Book review: ‘The Good Woman’ by Jane Porter

Perfection.

On the outside, Meg Brennan Roberts is the very portrait of it. Attractive and successful, Meg manages to weave her three kids’ schedules in seamlessly with full-time work at a winery in scenic Napa Valley, California. Her husband, an architect, is a good provider — even if Jack is distant lately, a bit absent-minded. At work, Meg feels happy and sophisticated; at home, she feels like she’s drowning. And with three younger sisters battling issues and a parent facing illness, Meg feels . . . tired. Cold. Desperate for escape, for something more.

But there are consequences.

It’s been a while since I sank into a book like Jane Porter’s The Good Woman. From the description above, you might think, “Eh, great — another story about a mid-life crisis.” And to be fair? It sort of is. It’s obvious Jack isn’t paying Meg much attention. After 17 years of marriage, he’s just sort of . . . around. Not helping with the kids, not helping with things around the house. Not showing Meg any care and affection. Just there.

The events following Meg’s realization of discontent are gradual — so gradual it took me a while to realize what was happening. But I liked that about it. Porter’s pace is deliberate, and she lets us into Meg’s head often enough to feel the frustration and boredom without playing all her cards at once. Though I felt parts of the narrative became repetitive (Meg hadn’t felt this way in so long, Meg just needed something more), Porter’s in-depth exploration of her main character’s emotions made this book for me.

While The Good Woman stays firmly in the present, flashbacks to the Brennan sisters’ childhood and teenage years provide backdrop for how Meg — sanctimoniously called “Sister Mary Margaret” by a sneering sister — became such a control freak. Known as an extreme perfectionist, Meg is the quintessential “good woman”: a good wife, good mother, good daughter. She works so hard to maintain these ideals that she rarely pauses to figure out what she wants. And who hasn’t felt that way?

Honestly, as the eldest of five kids (four of them women), just about anyone born into that large Irish-American family would struggle under the collective weight of expectation. The Brennan sisters, all at various stages of their lives, are dealing with some heavy stuff — and Meg tries to be there for all of them (save free spirit Bree). When she finally cracks, succumbing to a handsome man’s advances, I didn’t feel nearly as annoyed with her as I should have. By the time the real stuff goes down, we’ve bonded with her. I felt like I knew her. And while not excusing the behavior, I just felt really sorry for her.

The Good Woman is more than mommy-breakdown-lit — and more than a book on infidelity. With three-dimensional characters, a captivating storyline and many emotional twists, Porter’s first in a new trilogy centered on the Brennan women held me hostage. I devoured the book in less than a week, picking it up whenever I had a few minutes, and will eagerly anticipate the next novel in the series.


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0425253007 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


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Book review: ‘Sleeping Arrangements’ by Madeleine Wickham

It’s official: I’m severing all ties with Madeleine Wickham. After reading a few of her books and consequently wanting to shove most of them into a mud pit, hopefully to be swallowed whole, I’m placing her on Meg’s Banned List until I’m somehow convinced to give her a second chance.

And I can be rather stubborn about these things.

So here we have Sleeping Arrangements, a tawdry and droning little book centering on two families thrust together unexpectedly on holiday in Spain. Chloe is desperate to get away with her long-time partner, Philip, and their two sons. When an opportunity to stay at an old friend’s villa pops into their laps, Chloe eagerly accepts an invitation to get away for a much-needed break.

But when they arrive, she’s shocked to find another family already soaking up some rays on the property — and it just so happens she has quite the history with Hugh, a charismatic businessman who broke her heart more than a decade before. Hugh has his hands full with two young daughters and his wife, Amanda, a snotty and self-indulgent trophy wife who seems to be nothing more than a status symbol. And then the real fun begins.

I borrowed a copy of Sleeping Arrangements on audio from the library and listened to the whole novel quickly, though I can’t say it was with much enjoyment. These characters are annoying, spoiled and pretty insufferable. I felt zero empathy for Chloe or Hugh, both of whom acted like petulant children for most of the narrative. Philip was an affable dullard and Amanda a total twit, so that left me with . . . who? Jenna, the rebellious Australian nanny brought along to care for Amanda and Hugh’s squealing daughters? Sam, the teenage boy obsessed with what’s hidden beneath Jenna’s bikini? Gerard, the over-the-top snobby wine critic who masterminds this whole “mix-up”?

Eh. The whole novel just left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s all so faux angsty and ridiculous, and I couldn’t muster up an ounce of enthusiasm for this unhappy British lot. If I’d had my nose in a paperback or — shudder — a hardcover, I would have surely tossed it aside after just a few chapters. But since it was on loan and on audio, I stuck it out.

But would I recommend it? Only if you like your chick lit with a healthy dash of unpleasant, ridiculous characters and unfeasible situations. And I don’t think you do.


2 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312943970 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audiobook borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘Heart of the Matter’ by Emily Giffin

Growing up, my mom was a huge fan of the Eagles and Don Henley. From the moment Emily Giffin’s Heart Of the Matter landed on my radar a few years back, I’ve had the chorus of Henley’s famous “Forgiveness” in my head. And I think it’s a clue, friends.

“I’ve been tryin’ to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter,
But I think it’s about
Forgiveness
Forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore . . .”

So here we have a tangled, tangled web of infidelity, mommyhood and loneliness between Tessa and Nick Russo, married parents to two young children, and Valerie, a single mother struggling to hold her life together after an accident severely burns her young son. Plastic surgeon Nick comes to Valerie’s rescue and begins to treat Charlie’s wounds, but it’s Nick’s actual presence in their lives that provides the most healing.

We know from the get-go that Nick and Valerie are going to become entangled. This is a book about cheating, after all, so there has to be some cheating here — right? But it takes so long for the actual cheating to take place and there’s so much angst and longing and confusion that, after a while, I just thought, “Hey, can we get on with this? Can you just do it or do whatever you’re going to do?”

Yep. It was that sort of book.

“Frustrating” would be a good word to describe the action in Giffin’s fifth novel, which features cameos from beloved Something Borrowed characters Dex and Rachel. If I’m cheering for a man to dissolve his marriage by sleeping with another woman, a woman I actually grow to appreciate in some small way, then the book has reached a confusing turn.

Valerie is a complicated and broken woman — a lawyer with little interest in the law beyond providing for she and Charlie, a young man who shows tremendous strength of character in light of the terrible accident that brings them to Nick’s hospital in the first place. Not one to succumb to the whims and fancies of the society women whose children attend Charlie’s school, Valerie seems to exist in her own bubble — and likes it that way. Nick is the first one to pierce her hard exterior, and part of me was glad that someone had finally gotten through to her.

But how could you not want to punch Valerie — I mean, really? Despite knowing all about his situation, she was somehow still wooed by — and wooing of — a married man. But Nick — Nick, the real villain here? I wanted so badly to chalk him up as a dirtbag, but I could still see glimmers of humanity in him. Tessa seemed unhappy, cold and distant, yes, but that didn’t give him a free pass to go and get his jollies elsewhere. It was worse than just a physical connection, though; it was obvious that Tessa and Nick had grown apart, and Nick truly had an affair of the heart. Instead of talking through his difficulties with his wife, Captain Plastic Surgeon went ahead and decided to play savior with a terrified woman and her son.

So actually, now that I’m typing all that, I think he’s a jerk.

I know many readers do not look kindly on books dealing with infidelity, and it’s certainly not a subject that makes me dance around in glee. But the reality is . . . well, it’s reality. And I think Giffin takes a difficult subject matter and weaves a human touch throughout this story of redemption, though I didn’t necessarily think the characters were wonderful people.

But the heart of the matter? It’s not the cheating. It’s forgiveness, just like Henley croons, and I found myself questioning what I would do in a similar situation. “The more I know, the less I understand,” Henley sings, and I think that’s what prompts us all to take a leap of faith. It’s the only way.

Fans of Giffin won’t find the heart and soul they loved in novels like Something Borrowed, a book that also tackles infidelity, but Heart Of The Matter is still a thought-provoking read. I’d recommend it, particularly on audio — and this was my first audio book ever! Cynthia Nixon (Miranda of “Sex and the City” fame) narrated and had quite the expressive voice. Sometimes too expressive, because her throaty pauses and obnoxious society lady voices could get annoying. But I still enjoyed the audio experience.


3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312554176 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from Chick Lit Is Not Dead

Book review: ‘Drinking Closer To Home’ by Jessica Anya Blau

Siblings Portia, Anna and Emery return to their California home after their mother — the irrepressable, ethereal and intense Louise — suffers a heart attack. As the Stein family comes to terms with her mortality, each of Buzzy and Louise’s children sift through memories of their tumultuous childhoods at the hands of their parents, a free-wheeling couple with little regard for their children. It’s only by cataloguing the past that they are once again invited into each other’s lives, and each of their demons holds less purchase as they begin to reconcile who they were with where they are now.

Jessica Anya Blau’s Drinking Closer To Home, while fast-paced and shocking, is a difficult novel to digest. We’re presented with a group of very disturbed people, but I couldn’t put the book down; I had to know how this family became so eternally messed up. And how they all managed to emerge from that — though not unscathed.

Blau’s focus on family dynamics, marriage and infidelity were what carried the book for me. For having spent more than 300 pages with these people, I never felt like I got a good sense of any character — but maybe that was the point. Of everyone here, Anna probably enraged me the most. Wanton, disagreeable, surly and destructive, the eldest daughter treated everyone in the family in a cavalier way that made me want to slap her. But if I slapped her, I’d have to hit Louise, too.

Because really, who sucked more than Louise? She’s a “mother,” but we can use the term loosely. She’s selfish. Uncouth. More concerned with creating “art” in the 1960s than parenting her children, all of whom must become self-reliant at a young age. When she “quits” mothering, Portia must carry the slack for her disturbed older sister and confused younger brother. Louise would rather get high and read magazines than care for her kids, and her husband — a lawyer — encourages this. Or, if nothing else, does nothing to stop it. And finances it.

It was enraging.

The “twisted family” trope is nothing new. How many times have we read about screwed-up people who screw up their children? A thousand. And yet, Blau’s novel managed to keep and hold my attention from the first page to the last, probably because of the shocking sexual antics, insane life choices and complicated dynamics happening within its pages. Blurbers comment on the author’s wit and, yes, parts are sort of funny, but it’s mostly in a “Did they really say that?” way. In a “No grandfather could call his granddaughter that” way. A “That’s so disturbing that surely it’s meant to be comical” way.

And that’s not really how I like my books.

That’s not to say that Drinking Closer To Home isn’t a worthwhile read. It’s certainly well-written and engrossing, and if you enjoy examining the bonds of siblings and joining a family on a decades-long jaunt through time? Well, Blau’s novel would certainly entertain and bother you for a few days. In many ways, the dynamics at play reminded me of Robin Antalek’s The Summer We Fell Apart, a novel I absolutely loved. And, to my surprise, Antalek actually blurbed the book herself! She writes:

Drinking Closer To Home is as raw and heartbreaking as it is tender . . . an honest, haunting story with a keen insight into the human psyche.

Emphasis on the “haunting.”

And I have yet to figure out if that’s a good thing.


3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061984027 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Book review: ‘A Desirable Residence’ by Madeleine Wickham

One house in Silchester, England, brings together three unlikely groups of people in this novel of deceit, debt and escalating — but unrealized — hopes.

Liz and Jonathan Chambers are homeowners up to their eyeballs in money troubles, scrambling to pay both the mortgage on their Russell Street house and the loan against a local tutorial college they’ve purchased. When their bills reach towering heights, they’re forced to take action — and must move with their rebellious 14-year-old, Alice, to a small flat above the school they run. Scared by the turn of events, Jonathan and Liz approach Marcus Witherstone, a real estate agent, about how to handle the mess their unsold home is bringing them, and he makes a proposition: lease it out.

The new tenants are Ginny and Piers, a fashionable couple from London seeking to escape the hustle-and-bustle of the city as they wait for Piers’ acting prospects to finally pan out. With their friend Duncan, they arrive in Silchester to rent the Russell Street property — and soon meet Alice, who frequently sneaks into her old garage to smoke clandestine cigarettes. While that treachery is happening, Liz finds herself in a precarious situation, too . . . with Marcus. As kind, well-meaning Jonathan is left to solve their financial troubles and Marcus’s wife, Althea, becomes obsessed with getting their eldest son a fabulous scholarship, Liz and Marcus’ lies begin to stack up neatly . . . and then become frayed at the edges, threatening to destroy everything.

As much as I became initially engaged in Madeleine Wickham’s A Desirable Residence, all the attraction here is centered on unlikeable, misanthropic people finally getting their just desserts in the end. From scheming, bored Marcus to ungrateful, uncharitable Liz, I struggled to find one character with whom connect in this British novel.

Bratty Alice couldn’t have been more unjust to Jonathan, her bumbling but sweet father, and more than once in the book I found myself wanting to reach in and slap her. She’s a self-absorbed teenager, yes, and I could respect the fact that her behavior was realistic, but who wants to spend 293 pages reading about a rude, deluded 14-year-old? As she began forcing her presence on Ginny, Piers and Duncan, I became more and more agitated. Couldn’t she see she wasn’t wanted? That she was intruding? That she was annoying? Even if the new residents of her old house didn’t feel that way, I certainly did.

What could have saved this book from becoming a soulless mess was a dash of humor, warmth or humanity. Demonstrating some growth. Some maturity. Some sincerity. And though I did find myself smiling inwardly toward the end at an unexpected turn of events, for the most part? The bad people stayed bad. The selfish people stayed selfish. Marcus redeemed himself slightly in my eyes, but Liz — Liz, one of our central characters — didn’t get what she deserved. I wanted a blow-out, a reckoning . . . I wanted an epic battle complete with tears and divulsions. But I was disappointed.

Wickham is better known to most of us as Sophie Kinsella, the nom de plume under which she wrote the best-selling Shopaholic series. While her writing is fluid and enjoyable, her characters — the anchors of any story — were terrible. You won’t find me complaining about any “distance” between myself and these people, because I definitely felt like I got to know them through the course of A Desirable Residence. The real question is would I actually want to know them?

And the answer to that is, of course, a resounding no.

With so much great women’s fiction and chick lit out there just waiting to be devoured, I can’t recommend this one. It was boring, lifeless and grating — though I did manage to finish it, so I guess that says something . . . mostly about the quality of Wickham’s writing, which was fast-paced and readable. I didn’t hate it — but didn’t love it, either. For good British chick lit, look no further than Jill Mansell — and don’t waste your time reading mediocre books.


2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312562772 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program

Book review: ‘Fly Away Home’ by Jennifer Weiner

Sylvie Serfer Woodruff — respected politician’s wife; mother of two; watcher of weight — knows she’s become a walking prop when news of her husband’s infidelity reaches the national news. Senator Richard Woodruff had a liason with a woman who could be his daughter, true, and Sylvie takes the news as well as could be expected — which means, in this case, that she retreats inward.

Her life, Sylvie soon realizes, has been reduced to organizing Richard’s life. He’s a grown man who expects his wife to stand in line at a hotel breakfast bar to gather his eggs and toast. Sylvie tends to Richard’s needs as one would look after a child — maybe in a way she didn’t look after her own. Seeking asylum for the chaos that has taken over her marriage, sustained for more than three decades, Sylvie escapes to Connecticut, where she begins to clean and restore the Serfer family’s beach house.

Diana and Lizzie, the Woodruff sisters, are living opposite lives when news of the scandal breaks. Married with a young son, Diana is a doctor trapped in a loveless marriage — and seeking comfort where she can. Lizzie, a recovering addict, is struggling to renew her passion for something she once cherished: photography. The summer takes Lizzie to her sister’s home in Washington, D.C., where she looks after Milo, Diana’s son . . . until the secrets in Diana’s home threaten to level the place. And getting away from it all seems like the next logical step.

Jennifer Weiner’s Fly Away Home is a look at a political family that could be yours, or mine — and that’s what I loved about it. Beyond being the daughters of a powerful politician, Diana and Lizzie — who often feel like the novel’s real focus — were multi-dimensional characters. Sylvie, too, felt like a friend — a woman with whom I could relate, and a woman I would have been happy to know.

Whether we’re talking John Edwards or Bill Clinton, Larry Craig or “The Good Wife,” our news — and popular culture — are rife with the sexual indiscretions of those in power. It’s amazing how one act can shatter so many lives and threaten to bring down whole political dynasties. Richard Woodruff is fictional, sure, but he could just as easily be an Eliot Spitzer. As a reader, Richard’s troubles were an all-too-familiar trope; basically, I felt like I’d heard this all before. As such, I found myself skimming through the opening — just a little, just a little! — and focusing more on Sylvie’s reaction to everything, which was much more interesting to me.

Yes, the Woodruff women are the novel’s real focus: who they are, how they became that way. I loved that Sylvie was the daughter of Selma Serfer, a hard-nosed, fast-talking judge, and that Selma didn’t hesitate to question the way Sylvie was living her life. More than anything, the book felt like the renaissance of Sylvie Serfer — a way of rising from the robotic depths of her life.

Diana and Lizzie were quite complicated, too. Of all the characters, I fell right in step with Lizzie — a 24-year-old woman in recovery, the spoiled youngest child accustomed to humiliating her family as she stood in the shadows of big sister Diana. It felt a bit cliched to have the girls fit such roles, I guess, but it didn’t bother me — mostly because I was moving through the plot so quickly. Learning about the deterioriation of Diana’s marriage was sad but interesting, and I loved the parallel between the wrongs she’d committed and her father’s own bad decisions. It added a totally different dimension to the story.

Weiner took on a very heavy subject — and a well-worn one — and still produced a fascinating, memorable book. I would have loved to know more about Jeff, Lizzie’s love interest, and Milo, Diana’s son, but these are minor quibbles — especially in light of how much I loved the dynamics between Sylvie and her mother as well as Diana and Lizzie. After being disappointed by 2009’s Best Friends Forever, I’m glad to see Weiner is back to crafting entertaining, vivid character studies of loveable, complicated women. Fans of women’s fiction, contemporary fiction and the effervescent Weiner shouldn’t miss this one.


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0805090819 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publicist

Book review: ‘Knit In Comfort’ by Isabel Sharpe

For Elizabeth Detlaff, the town of Comfort — a small place nestled in the mountains of North Carolina — represents a slower-paced, happier life than the one she has known in New York City. She arrives on the wings of a dream, convinced she should “seek comfort” somewhere far from the world she inhabits with her boyfriend Dominique, a successful French chef, and the secluded existence she has in the city. Without a plan or a real motivation, she goes.

Down in Comfort, Elizabeth finds a room to rent from Megan Morgan, mother of three and friend to many. Megan lives with her children and Vera, her mother-in-law, in a home purchased by Stanley, Megan’s seemingly-perfect salesman of a husband who travels more often than he settles roots. Longtime sweethearts, Megan and Stanley appear to have the perfect marriage — lovingly nestled together in this tiny town where everyone knows everyone, where everyone looks out for everyone.

But Comfort isn’t without its troubles — or its secrets. Megan knits Shetland lace, a skill passed down through the generations, in order to cope with a lonely life Elizabeth is, at first, unable to see. With Stanley traveling often for work and Megan left to tend to the family’s needs, Elizabeth’s new landlord seeks solace in the Purls, a knitting group she attends with Vera and local friends. It’s through their friendships that she finds the strength to be more — and do more. And though Elizabeth arrives thinking she needs to change, it’s everyone around her who changes, too.

Isabel Sharpe’s Knit In Comfort, the latest in a string of knitting-centered novels, is a slower-than-molasses look at the disintegration of a marriage, the forging of new friendships, the creation of something beautiful — and I wanted it to work. Really, truly, I did, but something was missing.

What went wrong, really? It’s hard for me to pinpoint what I disliked so much about these people, though that powerful dislike was strong and true. Elizabeth comes across as flighty, disconnected, a young woman with no real goals or dreams of her own — and that grated on me. She grows in the story, sure, but not that much. Not enough to redeem her. In my eyes, she was nosy — a busybody. Though Megan clearly needed help getting out of a deep, deep rut, I didn’t know why Elizabeth, a bossy Yankee, had to be the one to do it. (And I mean no offense to Yankees, y’all — my mother is one!)

And Megan. Dear, sweet, ridiculous Megan. We have the same name, see, so I’m having a hard time ripping on her, but I truly wanted to reach into the novel and give her a good slap. Not a little punch on the arm, you know, or a gentle shake. A slap. The woman is nuts. For putting up with what she’s put up with, for keeping silent about things she should never have kept silent about, for living with her pesky mother-in-law. She needed a slap. And who wants to spend 300 pages wanting to hit a character more than anything you’ve wanted to do in recent memory?

But I’m not here to bash someone’s hard work. (Or am I?) No, friends, Knit In Comfort wasn’t terrible — and that’s the hard part. Sharpe’s writing was clear and struck a good balance between showing-and-telling, leaving bits of the plot to the imagination and divulging pieces of a mystery at a good pace. I loved the stories of Megan’s ancestors and their difficult lives made easier by their passion for lace and knitting, a skill Megan continues. Each chapter opens with stories of Fiona, Megan’s ancestor, and the love she had for Calum — before he was enchanted by Gillian, a mysterious woman who arrives in their small town. I’m pretty sure I would have rather read an entire novel about them than this broken crew.

Still, the stories of lace-making — and the friendships here — redeemed the novel for me, and I was pleased with the book’s ending. Most of it seems fanciful, unbelievable, but I liked the peripheral characters who helped flesh out Knit In Comfort. For fans of women’s fiction seeking a strong narrative centering around knitting, I would still return to that old standard: Kate Jacobs’ The Friday Night Knitting Club. That novel annoyed me, too, though for completely different reasons.

Well, almost completely different.


3 out of 5!

ISBN: 006176549X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program