“No One is Coming to Save Us” by Stephanie Powell Watts

“The past had started erasing behind Sylvia like in a cartoon. Her life as a girl; the lives of her parents; her son; all disappearing as if they had never been. Giving up the pain and exclusion meant also losing years of her life. The trick was cutting out the bad like a tumor, hoping the nasty had not spread into the rest of your thinking. Cutting it out, but somehow managing to survive.”x500

In “No One is Coming to Save Us”, Stephanie Powell Watts uses the framework of “The Great Gatsby” to tell a modern story of a poor black town in the American South. This novel is the second Gatsby reboot I have read this year, though Watts’ treatment is much less derivative and more original than Vesna Goldsworthy’s “Gorsky”.

Once a stable, if not booming, manufacturing town, Pinewood, North Carolina has seen better days. With racism and segregation still visible in its rearview mirror and a downtown full of abandoned furniture mills and closed store-fronts, Pinewood often seems a place to flee, a place to forget.

“Not much happens here but the same, same: a thirteen-year-old girl waiting for the baby her mother’s sorry boyfriend gave her; the husband we wanted to believe was one of the good ones found out to be the worst kind of cheater with a whole other family two towns over. The same stupid surprises, the usual sadnesses.”

But in some ways, Pinewood is also an idyllic small town, with life-long residents and a sense of community and safety.

“Living in a small town means knowing the news, the broad strokes as well as the lurid minutiae of your neighbor’s life. Your dirty kitchen, cancer treatments, drugged-out child all on the sandwich board of your back, swirled around the body with a stink you could not outrun.”

In this small, struggling, Southern town, Sylvia Ross spends her time hovering around her adult daughter Ava, often meddling in her marriage, her desperation to be a mother, and her friendship with a high school love (Jay Ferguson) who has returned to town after twenty years away. While Sylvia strives to be both a support and a model for her daughter, she is not blind to the fact that her own marriage is anything but predictable or conventional; though she and Don haven’t lived together for nearly thirty years, his occasional reappearances are impossible for her to resist. She can’t help but acknowledge the parallels between her misfortunes, her tolerance of her philandering husband, and her daughter’s life.

When Jay Ferguson returns, he is the talk of the town. This once foster child, whose childhood resembles the life of a stray adopted by a town, is now building a magnificent mansion overlooking all of Pinewood. Jay’s storyline, his name, and his home from which he can see his love interest are the most derivative of Gatsby, but even those elements don’t feel overt or heavy-handed.

Throughout this debut novel, Watts offers polished nuggets of wisdom and insight to a woman’s inner world and to some of the particular patterns her relationships take.

  • Of JJ’s life-long obsession with Ava: “Often in these infatuations, the pretty girl uses the boy as a playmate, like another girlfriend but one who reflects back to her proof of her beauty and desirableness. His gaze proprietary but not competitive, his inclination was to do whatever the girl wanted. A teenage girl lives for that power, so often the only taste of it she gets. In that situation, the boy waits patiently for any opening in her amorous attention, any suggestion that his being the confidant and best friend might lead her to love. Not just sex, but of course the boy wanted sex, but these sorts of boys are romantics, the ones that hear the same call to love that so many of the girls hear.”
  • Of the complicated dynamics between men and women: “Men tried to make you believe in your own crazy. If you are hysterical they don’t have to see you as an equal, look you in the eye like a person they have to respect. It suited them to make you think that all the shit they pulled, all the lies they told, were in your head. the only crazy part was that most women did believe their men or chose to pretend. Most kept on believing right up to the point the men walked out the door or killed them.”

Watts’ writing is quite beautiful in its starkness and simplicity. The creativity with which she has reimagined a classic story is enviable and makes “No One is Coming to Save Us” a pleasure to read. What was lacking, in my experience, was emotional depth. Somehow, though this book is built upon the powerful emotions and feelings of a few key characters, too often those emotions felt flat, the characters hollow. What should have been an engaging, empathetic read was more often prosaic and easy to hold at a remove.

                     Thank you to Ecco and to Edelweiss for providing a digital advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review. “No One is Coming to Save Us” will be released April 4, 2017 in the United States. 

“The Woman Next Door” by Yewande Omotoso

Two women, diametrically opposed yet disturbingly alike, squabble and feud over turf and41ptinjmezl power in an elite community in South Africa.

“Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared a hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.” 

Marion is a racist white woman still unused to the changes her country has been through in recent years; Hortensia is a black woman who immigrated to South Africa with her white husband but who, nonetheless, enjoys provoking distress and asking the uncomfortable questions.

“Hortensia put a smile on her face. She’d learned, especially in Cape Town, that a smiling black woman was a dangerous weapon in its apparent innocuousness. It was what she thought of as a decoy, something to distract people with, while she worked out where their weak points were.”

Both are elderly women with strong voices and successful careers in male-dominated fields. Both are widowed by men who were distant, deceptive, and destructive. Both are foul-tempered misanthropes left virtually friendless in their old age. Eventually, their sparking feud burns too many bridges and they find themselves in need of one another, uncomfortably yet inevitably aligned.

“The Woman Next Door” employs a classic motif: personalities set forth as foils and foes become formidable allies. Time and again, narratives are built on this fundamental premise, but perhaps there is a reason the theme persists. We are fascinated with people’s deeper selves, with the idea that more unites us than divides us. We are also drawn to the question of whether or not people can truly change.

Whether or not one finds the trope Omotoso invoked a bit predictable or even cliched, her characters and her witticisms are wry and fresh. Hortensia and Marion are the ‘odd couple’, they are ‘grumpy old men’; but they are uncompromising, strong-minded, successful women with delightful barbs and bon mots. In short shrift, Yewande Omotoso is able to bring humor and levity to discussions of sexism, racism, and classism, all while creating a story that flows with ease and characters who are despicably charming.

Thank you to Picador for providing an Advanced Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The Woman Next Door” will be published by Picador in the US on February 7, 2017.

“Not Just Jane” by Shelley Dewees

y450-293-2Shelley DeWees declaims herself (and convincingly so) an avid devotee of Jane Austen and her select female compatriots whose writing brought lasting fame. After years comfortably ensconced in the works of this illustrious but suspiciously short list of authors, DeWees felt a nagging, an itch to discover more voices. Surely these were not the only women whose works gained purchase in Victorian Great Britain.

 “Jane, Charlotte and Emily (and Anne) Bronte, George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), and Virginia Woolf are all wonderfully talented writers, and their often quite socially subversive work undoubtedly transformed the British literary tradition — that’s not up for debate, and diminishing their gifts and achievements is not what this book is about. Yet…I knew that they, along with the few select others who pop up on syllabi or have their writing adapted for a Masterpiece miniseries, formed only the tip of the iceberg. There had to have been other British women writing and publishing alongside them, and I decided to find out who they were, what they wrote about, and why their work was missing from my bookcase and from our cultural curricula.”

Shelley DeWees may well be a kindred spirit. Her thoroughly researched and captivatingly narrated work seeks to elevate the voices of women writers, much as this blog’s focus on one year of only reading women has. DeWees, however, gets much more granular, diving deep into the writings, history, and culture of women writing between 1760 and 1910 in England. In the end, DeWees selects seven authors – Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craik, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – who enjoyed great success and renown during their lifetimes, only to eventually fall into obscurity.

“What follows is not a book of literary criticism. It is a story, a collective biography, a narrative of anthropology and history. Each chapter is spent with the author as she writes, rather than looking back after the fact to judge what she created.” 

DeWees’ book is a true delight, both for its honorable mission and for its eloquent execution. Through thorough research and total immersion, she breathes life into seven strong-minded, full-throated women; “[l]adies who refused to shrink calmly into the woodwork of the parlor to contemplate their bellybuttons, who spoke even when they were told not to, who claimed their right to an opinion and to have a life outside the home, as a man would”.

Her writing reanimates these women and their lost bodies of work, begging the reader to expand her repertoire and to save these, and likely innumerable others, from obscurity.

“However limited their careers, however much they were impeded, these seven women embraced the reality of their time, and in doing so they transformed Britain’s literary tradition. They all broke major barriers through their work, from shaping new genres…; to recognizing opportunities in a burgeoning periodical market that changed the way people read; to weaving plotlines and narrative structures that ploughed through class divides, revealed the true nature of women’s plight, or highlighted the unfairness of the status quo.”

“Not Just Jane” was a fun- and fact-filled exploration, an academic work with a populist delivery. Shelley DeWees’ work itself is critically important, reminding all of us to expand our boundaries, to open up our arms and our minds to more and more voices. Hers is a call I gratefully heed and a mission that resonates perfectly with my own. Such a bibliophilic treat!

Many thanks to HarperPerennial for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

“Not Just Jane” will be published in the US on October 25, 2016. 


“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

“Half of the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget.”


Last month, Ann Patchett published her 10th book, “Commonwealth”, a story about break-ups and blended families, about regrets and wrong turns, and about family and the forces which bind us. As one of the top contemporary, female, American authors with equal amounts of acclaim and acumen, Patchett is a long-time go-to of mine.  I had read and appreciated 6 of Patchett’s previous books, so “Commonwealth” was fated for my ‘to be read’ list.

In “Commonwealth”, Fix Keating is a work-a-day cop in Los Angeles whose uncannily beautiful wife Beverly is kissed by an acquaintance, Bert Cousins, at Keating’s youngest daughter’s christening party. What ensues is the simultaneous dissolution of two marriages and the complicated, always-fraught merger of two families. The Keating girls, Franny and Caroline, are turbulent and troubled, always at each others’ throats and split by competing alliances to their parents. The Cousins crew, too, is a rough and tumble group of angry, escape-seeking children.

Over the course of the novel, various characters get their moment in the sun as the protagonist, though all are expressed through an omnipotent, third-person narrator. Like so many novels of recent publication, the mode of alternating point of view and the employment of flexible, non-linear time, are at the center of this story’s foundation. The consistency of the narrator, despite her inconsistent point of reference, successfully ties the book together as it jumps across time, place, and person. That constant voice eases the reader through each transition with relative ease.

Fix Keating, the cuckold, is a man who ‘rolls with the punches’ and settles deep into his role as a life-long civil servant like he might a beloved, eye-sore of a recliner. Bert Cousins, Fix’s foil in more ways than one, is slick, calculating, and largely absent, more interested in acquiring the prize wife than actually being a husband.

“Bert liked a gun in his briefcase, in the nightstand, in the drawer of his office desk. He like to talk about the criminals he had put away, and how a person never knew, and how he had to protect his family, and how he wasn’t going to let the other guy make the first move, but really it was just that Bert liked guns.”

These men, however, are neither the heroes nor the villains of this story. Nor are the women who are collected and discarded with cyclical ease given much voice nor import. The six collective children, born to the two original couples, lie at the heart of the novel and give it its dose of humanity, with Fanny Keating perhaps surviving as king of the  protagonist hill.

Though this books relies on a large cast of characters, many of whom dabble with the role of protagonist, few are truly fleshed out and fewer still feel dynamic and three-dimensional. Bert and Fix are tropes, as are their first (and even their successive) wives. Most of the children are set in their ways, the outtakes of their youth sufficiently predictive of who they become as adults. Their collective lives are marked by two critical and traumatic events – the jarring rearrangement of their families and the unexpected death of one of their own. These two events, both of which happen when the children are very young, serve as the formative memories of everyone’s lives and are the key moments around which this story is built.

Reading “Commonwealth” nudged me to reflect on what seems to be Patchett’s worldview, or at least the recurring theme of her writing –  one fateful moment marks the center of so many lives, dictating whom everyone touched by that moment becomes. Is this an argument for fate? A boiling down of human nature to a single, formative stimulus?  I don’t know if this is Patchett’s intent, nor, if it is her intent, if it resonates with me. What I do know is that “Commonwealth” had a creative motif and an enjoyable pace. However, while the plot advanced, my connection to and understanding of the characters did not. Too many characters were obscured and abstruse, leaving them ultimately unknowable and, therefore, unmemorable. For me, “Commonwealth” seemed like the movie-version of a book I might have really loved; a fun, fine read and one to which I am unlikely to return.




“Nada” by Carmen Laforet

Filled with dark misery, ever-present madness, and meandering characters, Spanish writer Carmen Laforet’s “Nada” is 9780099494195billed as gothic horror. The gothic bit is absolutely right, though to me the story’s tone was nightmarish – intangible and ethereal – rather than what I consider to be horror.

At the heart of the story, Andrea, a young adult hoping to study at the local university, moves to Barcelona to live with estranged and strange family members in near-claustrophobic circumstances. Andrea lacks real ambition, craving independence above all else. What she finds, instead, in her new home is physical and psychological ruin. Her grandmother is well-intentioned but spineless. Her aunt is manipulative and cruel. One uncle is violent and abusive, while the other is manipulative and likely predatory. Everyone has a tempestuous and tenuous hold on sanity.

“Nada” makes Barcelona a cold, haunted place, far from the warm, festive, beachside town of my experience.

“‘Cities, my child, are hell. And in all of Spain no city resembles hell more than Barcelona.'” 

Barcelona, like her family, is full of dark corners and unchecked decay, and Andrea is captivated. When at home, she is irresistibly drawn to her vile, hateful, and likely insane family members, “[f]eeling for the first time, even without understanding it, that the interest and esteem a person may inspire are two things that aren’t always connected.” She spends her nights wandering aimlessly through town; “Nothing could calm and astound my imagination like that Gothic city sinking among damp houses built without style in the midst of those venerable stones, but which the years had also covered with a patina of unique charm, as if they had been infected by beauty.”

“Nada” was an interesting foray for me into Spanish Gothic story-telling. Laforet demonstrated a deft hand at creating a lightless, lifeless environment. The story itself, however, sometimes lost my interest and often disappointed. Where I expected tension and crescendo, the story sometimes felt flat or even forced. These moments, which I perceived as shortcomings, fueled the nightmarish, intangible, non-linear feeling I got from the book, so perhaps they were the author’s intent. Regardless, the novel was quickly read and soon shaken off, like waking from a night of bad but not terror-filled dreams.

“Esperanza Rising” by Pam Munoz Ryan

“‘Do not ever be afraid to start over.'”

Esperanza Ortega has a gilded life – loving parents, faithful servants, an51g3pegw7rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_d an expansive family farm in Mexico.

“Esperanza preferred to think, though, that she and her someday-husband would live with Mama and Papa forever. Because she couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than El Rancho de las Rosas. Or with any fewer servants. Or without being surrounded by the people who adored her.” 

In one fateful night, all of that changes, and Esperanza’s becomes a riches-to-rags story.

Pam Munoz Ryan has created an important story for children and young adults. “Esperanza Rising” is presented with a simplicity fit for its intended readers, but with a message strong and clear and fit for all ages. This gem is significant in so many ways. It speaks of the ‘immigrant experience’, of class struggle, of discrimination and inequality, and of the importance of starting over.

Ryan has created a story in which the heroine herself sits on both sides of prejudice. In Mexico, Esperanza is wealthy, well-educated, and light-skinned. She is raised to set herself above others, to live “across the river” from those around her. As a migrant worker and immigrant to America, however, Esperanza is as scorned, oppressed, and invisible as her compatriots.

“‘The fact remains, Esperanza, that you, for instance, have a better education than most people’s children in this country. But no one is likely to recognize that or take the time to learn it. Americans see us as one big, brown group who are good for only manual labor.'”

I always find it refreshing to take a step away from heavy, adult literature and to dip my toes in children’s lit, if only for a moment. Ryan’s work allowed me that respite, while advancing my efforts to elevate the voices too often suppressed.

Mariama Ba’s “So Long a Letter”


Recently widowed Ramatoulaye writes “So Long a Letter” to her dear friend Aissatou, a letter in which Ramatoulaye lays bare the personal pain of her husband having taken a second wife.

“And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially.”

Through the heartbreak, indignation, and feminist strength of Ramatoulaye, Mariama Ba shares the struggles of women in a culture where they are devalued, disempowered, and discarded. As the forward to her book suggests, “Ba promoted the crucial role of the writer in a developing country. She believed that the ‘sacred mission’ of the writer was to strike out ‘at the archaic practices, traditions and customs that are not a real part of our precious cultural heritage.'”

“The power of books, this marvelous invention invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea, Thought, History, Science, Life. Sole instrument of interrelationships and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted…”

“So Long a Letter” is a a tiny fighter that packs a powerful punch. In fewer than 100 pages, Ba  condemns the subjugation of women in her native Senegal and, by extension, in other African and Islamic countries which overtly deny the equality of women. Her heroine is worthy and strong, full of barbed indictments and scathing commentary. She is also full of proverbial, hopeful wisdom. Some of Ramatoulaye’s most memorable sentences speak to the heart of women’s roles and experiences.

On subjugation: “A victim, she wanted to be the oppressor. Exiled in the world of adults, which was not her own, she wanted her prison gilded. Demanding, she tormented. Sold, she raised her price daily.”

On friendship and love: “Friendship has splendours that love knows not. It grows stronger when crossed, whereas obstacles kill love. Friendship resists time, which wearies and severs couples. It has heights unknown to love.”

On marriage: “‘You forget that I have heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don’t know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you.'”

On motherhood: “…one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightning streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end.”

Mariama Ba represents Senegal and oppressed women everywhere with strength and grace. Her words are often simple, her pace unfolding like a folktale, but her point is clear and her voice soars.