle children, would be a “fixer” and she definitely is, but you’d expect for Leo, the oldest, to be the “responsible one”, which he definitely is not.

Ultimately The Nest is not best book ever material but it was highly entertaining and I really enjoyed the time I spent reading it. If this author writes a second novel I will definitely read it.

Mini-Reviews: Recently Read Nonfiction

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American RightStrangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Published by New Press

This was a difficult read for me because much of what is discussed in the book is so opposite my own beliefs and thoughts and political ideology that it was frustrating to read. In attempting to empathize with the American Right, especially those in the Deep South (specifically Louisiana), Hochschild illuminated so many of the core beliefs that this group has and exactly why a candidate like Donald Trump became so wildly successful at this time in our nation’s history. But it’s hard because I so fundamentally disagree with so much of what the people she interviewed believe that I found it excruciatingly difficult to empathize with them. One small example – there’s this whole concept in the book about how (some) poor white people feel that minorities should be at the “back of the line” because, you know, it’s “natural”, and programs/laws/etc. that give minorities more equality give them the opportunity to “cut in line” ahead of white people … like what? Hi, this is racism. How can I possibly empathize with that? On the one hand, I appreciate what Hochschild was trying to do here, and I also believe that we can’t possibly work together as a country if we don’t even attempt to empathize with each other, but on the other hand I just CANNOT with the racism, sexism, etc. that is so prevalent in the beliefs of the people she talks to in the book. So, overall, good read, but if you’re anything like me, you may find yourself frustrated and outraged by a lot of the book’s contents.

The Bible: A BiographyThe Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

I was inspired to read this book because I was having a discussion with my boyfriend about something in the Bible (he grew up Catholic, I grew up lightly Methodist but ventured into Bible-based Christianity when I was married, we are both agnostic at best now) and I remembered that I had this book on my shelves and perhaps I could read it and settle whatever discussion/argument we were having. Ha! Anyway, Karen Armstrong does this thing where she’s thorough but succinct at the same time and I am not sure how it’s possible but it makes a topic that might otherwise be dry and difficult to get through much, much easier to read about. I didn’t love this book, because I only half care about the subject matter (I am more interested in the history than the faith itself), but I did learn quite a bit and was overall really impressed with Armstrong’s research and writing style. I think I’ll read another one of her books – where should I start?

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining WomenThe Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
Published by Sourcebooks

Holy crap, this book is insane. If you haven’t heard about The Radium Girls, it is about women in two factories, one in New Jersey and one in Illinois, who painted radium on watches during and after World War One. Radium is basically the most toxic substance that exists and these girls were surrounded by it twelve hours a day, six days a week, for years. They were instructed by the owners of the companies they worked for to put the radium brushes IN THEIR MOUTHS to get a better look when painting the watches. So, you know, their teeth began to fall out, then their jaws and bones rotted from the inside out, they got all kinds of unheard of cancers, and most of them died by their twenties or early thirties. But before they all died, they sued the companies and set a major precedent for workers rights and all kinds of other important regulations we have today. Not to mention the fact that they proved that this radium shit is insanely poisonous and probably saved millions of lives. Anyway, this was a fantastic book. Moore did meticulous research, spent tons of time with the living relatives of these women, unearthed the actual journals of the women themselves, and just overall killed it with this book. It is so good and absolutely a must read.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican DaughterI Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

When Julia’s older sister, Olga, is killed in a freak accident, her world is shattered and her parents can barely hold it together. What her parents don’t seem to understand is that Julia is just as devastated as they are, and doesn’t know how she will possibly live the rest of her life without her sister. Unfortunately for Julia, Olga had always been the perfect, well-behaved daughter, so now that she’s gone, Julia’s mother has even more time to focus on Julia’s faults and imperfections. When Julia starts learning things about Olga that contradict the “perfection” she’s always believed her sister to be, she can’t help investigating and gets the opportunity to get to know her sister better than she did when she was alive.

When a book is centered around one character, and that character has a confrontational, prickly, adversarial type of personality, it can be really difficult to like the book. What Sanchez succeeds so well at in this novel is making the reader care about and root for exactly this kind of person in the character of Julia. Julia is not easy to like or even understand. True, most anyone can sympathize and maybe even empathize with the death of a close family member. But Julia had a rough-around-the-edges way about her long before her sister passed away, and it’s clear to the reader throughout the book that she is not the easiest person for others to get along with.

I personally wasn’t irritated by her, because I did sympathize with her situation and I did feel that her parents (especially her mother) put a lot of pressure on her. But there was no question in my mind that she had an obnoxious, over-the-top way about her that made me cringe more than a few times as I read her interactions with others in her life. However – and this is what’s great about how Erika Sanchez wrote this novel – I became deeply invested in her story and truly wanted her life to take a turn for the better. I hoped desperately that she’d start getting along better with her parents, begin understanding the sacrifices they’d made for her and Olga, and become a slightly more mature, level-headed older teen. It was easy to hope for these things because she showed tremendous growth over the course of the novel and in the character of Julia, Sanchez really created a person who comes into her own as the novel progresses. I loved that.

There is a lot of stuff in the book about Mexican culture and immigration and all of the issues that the Mexican community in America has to deal with on a daily basis, but that was a sidebar to Julia’s story. I liked that Sanchez taught the reader a few things as she was teaching those same things to Julia, but the “lessons” didn’t feel heavy-handed or like teaching moments. They felt organic, like I was getting to know this family and their community and their struggles at the same time Julia was growing up and becoming more aware of the world outside of her small personal bubble. It was very well done, in my opinion.

Ultimately I really did enjoy this book. I do have to say that there was a lot of build-up to the big secrets that Olga had been keeping from her family, and the big reveal was less shocking than I was expecting it to be, but truly Olga’s life and death serves as a background for Julia’s story. This book is about Julia growing up and dealing with adult circumstances when she’s just on the verge of being emotionally mature enough to do so. I loved the growth that Julia shows in the book and overall I really enjoyed reading it.

 

Mini-reviews: Books that were not my favorite

The Toughest Indian in the WorldThe Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie
Published by Grove Press

I didn’t dislike this book because I am not a fan of Alexie as a person (a fact I learned while reading this book). I disliked the book because the stories were just okay to me. There were a few I enjoyed, and even cared about the characters, but overall I had to slog through it. Most of the stories kept repeating the same themes and I found myself uninterested in the majority of what Alexie had to say. His writing is good, I will give him that, but the way women are treated in some of his stories was a major turnoff for me. It was a bit much overall. This book, and I believe Alexie in general as a writer, is just not for me.

On Chesil BeachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Published by Jonathan Cape

This entire novel is based on the wedding night of two people, Florence and Edward, who wed in 1962. On their wedding night, they both have anxieties about consummating their marriage, and things go horribly awry. I just did not get this book. One bad night and these two people can’t get over it? I suppose the overall theme is more about how a misunderstanding can have huge consequences; how not setting up proper expectations or, god forbid, TALKING about stuff, can really ruin relationships, and things like that. But wow were these people so silly to me. JUST TALK IT OVER. I don’t get it. The book annoyed me and I will not be seeing the movie.

Wives of WarWives of War by Soraya M. Lane
Published by Lake Union Publishing

This is a novel about two young women, Scarlet and Ellie, working as nurses during World War 2. Scarlet is hoping to find her fiancé, who has been missing for months, and Ellie is single and hoping to do her part for the war effort. I didn’t hate this book but thought it was just okay. I liked both Scarlet and Ellie as characters, but I did think they were both one-dimensional and didn’t seem to have much depth to their personalities. They also fell into this insta-friendship that was a little strange; but I suppose somewhat realistic given the intensity of the situation they were thrown into. Towards the end the story picked up for me and I did like how things were resolved with both women, but overall it was just okay. There are tons of other books about this time in history that are MUCH better so I would recommend skipping this one.

North HavenNorth Haven by Sarah Moriarty
Published by Little A

Four siblings come together for the summer after their mother has just died, leaving their family beach house for them to figure out whether to keep or sell. This is one of those books that follows a premise we’ve all seen a million times, but unfortunately in this case it doesn’t have anything unique to add to the chorus of these kinds of novels. I didn’t dislike the characters, but I didn’t particularly enjoy any of them either. They each had their set personalities and specific back stories from childhood that nobody really seemed to grow out of. The book exhausted me – I just wanted them to figure out what they were going to do, get past their family issues and call it a day so that I could finish the book. North Haven was ultimately a book that I will forget very soon.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1)Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Published by Del Rey

When Rose Franklin is a young girl, she falls while riding her bike and is found in the palm of a giant, metal hand. Seventeen years later, she is a physicist leading a team to try to understand what this hand is and where it came from. She is working alongside a powerful group of people, including several former members of the military, and what they will uncover about this mystery has the potential to change the world.

This book was SO MUCH FUN. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I absolutely loved taking the journey that Neuvel presents in Sleeping Giants. The book’s synopsis doesn’t do this story justice, which is a good thing, because I went in not knowing what to expect and that paid off tremendously. I was delightfully surprised by the characters, the mysteries within the book, the overarching purpose of what was really going on, and the way that Neuvel told this story.

I love how this book tells its story through a series of interviews by an unnamed and highly mysterious narrator. I loved how Neuvel managed to get at the heart of the personalities of these characters through this method alone – it was so creative and speaks to such a talent as a writer. The reader is kept in the dark about so much of what is going on in this book, including the identity and purpose of this interviewer, and that suspense was SO much fun for me. Once I learned it was a series, I got even more excited, knowing that at some point things would make sense and I could just relax and enjoy the ride.

I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much MoreRedefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock
Published by Atria Books

A couple of years ago, this was recommended to me as one of those books that you just “have” to read. I didn’t know who Janet Mock was at that time, but now that I’ve read her story I’m the next person that will tell everyone else – this is a HAVE to read book! If you don’t know anything about Janet Mock, she was an editor on People.com when she was featured in an article in Marie Claire magazine in which she told the world that she is a trans woman. Redefining Realness is her story of growing up as a boy who knew he was different from other boys and was determined, from a young age, to be exactly the person he was born to be and not whoever those around him expected him to be. Most of Mock’s memoir is about her years growing up as her parents’ firstborn son and how turbulent and difficult her family life was as a child, but a good portion of the book is about her coming into her own as female and transitioning during her teen years.

For so many reasons, I highly recommend Redefining Realness. Mock writes with an intensity and honesty that is so raw it drew out so many emotions as I was reading her story. She had a very difficult childhood, living in several different cities and states with her mother, then her father, and usually those living arrangements were accompanied by whichever person either parent happened to be dating at the time. Neither parent gave Mock and her siblings the love and support that children deserve; yet she decided to become who she knew she was born to be regardless of what they thought. Despite her tough childhood, Mock talks about her parents and siblings with such love and adoration – she acknowledges their faults but loves them deeply and forgives them for what they weren’t capable of when she was a child. It’s beyond inspiring to see how she has decided to move past things that could have derailed her life and instead see things from an extremely positive lens.

Mock talks a lot about her transition but doesn’t make it the focus of her story. Yes, it was an important aspect of her life and a thing that truly changed her life in a lot of ways. But at the same time, she treats it as it is – something that matters, but is not by any means her entire existence nor something she wants to be defined by. There’s a lot she has to say on this topic and I’m sure I am not explaining it properly, but I found it super illuminating.

I personally got a lot out of this book in regards to how trans people are discriminated against – not the overt discrimination that is sadly “normal” for trans people to have to live with – but the subtle ways culture discriminates against people who do not subscribe to the gender norms of the body parts they were assigned at birth. There’s a lot to unpack on this and I can’t begin to do it justice, but I really took a lot away from what Mock has to say here. For that reason alone, I cannot more highly recommend this book.

Redefining Realness is FANTASTIC on audio as Janet Mock narrates herself. She has a calming, tranquil voice that tells her own story in such a way that it’s impossible to stop listening. I truly loved this book and I so very highly recommend it.