3 Good Novels

After a month of reading several books that weren’t so great (but also reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to my daughter) I was pleased that the next few books I read were thoroughly enjoyable.

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty

Scribbly Gum Island, in the river alongside Sydney, Australia, has been inhabited by just one family since 1932, when tenants Alice and Jack Munro mysteriously disappeared, abandoning their newborn baby to be raised by two sisters living on the island, who named the baby Enigma and began operating the Munro House as a tourist attraction.  Now the elder sister has died and surprised everyone by leaving her house on the island to Enigma’s grandson’s ex-girlfriend, Sophie.  Moving to the island makes Sophie part of this strange family, expected to take her turn conducting tours of the Munro House and preparing for the Anniversary of the Munros’ disappearance, a sort of carnival night when tourists flock to the island.  Sophie is thrilled with her new home but worried about being single and childless at 39–but then she learns that the late Aunt Connie had the perfect man in mind for her and that there is a family secret revealed to each family member on their fortieth birthday.

This story of eccentric characters and long-held secrets is charming, empathetic, and fun to read!  It deals with serious issues without making people suffer too horribly.  The big plot twist was not at all what I expected, and then there’s another unexpected twist on literally the last page!  Meanwhile, the reader is constantly entertained with gems like a Boxercise for the Broken-Hearted class attended by one of the thirtysomething cousins who tends to leave early because “She doesn’t think it’s necessary to cool down.”

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Ana’s family is desperate to leave the Dominican Republic for a better life in America, so they keep entertaining the Ruiz brothers, four men who show up at unexpected times and drink a lot while talking about their trips to New York City and hinting that they might marry Ana or her sister.  Finally, 15-year-old Ana finds herself marrying Juan Ruiz, a much older man she doesn’t particularly like, and flying to New York on January 1, 1965.  Suddenly, she’s expected to stay home all the time in a chilly apartment, occasionally sell suits to men who stop by, and put up with Juan’s extramarital affair and occasional abuse.  She has to hang in there, as her family’s ticket to immigration.  Meanwhile, political turmoil is rising in both countries, and Ana gets pregnant.

When Juan travels back to the Dominican Republic to take care of business there, he leaves his brother Cesar to sleep on the couch and take care of Ana.  Cesar is a lot more fun than Juan, encouraging Ana to see more of the city and start a small business selling her homemade food to immigrants eager for a taste of home.  Ana fears she’s falling in love, and then Cesar asks her to run away to Boston with him.

This is both a compelling story and an interesting glimpse into Dominican culture.  Unlike How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, it flows well and feels very real, and Ana is a sympathetic character.  I especially liked her impressions of the civil-rights and anti-war movements unfolding literally below her window, and her nuanced opinions of the nun who teaches a free English class.  Her life in New York challenged some of my assumptions about what immigrants of that era would or wouldn’t do or have in their homes.

A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay

Norma Joyce Hardy is eight years old, living on a farm in Saskatchewan during the Dust Bowl with her widowed father and much-older sister, when Maurice Dove arrives to study the weather patterns. Norma Joyce feels an instant connection with Maurice, and although he’s fifteen years older than she is, she’s certain that they are meant to be together. This certainty is tested over the next several decades, as Maurice and Norma Joyce keep seeing each other occasionally, she follows him to Ottawa and New York City, she becomes an unwed mother, and he gets married and divorced, while they each try to sort out what is fair to the other and to Norma Joyce’s sister and father.

I’m generally not a fan of undying love for someone who might be a jerk, or of relationships with a large age gap, but this book manages to make all the characters real people with both lovable traits and flaws. The story flows along in a way that makes sense and feels very real. Ideas and images from early in Norma Joyce’s life recur at surprising moments to draw things together in her mind, even when no one else realizes.

And the writing is so vivid! The Depression was a time when “knitting needles of worry clicked inside every skull.” New York has “so many people in one building, like animal characters in storybook trees.” Maurice’s treatment of Norma Joyce makes her “feel like the pasta salad at every potluck supper. The table would be empty without it, but he had no intention of putting any on his plate.” Through it all, the effect of weather patterns and seasons on people’s feelings and daily lives is both obvious and subtle.

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