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Review: Summer House by Nancy Thayer

summer houseTitle: Summer House

Author: Nancy Thayer

Genre/Pages: Fiction/368

Publication: Ballantine Books; 6/23/09

Rating: 3.5 BOOKMARKS

On a few acres of her Nona’s beachfront property in Nantucket, Charlotte Wheelwright operates an organic garden and farm stand, self-imposed exile for a transgression that comes to light at the end of this thoroughly enjoyable read.

Nancy Thayer’s honest and captivating novel examines the family dynamic over several generations.  From the first page, I was hooked.  Told from the third person omniscient point of view, we are able to see into the minds of the three main women characters–Charlotte, Nona, and Helen, Nona’s daughter-in-law and Charlotte’s mother.  We are also given a window to Nona’s past, through stategic flashbacks.  This narrative style helps to give readers and understanding of motivations and behaviors.

Summer House examines the relationships between the extended members of the Wheelwright clan, a well-to-do banking family with roots in Boston and Nantucket.  Thayer develops her characters and the conflicts–both internal and external–that they face are realistic and I could relate to them.

The group gathers on Nantucket three times during the course of the summer—once to usher in matriarch Anne ‘Nona’ Wheelwright’s 90th birthday, once for Charlotte’s brother’s wedding, and once for the annual Family Meeting.

Nona, as she is known to her children and grandchildren, has lately taken to spending most of her time in the comforting bubble of her memories, while her son and daughter and their children and grandchildren, struggle with infidelity, divorce, children, dating, petty jealousy, and all the other things that families deal with.  Nona survived her own personal struggles and is now left to reminisce and reap the goodness that family brings.

As with all families, there are a few secrets that come to light as the novel progresses.  Why has Charlotte abruptly left the family banking business to do hard, manual labor in an organic garden?  What is Charlotte’s father hiding from her mother?  Is Charlotte’s brother, Teddy, able to get his act together to take on the new responsibility?  What secret is Nona keeping?

Summer House is a relatively quick read with good pacing and an entertaining story line.  It’s meatier than a standard chick-lit novel, and for that I was thankful.  It really is a story about families and coming to terms with the fact that different people, even though they may be related, can have different ideas and opinions.  Being family is the glue that holds the variety of personalities together.

Nancy Thayer is an accomplished author with scores of published works to her name.  I look forward to picking up some of her earlier works and am interested in reading her daughter’s new book.

Thanks to Dorothy at Pump Up Your Book Promotion for the opportunity to read this book!


Review: Cutting Loose by Nadine Dajani

*Win a copy of Cutting Loose by clicking here.  Entry deadline is Monday, 6/8/09–international friends welcome!*

looseTitle: Cutting Loose

Author: Nadine Dajani

Genre/Pages: Fiction; 384

Publication: Forge Books; September 2008

Rating: 3.5 BOOKMARKS

Take a peek into the lives of three diverse women and see how their culture and life choices have brought them together.

Told from multiple points of view, Cutting Loose weaves the lives of three women into an entertaining novel with solid characters and plenty of conflict.  Offering more than just the standard ‘chick-lit’ fare, Nadine Dajani draws on her own her own exotic life experiences to create characters who struggle to reconcile their culture with life in sultry, hedonistic Miami.

Ranya, Zahra, and Rio each arrive in Miami with baggage from their other lives.  Ranya escapes Montreal and her sham of a marriage, Zahra leaves Boston and a career-ending disaster which was precipitated by a one night stand with an unrequited love, and Rio runs from the slums of Honduras and manages to climb her way to the top of a niche magazine.

From the cover, I figured the book would follow a predictable path and that the women would become fast friends despite their differences.  How wrong I was!  Each character grapples with her own internal and external conflicts but the friendships I predicted never materialized.  Instead, mutual respect and camaraderie developed. 

Ranya struggles with the deeply ingrained rules of her Muslim upbringing, while Zahra buries her emotions and feelings for her boss in work and comfort food, and Rio tries hard to stay emotionally unattached in a 5-year ‘fling’ with her boss’s younger brother. 

Religion, relationships, and personal growth are strong themes throughout the novel.  The three women try to supress parts of themselves but ultimately realize that in order to find true love and personal happiness they have to embrace their whole selves.  They are dynamic characters who change and develop with every experience.

Overall, this book was an entertaining and interesting read–perfect to get me in the mood for summer!  I enjoyed the multicultural angle, characters, and Miami backdrop.  

Thank you to Nadine Dajani for the review and giveaway copies of this novel.

Review: Pretty in Plaid by Jen Lancaster

plaid1Title: Pretty in Plaid: A Life, a Witch, and a Wardrobe, or the Wonder Years Before the Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smart-Ass Phase

Author: Jen Lancaster

Genre: Nonfiction Memoir/Essay; 384 pages

Publication Date:  May 5, 2009

Publisher: National American Library (NAL)

Rating: 4 Bookmarks

If you’re anything like me, you have a Santa Claus-sized ledger in which you record book titles that other bloggers recommend.  If this is the case, please add Jen Lancaster’s Pretty in Plaid to the top of the ‘Nice’ list. 

Lancaster has been likened to “David Sedaris with pearls and a supercute handbag”, and her latest memoir weaves a hilarious retrospective highlighting fashion highs and lows over the last four decades.  Entire essays are devoted to size-5 Jordache jeans, odious Brownie uniforms, and the edgier Girl Scout uniforms.  (I donned both and can attest to the faux pas that was the Brownie Beanie.)

Lancaster takes the mundane and spins it into a giant, literary confection of equal parts humor, hubris, and habiliment.  This book should come with a Surgeon General’s Warning printed on it–Reading this book should be done only in private and may induce:

  • laughing until your mascara runs down your face in twin, black rivers
  • laughing until you snort (Swine flu be damned!)
  • laughing yourself into a wheezy, cartoonish fit
  • laughing yourself into hyperventilation (as your husband frantically dials 9-1-1 for help)

Maybe you’re in need of a good laugh or you’ve been meaning to pick up some nonfiction for a reading challenge–either way, here’s the perfect vehicle!

Lest you think I’m being paid to write such a glowing review, I will say that the book starts off with a few missives I wasn’t barking mad about. Additionally, the footnotes may get a bit tedious for some readers–having to glance down two or three times on one page–but beyond those minor quibbles, this book has already become one of my favorites.

You can catch Jen on her nation-wide book tour, kicking off tomorrow.  She’ll be in New York on Thursday and I hope to be there (with pearls on).  Thanks to Kate and Melissa for the galley!

Review: The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard

seamstressTitle: The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard

Author: Erin McGraw

Genre: Fiction; 384 pages

Publication Date: August 1, 2008

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company

Rating: 2.5 Bookmarks

Based on the author’s grandmother’s life story, this novel tells the story of a young woman who flees her husband, two young children, and ranch life in Kansas in hopes of a second chance at life as a seamstress in Hollywood, only to find it complicated by the family she thought she left behind.

The sewing aspect of this novel interested me because I enjoy sewing simple projects like pillows and window valances.  I’m not a seamstress by any stretch and have never sewed with a pattern but loved reading about the protagonist, Nell Plat, and her ability to create beautiful and intricate dresses from bolts of cloth.

Eight stitches to the inch.  For a skirt: one hundred vertical pleats, twenty-four waist darts, nine curved hip darts and four bottom hem pleats.  Five blouses to a spool of thread…A housedress for Mrs. Cooper.  A trousseau for Mrs. Horne’s oldest girl, though she did not yet have a beau…

On a personal level, I had trouble with the choices that Nell made in the novel.  I recognize that she thought she was going to improve her life by escaping to California, but abandoning two small children and her husband was just inconceivable to me–and I don’t even have kids. 

The novel moved slowly but had some unexpected plot developments.  Despite Nell’s baffling and sad decisions, I became emotionally invested in the story even though I thought she brought most difficulties upon herself with her desire to find professional success.

The book offers a peek into the lives of small-town young women who traveled to Los Angeles at the turn of the last century with big dreams to find success in different fields.  Watching Nell grow up and experience different stages of her life was intriguing, but there were some difficult and painful parts of this novel.

Because it’s based on the author’s grandmother’s life and isn’t straight fiction, by critiquing it I’m essentially criticizing someone’s life choices–something I don’t like to do.  I never walked a mile in Nell’s shoes and can’t imagine how difficult life may have been for her.  This review is purely subjective and though I had trouble with Nell’s decisions, McGraw’s writing style and narrative kept me reading.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t necessarily pass up this novel–it’s a good story about personal reinvention and the pursuit of the American Dream.