REVIEW: THE MAKING OF US, BY LISA JEWELL

 

Lydia, Dean, and Robyn don’t know one another. Yet. Each is facing difficult challenges. Lydia is still wearing the scars from her traumatic childhood. Wealthy and successful, she leads a lonely and disjointed existence. Dean is a young, unemployed, single dad whose life is going nowhere. Robyn is eighteen. Gorgeous, popular, and intelligent, she entered her first year of college confident of her dream to become a pediatrician. Now she’s failing her classes. Now she’s falling in love for the first time.

Lydia, Dean, and Robyn live very different lives, but each of them, independently, has always felt that something was missing. What they don’t know is that a letter is about to arrive that will turn their lives upside down. It is a letter containing a secret—one that will bind them together and show them what love and family and friendship really mean.

 

My Thoughts: Their story began before they were even born, and the nature of their births would not be usual. Perhaps these facts of their existence might explain why each of them, still unknown to one another, felt as though something were missing.

The Making of Us was an engaging story of family, relationships, and how connections come about in unexpected ways.

We first meet Glenys, a young Welsh woman who longs for a baby. But no baby comes. Then Glenys makes an unconventional decision that changes everything.

We see her daughter Lydia, drifting through life after her mother’s death when she is three. When her father dies when she is in her teens, she moves to London, attends university, and creates a product that leads to substantial wealth.

In alternating voices, we meet each of the young people whose lives began on separate paths but will soon connect. The information that jumpstarts each of their new lives moves the story along until the reader is fascinated, feeling connected to the characters and each of their adventures.
In the end, I longed to spend more time with them, not wanting to say goodbye . 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: THE GUNNERS, BY REBECCA KAUFFMAN

 

The story introduces Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

My Thoughts: I was drawn to The Gunners by a curiosity about friends growing up together and then growing apart. The characters sounded relatable, and the story did not disappoint.

Mikey’s voice is prominent, and we learn more about the others through his eyes, cloudy though they were. The analogy of cloudy vision (physically) carries over into the emotional “clouds” of family secrets.

How each of the characters viewed Sally, the character with the darkest secrets, since she took a drastic step in her own life, would reveal much about each of them.

The get-together after Sally’s funeral reminded me of another story that I loved, The Big Chill, a film I enjoyed in the 1980s. Trying to deconstruct the choices friends make, as well as struggling to uncover the dark secrets of the past and present, kept me turning pages.

As one would expect, some of the characters are more likable than others. Sally’s brash tone probably covered up some insecurities, but she was sometimes hard to take. Sam was pleasant enough, but he overdid the apologetic and sometimes obsequious effort to be liked.

I felt sorry for Mikey, whose life was undone by the uncovering of some of the secrets. But as time passed, and as the group enjoyed more get-togethers, the power and joy of their connections left me with such a warm feeling. Almost as if I had become part of their story. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: I WAS HERE, BY GAYLE FORMAN

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Cody and Meg had been best friends for many years, and despite the separation due to college—Meg was away at Cascades College—they still felt like two halves of one whole. But something had changed. Cody thought it must be their very separate lives, or it could have been something they had argued about.

Before Cody has figured it out, though, she is shocked by the discovery that Meg has killed herself. In a motel room all alone. And she had scheduled the release of her suicide notes, making it clear that everything was planned out to the last detail.

Joe and Sue Garcia, Meg’s parents, are devastated, and when Cody offers to go to Tacoma to pick up Meg’s things, they seem relieved.

I Was Here was a journey, one taken by a grieving young woman who cannot believe that her best friend would willingly leave this life. A journey that will provide unexpected answers, and not the ones Cody was hoping to find.

We are offered a peek into the life Meg lived with her housemates, none of whom really knew her. We see how Cody comes to realize that, despite what she has hoped to prove by her investigation of the Final Solutions website and the people there who seem to “mentor” young people into how to kill themselves, what she discovers instead is a way to make peace with who Meg was…and who she was, too. Not a mystery, really, but a winding exploration of the meaning of friendship and connections. A book I could not put down. 5 stars.

REVIEW: COLD SPRING HARBOR, BY RICHARD YATES

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Life’s randomness sets the tone for Cold Spring Harbor. Taking place on Long Island between 1935 and 1942, it is a tale that zeroes in on the very human flaws and foibles of a group of people whose lives seemingly connect by accident.

Charles and Grace Shepard, and their son Evan, are the first characters we meet, and we learn about how Evan has been a worry to his parents, but now is showing signs of improvement. He meets and marries a girl named Mary Donovan, they have a daughter, Kathleen, and then, inexplicably, they divorce.

During an outing in Queens, Charles and his son Evan’s car breaks down, and when they knock on a door to ask for the use of a telephone, they meet the Drakes. Gloria, her daughter Rachel, and son Phil. There is something overly friendly and a bit annoying about Gloria and how she loves the sound of her own voice.

Then there is her obsession with Charles…fantasizing about them getting together.

How will these rudimentary connections develop into a kind of social network? What will their lives be like, as they seemingly fall into patterns that could best be described as accidental?

A character study, as well as a microcosm of a time and place, this short novel left me feeling morose for how the characters had so little control over their own lives. A story that I will not soon forget, this one earned 4 stars.

REVIEW: THE DAY WE MET, BY ROWAN COLEMAN

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Claire Armstrong is struggling to remember details about her life, about the people she knows and presumably loves, and the feelings attached to those people. She has been a teacher, a single mother to Caitlin, and now a married mother to Esther, who is three. But along the way, the details of her life have changed dramatically.

Why is everything around her, along with pieces of her very being, disappearing? And why does a man she just met by accident in a coffee shop feel so important to her? Why does she clearly remember him and keep meeting up with him? Who is he and what is their connection to one another? And why does her husband Greg seem like a stranger in their home?

It is a mystery, but is it a feature of her illness or one of life’s surprises? Alzheimer’s disease, which is Claire’s diagnosis, has a way of carving out bits and pieces of her mind and emotions, without rhyme or reason.

Multiple narrators, beginning with Claire’s voice, take us into the past, and then headlong into the present with its confusion and disorientation, followed by moments of clarity. We also read alternate narratives from Greg, her husband; Ruth, her mother; and Caitlin, her twenty-year-old daughter.

One of Claire’s tasks, in her lucid moments, is to somehow pave the way for those she leaves behind. But when she is not clear, she feels like a prisoner, which is why she constantly tries to escape. Running away blindly and then getting lost, she experiences a wide range of emotions, from delight at the escape to paralyzing fear at the moment she realizes she no longer knows where she is or even who she is.

Caitlin’s story is one that captured me, too, with her own personal struggles of identity, along with a quest to find her father, whom she believed had abandoned her. Will she find a new connection that can help heal the loss of another? And does she carry the gene that could bring out this disease in her own body? Does she want to know?

The Day We Met: A Novel is set in Guildford, with an occasional journey to London and Manchester. The story of Ruth, Claire, and Caitlin, as well as the people in their lives, is clearly etched against their surroundings, just as their connections to one another define them.

There were surprises along the way and some feel-good moments at the end as some earlier mysteries sorted themselves out. The way the story flowed between the past and the present seemed to illustrate very clearly how the lucid moments came and went in Claire’s mind. An unforgettable story that was both poignant and surprisingly happy, too. 5.0 stars.