Saturday, July 24, 2010

Review: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives

Set in Nigeria, this novel examines the jealousies and complexities of a polygamous family. The household of Baba Segi Alao, patriarch, three wives, many children, and a new arrival, a fourth wife, Bolanle. Bolanle is different, it seems to the other wives: young, well-educated, attractive, her presence threatens to overturn the uneasy balance that has reigned in the Alao household. Bolanle is also childless, and much of the novel deals with her difficulties conceiving. Her efforts to overcome infertility threaten to expose some of the family's darkest secrets. Told by a broad cast of characters, the reader soon learns that secrets are the norm in this household, and each member harbors them. Polygamy was not the first choice for any of the wives, but all harbor secrets in their past that threaten their marriageability. The intimate look at how polygamy works was extremely interesting. The wives have all traded past problems for a new kind of hierarchy. The character most interesting to me at the book's conclusion was the least interesting at the outset: Baba Segi. He begins the book as something of a caricature, a man on the make looking to experience and broadcast all trappings of success, including multiple wives. By the end he has experienced significant domestic issues and emotions.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: Sima's Undergarments for Women

In the network of basement shops that serve Brooklyn's neighborhoods, Sima Goldner runs a lingerie shop renowned among locals for superior bra fitting. When Sima hires a young Israeli woman to be her new assistant, she begins an exciting new friendship. Timna, the new employee, reminds Sima of the opportunities and excitement of her youth. But these memories are not entirely welcome, and Sima is reminded of the disappointments of her own youth. Infertility left Sima and her husband childless, and their marriage distant. In Timna Sima sees the potential for everything she missed, and she becomes obsessed with engineering Timna's future. For Sima the relationship quickly moves beyond friendship to obsession. Her memories and her new friendship force Sima to face the problems in her marriage and her past.

This novel is a study of how long problems can fester and how miscommunication can divide. Ultimately Sima's problems cannot be swept under the carpet, no matter how persistently she tries. For years Sima avoided her unhappiness by throwing her energies into her shop. When she foists her problems onto a living, breathing person, Timna, she is forced to come to terms with them.

Sima herself is something of a trainwreck. The reader knows her actions are going to blow up in her face, and yet Sima is blind to the consequences. I couldn't help but cringe every time Sima berated her husband or obsessed about Timna, in this some of the reading becomes a bit uncomfortable. That said, this is a light, summer read. Despite some heavy themes, Sima is a bit to cartoonish to be a deep character. This was a quick read, and a reasonably enjoyable one.

Ilana Stanger-Ross, Sima's Undergarments for Women (Penguin, 2010) ISBN: 0143117483

Monday, July 5, 2010

Review: Private Life

Moving from the late-nineteenth century through World War II, and crossing North America from Missouri to California, this novel is the story of the unhappy and increasingly distant marriage of Margaret and Andrew Early. Always an unlikely couple, the Earlys' marriage grows more troubled over time. By her late twenties Margaret was in danger of living her life as a perpetual spinster. Andrew, a troubled and headstrong scientist, dismissed in shame from his faculty position in Chicago, charms Margaret into accepting an offer of marriage when her options are few. Yet Andrew's problems loom over the marriage: mentally ill, obsessive, a conspiracy theorist, the marriage becomes a cage that holds Margaret in increasing unhappiness.

This book is stark and raw. Breaking out of unhappy marriages is such a mainstay of contemporary fiction, Smiley's work serves as a useful reminder about the realities that have and do face so many women. Reality was and is frequently far more in line with Margaret's experience: decades of unhappiness, few options, with escape beyond the bounds of thought or possibility. Margaret's marriage seems to close in over time. As her existing friends and family die or move away, Andrew's increasing psychosis cuts her off from social circles. Margaret's private life becomes an increasingly tight enclosure. Margaret's is a life that belies easy solutions. Above all, this is a book about making do with what has been given, and its remarkable just how good a book about making do can be.

Jane Smiley, Private Life (Knopf, 2010) ISBN:

Friday, July 2, 2010

Review: Amandine

Amandine de Crecy, a motherless girl being raised in a convent in the south of France, is the central character in this novel set on the cusp of the Second World War. Abandoned at the convent by her birth family, Amandine is raised by the nuns and a former novitiate, Solange Jouffroi. Amandine dreams of finding her mother, and as France capitulates to the Nazis, she and Solange take to the road in search of information about Amandine's mother. Along the way they face the dangers of Nazi occupation, and are taken under the wing of the French Resistance.

This is a beautifully-written book. The prose is evocative, and wonderfully illustrative of the southern French countryside. The writing is just as beautiful as the cover art. Unfortunately the plot was not nearly so exciting. The first half of the book is nearly all descriptive. Within the walls of the convent very little happens. The plot does get decidedly better once Solange and Amandine take to the road. The pair's journey through war-torn France is suspenseful and danger-ridden. I found the discussion of the French resistance to be extremely interesting, illustrating how the secret networks operated. De Blasi gives a strong sense of the danger and uncertainty that faced all of those involved in the resistance movement: never knowing where one was headed, if one would survive, or the fate of of one's friends and family. There is no romanticizing the violence of resistance here.

The second half of the book is also stronger because it's in the second half of the book that Amandine's character becomes more believable. Amandine grows up in the first half of the book, spending her first decade in the convent. Despite this significant passage of time, her speech, actions, and mannerisms fail to change along with her age. Throughout Amandine acts and speaks as though she is far older than her years. While some of that could be explained by the fact that she is surrounded by adults in the convent, her behavior and speech patterns are simply not believable until she reaches her teenage years. It's not until she grows older that I could really believe in Amandine's mannerisms.

Marlena de Blasi, Amandine (Ballantine, 2010) ISBN: 0345507347