Broken, by Jenny Lawson****-*****

4.5 stars, rounded up.

Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess, has a new book out, and I do believe it’s my favorite. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Lawson bucks a somewhat disquieting trend, and I am so glad. The trend is to make the first three chapters—most likely what sells the book—sterling, and then fill the rest with mediocre, highly missable prose. In contrast, the earliest part of this memoir is good, but it’s not great. She starts slow and then builds toward most of her best material, leaving me smiling as the book concludes.

But let’s go back to the material at the start, which I find to be random in a way that yearns for the hand of a high profile editor. I’m throwing my hands up, wondering just why a professional writer would blather on like this. Can she write a coherent sentence, and then end it when it’s over? Of course, I continued reading and loved the essays in the middle, and as we draw near the end, she refers to the challenges she encounters in writing, citing her inclination to overwrite, and the resultant paragraphs that contain “a run-on sentence that would make an English teacher cut herself,” and I howled, because that’s it, exactly. Almost exactly, I mean; I was moaning, but I hadn’t reached for anything sharp.

What is it about depression and humor, and the connection between them? It’s hard to tease apart all of the components that make Lawson’s writing so compelling; to a certain extent, it’s alchemy of the human spirit, I suppose, combined with skill at self-expression. But there are other components much easier to spot. One is her disarming frankness; for example, she mentions that people, remarking on her twentieth wedding anniversary, ask about her secrets for a long and happy marriage, and she tells us that actually, not all of those years have been happy. There are good periods, and there are bad periods. And then she adds, not entirely jokingly, that part of the reason she is still married is that there are things in her marriage that she doesn’t write about.

But even more compelling is her level of perception, and her ability to understand the subtext of just about everything.

I’ll mention my favorite parts, but I am not giving up any more humorous quotes, because that’s a crappy thing to do to a humor writer. There’s a funny part having to do with shoes, and the kayaking trip from hell, which she dubs “Divorce Creek.” The chapter about Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which is a serious bit for the purpose of informing us, is interesting and may be of help to a number of readers. (However, the searing honesty about her suicidal impulses might actually be a trigger for a profoundly depressed reader.) And the infuriating experiences she has had dealing with insurance makes me want to throw things, but it is important that she includes them here.

If you’re a fan of The Bloggess’s writing, you have to get this book. If you are new to her work, you can dive into this memoir without reading her previous ones. Highly recommended.

Straying, by Molly McCloskey*****

StrayingThis title is the first fictional work McCloskey has published in the US, but surely it cannot be the last. This addictive novel came to me free and early, courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. It becomes available to the public February 20, 2018.

Alice has returned to Ireland. As a young woman of 24, she had gone there intending to visit, gain some perspective about what to do with her life, and then return to Portland, Oregon, but instead she met Eddie and married. “I was not sure how grown-up love was supposed to feel.” Now she is more mature and single again; she returns to Ireland and in a deeply intimate, gently philosophical narrative, tells us about what happened, and about the affair with Cauley that was instrumental in ending her marriage.

Here I must confess that I have old-fashioned ideas about cheating on a spouse. If your marriage is solid, you should respect it and be faithful. If your marriage is dying, get out before you start something new; don’t sneak around and tell lies. If your marriage is troubled and you aren’t sure what you want, address that first, but don’t poison the well with a fling. It’s unethical and unfair. Have some integrity, for goodness sake.

And so, why am I reading this novel, and more to the point, why am I loving it? It goes to show that a strong writer can make me want to read almost anything, whereas an indifferent one may start with a promising scenario that fizzles. McCloskey pulls me in and doesn’t let me go.

The cover art tells the reader right away that despite the title, this is not erotica. Those looking for a novel that will make them breathe hard will have to find something else. Straying gives us something far better, in my view. I feel as if Alice is my dear friend. I usually read several titles at once, drifting from one to another over the course of a day or evening. But Alice interrupts my literary smorgasbord because in a way, I feel disloyal for reading anything else. The narrative here, told in the first person, is so deeply personal that it’s as if she is sitting across from me at a coffee shop (or since we’re in Ireland, in a pub perhaps), and she’s spilling the beans, confessing everything that she did, and the consequences that followed. She isn’t beating herself up Anna Karenina-style, nor is she proud of her mistakes; rather, she is explaining what happened, what she’s learned from it, and what she still wonders about. It’s not prose you can walk away from until it’s over.

Those that love excellent fiction should buy this book and read it. If you can get it cheap, do that; if you have to pay full jacket price, do it anyway. You don’t want to miss this one.

We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas *****

WearenotourselvesA haunting, epic story that stays with the reader long after the final page has been turned; Thomas has created a masterpiece. Thank you once and once again to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the ARC.

When I saw that some goodreads reviewers had marked this book at three stars, at first I wanted to grab those people, shake them by the shoulders and ask, “What is wrong with you?”

But eventually, I came to understand, or at least I believe I do, what it was that bothered them. Our protagonist is not always a lovable one. She’s deeply flawed and hard to bond with. Those who equate a lovable character with a well written book may indeed be disappointed, not only by this story, but by many of the Great Books.

As for me, I am impressed. My measure of extraordinary literature is that I am still thinking of, or even wishing I could have a conversation with the main characters after I have finished reading. I’ve moved on to other books, and yet this one remains with me. Aw, geez; poor Ed. We didn’t know. And what’s up with Connell, anyway? It speaks to me on a deeply personal level as I find myself comparing my own family and relationships with the Leary family. Given that I am a reader who absorbs a dozen books a month and sometimes more, this says a great deal.

Our protagonist is Eileen, who grows up in an Irish immigrant family that cuts across the typical large, boisterous, poor-yet-loving stereotype of the New York Irish. Instead she is the only child in a chilly, quiet apartment. Relationships are often strange and distant despite the fact that her parents love each other and her. The second bedroom is taken, for most of her childhood, by a tenant. Her father is a genial man, well loved among the Irish workingmen’s community, a union man and a hard drinker. Her mother is lonely, hardworking, and bitter until she also takes to drink; yet her parents don’t drink together, but apart. The only fun time is when relatives from Ireland come across the ocean and spill over into her family’s wee apartment as their final pit stop before finding a place of their own.

Eileen grows up knowing that she wants more.

As her hormones work their alchemy and her body grows and changes, she becomes disarmingly beautiful, and she understands that marriage may be her ticket to better things. Once she finishes college and becomes a nurse, she wants to marry a man of great capability and ambition. She believes she has found him when she meets Ed, a brilliant young scientist with a promising career ahead of him. Between the two of them, they ought to be able to bring in the money needed to live the good life. By the time children come, he should have climbed far and high enough that she can stop working and be happily domestic in a magnificent home. It is the dream of the 1950’s, though she wants something a bit finer than a suburban house with a picket fence.

Eileen’s grasping nature and her harsh behavior, at times, toward Ed and their son are off-putting. When their only child brings home a test marked 95%, her husband exudes praise while she asks what happened to the other five percent. I cringe. At times she seems to understand that she is showing no more warmth than her own mother did, yet the habits are ingrained. She does not reach out for the hug, does not easily part with praise. And as it becomes clear that her goals and Ed’s are not really the same, the marriage begins to founder.

The harder she pushes, the more irritated I grow with her. It’s like watching a relative who is bent on self ruin; I want to talk her out of this. I want to hit the “escape” key for her. I want her to be more empathetic, more flexible. But the one thing I absolutely don’t want to do is put the book down.

Then the unthinkable happens, not at all what I expected though, and everything that has gone before takes on new meaning. As events unfold, Eileen must change also.

To say more would be to spoil the read, and you should read it. Happily, this is one book that works just fine on a digital device, and I am grateful to the publisher and Net Galley for letting me read it that way. But if you are a reader who needs the tangible object in your hands, I will tell you that this is worth investing in. All you need is an attachment to excellent literature.

Absolutely brilliant. I look forward to seeing more of Matthew Thomas’s work in the future!