The Museum of Forgotten Memories, by Anstey Harris***

Cate Morris has her back to the wall. She’s lost her job and her apartment; her husband, Richard, is dead and she and her son, Leo, are still grieving. With nothing left to lose, she packs their belongings and heads for Richard’s ancestral home at Hatters, a place that turns out to be full of secrets and the unexpected.  In the end, the museum is renovated, as well as its occupants.

My thanks go Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

I read and enjoyed Harris’s last novel, Goodbye Paris, and when I saw that she had another book in the works, I leapt on it. Harris develops plots that are fresh and original, and so when I open the book, I expect great things. And in most ways, I find them.

The first and most obvious aspect is the museum. The family patriarch, Sir Hugo, is now deceased, but he was a benign presence in the tiny village; his museum, which is now somewhat anachronistic, showcases a collection of taxidermized African animals, among other things:

“It is a conundrum, like everything else in this peculiar house. From the glaring dead animals conserved in their alabaster homes, through the thousands of books that no one can reach to read, right into the wet green foliage of the unmanageable woods Colonel Hugo’s grandfather meticulously planted, this place contradicts itself at every turn, gives then takes away, frightens then comforts.”

Though Leo is an heir and has the right to be there, Cate and Leo are met coolly by Araminta, an older woman who has become nearly the sole caretaker of the whole enormous enterprise.  There are a number of things that don’t add up, but since there’s no real choice, Cate and Leo forge on. Leo, who has Down’s Syndrome, is a hugely congenial character, and again, Harris brings in an element that few other novelists have done lately. I have never had much interest in this syndrome, and came to the novel for the author rather than this attribute, but I enjoy Leo a lot, and he has a shining moment toward the conclusion that I will remember for a long time.

Throughout the novel’s progress, Cate is still processing and grieving Richard’s loss, though it’s been years. There’s a stretch midway through that feels repetitive, with Cate grieving, remembering, stewing, and assuring the reader that she won’t tell anyone everything about Richard’s death. I become impatient with it, mentally telling her to fish or cut bait and get on with it, but soon after I hit that point, she does exactly that. There are a lot of secrets floating around this museum; there’s one involving Araminta that I am able to guess ahead of time, but there’s another big reveal toward the end that I find inappropriate and jarring, and it’s important enough to the story that I can’t overlook it. Up to the ninety percent mark, I had this book pegged as a five star read.

Despite my disappointment, I am not finished with Anstey Harris. Her work is bold and original, and I respect her willingness to take risks. However, my advice to you is to buy it cheap or get it free if you’d like to read it; save the full cover price for her next novel, or use it to buy the last one, if you haven’t yet read it.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib*****

Anna isn’t eating, and she’s so weak that she faints from time to time. Her husband, Matthias is afraid for her; this isn’t the life they envisioned when they moved from France to the States. She is admitted to a facility for women with eating disorders, and it is that address that gives the book its title. Big thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and my deepest apologies for being so late with my feedback.

I never would have expected to want to read a novel about an anorexic protagonist. In real life, Anna would have offered me her fries and her dessert, and I would have cheerfully accepted them. She in turn would inwardly shudder, my stocky grandma body providing her with a cautionary example of what happens to those that eat such things.

When I was a sweet young thing growing up in the 1970s, there were rumors that some of the girls at school kept their figures slender by throwing up after they’d eaten; a friend and I commiserated over our own lack of self-discipline. We had scarfed down our Halloween candy and not even considered ralphing it back up in the bathroom. Now we could barely fasten our jeans, while those classmates were smaller than we were.

We thought that some girls have all the luck.

It wasn’t until the death of singer Karen Carpenter that anorexia became well known, and even then, it took us awhile to clue in on the details. Because it’s about body image, and yet it isn’t. And Zgheib does a wonderful job of educating the reader using that approachable medium, fiction.

In Paris, Anna was a dancer. When she and Matthias married, she planned to go on dancing professionally, at least until they had children. But when he was presented with a prestigious promotion that required him to relocate to the United States, they packed their things; Anna had expected to continue her career in America, but she was never chosen.

The in-patient facility where she is treated has strict, clear rules about every aspect of daily life, and most of the privileges hinge around timely consumption of the food that’s provided. Anna’s struggle is profound, and her story is moving. Because it’s about food, but not really. She has buried a trauma involving the deaths of her brother and her mother, and she’s channeled her self-hatred into this eating disorder. We catch glimpses of this as she expertly dodges questions raised in therapy. One of the most moving moments, strangely, has to do with a bagel and cream cheese. She’s supposed to eat it, and she throws a pluperfect hissy. She never eats dairy, she says. She wants the vegan option! No dice, honey. But as time moves forward and this difficulty continues, she finally reveals that actually, this might have once been her favorite food. It was so delicious, and it took her such iron self-control to forget its taste. All that work, she thinks, and now it’s ruined. And she is genuinely shattered by this.

Only one sufferer in three recovers from anorexia.

Due to a backlog of galleys, I checked out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the voice actor that reads it is perfect.

Highly recommended.

When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.