The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

Hardcover, 386 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Grove Press (first published January 26th 2017)

“Karen didn’t believe in keeping a lid on things, picking your battles, and all that other claptrap parents were advised to do. When did people stop being parents, exactly? Karen knew when—when they were scared to death their kids wouldn’t love them any more if they scolded them, that’s when. When they’d fallen out of love with their spouses and so the thought of conflict with their child, the thought of saying a simple ‘no’, panicked them beyond measure. For Christ’s sake, people didn’t even scold their dogs any more…”

Trophy children are quite en vogue these days, judging by the recent publications so many publishing houses have put out. I, myself, have read and reviewed a large handful of novels about this “perfect child” phenomenon, often featuring plots wrapped around the mystery of the death or fall of that child. The backstories here are often the same, stemming from parental pressures inflicted by those living vicariously through their offspring, rather than asserting those pressures upon their own lives, so it really ends up coming down to two things: intended audience and execution. Paula Daly’s latest novel, The Trophy Child, is definitely for a certain audience and the execution was fine. But that’s about all that it was: fine. If the above blurb made you think you’d encounter some spin on this “perfect child” motif, adding poignancy, startlingly well-drawn characters, or anything resembling originality, you may be disappointed by this one.

Here you will find the quintessential “thriller” for housewives. I say that more so honestly than sarcastically, but, to answer your next question, “No, this one did not work for me.” I was bored to skimming (if not tears) for the majority of the first half of this novel, and could find nothing of value or originality to take from this one. It was formulaic in most ways imaginable; the twists were enough to keep me reading, while not enough to provide any sense of shock or admiration from me. Not a single character in this novel interested me or made me yearn for more, likely because I never saw anything within any one of these characters that made me care about the outcome of the lives in the slightest. How’s that for honest?

Starting with the “Tiger Mom” herself, Karen Bloom is painted as an overly ambitious sort of mother, one who pushes herself, her children and her husband to exude perfection in all shapes and forms. We have them here in the U.S., too, of course, usually identifiable by their hectic schedules filled to the brim with carting their minivan full of children to this practice or that, passing the days away in Whole Foods in their Lululemon getups. We know these women, and whether we identify with them or not, they have become a notorious stereotype in our culture. Thus, suffice it to say, the brilliantly written blurb for this novel will be more than enough to get readers to pick this novel up, but I suspect there will be polarizing opinions on this one. Here’s why:

Paula Daly has a fan base; there are plenty of people out there who are looking for a comfy pseudo-thriller, some book that you can curl up on the couch with and take in with a cup of Earl Grey and a bit of skim milk. If you’re one of those readers, then you may absolutely love this one! Daly will have lived up to her reputation and really entertained. However, if you’re looking for any sort of depth, action, major thrill, or narrative creativity, you’ve come to the wrong place and should step no further.

The trouble with Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child is that the 350+ pages that it took to tell this tale were not particularly well used. The characterizations were in a lot of ways lackluster and uninteresting, namely because the characters failed to live up to anything more than the stereotypes they’d been written as. Karen Bloom is, seriously, just a disagreeable and annoying person, to the point that she actually contemplates fairly early on in the novel whether not she should throw a huge tantrum, because its ‘been a while since she’s thrown one.’ (Goodness, I just wanted to slap her in the face and tell her to get off the page.) Her husband is mealy mouthed and spineless and also happens to be a drinker and womanizer. Add in the pothead son, the duo of the order-barking military grandfather + the spacy wife and you’ve got yourself a rather interesting novel, right? Wrong. Just think The Nest meets cozy pseudo-thriller, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here, because none of these stereotypes were particularly turned on their head, no new and entertaining characterization of these typecasts ever happened across the page. I quickly lost interest and had to fight the urge to skim ahead. Often, I lost this fight with myself and went ahead and did it.

I would characterize Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child as an okay read for a quick little jaunt, something to read when you’re off of work on a random Tuesday or something. A nice airport read as you suffer through a layover. But it’s unlikely that I’ll remember anything in particular about this novel by the time I finish my next on, and, for me, that warrants a ‘Meh’ and a half. That’s about it. 2.5 stars, which, on a good day, could be rounded up to 3, per my rating scale of “Average.” ***

 

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel thanks to Grove Press, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads at Navidad Thelamour!

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Hardcover, 276 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Crown

 

Amy Engel’s adult fiction debut, The Roanoke Girls, turned out to be more than I’d hoped for in theme, in characters, in setting and narration. Despite all of the deep, dark and twisty subject matter that a lot of readers are commenting on—followers of my reviews know that I LOVE the dark and twisty stuff; keep it coming!—this novel really struck me as a breath of fresh air, because the characters were all so real in their flaws. They all struck me as real people, people who you might meet on the street and nod to with a passing wave, never knowing the secrets they’ve got stored in their closets at home…

Lane and Allegra Roanoke spent one unforgettable summer together that neither of them will ever forget, a summer that neither of them ever really recover from. The Roanoke Girls all share the same distinguishing features: long dark hair, piercing blue eyes and bodies that few men can ignore or deny. But it is something much deeper that binds them all together: they’re all branches of the same tainted tree. Those who have survived have fled, and those who have died aren’t done telling their secrets. When Lane Roanoke’s mother commits suicide (no spoiler), she ends up right back at the beautifully sprawling home that her mother had fled from, only to one day flee herself. And when Lane’s cousin goes missing, Lane is drawn back to that same ranch in Kansas, the one that those Roanoke girls can’t seem to get out of their blood, the one that they’re all bound to, even in death.

Admittedly, the big secret was alluded to early on, but, honestly, that really helped this novel, because it allowed Amy Engel to take the time to peel back the layers of the family and each of the Roanoke girls, to answer the more important question of why rather than what. With that said, the reveal was less in the subject matter at heart than it was in the history behind it and how it came to shape this family and those around them. The reveal was in the sharp realizations, in the dagger-wielding dialogue and in how the other sisters’ stories wove it all together. In short, the reveal was in how Engel finessed the story rather than beating her reader over the head with it, and for that, readers who love this one will rejoice.

Engel was smart with the way that she executed The Roanoke Girls, because she did away with the unnecessarily large and pompous word count in favor of telling a resonating story with no fat or fillers. That’s something that I always admire, an author’s ability to streamline, to edit, to give the reader what they need, unsubmerged in minutiae. Brava.

This novel was a truly exceptional glimpse into the inner workings of a family with too many secrets, hidden behind a façade that too much money has a way of affording. It was bitter at the edges and dark at its core, while being written in a tone that was both clear and sharp. Aware. And often, those are my favorite kinds of characters—the ones who aren’t fooled easily, who shake off the wool over their eyes without feeling the need to wallow in or latch onto innocence and sheltering. I loved Roanoke for that, for allowing the characters to unfold and to be themselves without shame, without cowardice, without the masking of politesse.

Engel’s poignancy can be found littered throughout the narration. Each and every chapter ending will leave you with a flutter in your chest, maybe a sharp intake of breath. I was hooked from the first chapter of this novel, a rare feat that I’m glad to have experienced with Engel. This novel pulls you into the Roanoke world completely, utterly. You surrender to the soft turns in plot and the biting cuts of dialogue that scrape away secrets and cut you to your core. I will say, however, that I wish I knew more about Allegra and Lane’s mothers. A certain diary probably would have helped—and I’ll leave that note at that.

Roanoke teems throughout with the theme of abuse, neglect, heart-wrenching love, and the effects of too much of all it. It forces the question, “What does a monster really look like? Is it some heinous thing you can spot from miles away, or is it something more subtle—something you can’t identify until you’ve already gotten too close?”
Can you tell one from the other?
Well, can you?
A strong and deserved 4 stars. ****

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel thanks to Crown, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads at Navidad Thelamour!

I Almost Forgot About You by Terry McMillan

 

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published June 7th 2016 by Crown

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Crown, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I Almost Forgot About You is the breakthrough new novel from Terry McMillan after her roughly 3-year hiatus from the shelves. A feel-good novel if ever I’ve read one, the writing is witty and flavorful, full of all the spice and sass, reminisces, failures and regrets, personal triumphs and lessons learned that make McMillan’s characters feel like your neighbor next door—like your mother/cousin/sister/aunt who you love to watch and look forward to gossiping with over peach cobbler. You know, the women in your life you can really relate to because they’ve been there/done that and lived to tell about it all. That’s who you’ll find within these pages.

It’s always evident that McMillan writes what she knows—that she’s lived it, felt it, cried it, laughed it all herself—because her characters are always life-sized. Not larger-than-life rock stars or spoiled and whiny heroines worried about what nail color to try next, but people you can really see yourself sitting down with for a cappuccino—or a Cosmopolitan. She’s grown with them, infusing her own hard-gained knowledge and life experiences into their worlds, sharing a little piece of herself every time she does so. I’ve always appreciated the ease and grace with which she portrays black women, her protagonists of choice, and I Almost Forgot About You was no exception. If you’re tired of the made-for-TV reality drama and the caricatures of black life, 50+ life and “over-the-hill” life that the media will readily hand you on a platter these days, you can turn here for an upbeat, spunky and humorously wise take on the same. Here you will find lively characters who could fill a room with their banter and who go through more than a few bottles of wine on their trek toward what’s next in their lives.

The dialogue and narrative were so realistic that I laughed out loud, for a moment thinking it must’ve been stolen from me and my own girlfriends! McMillan’s writing here was both tender and reflective without being overly emotional. It was a light and entertaining read that told a story worth reading, was peppered with uplifting phrases I wanted to jot down and that was devoid of the melodrama that “coming-of-age”/ “finding-yourself” mid-life crisis fiction can bring to the table these days. It was all the way real, pure and simple.

The story line was completely true-to-life in its twists and turns, never coming across as over-the-top or forced. However, it was also littered with events that happened off screen and were dropped like small bombs on the reader during dialogue in an, “oh did you know this happened?” sort of manner, leaving me feeling like I may have missed the path somewhere along the line and ended up at a surprise that was both delightful and a little jolting. Of course, this tactic was used to keep the read interesting, to keep the reader on their toes, but this wasn’t a need-to-be-on-toes kind of read; this was a cozy, hilarious, sanguine, fireplace-and-whole-bottle-of-red-wine read, so that really threw me off—not quite annoying me as a reader, but definitely knocking me off balance in a way that warranted a momentary frown.

But, that was honestly the only qualm that I had with this read, and it was a minor one. Terry hasn’t lost her touch, and I hope she never does, because I’ll always keep coming back for me and more. This one got an easy 4 stars ****

 

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hardcover, 492 pages
Published April 19th 2016 by Random House

Eligible is the witty and modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here you will find the Bennett sisters in the 21st century, complete with artificial insemination, yoga, and fad workout obsessions among other more raucous taboos. Here you will also find nearly 200 chapters—oh my goodness, those chapters; more on those below—and a page count a bit gratuitous for such a read. HOWEVER, within that excessive page count you will also find, sharply entertaining dialogue that’s convincingly witty and shockingly blunt that will keep you laughing along with the Bennett family throughout.

Eligible and I had a bit of a tug-of-war over my reader feelings for the first few chapters, I’ll admit. The dialogue struck me as funny, yes, even ingenious, but also superficial and surface-deep, if that. Initially, the characters struck me as two-dimensional chalk outlines that just happened to speak with droll absurdity that worked. Ah, but then I got to know the Bennett sisters a little better! If Sittenfeld was aiming for jaunty and clever, she certainly hit the nail on the head and was able to keep it consistent throughout. The writing was anecdotal, sometimes to its detriment and at times to its credit, but highly entertaining most of the time.

I must say that I’d be completely misleading you if I didn’t prepare soon-to-be readers for that chapter formatting, though. Some will love it, because it made the read feel that it was moving along faster—helpful when you’re holding almost 500 pages of what is essentially light-read chick lit in your hand—but for those of you who want to be profoundly engrossed and deeply invested in your characters, you may find this to be a bother. I straddled this line. There were times when I was practically dizzy with all of the vignette-type chapters sprawled out here, several of them less than a page long (that goes for pages on your phone, Kindle, iPad—less than a page anywhere, on any reading medium, really). I felt inundated by 200 flash fictions, which just happened to link together into a full-length story. At times I found it to be slightly annoying; sometimes I loved it because it seemed to make the read feel lightning fast, and sometimes it made me feel disconnected from the characters and their world because there wasn’t enough there in the chapter to pull me in. In the end, I think both sides canceled each other out for me, and it was fine.

Eligible definitely could’ve been cut down though. I don’t believe for a second that the editor didn’t notice those superfluous chapters that led nowhere—anecdotes about the past and random streams of consciousness—which should’ve been yanked out, because that definitely contributed to the relatively high page count and my antsyness toward the end. But aside from that last round of edits that went undone, this was a really funny and entertaining read. In the end, I did end up caring about the characters once I settled in—Darcy was my favorite, by far. Sittenfeld gets extra kudos for the way that this one came full circle. If you’ve ever read Austen’s classic on which this one is based, you basically knew how it would end, but Sittenfeld managed to toss in plenty of surprises along the way. I also liked the way that the title was used as a double entendre throughout this novel. Well done.

All in all, I found Eligible to be a jaunty little read that smacked of WASPy delights. It would make for a brilliant movie, likely better than it read, though I enjoyed it on a whole. The characters had wit and flair that would translate well on the silver screen. And, I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention my appreciation for the way that Sittenfeld handled Mrs. Bennetts’ casual xenophobia, cooly admonishing her as ridiculous, foolish and behind the times with just the right hint of “just the way it is.” That aspect added an extra layer of funny in a way that could have easily fallen flat or warranted an eye roll (like its counterpart The Nest, which I have also reviewed. If you’re a chick-lit lover, or even curious about the retelling of an Austen classic, this one will really work for you. Indeed, if you were a fan of The Nest,Eligible will work for you as well, because this one is definitely its much prettier younger cousin that you’ll be glad you chose instead).

So, keeping in mind that this was light-read material not intended to be the next Harper Lee brainchild, I give this one an easily attained 4 stars. ****

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published May 5th 2016 by Chatto & Windus
It is set for a US release in February 2017

I received a copy of The Woman Next Door from its publishers, Chatto and Windus, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino have been rivals for decades, though they’ve lived on the other side of a hedge from each other for all those years. In post-apartheid South Africa, one is black and one is white; what they have in common is their spunkiness in old age, that they’ve both been recently widowed and that they both feel a certain superiority from the successful careers they once had. They’ve become comfortable sniping at each from across the way, antagonizing each other over racial differences and otherwise at neighborhood meetings, but when unexpected life circumstances hit them both, will they be willing to set their differences aside and find friendship within each other?

I was really looking forward to reading this novel by Omotoso and had it on my to-read list before I knew that I could get in on NetGally. However, The Woman Next Door was a bit of a disappointment for me. For me, the conflict never came across as organic or authentic. The build-up of their long-time feud seemed rushed, superficial and underdeveloped. With this being the very foundation for the way that the novel unfolded, the novel never came together for me. It never grabbed me or moved me in any way. In fact, I found it difficult to even finish. The characters seemed to only be developed based on stories told to each other in dialogue and narrative passages that never delved deep enough into their background for me to feel that I knew them or to sympathize or identify with them. I found the writing to be threadbare, just enough to tell the story, but not enough to feel complete, certainly not enough to hold my attention as a reader.

With that in mind, I’m giving this novel 2 stars because there were elements of the plot that worked well and could have really made this novel a delight, but I can’t give Omotoso more than that because I honestly felt it wasn’t well executed at all. 2 stars **

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“How do you know you didn’t ruin my life forty years ago?”
“From what I can see, you never looked back.”
“I looked back, believe me,” she says.
“That makes two of us.”

Firstly, let me say to those who have read this novel, I have no idea why the Goodreads summary made me think I was going to be getting this:

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For those of you who haven’t read it and are considering it, it’s not that. 🙂

**CAUTION, this review contains (mild) spoilers**
In 1631, Sara de Vos is a painter ahead of her time who is plagued with debts and personal losses. Centuries after her death, her last known attributed work hangs on the bedroom wall of a wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, in 1950s Manhattan, until one day, it doesn’t. Marty discovers that the painting, which has been in his family for generations, has been stolen and replaced with a brilliantly executed fake. So brilliant, in fact, that it took him months to even notice the switch. It is Ellie Shipley, a graduate student from Australia with a talented eye for art and a desire to push her artistic capabilities, who is hired to forge the painting, forever joining their lives in a complex weave of events and emotions. 40 years later, Ellie is a celebrated art historian and curator who is putting on an exhibition on the topic that has compelled her and her work for her entire adult life: the Dutch Golden Age. The last known painting of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, still haunts them both, for the forgery that Ellie painted decades before will now resurface at the same exhibit that she’s curating, threatening to end her career and tarnish her name forever.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a novel that straddles the line between contemporary and historical fiction. Let me take this opportunity to say that I was truly on board with this one at the start, but then it lost me a little about midway, maybe a little before, and then picked me up again in the last quarter or so. This novel was a good combination of fiction and research. Not brilliant, not mind-blowing, but good. Strap yourself in and get ready to be fully immersed in a painter’s world, from a how-to on mixing rabbit hides for paint to entire narrative passages how to deconstruct a 400-year-old canvas. I’m on the fence on how I feel about how the research was displayed, leaning towards positive but not all the way there. On the one hand, it allowed me to trust the narration, made the world that Smith painted (no pun intended) far more believable, and I learned a few things from this read, which is always a plus.

BUT on the other hand, I definitely felt that I didn’t need allof it. It wasn’t quite info dump, but it was a bit much at times. For example, reading pages of 17th century minutiae such as making “apothecary blends of Ceylon loose leaf.” Honestly, I don’t even know what that passage was about. Possibly 17th century teas? Maybe? These were nice touches in and of themselves, but too many of them began to weigh me down a little. That can be a problem with fiction based heavily on research—or research-based non-fiction that tries to read like fiction—the author doesn’t know when tolay off of the research and dive into the plot; they want to include every. little. piece. of information that they found in an effort to set the setting (which was my main gripe withThe Witches as well, by the way—at times the 17th century chapters here read similarly to those).

What I can say is that I never felt that any of the story lines suffered, though there were at least three in play at once, occurring in different time periods and on various continents. The Last Painting was almost Brontë-esque, which I can see a lot of people really enjoying. The settings were meticulously set; the story line seemed to meander on leisurely, as if on a stroll through Central Park, reminiscent of those good ole’ days—pre television—of classical writing, which left me, in a way, nostalgic.

There were times when the writing was tender, but it always stopped just shy of being emotive, often somewhere between clinical and touching. I felt I was an onlooker, a 3rd party staring in through a window on tip-toe, seeing and feeling it all second-hand, perhaps even slightly removed from that. I wasn’t made to sympathize with these characters, though I loved the fundamentals of Ellie’s narrative. She didn’t grab me, but most of the time, I didn’t mind watching her. I couldn’t tell if Smith was writing in this fashion deliberately or if he was just inexperienced with handling emotions as a writer. (I suppose a deeper foray into his works would answer this question for me definitively.) I realize that this novel was not meant to be the next great love saga—Marty and Ellie are not Rhett and Scarlett by any means—but their love affair, or rather their reactions to it, came off as unrealistic, not quite believable and definitely not emotive, possibly because that side of them was underdeveloped. Intellectual, I think is the word that I’m looking for. Their story line and the handling of it was intellectual, even when it wasn’t meant to be, and that didn’t grab me.

However, I must say that I am content with how this one ended. At various points in the novel, I hovered between giving de Vos 3.5 and 4 stars. Ultimately, I’m going with 3.5 because many of the novels I’ve given 4 or 5 stars truly moved me—or educated me in a way that will always stay with me—and this one was just shy of that. 3.5 stars ***

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 22nd 2016 by Ecco

       The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney did absolutely nothing for me. I had high hopes for this one going in—another brilliantly written cover flap did the trick—but my expectations were never met, and by mid-way, I stopped hoping and assuming that they eventually would be. In fact, this one almost didn’t get finished; sheer perseverance pushed me through.

        The Nest is about the Plumb siblings, four middle-agers whose lives are thrown into tumult when the eldest, Leo, gets himself into trouble yet again—drugs, a Porsche and a pretty young thing complete the cliché—and their mother nearly depletes “the nest,” their trust fund, which they are all expecting to inherit soon, to get him out of this bind. His siblings, Jack, Bea, and Melody are outraged and anxiety-filled, worrying about their personal financial situations that have escalated to the point of emergency because they assumed they’d have the nest to bail them out, and now it’s nearly gone. Leo and his siblings struggle to find a way out of the mess he started, and isn’t sure how to remedy, while dealing with the intricacies of their own lives.

The problem with this one is that this novel could’ve been written by anyone. I saw no particularly extraordinary skill, no ambition, no originality, no nothing. Even the endings were all hastily done, formulaic bow ties fit for day-time TV. In short, I was not impressed as a reader. The Nest fell so flat for me that there was nearly an audible splat sound ringing in my ears throughout the entire reading process. The writing was mediocre, at times hitting on pithy narrative prose that occurred so infrequently that I have to believe they were flukes, one-offs.

       “Maybe she would slip Melody some cash, enough for some Botox or a facial or something to brighten her pallor. She was the youngest and somehow the most faded, as if the Plumb DNA had thinned with each conception, strong and robust with Leo and each child after being—a little less.”

That was one of the better lines of this novel (in addition to the 9/11 nationalism sarcasm), but unfortunately it also sums up how I felt about this one—strong and robust packaging and selling of this one only for each chapter to impress me less and less. The characters here were so uninteresting, so unremarkable, that I could hardly keep them straight. They were all either blah, like Melody, or cliché—oh, the clichés here!

I can’t even really discuss the glaring rudimentary stereotypes running rampant in this one. There was the drunken, ice queen of a matriarch who dressed in a sexy robe for her daughter’s 12th birthday (one of the more interesting characters, whom we hardly saw, but the cliché smacked me in the face). Then there was Matilda Rodriguez, the naïve Hispanic girl who “called everyone Mami or Papi” despite their age—cliché, yawn—and Simone, the supposedly cool, urban, street smart black girl (honestly, already the shallow cliché in this novel’s setting) who says, “Tight” a lot. Tight? REALLY? Tight? What decade is this, please? This one was absolutely deserving of the eye-roll, that she would stake her novel on such underdeveloped outlines of overdone stereotypes (and that it would then be praised as great writing really confounded me). Then we shan’t forget the cliché of the gay sibling who wanted lots of random, casual sex in sleazy nightclubs (I literally forgot his name and had to look above to write it here, Jack) who marveled at his luck at dodging AIDS (really?), and the list actually does go on. There were so many clichés thrown into this one that it was like the literary equivalent of Scary Movie. This element in and of itself revealed that Sweeney is as out of touch with the real world as her characters are and that made the read unenjoyable—in fact, a chore. This element wasn’t nearly pushed far enough to be satire; this is really the world she wanted to paint, which would have been fine, possibly even funny, as a satire but nothing more than that.

The Nest also had too many superfluous characters and storylines! (I’m looking at you Robohook man, and the guy from the 9/11 towers). If you want to read about WASPy yacht problems (1st world problems that no one cares about other than the self-absorbed people experiencing them), endless whining about not receiving a large, undeserved amount of money and having to settle for a mere $50,000 each, and storylines that suffered because of the sheer number of them squeezed in here, you’ve come to the right place. I started to give this one 2 stars, because I finished it, but then realized that that was my own accomplishment, not this novel’s. 1 star. *