Tag Archives: novel

The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin – Book

swans of fifth

I always had a secret, and to some family members, not so secret, interest in all things artsy-New York City. In eighth grade we took a class trip to NYC. I remember well the mix of butterflies and awe I felt the first time I saw Fifth Avenue and Central Park, stayed in a real hotel, and went to a show (even if it was only the Rockettes) (even if some of my classmates were dropping water balloons out of the hotel windows).

I came from a very poor family and our greatest beauty came from the care our parents lavished on us. Books and movies gave me my first glimpses of both material luxury and true deprivation. So I confess, although I understood that the life of sophistication, style, and wealth can be superficial and exclusionary, and perhaps even psychically empty; it also gave access to wonderful art that expands awareness and beauty that drugs the senses.

I devoured Mademoiselle, Glamour, and Vogue magazines. I poured over the furniture and clothing and the fancy careers in the Doris Day movies, even more important to me than the romance, or at least part and parcel of it. Could love really be love without mid-century modern décor, designer gowns, and furs? This was pretty heady stuff for a girl who slept three-to-a bed until she was ten or eleven and it was a fantasy world that was never realized, perhaps because my creation of it was so two-dimensional.

Anyway, Melanie Benjamin, author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel seems to have caught the same bug I did, although perhaps a bit later. Her wealthy role models are from the 70’s, while mine were from the 50’s. She was fascinated by Truman Capote and the New York scene he briefly “swam” in until he sabotaged himself. (Perhaps even in the social sphere “what goes up must come down”.) Benjamin has written a fiction book, but she has done her research. She was as fascinated by these “stars” as I was when I learned about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table and Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar who committed suicide, so incomprehensibly. (Was it clinical depression or a broken heart, or both, or neither?)

So there is some room in my brain for this gossipy speculation about beautiful, famous (and sometimes infamous) people. Truman Capote as the author’s words describe him, was very young and charismatic, smart and witty – on the edge of fame when he attracted the attention of those five young society swans with their lovely long necks. He was not attracted to women sexually which made it easier for him to befriend these beauties in this close-knit group of New York’s most photographed and admired women, who were really only famous for their style and for who they were married to. The author shows how Truman courted them, worshipped them, was worshipped by them, and then betrayed them.

Melanie Benjamin did a great job with a novel that could have read like a piece of fluff. The details of the lives of the five swans (Slim Hawks, Pamela Churchill, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, and Babe Paley) are mostly public and have been covered by others in books this author has studied. The dialogue rings true but was created by the author who tries to explain how this unusual relationship might have worked well for all involved until it didn’t. Not my usual fare, but it does tie into my sentimental roots and it is well done. I enjoyed The Swans of Fifth Avenue.

By Nancy Brisson

Purity by Jonathan Franzen – Book


Much has been said about purity in recent years. Food is one area where claims to purity add retail value for those who feel that eating healthy is actually now a cultural responsibility. Purity in relation to our energy sources – that they need to be carbon neutral and simple mechanisms that tame natural forces for our use (like heat from the sun and wind from earth’s air currents) – is another way the idea of purity has become an obsession for those who can choose. One test mentioned often in Republican circles is the test to determine how closely Conservative politicians adhere to right wing orthodoxy, or, in other words, a test of purity.

All these ideas of purity and more sit behind this story. And lots of impurity sits behind this story also. Purity is the birth name of the main character who leads us into the events Franzen creates for us. What some may find difficult about this offering is the way Franzen jumps to seemingly unrelated characters and then shows us the connection when he’s ready. However it all comes together in the end and I am guessing that the story structure is very deliberate.

Purity lives in a derelict house with Dreyfuss who is one loan modification away from losing his only possession. Three other people share the space with Purity and Dreyfuss; Stephen, Marie and Ramon. Purity is a telemarketer whose main goals in life are to get out from under her student loans and to have a relationship with Stephen which she cannot have because he is married to Marie. A strange German visitor, Annagret, offers Purity – known as Pip right now – an internship with a group called The Sunlight Project, which has far more humane goals than Pip’s current employer. The Sunlight Project is headed by a man named Andreas Wolf who is considered a cult hero. Annagret has Pip complete a weird interview and tells her she is qualified for the internship.

We jump to the story of Andreas Wolf, the legendary project leader of this WikiLeaks- style operation designed to expose world actors whose motives are less than pure. Wolf grew up in East Berlin in the years before the Berlin Wall came down. Does this tough beginning justify some of the traits we find in Andreas Wolf? You must decide.

Pip (Purity) spends lots of time talking to her agoraphobic mom, Anabel, who has every other possible phobia also, but who obviously loves her daughter, although we wonder who takes care of whom in this relationship. Would Anabel have had any kind of life if she did not have Pip? Purity has never been allowed to know who her father is and in fact Anabel says he abused her and that he is dangerous. Pip still wants to find her father. We eventually hear about the romance between Pip’s mom and a man named Tom Aberant (emphasis on the Ab), a relationship which was good for a while and then devolved into spite, anger, and revenge.

There is also a connection between Tom Aberant and Andreas Wolf which I will not explain because it is at the heart of this novel and because it might spoil the book for you.

Franzen wants, perhaps, to prepare us for how very difficult it is for flawed humans to attain anything approaching purity unless it is a name you give your child – a name that she is not even allowed to use. It is a pretty good microcosm of the way the developed world rolls in these early decades of the 21st century.

Jonathan Franzen is a great storyteller. He’s the kind of writer with enough craft that we forget to even be bothered by the words on the page because there are no flaws to distract us. The story is in the foreground, the writing underlies it, but we don’t notice it. Character development is more problematic in Purity because at times Franzen almost seems to be writing separate short stories. We are yanked out of one set of characters and settings into new characters and settings with little transition. But eventually Franzen ties his new characters back to the old characters and voila, the plot thickens and unfolds almost like a mystery story which we solve with the author’s help.

Another difficulty some may find with this story is that the message does not seem unique or profound enough to justify the length and complexity of the story or even to turn this into a truly great novel. On the other hand, it is a good social commentary and it is more substantial than some of the popular novels that are its contemporaries. Perhaps time will change my take on this. Some novels require a lengthier digestive period than others. I still recommend Purity by Jonathan Franzen because, although not perfect in my estimation, it is still a good read.

By Nancy Brisson

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – Book


Colm Tóbín writes about what he knows. He writes about the village where he was born in Ireland. He writes, in Brooklyn, about the immigrant experience. Eilis Lacey, her sister Rose, and her Mom live in an all-female household, although there was once a father and three sons.

Eilis would be happy living her entire life right in this village which she loves, but her mother’s pension is small and there are few opportunities in her village for a career or a good marriage. When Father Flood, who once knew her father, visits his Irish home from America and learns that Eilis knows how to keep account books, he talks he mother into sending her to Brooklyn. On the way out of Ireland she visits quickly with the youngest of her three brothers who all had to move to England to find work.

The author of this book, which was twice short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, knows how to tell a story. He gently leads us through the enormity of leaving home alone at such a young age. We are driven forward into the details of Eilis’s unsought adventure. The Father has strong and trustworthy connections within his Brooklyn parish, although because of her age and the times Eilis’s behavior is under constant scrutiny by her landlady, the other girls who live with her, her employers, and her fellow employees. She stays on her feet, until she doesn’t.

However the author just as gently portrays her crushing homesickness. Finally, when Father Flood understands the depths of her despair he helps her enroll in night school bookkeeping classes so she won’t always have to work as a retail clerk. Being busier is better. Eilis is also encouraged to attend the parish dances on Friday nights.

The second half of this novel was more problematic for me because of the choices that Eilis is required to make. Perhaps the Catholic Church would help a poor girl find the money to travel again back and forth on a ship due to a family matter, but it tested the limits of my credulity a bit. I came from a poor family and, although people were kind, no one handed out large sums of money and pride would not allow us to take it.

Nevertheless, Eilis is presented with an opportunity, however complicated, to return to a life in her Irish Village or to return to Brooklyn. In order to make the choice to stay in Ireland she would have to liberate herself from every inch of her upbringing, every one of her values, and she would have to betray church, family, and a person she loves.

The whole situation struck me as a bit contrived, but, since this author writes about his home maybe he has an actual family or village story in mind. Part of the problem may be that although the author tells a good story he is still a man writing about a young woman and he has the reader viewing her from the outside. This is not a first person story. We care about Eilis, but we are not privy to much of her inner life. The ending is growing on me, but the novel doesn’t really speak to my own life and times (except for the homesickness; that I have experienced).

By Nancy Brisson

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco – Book

Numero Zero

Umberto Eco really knows how to leave a room. He published Numero Zero just before he died a few weeks ago. This is not a book that everyone will enjoy because there is no real action and the “plot” is complicated and somewhat obscure, if this book can even be said to have a plot. We have a publisher who has been asked to create a mock newspaper for reasons which are not revealed. We have a staff that is hired to produce these mock-ups and the staff does not realize that these newspapers are not destined for publication.

There is great commentary on how the media conducts itself as these reporters try to “trump” up stories. In fact they are told that they should pick old stories which have never been resolved and then write articles that “predict” a juicy resolution. One of the reasons that this is difficult for most Americans to follow, or to want to follow, is that these are Italian news stories.

Our main character, Colonna, has worked for publishers and newspapers but he has never found a successful niche. He considers himself a loser. “Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not to waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.”

He would, of course, like to write a great book. When his acquaintance, Simei, offers him a story line for a great book that he can one day write, a book that will appear under Simei’s name, a book called Domani (yesterday, in Italian) he also offers him the job of running the newspaper that will never be published. The issues will all begin with a Numero Zero.

However, as the book opens we have jumped ahead in the story and Colonna finds that someone has been in his apartment while he was sleeping. He is afraid to leave his building. Why the paranoia? Does the danger have any connection to the conspiracy stories that one of his colleagues at this mysterious newspaper, Braggadocio, has been sharing with him, the ones about fascist groups that may still lurk in the shadows and about the possibility that Mussolini did not die as history suggests but lived out his life in Argentina? Or perhaps it was another story about the fake Orders of Malta popping up around the world, very secretly of course.

This commentary on journalism exposes media tactics that are not the sole property of the Italian media. It is a very cynical view of media and that aspect probably does not surprise most of us. But how much of what we think of as news may be invented for the reader’s taste for sensationalism, or extorted by the state with threats, or distorted by successful subterfuge is difficult for readers of news, and in fact even writers of news to judge. Is there any such thing as a free press? Are powerful people always covering up for the human flaws that their power gives them the freedom to indulge?

Umberto Eco died after this book was published. Is he the character Colonna, who began and ended the book afraid for his life after the murder of Braggadocio, the originator of all the conspiracy theories? Were they conspiracy theories or did Braggadocio have a source providing real news? Who killed Braggadocio and why? Now perhaps Umberto Eco had a terminal illness and knew that he would die soon and created a novel that would turn his demise into the kind of cultural mystery he liked to write. Or was Umberto Eco murdered for his stand against Fascism? We will probably never know. Doesn’t matter, Umberto Eco, on purpose or by accident, leaves us with a novel that helps him remain an amazing author right to the very end and which leaves a reader with perhaps just one word – freaky.

By Nancy Brisson

Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea – Book

Mrs. Engels

Frederick Engels, as in coauthor of The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, as in the thinker who provided the ideology of, political strategies and impetus for the Russian Revolution and several other minor upheavals across Europe, was the husband of the Mrs. Engels who is the title character in this book. Frederick Engels came from a solidly Capitalist (burgher) family in Germany. His family’s business manufactured sewing thread in Germany and in Manchester, England.

Engels did not want to work in the family business but in spite of his anti-Capitalist beliefs he ran the family’s mill in Manchester for most of his adult life and provided the money he and Karl Marx needed to enable them to write about the plight of workers in the 1800’s. There is certainly irony here and a purist would have been at constant war with himself but Engels was apparently more pragmatic and felt that the ends would justify the means it took to get to a society where workers were valued.

History tells us that a young Frederick Engels met Mary Burns, a worker at his mill, when he was 24. Mary fell in love and agreed to live with Engels. They never married. Neither believed that marriage needed the approval of government, society, or the church. Mary had a sister, Lydia (Lizzie) Burns. These things are facts. Little detail is known about these women. History also tells us that Mary Burns’ heart gave out in 1863 – 19 years into her relationship with Engels (although he was not in England for all of those years). There are also historical facts to support that after Mary died, Engels and Lizzie Burns lived together for 15 years. In 1878, as Lizzie was dying, Frederick Engels married her.

Gavin McCrea in his novel, Mrs. Engels, invents the details of the daily lives of these two working women who kept house for Engels and shared his younger years, and he tells their lives to us through the voice of Lizzie (Lydia) Burns. Neither Mary nor Lizzie were known to be interested in housekeeping and yet they both kept house for Engels, although Lizzie and Frederick had two servants when they lived in London. The sisters were Irish and Lizzie could not read or write, but both women were somewhat familiar with the idea of revolution and were friends with some of the men planning and conducting the Irish Revolution, the Fenians.

The author does well at capturing Lizzie’s voice and representing her very believable, although unverifiable, activities. However, since Lizzie’s real focus is Engels the author also tells us about Frederick Engels, but through Lizzie’s eyes. There is not a great love here – no passionate romance – just two people who have become companions and who live well together. The author imagines for Lizzie and Frederick and even Mary exactly the kind of life one might imagine for a Father of Communism, but perhaps a bit more upper middle class. There is no evidence that Frederick cohabited with another woman after Lizzie’s death.

Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea, although showing a life that seems quite mundane, seems an entirely plausible account, and gives insight into these two famous men who worked so very hard to get laborers to overturn the social and political order of the times with results that eventually changed the world into the one we still are dealing with in the 21st century. Odd that from something so prosaic came something so transformative. These men gave us a revolution that did not end the inequalities they sought to overcome, but instead left us with an unappetizing political system that affects many people around the globe in powerful ways.

By Nancy Brisson

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie – Book

The Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie is a quirky, quick little novel and has a number of features which make it a worthwhile read. Veblen Amundson-Hovda was named for Thorstein Veblen which sent her into an in-depth pursuit of the philosopher/economist’s life (a misfit) and his work (still read and respected). Veblen is a young woman whose life has been informed by her namesake. (Hard to come up with a good nickname for Veblen.) As a result of her immersion in Veblen’s work she is not a “material girl”. She embraces a simple life. She is learning Norwegian (Thorstein Veblen is Norwegian.)

Paul Vreeland, a young neurologist who has invented a field instrument to try to save brain damaged soldiers, meets Veblen and finds they are a comfortable fit. But it’s early days. There is so much they don’t know about each other. Paul is enjoying his increasing success and he has been taken up by some very wealth Big Pharmaceutical people.

Despite their attraction there are signs that Veblen might have been too hasty about taking this relationship to the next level. For one thing there is the very expensive engagement ring which Veblen cannot bring herself to wear some days. There is Paul’s proposal to hold their wedding and reception at his patron’s glass and steel estate. Veblen has started to talk to the handsome squirrel that lives behind (and sometimes in the attic of) her charming cottage that she lovingly restored from a near ruin. She worries that she might have inherited mental illness from her biological father. Paul comes home with a have-a-heart trap to catch the squirrel so they can release it far away. What will Paul say if he learns that Veblen talks to squirrels?

Then there are their families, each unique, one might say dysfunctional, although in very different ways. Will their differences, their backgrounds, and current events in their lives tear these two apart or, somehow, bring them together? What will win out, materialism or Veblen’s offbeat blend of naturalistic minimalism? There are things to think about after reading The Portable Veblen and, although the choices do not require deep thought to decipher and verbalize, choosing a path that is authentic can take us a lifetime.

By Nancy Brisson

Slade House by David Mitchell – Book

Slade House

David Mitchell, using only his words, describes scenes to us which are vivid and which seem real. He reminds me of an artist who captures a person’s appearance and spirit and brings a portrait to life with just a few strokes of his/her pen or brush.

Slade House is evoked in just such a way. We enter the house each time through a very small black iron door set in a brick wall in a twisty narrow alley. In what should be a small city lot we find ourselves in an improbably spacious garden that leads to an impossibly large estate house. A young boy and girl live here when a mother and son enter in the opening scenes. They enter almost unwillingly, at least the boy does and with trepidation. A portion of our brain which locates us in geographical space is signaling that it is dissatisfied in some indefinable way. There is a niggling of warning. But there is also a promise that Yehudi Menuhin is within and that he wants to enjoy the mother’s piano skills.

Inside there is a staircase with odd paintings, ancestors but not; there is a landing; there is a grandfather clock keeping ponderous time, and there is a door with a sinister (for some reason) doorknob. There is an attic and a ceremony and two missing persons.

After that it becomes a sort of Groundhog Day. Slade House appears again and again to an odd array of “chosen” people. But unlike Groundhog Day there is no positive learning curve, no happy outcome. What happens to Slade House reminds me of my “house dreams” which begin with a plausible intact suite of rooms that become increasingly architecturally deconstructed towards the time when the dream ends and I wake.

But it is not really the house that is most interesting – it is the twins, the boy and the girl. It is the time anomalies foreshadowed by the annoyingly noisy grandfather clock. It is the battle from Mitchell’s last book The Bone Clocks, the battle we thought was over, being fought again in this world.

What is Mitchell’s fixation with Horologists, with time, with people who live beyond the ordinary life spans most of us are subject to? Are there people who prolong their lives at the sacrifice of the lives of others? Well, when asked in that way the answer could possibly be yes. Are there people who live life after life but not at the expense of others, who sort of police the “bad” life-extenders? Why is David Mitchell obsessed with this topic?

Those who extend their lives at the expense of others offer nothing to the world – no insight, no wisdom. They are takers and self-absorbed for reasons of survival. Is it this self-absorption, this degrading repetition without progress or meaning or any care at all for the “bone clocks” around them that he wants us to think about? Perhaps some of us just live so heedlessly and move from pleasure to pleasure that it ticks Mitchell off and he wishes we would all take a long view and live meaningful lives that take lightly from the world and preserve it for future generations. Is it an ecological message? It’s a mystery – his message, one I still have not deciphered, but Slade House is an astonishing place created by a consummate author in a place where it should not logically exist.

If you like novels that resolve in tangible ideas then Slade House probably is not for you. But for others that very intangibility may make it irresistible.

By Nancy Brisson

Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie – Book


Salman Rushdie, in his newest novel, weighs in on modern global events and even the American election. But he entertains us in his usual insightful way by couching his commentary in a Jinn-Jinnia War of the Worlds, which is quite a helpful conceit when you are trying to talk about people who want to send the world reeling into the 12th century or obliterate it altogether. It’s apocalyptic fun with a Persian/Arabian flavor.

The Jinni and the Jinnia live in a parallel world usually sealed against all interaction. But the Jinni and especially the four powerful male Grand Ifrits did not count on a jinnia with daddy issues. On one of the rare occasions when the seals between the worlds opened up a Jinnia fell in love with a human, Îbn Rushd (perhaps the author). She became Dunia and produced thousands of offspring, humans with a bit of jinn hidden inside. They became the Duniazat.

The title of Rushdie’s book is Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (or 1001 Nights). Although it is a sort of allegory, it is not an allegory with animals; it is one with the inhabitants of Peristan/Fairyland. And it is not a one-to-one allegory, or perhaps I was just not able to find a one-to-one equivalency in every case, but there were enough times when direct connections could be made and these are where the most potent commentary could be found. Perhaps a few quotes will help convince you:

“The Grand Ifrits’ contempt for their subjects was only increased by the ease with which they recruited human beings to assist them in the maintenance of their new empire. ‘Greed and fear’, Zummurrud told his three fellow leaders, who met, as was their custom, on a dark cloud circling earth at the Equator, from which they watched and judged the mere mortals below them, ‘fear and greed’ are the tools by which these insects can be controlled with almost comical ease,” (pg. 229)

“The enemy is stupid, he replied. That is the ground for hope. There is no originality in tyrants, and they learn nothing from the demise of their precursors. They will be brutal and stifling and engender hatred and destroy what men love and that will defeat them. All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love, and we must hold to the idea that love is stronger than hate.” (Pg. 234)

A conversation between two human philosophers:

“Faith is our gift from God and reason is our adolescent rebellion against it. When we are adult we will turn wholly to faith as we are born to do.”

“You will see, as time goes by,” said Ibn Rushd, “that in the end it will be religions that will make men turn away from God. The godly are God’s worst advocates. It may take a thousand and one years but in the end religion will shrivel away and only then will we begin to live in God’s truth.”

I guess I see Salman Rushdie as sort of a Buddha or Dalai Lama, albeit with a reputation for womanizing, who takes a long view of human history. I always admire the long view. I cannot tell you who wins the war between Peristan and Earth, the jinni and jinnira, or the humans and the Lightening Princess, because it will ruin the tale Rushdie tells. Does the Lightning Princess, that prolific mother, represent any human we know? I will have to leave that for you to decide.

Although Salman Rushdie is immersed in a culture miles away from ours, he has also spent lots of time in England and Europe and so if you are new to Salman Rushdie you should have no fears about diving right into this novel or you can go back and begin at the beginning if you like chronology. Some of his books seem somewhat interconnected. This novel is more of a stand-alone and, although it may meet the tests of time it is also of this particular moment, right now, at the beginning of the 21st century.

By Nancy Brisson




City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg – Book

City on Fire

City on Fire is a writer’s gift to readers. It sets out to give us a grungy, punky picture of NYC in the 70’s and it succeeds – wonderfully. We can’t leave out unbridled-greed-without-moral-filters which is the true fireworks in this epic tale. It’s a good thing Garth Risk Hallberg is such a good writer because you will invest some time in this novel, especially if you are busy and have to read in snatches, which is actually a good way to read City on Fire, because it does not have a linear story structure.

This is New York City, home to millions, but more intimate than you might imagine. The line between a fireworks expert (Carmine) and a multimillion dollar family (the Hamilton-Sweeney’s, the Demon Brother), for example – or the line between the firework’s makers daughter (Sam) and a high school boy (Charlie) with red hair – the line between an old policeman with crutches (Pulaski)and a disenchanted newspaperman (Richard Groskoph) who stumbles onto an interesting story about fireworks but writes a different kind of story altogether – the connection between all these people and a defunct punk band whose leader Billy Three-Sticks (William Hamilton-Sweeney) let his band be taken over by a control freak named Nicky Chaos.

It is the Bicentennial year of 1776 when the key events in this story begin, and NYC, while definitely almost a character in this story, is not at its best. The city is on the edge of bankruptcy and the city actually is on fire. There are fires burning in the more derelict parts of town. The sound effects most prominent in Hallberg’s book are gun shots, backfires, explosions both planned and unplanned, both legal and illegal, controlled and not controlled. The author gives a foreshadowing of the events of 9/11, still far in the future, by focusing our attention on a pair of long views of the World Trade Center which will one day be destroyed in an unimaginable fire. The characters react to the corruption of a city where inequality is on display in the very architecture of the neighborhoods

The book is a mystery wrapped in an enigma – I know, terribly overused phrase, but quite appropriate here. There are a number of mysteries to be solved and a number of people with pieces of the story. Two of the people with a role in untangling events are newcomers to New York City (Mercer, Jenny) and that offers a message too. Sometimes we, the reader, know who the perpetrators are, sometimes we don’t (although we may eventually untangle events. If you don’t manage to figure things out yourself, you won’t get any help from the author. There is no Agatha Christie summing up at the end, and this is not at all a formula piece, no matter how much fun those may be.

I was sorry when I finished City on Fire because I have punctuated recent days with a chapter here and a chapter there, but the things the author tangentially shares with us about his faith in human nature and how hard that fabled NYC can be on people’s dreams will stay with me and lend a bit of grunge to my days for a while.

By Nancy Brisson

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood – Book

The Heart goes Last

Margaret Atwood has written a number of novels that I would categorize as science fiction. She likes to place modern trends in a futuristic setting and then predict where these cultural threads could take us. Her first novel that caught my attention was The Handmaid’s Tale, which, in light of recent movements towards a theocratic Evangelical takeover of politics in America, gives the novel even greater significance than it had when it was published. It certainly registered with women then and it remains frighteningly relevant. In this novel women who were once free and who proved able to bear children are enslaved by families to function only as maids and child bearers. If they prove unable to bear children, which might be because their male partner is sterile, the consequences are dire.

I also read Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam (a trilogy). In addition I have read Margaret Atwood novels that are not science fiction. I try to keep up with whatever she writes. The Heart Goes Last, like her other novels that I have termed science fiction is actually more accurately a dystopian novel, and in odd ways, somewhat utopian or at least hopeful, as the people on the bottom often end up on top (sort of).

This novel describes a future that might result from our “now”. Details sound like our situation here at the beginning of the 21st century. It is interesting that although Margaret Atwood is Canadian she sets her dystopian novels in America. Is she just trying to market to a larger audience or is she sort of peeking over the border in a judgmental fashion at our nation which often appears to the world to be a “hot mess”. At any rate, in this novel it is the economy (and then some) of America that is dysfunctional.

Stan and Charmaine could be any working class couple in America. The economy is failing lots of average Americans. Stan and Charmaine, newly married, both had jobs and they had a home until the economy went into a massive recession and they ended up living in their car. With things so uncertain the car was not a safe place to live. There were thieves and thugs, druggies and carjackers. Stan and Charmaine never felt secure. They had to move constantly and sleep was light and full of anxiety. Sex, even though they were almost newlyweds, was distasteful enough under the circumstances to make both Stan and Charmaine avoid arousal.

When they learned of a town called Consilience, beckoning the dispossessed to a stable, although bizarre, life they decided to go for it, despite the warnings from Stan’s street smart brother Conor. Consilience is a secretive place and I cannot really tell what goes on there but after a certain amount of the promised secure and stable life it all goes kerflooey in some very interesting ways, ways that make the title chillingly fitting. The issue of our sexuality continues to play a key and, this time, somewhat entertaining role in this Atwood tale.

This novel is far more accessible than her environmental trilogy but she, perhaps, does not hide her writer’s craft quite as well as usual. In a few places I think we sense an author’s plot manipulations behind the events, especially in the Las Vegas sections. I am a real fan of dystopian fiction and a real fan of Margaret Atwood and this gives us a whole new take on the future, although perhaps the future it paints is not as uplifting as we would wish.

By Nancy Brisson