Tag Archives: Dysfunctional families

Read 235 of 2021. Crossroads, A Key to All Mythologies # 1 by Jonathan Franzen

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Title: Crossroads, A Key to All Mythologies #1
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins
ISBN: 9780008308902
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 586
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Crossroads is heady, it is brilliant, it is expansive in the sense of no other Franzen novel ever was, it is most empathetic which says a lot about Franzen since he doesn’t let his characters wear their emotions on their sleeve, and even if they do they are doomed to suffer, and above all Crossroads is a novel of big themes, big ideas, and big huge hope maybe at the end of it all (not to forget there are two more novels left in this Key to all Mythologies trilogy).

Yes, this novel is about a dysfunctional family, but it is also so much more. I remember there was a time while reading this book, when Franzen is talking about Marion, the mother and the wife’s past that I gasped, I couldn’t handle what she had gone through, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages either. Franzen’s writing is at its peak in my opinion and will continue to stay there. The way the tone shifts from the parents to the kids to the interpersonal relationships, and not only that – the way his writing has become less ironic, satirical and more earnest in a sense. It is refreshing to read this Franzen.

Crossroads is set in the ‘70s. Spanning nearly 600 pages, we can see the highs and lows of each character, each situation that plays out, each character making their decisions, stuck in a world that perhaps is not for them, dealing with suicide attempts, rape, adultery, drugs, and metaphorical and literal car wrecks of their lives.

This time we are introduced to the Hildebrandts. Religion is a big theme in this book. Russ Hildebrandt, the patriarch, is the church’s associate pastor and all he wants to do is sleep with a recently widowed church member. His wife, Marion has her own secret life. His children Clem, Becky, and Perry are searching for their own truths, each on the brink of a crossroad of their own, trying to strike their own deal with the devil if the day ever presents itself.

Crossroads is also the name of the youth group of the church, and Franzen will wittingly talks about it – sometimes quite ludicrously as well. Franzen’s book is a world of its own, with smaller words entangled in it. The stories told by each character, their lies, their version so to say, layers and layers of lives, each heading toward their own destruction or not.

Franzen has laid it all out quite superbly in the first book for the other two to follow. Families aren’t easy to traverse. Neither are communities that are believed in. Neither is the path of ideas, liberation, and of taking sides and sticking to them.

There is so much unpacking and yet at the end of the book I was left with this void, that could only be filled by books 2 and 3. Franzen has over the years been criticised a lot for not so much his writing as for the person he is. To my mind, he has his opinions, and yes, they are strong, and yes, they reflect in what he writes, but please don’t let that deter you from reading this fantastic piece of art. Don’t let anything deter you from getting to know the world Franzen creates in an already known world and more than anything else his flawed, fractured, and lost characters – each seeking their own redemption, going in circles every single time.

Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee

Dark Circles by Udayan MukherjeeTitle: Dark Circles
Author: Udayan Mukherjee
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 9789388134910
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 215
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I got to know very recently that Udayan Mukherjee is the brother of Neel Mukherjee. Not that it matters to the writing of this review, however, I just thought I should let this information be out there. Alright, now to the book. Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee is the story of a family, torn apart by a secret, at two points in the family’s history. There is a lot happening in this novel. Ronojoy and Sujoy’s mother dies alone in the Ashram she retreated to quite suddenly twenty-eight years ago, after the death of her husband. She has left a letter behind for her sons, in which contains a secret that has the power to wreak havoc in their lives. Though this might seem to be the plot, there is a lot more taking place in this novel.

The book is also about family (but of course), it is about depression, about how to live in the face of tragedy, and how decisions made once can never be undone. It is about forgiveness, and more than anything else, about redemption and the human heart. The writing is sparse, to the point and extremely moving in most places. What I wanted from the book was more. I wanted to know more about the bond between the brothers, what their father Subir was like (though Mukherjee has said a lot about him, there is so much more to know), what were the relationship dynamics, and why was their mother Mala the way she was.

I am also aware and agree that the writer isn’t supposed to spoon-feed the reader all the time, but all the same, I thought a little more could’ve been added. The characters are wonderful, there is this sense of darkness hanging over each of them, that lends beautifully to the telling of the story and to the title as well. Udayan Mukherjee for sure knows how to tell a story, to keep the reader gripped from page one. More than anything else, it is about relationships and ties that bind us and sometimes tear us apart.

 

America for Beginners by Leah Franqui

America for Beginners

Title: America for Beginners
Author: Leah Franqui
Publisher: William Morrow, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0062668752
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Now, I have read a lot of books about immigrants and their lifestyles and what happens when you move countries or come to America, as they say. But this is not a story of an immigrant. In fact, it is just a story of a mother who has to come to terms with her son’s sexual preference and lifestyle, after his death. This struck a chord. It hit home and stayed there for a while. I was constantly thinking of my mother and what was she going through when I came out to her and could relate her thoughts and emotions to that of Pival’s. But “America for Beginners” is not just Pival’s story. It is the story of Pival, Satya and Rebecca – each trying to find something or the other – some big meaning in their lives and happen to do it together.

“America for Beginners” is not sentimental. It is for sure an emotional piece of work. It is also compassionate and funny where it needs to be and that is also something I found extremely liberating about the writing. It doesn’t get bogged down by the intensity of the story. Franqui finds humour where she can. A Bengali widow Pival comes to the US of A, to know more about her son Rahi, after a year of his coming out, and in the wake of his death. She has never travelled alone and all she wants is to fit the missing pieces of her son’s life – the son she never knew, also through his partner Jake (you will get to read more about him. Not saying a word for now). Here but obviously she meets Satya, a guide who has never left the five boroughs – an immigrant who doesn’t have a clue where life is headed. Then there is Rebecca – an aspiring young actress with demons of her own to tackle. These three are headed for a road-trip (that again makes it all the more fun) they will remember forever.

This has all the makings of a movie. In fact, I think it is also written to be made into a film. Having said that, I for one did not get bored or did not face a reading slump at all when reading this book. There are also some stereotypes the book is ridden with, and yet I did not have a problem with that as well. There are perspectives, lives, emotions and how we deal with each other as human beings which is most important – than just being a mother, friend, or son.

 

 

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists Title: The Immortalists
Author: Chloe Benjamin
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0735213180
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

What would you do if you knew the day of your death? How would you live your life differently, or would you? What do you think it would be like for you? Also, what would it be if each of your siblings also knew the day of their death? Would your relationships be any different? How would life then play out? These questions and more haunted me as I was reading, “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin.

“The Immortalists” might seem like that one book which you read a while ago but it isn’t. There is so much and more to the book that you cannot compare it with anything you’ve read before, so I suggest you don’t even try and read it with an open-mind at the very best.

The story starts off in New York in 1969, when we meet the Gold children – Varya 13, Daniel 11, Klara 9 and Simon who is 7 years old. They belong to a religious Jewish family and are close to their parents. A psychic is heard of by one of the children – someone who has set camp nearby and four of them head out to meet her, who is known to predict the date of someone’s death. She individually tells them each the day they will die. This is where the story begins.

The novel is divided into four sections, each for one child, and we traverse through their lives, trying to understand what happens to each of them as they live and whether or not the prediction comes true.

I am not going to give away any spoilers here but all I can say is that this book has the power to leave you stunned and asking for more answers. Who was the psychic? What happens? What does not happen and why? All of this makes you turn the pages anyway but Benjamin’s writing does not seem new. She doesn’t write like a debut novelist. The craft is so precise – every scene comes alive; every emotion wrenches you and you can’t help but mull over it.

The dynamics of the siblings with each other and their mother is another thing that will make you relate to the book to a very large extent. Also, what they choose to share with each other and don’t forms such a major part of the book. What I also loved was the role time plays this book – with it hanging so severely on their heads and yet it is in a way so subtle – moving at its own pace and making the siblings realize the value or life or not.

“The Immortalists” is the kind of book which will have you thinking about life, more and everything in between. This book is hard to put down once you start it. Benjamin will literally make you cry (be prepared for it) and smile almost in the same page. It is a book which truly deserves all accolades and more this year. Read it. You will not be disappointed.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1400067695
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are times when you stumble on books, do not read them, or read a couple of pages and drop them. You pick them up again and do not get past a couple of pages. You pick it up again (the specific, dreaded book in question) and yet you just cannot seem to make it beyond the thirtieth page or so. Till one fine day, you pick it up and voila! You just cannot seem to stop reading it. In fact, you don’t want the book to end. You want it to continue, to unravel its secrets, the words that consume you and in turn make you think things about your life.

Art is almost a replica of life. They say it imitates life. I say, it just is. “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout may not resonate page by page or in the overall sense of plot, but there are places where it will take your breath away (it at least did that to me). It is a very regular story or so it seems.

Lucy Barton is unwell. She is undergoing a minor surgery and is in the hospital. It is the early 90s (not specified but you can more or less figure). Her mother visits her and stays with her for five days. The book opens with them speaking of the old days – of Lucy’s childhood, her siblings and how they lived.

That is when the secrets tumble and questions come to the fore – them being born to poverty, the time her parents locked her in a truck with a snake (why), the time her father humiliated her brother, calling him a “fucking faggot” in front of everyone after he was caught trying Mom’s high heels. We can see the family is beyond dysfunctional and redemption of any kind. Lucy is wounded, and yet she is happily married (or so we think), with two children and is on the way to becoming a writer.

Strout speaks of marriage, family, children, love, homosexuality and so much more through Lucy. And yet she makes Lucy such an unreliable narrator that you are confused but want to know so much more and after a point you do not care, if Lucy is telling the truth or not. You believe her anyway. The book is pretty much rooted in Lucy’s childhood and her reactions to things as she is an adult comes from a deep, dark, lonely place.

On the surface, “My Name is Lucy Barton” may not seem much of a book, but as you dive into its pages, you can see it for what it is and if you are looking for more answers, then there’s the sequel “Anything is Possible” (which I need to get to as soon as possible). Strout proves that brevity could most of the time be the best tool used in fiction. This book is less than two hundred pages and yet it is not a fast read. You will mull and ponder over what you read. Perhaps even go back to some sentences.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

“But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

“But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.”

“Because we all love imperfectly.”