Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Kitchen House

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

I am ambivalent about this book. It took me awhile to get into, partly because I have been in the process of recovering from ear surgery, and  partly because at the beginning I had troubles keeping all of the various characters straight. Kathleen Grissom has a narrator form of voice--more telling than showing--and that probably contributed to my initial boredom.

After I became more familiar with the characters, I was gradually drawn into the story of Lavinia, an indentured Irish servant, and her adopted family of African-American slaves on a plantation in Virginia. After finishing the story I was interested to read Grissom's explanation of how she came up with the story and did research to write the novel. 

During the course of the novel, Lavinia grows up from a 7-year-old girl who has lost her whole family and the world she knows to a young woman with a child. She becomes very close to the household staff, and in fact views them all as her family. This book, set in the post-colonial era, clearly demonstrates how few options women of that era had. And African-Americans, obviously, had even fewer. Lavinia benefits from privileges and affection from the master's wife's family, and eventually she is set apart as "Miss Lavinia" instead of the friend, family member, and lowly servant she had previously been.

Unfortunately, this book does resort to stereotypes and one-dimensional characters. The slaves are uniformly  good, while the white men are mostly evil (with the exception of two--Mr. Madden and Will Stevens). Lavinia is so completely obtuse and naive that it's unbelievable. She's the classic perfect white girl heroine in this story, who tries to save everyone in the end (white savior complex, very much like The Help). Another reviewer pointed out the inconsistency of her character. At times she had more guts and gusto, but most of the time she didn't have much energy or independence.


One thing that does not make sense to me is this: how could Lavinia marry Marshall after he violently lashed out at his own sweet sister, causing her death? She was incredibly naive and unrealistic. 

The book reads almost like a soap opera at times--crazy woman with an opium addiction, horrible child abuse, constant rape by the white men of the slave women, hangings, wife batterers, evil overseers, alcoholism, gambling, and incest. It might have been a true depiction of the times, but it seemed a bit over the top altogether. The final, fiery ending was predictable and although there was a bit of redemption at the end, the book was mostly a tragedy...and I felt relieved when I was done with it. 

I enjoyed reading about Lavinia's adventures in Williamsburg with the spirited Meg. Beyond that, all of the story takes place on the plantation. I found myself wondering, "Doesn't Lavinia ever go into town?" Why was there nothing about what else was happening in the country at that time? She didn't have contact with anyone outside of the plantation or Meg and her family in Williamsburg. Perhaps this is normal? It was also difficult to tell when the novel took place; I would have been lost without the dates and might have guessed the mid-1800s. 

The most redeeming aspect of the book was the close relationships Lavinia developed with Mama Mae, Belle, Papa, Uncle Isaac, and the twins. They became family across the color lines, and they retained those bonds and loyalty at the end. Overall, this was a good book, especially for a first novel, but it had its flaws. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Marcelo in the Real World

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork

Wow--two five-star books in a row. It's been awhile since I've been able to say that! On the heels of the wonderful 600+-page The Invisible Bridge, I jumped into Marcelo in the Real World, a young adult novel about a young man named Marcelo who has high-functioning Autism (akin to Asperger's).

After attending a nurturing, private school for kids with special needs through his junior year, his father (Arturo) springs two surprises on him. He wants Marcelo to attend the public high school for his senior year. When Marcelo balks at this suggestion, he offers a deal: he can work at his law firm for the summer ("in the real world") and if he "succeeds" (under Arturo's terms), he can continue at his private school.

Marcelo is not happy about this, but he agrees. He begins helping Jasmine in the mailroom. Jasmine is initially grumpy about Marcelo's presence but eventually the two form a wonderful bond. Things seem to be proceeding well until Marcelo is recruited to work with Wendell, another intern who works for his father (the other partner in the law firm). Wendell is a bad egg and tries to manipulate Marcelo into arranging a private meeting with Jasmine where he can pursue her in close quarters.

While working for Wendell (unwillingly), he discovers a photo of a girl who was disfigured by a windshield breakage--the windshield is manufactured by the law firm's largest client. Deeply touched by this photo, Marcelo searches for more information with the help of Jasmine. He is faced with a major ethical decision that can have major repercussions throughout his family, Jasmine's situation, and the future of the law firm.

Stork, inspired to write this book after working with non-neurotypical young people at the Larche Center 30+ years ago, sensitively portrays this young man who hears music in his head. Marcelo is obsessed with religion, and although he is Catholic he has a particularly close relationship with a female rabbi who serves as a sort of spiritual director/counselor. Marcelo has close relationships with his mom and sister, as well. Stork illustrates the difficulties that people on the Autism spectrum can have with disrupted routine, a lack of choices, and the lonely feeling that people do not understand him.

I highly recommend this book. It's wonderful.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge,
by Julie Orringer

The Invisible Bridge is the story of Andras Lévi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, who is studying in Paris in 1937 on the eve of World War II. He falls in love with a mysterious older woman, Klara, who brings her own set of complications. His older brother, Tibor, wants to study medicine in Italy, and his younger brother, Matyas, loves the stage.

Before long, Hungary is at war as part of the Axis powers. As Andras and his friends and family watch in horror, Hitler and the Nazis are overtaking Europe and spreading their horror throughout the continent.

The Invisible Bridge is 600 pages (hardback), crafted in the tradition of great, sprawling Russian novels. Following Andras, his friends, and family from Paris, to Budapest and the small towns of Hungary, to forced labor camps, The Invisible Bridge is about the great bonds of brotherhood and family, true friendship, love, and endurance. It's also about the healing power of art in the darkest times.

Author Julie Orringer got the idea for this book when she discovered that her grandfather had studied architecture in Paris as a young man. As a Hungarian Jew, he wasn't able to study in Hungary but was able to get admission to a French architectural school. After the war started, he lost his visa and had to return to Hungary, where he ended up being conscripted into forced labor.
“I knew he’d been in labor camps during the war, but I knew nothing about what had happened to him there or how he’d managed to survive. As I started to ask questions about that time, a series of amazing and devastating stories emerged, and a novel began to take shape in my mind—the story of a young Hungarian Jewish man who’d envisioned one kind of life but who was forced by the turnings of history to live quite another.”
Andras' story was inspired by her grandfather's experiences. I knew very little about the situation in Hungary during World War II, especially for the Jewish population, so I found this to be a fascinating read. Even now, Hungary has its share of right-wing fascists, just as it did during the war.
“In a sense, the fate of the Hungarian Jews is particularly painful because the deportations occurred long after the Nazis’ defeat was inevitable. For a long time, Hungarian Jews believed they would escape the fate of the Jews of other occupied nations—not only because the Hungarian government considered Jews necessary to the financial welfare of the country, nor only because so many Jews had served heroically in the First World War, nor even just because Hungarian Jews were particularly assimilated, but simply because the Nazis were bound to admit defeat before deportations could occur.”
This book was instructive and beautiful. I cried out loud in one of the final chapters. I loved reading about the friendship among the three brothers, in particular, and Orringer beautifully describes the way people survive terrible traumas and burdens.