Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close – Book Review

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
Published by Knopf, an imprint of Random House

The post-college years can be a relationship minefield. You begin to drift away from the friends who marry and have children significantly before – or after – you do; finding new friends and lovers becomes more difficult as you are no longer routinely thrown together in school with people in a similar age bracket and with similar interests. It is this limbo in which Isabella, Mary, and Lauren are firmly stuck. They are out of college and on their own: in nice apartments in Chicago and crummy shoebox ‘apartments’ in New York; in good relationships and dating idiots who cannot spell their names correctly; in nice, stable jobs and the worst of the worst waitressing jobs. In the middle of all this, they are scraping up cash for bridesmaids dresses, wedding shower presents, wedding presents, and baby shower presents, as it seems that everyone they know seems to be moving into that settled state of coupledom and familydom.

Girls in White Dresses is less a cohesive narrative than a collection of anecdotes about Isabella, Mary, Lauren, and their friends as they attempt to navigate young adulthoood. Rather than causing the readers to feel disconnected from her characters, though, Close’s structure lent her story a sense of universality. No matter what your post-college path or choices, it is likely that you will identify with one or more of the girls’ stories. Many of the vignettes in Girls in White Dresses are laugh out loud funny, as is this scene at a bridal shower when the bride’s mother’s friends all begin singing My Favorite Things:

They kept singing and started swaying back and forth. Abby was standing unfortunately close to the woman who’d started the singing, and the woman wrapped her arm around Abby’s shoulders, forced her to move in time with the music, and looked at her with an encouraging smile until Abby started to sing along with her. A few of the women were snapping their fingers. Lauren looked at Isabella and Mary and said, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, right?” -p. 171

Others, however, are poignant and thoughtful, as when Lauren and Isabella discuss a recently-divorced friend who has elected to keep her married name:

“Why wouldn’t she go back to Beth Bauer?” she asked Lauren. “She doesn’t have any kids. It’s so weird.”
“I don’t know,” Lauren said. “Maybe she’s afraid no one will remember who she is.”
“Maybe,” Isabella said. The thought left her uneasy. -p. 249

Close’s humor and grace is intensified by her lovely and engaging prose, creating in Girls in White Dresses a book that readers will be hard-pressed to put down.

Highly recommended.

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Things We Didn’t Say by Kristina Riggle – Book Review

Things We Didn’t Say by Kristina Riggle
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks, in imprint of HarperCollins

Family isn’t always easy, and the Turner family has their own special problems. Michael Turner is trying to make things work with his live-in fiance Casey, but his mentally ill ex-wife Mallory doesn’t make that easy, particularly when Michael must worry about his three children every time they visit their mother for the weekend. Casey has demons of her own – the death of her brother, her recovering alcoholism – and is no longer sure that her love for Michael is enough. She’s ready to walk out the door, never to return, when she gets a call from the high school that Dylan, Michael’s middle child, attends, saying that he never showed up for school. Suddenly a complicated situation is made all the more complicated by a missing teenager, and the Turners must decide just what sort of family they really are.

Riggle is at her best when she is living inside the messy reality of modern families, and Things We Didn’t Say is full of some of her most deliciously flawed characters yet. All six of the major characters – Casey, Michael, Mallory, and the three children – narrate at least one chapter in their own voice. As opposed to her first book, Real Life & Liars, which also featured a family, but in which most character’s chapters were in the third person, each family member actually gets to narrate their chapters in first person, bringing the reader closer to even the least central members of the family. Particularly effective is one of Mallory’s chapters, her smug and destructive attitude practically oozes from the pages, leaving the reader feeling furious, and perhaps slightly contaminated by her bile.

Things We Didn’t Say is a fascinatingly intimate look at the lives of a single, ordinary family during a time of extraordinary crisis. It is rich and engrossing, a read that will captivate your very heart. I read almost the entire thing in two sittings, and would have easily sat long enough to read it in a single sitting, had my own life not intervened. Things We Didn’t Say is a beautiful book; highly recommended.

Disclaimer: Please note, I have spent some time in a friendly manner with Riggle at various book events, but this has in no way influenced the content of this review. I loved this book wholeheartedly because it is great book, and not because I occasionally chat with Riggle on Twitter.

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The Art of Forgetting by Camille Noe Pagan – Book Review

The Art of Forgetting by Camille Noe Pagan
Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin

For years, Marissa has been trailing her best friend Julia around. When she was new to school, it was Julia who befriended her, who rescued her from the realm of friendless new girl. Julia may have been bossy, at best, but she was Marissa’s friend. Until one day, when Julia is running late to meet Marissa for dinner and she is hit by a car. Julia’s physical injuries are relatively minor, but her brain injuries are not. She hasn’t forgotten entirely who she is, but her behavior is somewhat erratic and she does not always recognize her friends and family.

“Oh, I know who you are,” she says haughtily, instantly reminding me of my grandfather after he developed Alzheimer’s. The comparison sends a chill straight down spine. -p. 19*

Throwing the reader immediately into the drama can be a risky proposition for a novel; there is always the possibility that even the most heart-wrenching event will leave the reader feeling cold, wondering why she should care about anything that happens to these characters. Debut novelist Camile Noe Pagan made it work, though. The Art of Forgetting opens in the first few pages with Julia’s tragic accident and it packs all the emotional impact one could hope for.

I very much enjoyed The Art of Forgetting, although I did have a couple of minor issues. First and foremost, I hated Marissa and Julia’s friendship. I was hoping all along that Julia’s accident would bring Marissa to the realization that they had never really been friends. Julia was very much a mean girl, at times bordering on abusive. Marissa’s personal growth arc throughout the novel is fantastic, but at times I wished it went just little further so that she could disassociate herself more completely with her friend. In addition, some of the dialogue was every so slightly stilted. Still, most of the writing and characterization was so good that even with the minor complaints I very much enjoyed The Art of Forgetting.

Recommended.

*Page numbers based on the egalley

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Source: The Art of Forgetting.
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Friendship Bread by Darien Gee – Book Review

Friendship Bread by Darien Gee
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

Julia Evarts’s life is basically falling apart. She has her husband Mark and her daughter Gracie, but she can’t enjoy them, not since her son died, just months before her daughter’s birth. Since that time her grief has crippled her, she can’t work, she can barely care for her daughter, and her husband is like a stranger to her. And then, one day, someone leaves a bag of friendship bread starter on her doorstep. With every ounce of insistence a five-year old can muster, Gracie cajoles Julia into making the bread and, to everyone’s surprise, Julia has fun with it. Before too long she is venturing to the new tea shop in town, and befriending Madeline and Hannah, both new transplants to Avalon.

As the friendship bread begins to make its way around the town of Avalon, it brings people together as well as pulling people apart. Women are coming together all over town in order to find new ways to use their starter. Of course, there are also people running away from their friends and neighbors because they can’t handle even one more bag of starter.

Early on in Friendship Bread I wasn’t really sure about it. For one thing, there are a great many characters. In addition to Julia, Mark, Madeline, and Hannah, Julia’s sister Livvie and her friend, a reporter named Edie are also main characters. Besides all of these people who have significant story, there are alternating chapters with other members of the community once the bread begins to circulate. In addition, it is a little more uplifting than I typically like. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was obviously uplifting from the beginning, more so than I typically read.

Except then, Friendship Bread completely sucked me in. 100%. The past tragedies of the citizens of Avalon tugged at my heart-strings, and then when things got really uplifting, it was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Darien Gee created something pretty fantastic here to move me so much with something that initially seemed somewhat lighter than I typically prefer.

Recommended

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The Love Goddess’ Cooking School by Melissa Senate – Book Review

The Love Goddess’ Cooking School by Melissa Senate
Published by Gallery, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

All her life, Holly has been somewhat adrift. She tries to have a fulfilling life, including meaningful romantic relationships, but she herself seems unsure of what exactly she wants, and things never quite work out. After her latest failed relationship, Holly returns to her grandmother’s house on Blue Crab Island, off the coast of Maine. Holly’s grandmother is a special women who runs her own Cucinotta, teaches Italian cooking classes, and has been known to tell people’s fortunes – including telling Holly that the love of her life will be a man who loves sa cordula, a dish of lamb intestines with peas. When Holly’s grandmother passes away, Holly inherits everything but her gift of second sight, and must get her cooking skills – and her life – together if she wants to honor her grandmother’s legacy by keeping her store and classes going.

With “The Love Goddess’ Cooking School,” Senate has given us a sweet and well-written book about discovering one’s self and one’s talents. Holly is a likable and well-developed character. I did at times have trouble reconciling her great leaps forward in cooking ability, but I think that Senate supported that well with Holly’s unceasing practice, and the fact that she did grow up around her grandmother’s kitchen in the first place. The romantic angle was somewhat predictable – I knew from the second the love interest first walked into the store that he would indeed be the love interest – but that is not necessarily a bad thing in a fun and uplifting read like “The Love Goddess’ Cooking School.”

Interestingly, of all of the supporting characters, the love interest was perhaps the least well developed, but this did serve to make the book more about Holly and her self-discovery than about the great love foretold by her grandmother, which was somewhat refreshing. The members of Holly’s cooking class were very well sketched, with problems and realities of their own that added to the overall plot without seeming as if they were forced to do so.

Overall a very enjoyable book, and one I would recommend snuggling in with on a cold winter’s day.

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Source: Library.
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