Book review: ‘The Best of Us’ by Sarah Pekkanen

The Best of UsHurricane Betty isn’t the only storm a-brewin’.

“Following a once-in-a-lifetime invitation, a group of old college friends leap at the chance to bring their husbands for a week’s vacation at a private villa in Jamaica to celebrate a former classmate’s thirty-fifth birthday.

All four women are desperate for a break and this seems like a perfect opportunity. Tina is drowning under the demands of mothering four young children. Allie needs to escape from the shattering news about an illness that runs in her family. Savannah is carrying the secret of her husband’s infidelity. And, finally, there’s Pauline, who spares no expense to throw her husband an unforgettable birthday celebration, hoping it will gloss over the cracks that have already formed in their new marriage.

he week begins idyllically, filled with languorous days and late nights of drinking and laughter. But as a hurricane approaches the island, turmoil builds, forcing each woman to re-evaluate everything she’s known about the others — and herself.” (Goodreads)

Centering on the dynamics between four very different women, Sarah Pekkanen’s The Best of Us is a novel that reads like a daydream. Seriously, the scenery of Jamaica and the private villa where the group convenes? If the descriptions of sumptuous meals prepared by a private chef and the sunny, perfect beach don’t get you, imagine the comfort and relaxation of having an entire estate to yourself . . . you know, until stuff starts to get real.

And get real it does. Each character packs their own brand of baggage, and readers can only lounge in their favorite armchair and let it all unfold. While I didn’t feel as emotionally invested in the characters as I would have liked, Pekkanen’s quick pacing and non-stop action kept me reading to the dramatic conclusion.

Dramatic, I tell you.

I felt like a fly on the wall in The Best of Us — in a good way, I reckon. There’s so much happening that, at several points, I had to concentrate on who was mad at whom and why and where and what. Verging on being afflicted with the fatal Too Many Characters-itis, it took me a solid 70 pages or so to really get everyone’s stories straight . . . but once I did, it all clicked.

Of the four women, my favorite character was actually Savannah, the newly-separated fiery friend who seemed misunderstood. Though her flirtations with certain members of the group were a little silly, I felt like I got to know her the best — and understood her better than Tina, for example. The only thing I really got about Tina? She’s a tired, stressed-out mom carrying more weight than she’d like, and she and her husband have no intimacy issues. (Perhaps that explains the four kids, no?)

More so than the others, Savannah was dynamic and interesting. As she struggles with her husband’s infidelity and whether to divulge the truth to her friends, I felt like she was the most fleshed-out member of this party. Pauline was a compelling character, too, but I could never really figure out if she truly loved Dwight or was just a hopeless gold-digger. I think it was both — but Dwight was so sweet and nice, I couldn’t forgive her for that. Until Dwight went and did something nasty, and then I was like . . . UMWHATIDONT’KNOWTHESEPEOPLEATALL.

At some point or other, everyone in the book let me down . . . but perhaps that was the point. Regardless of past or present grievances, the couples find a way to move past old hurts. Love isn’t superficial, or transient, or blind. And even with the myriad of issues everyone is facing, they’re taking their marriages seriously. They’re a real commitment. They’re finding their way back to each other . . . even if it takes a hurricane to do so.

In terms of a storm, I guess I expected a little more from Hurricane Betty . . . though the real turmoil revolved around what was actually brewing in the house. The hurricane was a metaphor, of course, for a dozen issues all coming to a head at once. The scene centering on a crazy-butt decision Allie made felt a little over-the-top, but I went with it because of the realization — and resolution — that came after.

Overall, fans of Pekkanen and women’s fiction as a whole will find an interesting, pleasant diversion in The Best of Us. Anyone seeking a bit of afternoon escapism might get lost in the sun and sand of Jamaica, and I appreciated the interesting dynamics between couples. While I didn’t enjoy this one as much as These Girls, it was a fun read.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1451673515 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Why Can’t I Be You’ by Allie Larkin

Why Can't I Be YouJenny Shaw knows awkward. After she’s unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend at an airport (and at the curb, no less), the PR executive must put on a brave face to make it through a business trip to Seattle. Far from home and reeling from the betrayal, Jenny’s ardent wish is to be someone else — and somewhere else.

When the friendly Myra mistakes her for an old friend at the hotel where a high school reunion is taking place, Jenny temporarily becomes Jessie Morgan — the no-nonsense, outlandish and adventurous young woman a group of friends remember from ten years before. Under the guise that she’s gotten a nose job, Jenny easily sinks into Jessie’s role and basks in the camaraderie of having companions. But as the truth of Jessie’s past and disappearance unravels, so does Jenny’s identity — until she’s not sure where one woman ends and the other begins.

Allie Larkin’s Why Can’t I Be You is a fast-paced story centering on the importance of friendship. Larkin’s second novel, preceded by the lovely Stay, has similar themes: an awful break-up; a plucky heroine going through A Time (both Jessie and Jenny); a dog whose presence soothes others. The author’s trademark wit has created another cast of fully-realized characters that resonated with me — especially after I focused on suspending my disbelief.

Because that suspension? It’s a little necessary. The premise is that a woman from 3,000 miles away can impersonate someone else so well that a cast of old friends can’t spot the imposter. Physically similar but with seemingly little else in common, Jenny impulsively allows herself to be seen as Jessie because she’s lonely, adrift and unfulfilled. She doesn’t like her job, doesn’t think she’s in the right field, isn’t sure her one good “friend” is really a friend at all. Being embraced by a new circle allows her to feel, for the first time, how the warmth of friendship can color a whole life.

And I didn’t blame her for it. That was the weird part: I guess I should have been skeptical or worried for Jenny, thinking she was a colossal idiot for becoming an unwitting identity thief. But it was obvious that Myra, her newfound best buddy, was also searching for something: Jessie. The only rational explanation for why a group of people were completely duped into accepting Jenny is that Jessie herself had disappeared in a cloud of mystery, and they really wanted to see her again — so they did. Myra, Fish, Robbie and Heather each missed Jessie for a different reason, so they saw what they wanted to see.

I felt awful for Jenny. From the moment she’s ditched at the airport, I felt a kinship with her — and that is Larkin’s skill. Her female narrators are your buddies who can’t get their stuff together . . . but it’s not entirely their fault. Though I bonded more with Van in Stay, Jenny/Jessie was an interesting character — someone who became confident through the shared belief that she was confident. It’s the classic “fake it ’til you make it” — this thought that Jenny changed because of who the Seattle crew believed her to be. I kept waiting for the Big Reveal — for the shoe to drop — and that kept me in suspense. Quite simply, I had to know she was going to fix this.

Why Can’t I Be You is a transformation story — and a very satisfying one. Seeing Jenny’s progression was a treat, and I finished the book with a pleased head nod. Though I thought the subplot love story was just okay, I really appreciated that the true love story was of the platonic variety. Just go with the flow and allow Larkin’s ode to friendship to pluck at the heartstrings.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298377 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Lovely loot from the Fall Friendship Swap

I love wandering around the cozy corners of the blogosphere and discovering spots like Kristin’s Vignettes; it’s exactly the type of warm, inviting blog I like to frequent when I’m de-stressing on my lunch break.

When I noticed Kristin was hosting a Fall Friendship Swap — a chance to connect with other bloggers and send/receive a package of fun autumn-inspired loot — I was in. I’m all about these blogger-connecting events, you know? I look forward to the Book Blogger Holiday Swap every year (and that’s how I “met” Andi)!

My partner was the lovely and talented Katie at Dusty Window Panes, a young lady who shares my passion for caffeinated beverages and photography, and I’ve enjoyed getting to “know” her since we were paired up in September! My package arrived last week bearing delicious Trader Joe’s pumpkin bread and muffin mix; green kitchen towels; awesome lavender and honey Lollia hand cream; vanilla soap; and two pieces of home decor that will be going straight in my boyfriend’s windowsill!

Thank you so much, Katie, for the thoughtful gifts — and thanks for organizing, Kristin! Hoping everyone is having a fun and fabulous fall.

Book review: ‘The World We Found’ by Thrity Umrigar

Four best friends came of age at a tumultuous time in India. Companions since college in the 1970s, Armaiti, Kavita, Laleh and Nishta have all chosen different paths. While Laleh married Adish, her handsome boyfriend known affectionately as “Mr. Fix It,” Nishta defied her family’s wishes to wed Iqbal, a Muslim who once scorned organized faith. Kavita has chosen to keep her private life shrouded in mystery, even from her closest friends, while Armaiti has fled India’s internal struggles to seek refuge in America.

In the intervening years since they first fought oppression in Mumbai, the four women have loved and lost, had children, made careers, formed new dreams. Once like family, the world seems to have conspired to keep them apart. But when Armaiti receives life-changing news, she must find the friends who once seemed as close as her own skin — and bring them all together one last time.

Thrity Umrigar’s The World We Found is a lovely, lyrical examination of friendship and loss in a changing world. Umrigar’s central figures — the four women and their respective significant others — felt as real as flesh-and-blood neighbors. Umrigar does a remarkable job of drawing readers into their lives — some tattered and threadbare; others rich and full — and endearing them to us. It was easy to see the bonds forged between the women when they were at their most impressionable, and it’s hard not to envy their closeness.

Of the four characters, I most admired Laleh — a woman known for her spunk and ingenuity. Not one to act quiet or demure, Laleh continuously surprised me with the lengths she would go to for her friends — especially Nishta, who’d gotten herself into quite the situation with Iqbal. Knowing little of Indian culture (though I’m working on that), Umrigar discusses the ins and outs of Mumbai society with ease — and her descriptions of the Muslim and Hindu communities was easily digestible without getting boring. As the role of the 1993 riots in Mumbai (the same ones portrayed in an early “Slumdog Millionaire” scene) began to take center stage, I found myself Googling events to get on the same page as the characters. And what I found was, predictably, pretty horrifying.

But this isn’t a dark story. For as grim as life can seem, the loyalty Kavita, Laleh, Armaiti and Nishta feel to one another was inspiring. And the story itself? Well, it was rather suspenseful. As Armaiti’s illness becomes serious, the women are on borrowed time — and if they’re all to arrive safely in the U.S., they have to move fast. Really fast. Nishta’s situation doesn’t lend itself to speed, and my heart was pounding as the women concoct their plot. I found myself holding my breath in the story’s final pages.

My one complaint would revolve around The World We Found’s abrupt ending. After spending hundreds of pages trying to reconnect the women, I was a little disappointed with how it concluded. But I also felt that, as a reader, their friendship was pretty sacred — and maybe it wouldn’t be right to have me sitting off to the side, witnessing their pain and love and devotion. Maybe it was best I just bowed out, retreating with a sad smile on my face. Maybe that’s what Umrigar wants.

Literary fiction lovers will rejoice in Umrigar’s lovely language and characterization. Her deft handling of topics as diverse as homosexuality, religious fanaticism, parenthood, racial inequality and sexism made for a read that was both thought-provoking and engrossing. The World We Found was compelling enough for me to finish in a weekend — and I would easily recommend it. I’m looking forward to delving into Umrigar’s backlist next.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061938351 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

No one forgets their first love . . .

. . . and mine was Peter Brady.

Listening to Matthew Dicks’ Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend on audio, I’m reminded of all the places I took my own imaginary friend as a kid. In Dicks’ novel, main character Max has a buddy named Budo, his protector and watcher of all things, and I felt like that about my own friend . . . although he was rather familiar-looking to many of us: Peter.

I was probably around 5 when the Brady family came skipping into my life. Spending summers at my grandparents’ house, my sister and I watched nightly re-runs of “The Partridge Family” and “The Brady Bunch” (this was the early ’90s, after all). Having decided I wanted a brother, Peter became his immediate stand-in. As the boys at school and I got older and paid me no mind, Peter was the one who made me feel accepted. He was a little mischievous, much like his character, but he never led me into any trouble.

In Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend, Budo’s protective nature and understanding of Max is written incredibly well — and Budo definitely reminds me of Peter. He’s sweet, kind and supportive, and I can’t help but want to hug Budo for the way he makes Max feel loved. Listeniing to Dicks’ novel, I have to keep reminding myself that Budo isn’t real. He’s a figment of Max’s imagination: the representation of something he deeply craves. But given how human he seems, I can’t process that Budo doesn’t exist.

Or does he?

I’m only on disc three, so we’ll see.


Did you have imaginary friends growing up? How old were you when you “outgrew” them? Do you remember much about them?


On meeting (friends) online

This is me toasting you. Because you’re awesome.

At the height of Hanson’s popularity in 1997, I was one of countless 12-year-olds enamored with the flaxen-haired brothers. Since this was also around the time The Internet and web providers like America Online entered the public consciousness, my Hanson glee coincided perfectly with my first online identity: Megan from Megan’s Space of HITZ, a Hanson-based website where I analyzed the lyrics to tunes like “Where’s The Love” and posted my Taylor fan fiction. It was awesome.

Maintaining websites off and on for 15 years (!) means I’ve always been familiar, and comfortable, with having an online presence. An identity, if you will. Though my early sites were fan pages dedicated exclusively to boy bands (Hanson, of course, then ‘NSYNC), I’ve loved establishing friendships with like-minded folks and “putting myself out there.” Even if it’s just on a computer screen. Since it’s what I’ve always done, it’s what I’ve always done. It’s the opposite of weird: it’s normal.

In mid-1998, Megan’s Space of HITZ was my masterpiece. I cultivated friendships with Hanson fans from around the world — including Lara, a buddy who lived in Edinburgh, Scotland. As a 13-year-old, the very idea of “knowing” someone from Scotland was delightfully whimsical. Making friends with folks in other countries still thrills me, honestly — and reminds me that the world really is a small place. I still remember getting parental permission to actually call Lara (extreme long distance!) one Sunday afternoon in 1999 or 2000. I don’t know what ever became of her; we emailed for years before losing touch, and I still think about her. Especially when I was in her city last year.

I’ve always had “online friends.” And I don’t consider my “online friends” any different from my “real” friends. On many days, I talk to my online friends more than anyone I know in “real life” . . . unless you happen to share an office with me. In my mind, there’s no distinction between those I communicate with through Twitter and those I would meet for lunch. When I talk about you guys (and yes, I do — with my family, with my coworkers, with my boyfriend), I don’t call you my “Internet friends,” like you’re little dancing robots I’ve Googled. You’re just my friends. That’s it.

Though I can be an emotional person, I tend to bottle up those feelings — or let them out in dribs and drabs. I don’t like making scenes or bold declarations. I’m not really a hugger. But I’ve been thinking about how fortunate I am to know all of you, and what a lucky girl I am to be able to arrive in any random city — here or abroad — and have a friend in town to call. (Or, you know, email. Or tweet. You know what I mean.)

My sister and I are heading to New York City tomorrow morning, and I’ll be seeing Lu on Sunday. Wish I could see Melissa and scores of other folks, too — will have to snag you all on my next go ’round. Less than 48 hours in New York isn’t enough, needless to say; I’ll be wearing good walking shoes. But I’m really excited.

In 1997, I couldn’t have predicted the way my online identity would change over the years — or how said identity would morph into something bigger than that: a deeper understanding of self. write meg! will celebrate its fourth birthday next month, and I’m intensely grateful to still have this space to call my own. I’ve changed here. Forged new bonds here. Developed new interests here — and become a better person. Whether you know it or not, you’ve helped and inspired me. I’m so grateful.

When I first began posting at 22, I didn’t think about whether I’d still be here at (almost) 27 — but I’m so glad I am.

It sounds like I’m wrapping something up. I’m not. I hope I never wrap anything up; I hope we go on this way forever.

Love to all.

Book review: ‘Gossip’ by Beth Gutcheon

Friendship, tragedy, secrets and affairs — all themes that might easily be dismissed by those who scoff at “women’s fiction.” But there’s far more than tawdry circumstances to Beth Gutcheon’s clever, fast-paced and shocking novel — and I couldn’t put it down.

Manhattan dress shop owner Lovie French enjoys her days spent with New York’s elite, up to her elbows in satin and tulle. Trusted for being both discreet and loyal, Lovie’s shop is the destination of choice for many society women. Among them are Dinah Wainwright, a charismatic gossip columnist, and Avis Metcalf, a serious-minded divorcee. Both longtime friends date back to Lovie’s school days — and despite the bond of their friendship with Lovie, the pair have never quite gotten along.

Decades after they once ignored one another at boarding school, Dinah’s son and Avis’ daughter meet and quickly fall in love. Their romance and subsequent life together have sudden and far-reaching consequences, and Lovie is the one left standing in the storm to help piece together everyone’s lives when everything threatens to crumble.

Gossip is a whirlwind. Though it took me a third of the book to get the many dynamic characters straight in my mind, I felt invested in their stories and compelled to find out what happens to them. Gutcheon’s storytelling is non-linear; we bounce around often, moving from boarding-school past to present, but I never felt motion-sick. It worked well: we get the friends’ stories piece-meal, revealing little truths along the way, and I loved that.

Gossip reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Before you go throwing a proverbial book at me for the sacrilege, don’t “X” out of here — in terms of the narrator, Lovie’s first-person omnipresence reminded me of Nick Carraway telling the story of Daisy and Gatsby. We’re obviously being told a story in retrospect, and there’s a sense of foreboding as we move through the years. Though Lovie is undeniably critical to the story, she seems to serve more as storyteller than protagonist.

Dinah is the story’s real dynamo. A gossip columnist with plenty of secrets of her own, I found myself drawn to her character and wanted to see what uproarious thing she would do next. By contrast, Avis — even the name sounds so dull — comes off as the dull fish. Lovie is somewhere in the middle; she seems like a normal, respectable shop keeper, but we know all about a certain clandestine relationship she has carried on. The trio all keep secrets from each other, and truths from themselves . . . and that web eventually ensnares all of them.

Early in the book Lovie notes a historical definition of a gossip. To paraphrase, a “gossip” was one who “stood godparent” to a child — and the “gossiping” would be chatter between both godparents, discussing and worrying over their charge. When Lovie is named godmother to Nicky, Dinah’s son, she takes the role seriously. Having no children of her own, her friends are her family — and Nicky’s life is of particular interest to her. As the years progress, her sense of responsibility for his wellbeing and actions only increases — especially as his own mother seems too caught up in her own dramas to notice him.

Spanning the 1960s all the way to a post-9/11 New York, it was easy to be swept up in Gutcheon’s vivid descriptions of society life and the friendships that shake and shatter her characters. As their loyalties are all tested, Lovie and her solitary life as carried into a maelstrom. The book’s cover — and description — are deceptive; there’s much more happening here than a little friendly rivalry between former schoolmates.

If a book about women with a title like “gossip” doesn’t seem intriguing, I still encourage you to give this one a chance. The explosive ending shocked and astounded me, and no sooner had I finished than I wanted to start it all over again. I knew I’d missed so much in my eagerness to finish. Gutcheon’s Gossip isn’t weighed down with filler; her words are obviously chosen with care. And for a word nerd like me, learning an alternative meaning of “gossip” — and how that theme is carried throughout the book — was fascinating. An excellent read.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 006193142X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review