Monday, June 13, 2011

Women, Hope, Tension, and the Future


Women, by far, produce and consume more literature in America than men; but the review books crossing my desk each week are mostly by men.  Sorry, I don’t pick ’em.  But I do believe in fairness, so I was glad when, in quick succession, several books by women hit my desk.  And for the most part, I was glad to read them, too.

If Emily Brontë and Agatha Christie co-wrote a novel, it might resemble Rosamund Lupton’s Sister.  Already a British bestseller, this book hits American shores with copious praise, and lives up to its reputation swimmingly.  Lupton’s story combines mystery with family drama— no one will doubt a woman wrote this book— to create prickly tension that is not gender-specific, but keeps readers guessing.

Beatrice is living well, but unhappily, in New York, when her free-spirited, pregnant sister vanishes in London.  Always loyal (or is there another reason?), Bea drops everything to fly home and hunt for Tess.  But Tess may have had her own reasons for disappearing.  Between her lecherous art professor, a very sick baby, and a controlling mother, Tess may have wanted to flee.

But the real reason proves even darker.

As our narrator, Beatrice has a strange relationship with truth.  When everyone assumes her pursuit of Tess's killer is a delusion, Bea has to nurture that delusion to unlock the truth. This selective blindness gives her a vivid personality, which contrasts with the other characters.  But her final discovery, blending medicine, law, and ethics, amply rewards our willingness to stick with her.

Lupton’s unreliable narrator makes us work for our reward, which proves more than worth it.  I wish I could say the same for Pamela Cory’s Hassie Calhoun.  Instead, this book’s interesting premise bogs down in predictable preaching and unearned sentiment.  Hey, I said I was glad to receive books by women, I didn’t say they all succeeded.

Young Hassie escapes her brutal small-town life for Vegas in the heyday of the Sands Hotel.  Against the background of the Rat Pack and JFK, Hassie tries to make a name in cabaret singing.  Instead, she finds what she takes for love, only to fall under her boss’s increasingly jealous control.  Then, just as she gets away safely, her hypnotic lover finds a way to draw her back.

Cory has such possibility at her fingertips, and she squanders it.  A musician herself, Cory finds moments of real human compassion when she puts Hassie on stage, but these moments come very late.  And to get to those moments, we endure a litany of predictable encounters, derivative emotions, and a storyline in which nothing unexpected ever happens.

I’ll give Cory one plaudit: she highlights how good Lupton is.  Where Lupton kept me on tenterhooks, turning page after page, Cory denatures everything.  She reduces Frank Sinatra to a mere cipher, renders a Vegas cabaret safe and sanitary, and presents a romance free of passion.  Hassie’s relationship feels compressed, and her sex reads like a business transaction.

Yet perhaps the book I feel the strongest about is also the simplest.  In The Waiting Place, columnist Eileen Button recounts a life seemingly without drama, yet reveals how she finds hope, spirituality, and grace in the moments when everything seems to stop.  The moments of desperation, when we’ll do anything for a few moments’ peace, are the moments when Button realizes we’re the least alone.

Raised in a working-class home in upstate New York, Button felt pulled between her mother’s desire for a glamorous daughter and her father’s hardworking Polish heritage.  Later in life, as a pastor’s wife, mother of three, and college teacher, she continued to struggle with questions of who she was and what she believed.  But when barriers seem most imposing, her faith and her family give her strength to wait out life’s trials.

Though this book’s arc creates a memoir, from childhood to present, Button actually presents a series of personal essays.  Some of them seem remarkably intimate, such as her struggles to deal with her youngest child’s birth defect.  She opens herself to a degree that would terrify most writers into hedging and deflecting.  Other essays seem more philosophical or spiritual.  Button makes writing almost a form of prayer.

Button’s generosity in sharing gives us all hope that, when life seems stalled, we can find grace and meaning.  She may lack Lupton’s drama, but Button has rewards the rest of us can only hope for.  And most important, she gives us reason to keep on striving.

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