Book review: ‘The Vacationers’ by Emma Straub

The VacationersA summer getaway to a friend’s swanky pad in lush, fragrant Spain seems like a perfect opportunity for the Posts to reconnect. The family unveils secrets and struggles to move past old hurts to emerge a stronger group after two weeks in the Spanish sun.

Franny and Jim are ostensibly there to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, but they seem as distant and disconnected as a couple can be. Their children — Sylvia, a spirited young woman, and Bobby, her struggling brother — are there largely under duress, especially as Bobby drags his older girlfriend Carmen along for the ride.

Emma Straub’s The Vacationers is one long, drawn-out drama between dueling spouses and their grown or nearly-grown children. Its praises have been sung by countless media outlets as being the perfect addition to your beach bag, and the Washington Post basically wanted to make out with it. I read that review twice wondering if I’d gone temporarily insane or read an entirely different book, and . . . nope. Same book.

Just a vastly different reaction.

Though smart, irreverent and well-written, I found The Vacationers exceptionally tedious. Depressing. Sad. Basically, it was a bummer — and nothing like I anticipated. Certainly not like my beloved Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Straub’s 2012 work, which was sweeping and atmospheric and lovely.

This was boring. Just: dull.

For me, the book failed mostly due to its unlikeable characters. Franny is a tyrant, wanting to control her world and family and vacation to the point of lunacy. I mean, I got it; I understood why she’d desperately want to feel some sense of power in light of everything happening within her marriage. It made perfect sense. But it certainly wasn’t fun to read about.

Of everyone, I felt the most for Jim — a man haunted and crucified by one incredibly bad decision. I mean, the guy screwed up big time; that’s undeniable. And the coldness between he and Franny seemed realistic and heartbreaking. I felt for both sides, absolutely, but Jim’s suffering was unbearable to watch — rubbernecking at the scene of a tragic accident. I couldn’t wait to get past it.

Oh, there are some tender moments — and Straub is certainly a talented writer. She’s insightful, polished, intuitive; her novels are deceptively easy to read. You’ll sit down for a tiny rest thinking you’ll read just one chapter, and suddenly it’s dark and your spouse is begging you to turn out the light. I never considered abandoning this one, even as I began to roll my eyes. I still cared . . . just not enough.

For as much as I failed to connect with The Vacationers, I appreciated Straub’s way with words and would pick up a future novel. But I didn’t feel guilty about tucking this one into a hotel drawer during my California vacation in May. Hopefully a traveler passing through Three Rivers will have better luck with it than I did . . .

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 1594488452 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Driving Lessons’ by Zoe Fishman

Driving LessonsLongtime New Yorker Sarah is uncertain about life in the country, but it’s off to the country they go. Giving up a high-powered but ultimately soulless marketing job in the city, she and her husband ship out to rural Virginia to start fresh — and maybe start a family — away from the bright lights they’ve come to know so well.

And . . . well, that’s it, basically. Zoe Fishman’s Driving Lessons centers on sweet, bland Sarah and how she’s given up a ton for her husband and isn’t sure she wants to be a parent but, hey, she’s going to consider it, anyway. Out of practice on the road, the title comes from her attempts — some successful, some less so — to get back behind the wheel and steer herself into a new destiny. You know, that sort of thing.

What worked for me? Many of Sarah’s reservations about motherhood and her fierce friendship with Mona, an ailing bestie back in New York, felt very realistic. I appreciated Fishman’s honest take on the pressure many women face at the prospect of starting a family when they’re still trying to pull themselves together. I thought the “Whatever works for you is right for you!” message was cool, and I felt Sarah handled and reacted to changing family dynamics well.

What didn’t work so well? Um . . . everything else, I guess. As a narrator, Sarah was just as dull as dishwater. Without any discernible personality, wants or needs, I was left trying to color inside her lines myself. She was a blank slate, lacking vivacity and imagination. She was just boring. I never connected with her or really felt I got to know her at all. Worse, I didn’t feel there was anything to know. No secrets or hidden desires. Just . . . nothing.

And it frustrates me! Because this could have been fun! The push/pull of transitioning from New York to Farmwood had potential, but it just never panned out. Plus? I find the whole “New York is the center of the universe” mentality to be a bit tired. There were some overtures to incorporate cute “Southern” characters into dispatches from Virginia, and I may have enjoyed the story more had we felt more of the dynamic of city slicker in the country — but even that may have felt overdone.

And what was up with Josh, her cardboard cut-out of a husband? He’s a professor, he wants to be a dad, and . . . that about sums it up, I guess. They leave Brooklyn because he takes a job elsewhere and thinks Virginia will be a better place to raise their future gaggle of kiddos, I suppose, and that’s it. His conversations with his wife seemed stilted at best and scripted at worse — and if I never felt I got to know Sarah, well. He really needn’t have been there at all.

Was it an easy read? Yes. Did I ever consider abandoning it? No, actually. It was light women’s fiction . . . emphasis on light. So light it could have been carried off by a summer breeze, friends. I love women’s fiction and character-driven stories, but nothing about it really gripped me. Like, at all. Competently written but ultimately forgettable, Driving Lessons never really gained traction for me.

2.5 out of 5!

Pub: April 8, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Vanity Fare’ by Megan Caldwell

Vanity FareLattes! Books! New York City! I felt I couldn’t go wrong with Megan Caldwell’s Vanity Fare, a novel that promised witty literary references with a side of scones (man, I love scones). But in the end? I couldn’t help but feel like I’d prepared to tuck into a really great piece of pie and found myself handed slimy kidney beans instead. They were filling, yes . . . but not what I’d been craving.

Now that 40-year-old Molly Hagan is staring down the barrel of impending financial insecurity, a writing gig penning food-related copy for a new bakery seems like the answer to her fervent prayers. She can keep her 6-year-old son fed, care for her bankrupt mother and begin to rebuild post-divorce.

The job working with Simon, a handsome pastry chef expanding into the American market, starts out a little rocky — especially when the charming Brit can’t help but flirt with Molly, who tries hard to project polish and professionalism. But soon business tensions, divorce tensions and sexual tension with another man — the stoic but secretly warmhearted Nick, an assistant of Simon’s — threatens to boil over. And Molly must figure out how to keep it all together.

So, starting with the good, the New York setting and encroaching restaurant opening — near the New York Public Library! — was delightful. I loved the sights and smells depicted in the city, even if Molly seemed to spend half the book riding the subway to meet business associates. Seriously, why all the subway talk? I guess we’re supposed to get that Molly is a Working Mom, you know, and it’s not easy for her to bop around Manhattan like all these other unattached wealthy nitwits. But by the third or fourth depiction of Molly donning a black outfit and commuting from the suburbs, I started to feel a little stabby.

Much of this book, in fact, made me feel stabby. Simon was a jerk. Nick was . . . well, not really a jerk, but still not someone I could tolerate for very long. Nondescript. Vanity Fare had promise but could have chopped off a good fourth of the story, and Molly’s time talking to a therapist was so tedious. Overall, it was just long. And unsatisfying.

I did narrowly finish, mostly due to the setting and foodie talk, but didn’t feel anything for Molly. We just never gelled. And because I never bonded with her or felt interested in her journey, most of the book began to feel like a slog. It was all just . . . eh. A room-temperature glass of milk.

But stars for food-related copy that begins each chapter: Yeast of Eden, Tart of Darkness. Though it wasn’t enough to save this one for me, I definitely dug the creativity.

2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062188364 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Pretty One’ by Lucinda Rosenfeld

The Pretty OneSo I started writing a summary for Lucinda Rosenfeld’s The Pretty One: A Novel about Sisters, but it became so convoluted that I just can’t do it, and I’m going to totally throw in the towel and give you the publisher’s description. Trust me: it’s better this way.

“Perfect. Pretty. Political. For nearly forty years, the Hellinger sisters of Hastings-on-Hudson — namely Imperia (Perri), Olympia (Pia), and Augusta (Gus) — have played the roles set down by their loving but domineering mother. Perri, a mother of three, rules her four-bedroom palace in Westchester with a velvet fist, managing to fold even fitted sheets into immaculate rectangles. Pia, a gorgeous and fashionable Chelsea art gallery worker, still turns heads after becoming a single mother via sperm donation. And Gus, a fiercely independent lawyer and activist, doesn’t let her break-up from her girlfriend stop her from attending New Year’s Day protests on her way to family brunch.

But the Hellinger women aren’t pulling off their roles the way they once did. Perri, increasingly filled with rage over the lack of appreciation from her recently unemployed husband Mike, is engaging in a steamy text flirtation with a college fling. Meanwhile Pia, desperate to find someone to share in the pain and joy of raising her three-year-old daughter Lola, can’t stop fantasizing about Donor #6103. And Gus, heartbroken over the loss of her girlfriend, finds herself magnetically drawn to Jeff, Mike’s frat boy of a little brother. Each woman is unable to believe that anyone, especially her sisters, could understand what it’s like to be her. But when a freak accident lands their mother to the hospital, a chain of events is set in motion that will send each Hellinger sister rocketing out of her comfort zone, leaving her to wonder: was this the role she was truly born to play?” (Goodreads)

Sisters. Is there a more complicated but meaningful relationship in the world? Many authors have discussed this complex dynamic with varying levels of success — and being the oldest of two girls myself, I’m often drawn to tales of sisterhood and its many incarnations.

I went into The Pretty One hoping for an entertaining, thought-provoking examination of family — and while I got that in small bursts, those moments were few and far between. I found Rosenfeld’s novel to be a fairly depressing mash-up of stereotypes that didn’t shed any light — or delight — on her twisty, ambivalent characters.

I finished it, but mostly because I was stranded at an auto body shop. For three hours.

My major beef: I found every woman in this novel to be unlikeable, selfish or clueless. Not once did I feel warmth toward Gus, Pia or Perri — though Gus was generally the least loathsome of the trio. Perri’s pursuit of perfection became tiresome, and the points at which I think I was supposed to feel empathy — like during her emotional breakdown, say — I just shook my head. Pia seemed lost in her own world, oblivious to anyone else’s problems, and Gus’s brief dalliance with a dude was ridiculous. In each and every dynamic, something was missing.

I might have been able to cling on and push this one up to a 3-star rating (Rosenfeld’s writing is solid) if this whole weird subplot hadn’t erupted late in the novel. In an effort to not blow that out-of-nowhere revelation wide open, I won’t say much more — other than to acknowledge that while I understood the goal of forcing the sisters to reevaluate their traditional family roles, it came off as forced and completely unrealistic. At that point, the book really jumped the shark.

Oh, there were a few moments of clarity in The Pretty One . . . and I did enjoy the pursuit of discovering the identity of Lola’s father. But overall, lack of emotional connection to the Hellingers made this feel like half a book. I would have loved to explore Carol and Bob’s relationship — now that is a story — but wasn’t given that opportunity. Instead, the cheating and lying and cursing and “I’m never speaking to you again!” nonsense that typically runs rampant in homes with teenagers left me feeling cold. These were grown women, after all.

2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316213551 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonPublisher page
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Mini book reviews: ‘We’re Just Like You…’ and ‘Black Heels To Tractor Wheels’

Two memoirs. And my thoughts on them, which aren’t quite as professional and fleshed-out as they might be in one of my “normal” reviews, so . . . it’s Tuesday, friends, and here you go: Rivenbark and Drummond. Drummond and Rivenbark.

They have nothing to do with one another, but I’m squeezing these ladies into one post.

We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier
by Celia Rivenbark
3.5 of 5 stars
Source: library

When it comes to the South, Celia Rivenbark has seen and heard it all. The humor columnist from North Carolina shares her “confessions of a tarnished belle” in a book that was laugh-out-loud funny one moment and snooze-inducing the next.

I borrowed this one on audio and listened to it in less than a week, so it was quick — but not very memorable. The vignettes have little to do with one another, and many of them have little to even do with Southern culture; the writer just happens to be Southern. Still, no matter; it was funny and light, albeit no competition for my beloved Jen Lancaster and Laurie Notaro.

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels
to Tractor Wheels

by Ree Drummond
2 of 5 stars
Source: publisher

Marlboro Man is gorgeous. Marlboro Man looks great in his jeans. I act like a fool around MM, but MM makes my insides turn into jelly — which is just as important to note as my parents’ impending divorce and the death of my dog and the effects of an Oklahoma prairie fire.

Look, Ree — I love you. I love your adorable cooking show. I waited in line for four and a half hours to meet you in 2010, which almost led to the demise of my nascent relationship with Spencer. (But also proved a barometer for how patient and awesome my boyfriend is, so actually — thank you?)

But this book? It was pretty dreadful. Boring and repetitive and eye-roll-inducing and all the things I never thought I would ever say about my beloved PW. It read like an overly dramatic romance novel, and honestly? I wondered how such a sassy, spunky woman could come across as such a whiny lemming in her take on the early years of her romance with Ladd, her hunky husband, and their quick-as-lightning courtship. (And marriage. And first child.) The endless references to Marlboro Man’s physique and their obvious attraction to one another made me sip my Diet Coke with disdain, and I only finished the book out of a sense of loyalty to all PW has meant to me over the years. If it had been penned by anyone else, it would have been out. the. door.

Ree’s trademark self-deprecating humor is buried beneath a thick layer of insecurity and inexperience in Black Heels — and not in a charming way. It also came across as . . . very anti-feminist? I don’t know. I didn’t like it. I’m going to end here but still know that I love you, PW, though I will stick to reading your blog and admiring your adorable kids and dogs.

Okay, so I was wrong about not having that much to say about Pioneer Woman. But I feel sort of bad panning the book, so I’m going to hide my thoughts within this “mini” review post because somehow it assuages that odd nagging guilt. Though I’m just being honest. Okay? Okay.

Book review: ‘Another Piece Of My Heart’ by Jane Green

Ugh, this book. This book in which I actively disliked almost every character. This book in which the person I most related to was a raging alcoholic. This book in which any ounce of sympathy I felt was erased by characters’ selfish behavior and awful personalities. I just . . . I can’t even.

But let’s dive in:

When Andi marries Ethan, a successful and handsome divorcee, she knows he’s a package deal — and that that package includes Sophia and Emily, his two young daughters. Though accepted by Sophia, a preteen searching for a maternal figure as her own mother battles demons, teenage Emily doesn’t warm to having Andi steal her father’s attention. Angry at the power shift in the family, Emily rebels against Andi in every way possible — and manipulates Ethan through guilt to get anything she wants. The stress in their home puts Andi on edge, threatening the marriage that once filled her with so much hope and joy.

To everyone’s surprise, then, it’s Andi who becomes Emily’s strongest supporter when the 17-year-old finds herself in a very difficult position. Stuck between trying to please his wife or his bitter daughter, Ethan vacillates between sticking up for Andi and allowing Emily to walk all over everyone. And when everything comes to a head, decisions must be made — ones that will impact their family forever.

Jane Green’s Another Piece Of My Heart was, for the most part, a novel that felt like a cheese grater to the eyeball. I only stuck with it because I’d received an audio copy and was determined to find if these characters would reach some peace, some redemption, but never felt invested in their journeys. Though I thought I was supposed to sympathize with Andi against monstrous Emily only to “get” what Emily was going through later in the story, all I felt was endless frustration at both women and lukewarm Ethan for being so blind.

Lest this dissolve into a rant, I spent most of the book wanting to put Emily in time-out — forever. The way she manipulated her father and did the whole “evil smile while hugging you” bit was so over-the-top, so cliché, that I often couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I haven’t read much fiction about blended families and can only begin to appreciate the difficult position in which many families find themselves while journeying toward becoming a happy family. That’s not easy. And if Emily wasn’t such a stone-cold, all-out, selfish little lunatic I might have felt something for her. I mean, Andi isn’t her mother; her own mom is passed out somewhere after going on another tear about how “fat” Emily has become, etc. and so forth. She’s in the bottom of a wine glass with no hope of climbing out . . . for a while, anyway.

Another Piece Of My Heart held few surprises and was painful to follow on audio. Aside from the strangeness of having the author herself narrate a story about an American family with her British accent, complete with British slang that would never fall from an American’s lips, I couldn’t stand the portions featuring Emily’s ranting and screaming. The story was so repetitive: Andi pretends to be nice to Emily, assuaging her guilt that she isn’t treating her right; Emily rebels against Andi’s attempts at said niceness, rightfully calling her out for being “fake” with her, “Emily, honey?” nonsense; the two get in a battle royale; Ethan admonishes the women to “talk it out” or some such, completely ignoring the fact that he’s part of the problem.

Oh, the angst. The angst.

After following Andi’s point of view in the book’s first part, we flip to Emily’s first-person accounts of everything going down — and if possible, I hated this even more than Andi’s portion. Emily comes across as so awful and annoying that my only reaction to anything she said or did was revulsion. She acts like such a petulant child that it was impossible to take her seriously, even when she finds herself in a very serious situation. Getting “her side,” if you will, did nothing but frustrate me. And bouncing around to other narrative voices in these sort of awkward monologues didn’t work for me.

I won’t go on. Suffice it to say I was not a fan. While other reviewers have proclaimed the story “truly realistic,” it was far too overblown for me to enjoy. I don’t welcome drama this epic in my own life, and it wasn’t entertaining or enlightening for me. I felt nothing for the characters and basically just wanted it to be over.

But two stars for Janice, the alcoholic mother who undergoes a transformation throughout the narrative. She’s the only one I liked.

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312591829 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Nice To Come Home To’ by Rebecca Flowers

It’s hard to sum up a book like Nice To Come Home To. I feel the snarky coming out, but . . . Rebecca Flowers’ novel about a 30-something realizing her life has gone awry isn’t terribly original. I mean, what women’s fiction fan hasn’t seen this plot before? Woman frets over aging alone; woman winds up with immature boyfriend who isn’t good enough for her, but somehow she is still the one left behind; woman worries that, unlike her many friends, she’s unmarried and childless during her prime child-bearing years.

I wish I could say that Nice To Come Home To defined my expectations and ultimately won me over, but it really didn’t. The more I think about it, the more amorphous and nondescript it becomes. Despite reading it just two weeks ago, I couldn’t really any of the fine details when I sat down to write this review. I remembered the protagonist lived in Washington, D.C., which turned out to be my favorite part about the story. And that she comes to house a cat that initially hated her.

Beyond that? Nothing much.

So the breakdown is basically this: after losing both her job and boyfriend, Pru Whistler is wondering what has become of the orderly life she once cherished. Gone are the days she could “work” on Rudy, her cute but lackluster boyfriend, and her tiny apartment in D.C. is starting to feel like a prison cell.

Unsure of what her next step should be, Pru reaches out to her sister Patsy, an irresponsible but big-hearted single mother. Her support helps put her on a path toward change, but she doesn’t expect to meet and fall for John, a separated cafe owner who takes pity on her during a moment of need.

Some things happen, changes occur, etc. and so forth. Pru was a character who never much endeared herself to me, and much of the novel read like a whiny woman more interested in lamenting the past and pitying herself than trying to make legitimate changes. I guess that could read as “realistic” fiction, but we all have enough of our own issues. It wasn’t entertaining or enlightening. Unlike other books where the narrator struggles but ultimately reclaims her sense of self, I felt like Pru wallowed for so long that I ceased being interested in what happened to her.

Again: realistic, sure. But not very much fun to read.

Patsy irked the tar out of me, too, but I won’t even get into all that. She and her instant looooove connection with a guy she met on the Metro had me rolling my eyes so hard. The fact that she had a child to drag into that mess was scary, and she goes onto the long list of Characters I Would Very Much Like To Slap.

Verdict? Meh. I’d initially liked the story enough to call it a 3-star read, but my feelings have cooled off since finishing. I liked that Nice To Come Home To was set in D.C., which is initially why I bought the book; references to many local spots was fun to see. I enjoyed the landmark references and could visualize much of the story. But though I finished (I did!), it isn’t a book I’ll remember clearly down the road. In fact — I already don’t.

2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1594483566 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg