Tag Archives: dysfunctional

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.”

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Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice by Lisa Genova Title: Still Alice
Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 9781501106422
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 353
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

One of the many diseases of old-age that I am most frightened of is Alzheimer’s. The thought of losing all memory, day by day and not knowing anything at all makes me break into a sweat. The idea of not recognizing your loved ones even more so. I don’t think anyone should go through that torture. It is just one of those diseases that take everything away from you.

So when you read a book where the disease is almost the protagonist, you are completely overwhelmed and more than anything else you also cheer for the person for being a survivor and battling it at all costs. Dr. Alice Howland has it all going for her. She is a psychiatry professor at Harvard. She has three children and a loving husband. She is fifty years of age and Alzheimer’s has struck. It is about her family coping with her disease and how their lives change forever. “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova is a book that will make you think about life and death and the consequences of life being too short.

Genova skillfully explores Alzheimer’s through Alice. The onset of it and the rapid progression as shown from September 2002 to September 2005 will make you turn the pages and feel for Alice and her family, which maybe you must not have in a very long time. For instance, the unwell Alice spotting a message the healthier Alice left on voicemail and figuring what it was will absolutely break your heart. There are many such instances throughout the book.

I was majorly taken in by the book because Alzheimer’s is one thing that has always intrigued me. One day you know it all and the other you are reduced to becoming someone who can’t even remember his or her name. “Still Alice” had me in from the very first page and did not let go of me at all. I recommend this to all readers – it will appeal to everyone and probably also make you realize that time is too short and life must be lived nonetheless.

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Family Life by Akhil Sharma

Family Life by Akhil Sharma Title: Family Life
Author: Akhil Sharma
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India
ISBN: 9780670087457
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have always enjoyed a good dysfunctional family story. Somehow, I see my family in it. Somehow, it is true. All families are like that. There is always this undercurrent of tension, of nerves, of issues that are not spoken out loud, and of silences.

“Family Life” is a book of grand proportions. It is also written with the objective, I think to let the reader fill in some spaces, and rightly so, I mean, after all, why should a writer spoon-feed the reader all the time?
Akhil Sharma’s writing is nothing like what I have read in the past. I wanted to read, “An Obedient Father” but never got around to it. So “Family Life” came by and was my first Sharma book. The book is about a family who moves to the US of A and how their lives change forever.

The Mishras (parents and two children, Birju and Ajay) move to America in the 70s, hoping and dreaming of a better life, getting away from the Emergency period in the country. America is full of hope and promise. Birju, the older one is the smart one – with the good grades and a great future, till an accident in the swimming-pool leaves him brain-damaged and Ajay is left to pick up the pieces of a life, torn apart. The father becomes a drunk. The mother loses sight of everything else and only wants to take care of Birju. Ajay on the other hand, does not know what to do and how to grow up in a strange country.

The book is dark. The writing is also funny at times. There were times I wish things would change for the family, but then it would not be the story that it is. Akhil Sharma weaves a story of too many layers – of ambition, loss, living, forgetting, escaping and the condition of the human heart in all of this. “Family Life” is a book for you, only if you want to know about a slice-of-life, close up and personal. A great read this summer.

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Book Review : Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox Title: Desperate Characters
Author: Paula Fox
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 9780393318944
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 156
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

It is not easy to write a book about marriage. It takes a lot. Sometimes I also think you have to go to that place to experience it and put it on paper. And then to talk about a failing marriage is something else. The emotions that seethe under and to bring them to fore, is not an easy feat. “Desperate Characters” by Paula Fox is one of those few books that manage to do it. It manages to evoke almost every emotion in the characters and the reader and but obviously, the sense of void, remains, as it always does, at the end of a good novel.

I got to know of “Desperate Characters” when I chanced across Jonathan Franzen’s favourite books and this one was somewhere on the top of the list, after Christina Stead I think. The book starts off with an accident and ends almost in the same manner. A couple – who seem happy on the surface – Otto and Sophie Bentwood, living in Brooklyn – the epitome of suburban bliss so to speak. The complete works of Goethe line their bookshelf, they own a Mercedes, and of course all materialistic gadgets of the time in which the story is set – 1969. Sophie is then bitten by a neighbourhood stray cat and from there on their lives change. The marriage crumbles. The decay is visible and for all to see.

America is changing, rapidly at that and in the book; their marriage to a large extent cannot handle the changes. The bite almost becomes metaphorical of their marriage – not healing, dark and almost septic. Fox’s characters are reckless. I think she conjures them that way. They cannot be anything or anyone else. The writing then is nuanced. So much so that you find yourself going over sentences, again and again, to soak yourself in the language and the emotions they convey.

What is most surprising is that the book released in 1970 and not many people know of it. I hope this will change, because I wish more people would read Paula Fox. She is one of the most underrated authors and deserves a chance for sure. Go and buy this one. Read it.

Here is a flavour of her writing:

Thus, they stand facing each other “rigidly, each half-consciously amassing evidence against the other, charges that would counterbalance the exasperation that neither could fathom.”

“Life is desperate.”

“You don’t know what’s going on,” he said at last. “You are out of the world, tangled in personal life…People like you …stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.” He looked calm. He had gotten even.’

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