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.


*Page numbers based on the egalley

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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.


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The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel – Book Review

The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel
Published by St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan

Janey has always had a thing for babies, ever since she was six and found an abandoned baby in the planter at a hotel with her grandmother. So when Jill, one of her best friends in grad school,  gets pregnant and the father doesn’t want to be involved, it seems like an obvious choice for Janey, Jill, and Katie to move in together and share parenting duties. Janey, Jill, and Katie have a classic friendship, born of loneliness, uncertainty, and terrible grad school eating habits. They have always had their own apartments, but Janey has always mothered them all, and now she’ll have a real live baby to mother. Things begin swimmingly when Jill’s son Atlas makes his appearance, but as the three young women try to balance school, teaching, living together, and motherhood things become predictably stressed.

The Atlas of Love could easily have been an immensely mediocre book. It would not take a Masters in Literature to predict how this experiment in shared motherhood will end. Yet it is exactly a Masters in Literature that lends The Atlas of Love its charm. Laurie Frankel teaches in an English department, and Janey and all of her friends are graduate students in English. The self-referential literature remarks, Janey’s comparison of their life to the literature she studies, these things are what The Atlas of Love unique and interesting.

Join the conversation on March 31, 2011

A touching story of friendship, parental love, and unconventional families. Recommended.

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Source: Publisher for SheKnows Book Club.
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The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah – Book Review

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Published by Graywolf Press

In 1944, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean is somewhat removed from the rest of the world, enough that a nine year-old boy would not know that the rest of the world had been embroiled in a bitter war. Of course, even without knowledge of the war, Raj has a very painful life of his own, growing up in a small, poor village with a violently alcoholic father, and losing his two brothers to a storm. His life is difficult enough that things actually seem to be looking up with Raj is hospitalized at the prison his father works for – the only hospital facility around – and meets David. Raj doesn’t understand why David and so many other light skinned men and women are imprisoned, on Mauritius the white men are the ones who are in charge, not the ones found in prison. Regardless, though, he and David are immediate friends, more like brothers, really.

The Last Brother is framed from the modern-day adult perspective of Raj, and we know almost immediately that something tragic happened during his time with David, although it is only through his recollection of the past that we discover exactly what it was. This is a rather short book – less than 200 pages – but it is so richly evocative of place and emotion that it feels just as meaty as something twice as long. Having Raj frame the story as an adult lends the more reflective and retrospective feel that is really crucial to this story, while still allowing the narration of Raj as a nine year-old to be authentic.

Besides being very well written and translated, The Last Brother gives the reader a peek at a story of World War II that most of us have never read, that of the 1500 European Jews who were turned away from Palestine and detained as illegal immigrants on Mauritius for years. More information about this historical reality can be found in Nathacha Appanah’s interview with Tablet Magazine.

Don’t let the slim volume fool you, The Last Brother is a powerful novel that packs a huge emotional punch. Highly recommended.

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Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell – Book Review

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Published by Random House

The last thing Gail Caldwell expected to find when training her dog Clementine was a best friend, but that is exactly what she found in Caroline Knapp, and more. Gail and Caroline’s dog trainer suggested then spend some time together because they were so alike. Both women had puppies they’d gotten less than a year ago, they were both writers, both recovering alcoholics, athletic, and incredibly independent. From that fateful meeting, the women formed a lasting bond that would sustain them until Caroline’s death of lung cancer, a short time after being diagnosed.

Released earlier this August, “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” is getting a lot of buzz. While I was at BEA, a representative of Random House listed it as one of the publishing house’s top 5 picks for book clubs this coming year. I must say, for about 140 pages, I didn’t really see it, and that is a long time in a book that is less than 190 pages long.

It also took me about that long to realize what my problem was with it. “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” is billed as a memoir of Gail and Caroline’s friendship, but it was almost more of an extended essay about their friendship, without the strong narrative of many of my favorite memoirs. Not that Caldwell didn’t have a strong voice, she does, but her writing milieu is on the critical side. Caroline was the columnist and memoirist in their relationship. Knowing this I’m not surprised that “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” was so much more like an essay, but it did not grab me as quickly as a more narrative-driven version of this story might have.

Of course, I can imagine that in many was, the essay structure was easier to write than the narrative would have been. There is so much love and pain, friendship and grief in this story, that for Gail to have gone deep into the story of her relationship with Caroline might have been deeply painful. Unfortunately, the pain is much of what makes this story so compelling. It was during Caroline’s sickness and after her death, the last 40 or so pages, that “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” really came into its own. Suddenly the pages seemed to be almost turning themselves, and my heart was fully immersed in this story.

Although I’m sure it would have been infinitely more difficult to write, I wish that Caldwell had been able to infuse more of the emotion from the end of “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” into the beginning of the book. However, even though I more appreciated the book for what it was than truly loved it, I think it is a must-read for any woman who has lost a close friend.

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This review was done with a book received at BEA.
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