Vacuum in the Dark, by Jen Beagin***

I received this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It will be available to the public February 26, 2019.

The cover grabbed my attention right away since I like sassy working class fiction. I haven’t read the author’s first book, but this one doesn’t rely on back story, so that is no problem.

The promotional blurb says this is laugh-out-loud funny, and it did make me laugh out loud right away. The protagonist Mona is a housecleaner, and as she is wiping down the various surfaces in the bathroom, she comes across a human turd on a soap dish. The hell? But she resolves not to say anything about it, because she tells us once you mention it, they win. I howled with laughter. This is great stuff. Every now and then she tosses in a cleaning tip, and for some reason it works with the narrative. Maybe it’s because she already uses such an eccentric style that it seems consistent with the rest of the story.

As the first of the book’s four sections moves forward, she recollects the oddball things that she’s found while cleaning other people’s homes, and then we see the reward she gives herself at the end, after several hours of cleaning a large, expensive home: she paws through the residents’ clothing, selects some, and tries it on. She photographs herself in their clothes, and she also photographs herself mostly nude with their more remarkable possessions.

But one day she is interrupted in this ritual by the homeowner, and a truly bizarre relationship develops which includes his wife as well, and just like that we moved out of my comfort zone, but I promised to read and review this thing, so I forged onward.

I knew this would be edgy humor when I requested the galley, and perhaps I should have read between the lines a little more thoroughly. The narrative contains a goodly amount of explicit sexual content—much of it twisted–not to mention a rape that Mona recounts, a scarring episode from her past. But in all of it, I don’t see any character development to speak of.  The plot seems like more of a framework that’s been constructed in order to contain the various bits of humor that the author wants to include. And here, I also have to wonder why, why, why would anyone include the horrific suicide of a family member in an otherwise raunchily funny book? It was unexpected and made my gut flip over, the snide things she thinks about how the couple has dealt with the death of their daughter, the disposition of the ashes. Once you have read something you can’t unread it, and in all honesty I won’t read anything by this writer again.

At the same time, there are readers that loved her first book and I’ll bet you a dollar that they will love this one too. It bears the hallmark of a cult classic. I have no doubt that many readers will love it, but I do not.

Recommended to readers that read and enjoyed the author’s first book.

The Girls in the Garden, by Lisa Jewell****

thegirlsinthegardenLisa Jewell is an experienced author, but she is new to me. The Girls in the Garden, published in the UK last summer and soon to be in bookstores in the USA, is good strong fiction, and you should read it. I was fortunate and obtained an advance copy thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books for the purpose of a review. One night I stayed up late, unable to put it down until it was done.

Clare and Adele both have daughters, and both live in mixed-use residences that enclose a very large private garden. It’s been a great place to raise children for generations; in fact, some of the adults raising families here were also here as children. And there are so many children, introduced so quickly! I can usually juggle a hefty cast of characters just fine while also reading other books on the side, but in this case, the combination of all these characters and a surprising amount of culture shock—I am not as well informed with regard to British culture as I thought I was—left me staggering during the first ten percent of the book. My e-reader has notes that say, “Wait! Who?” and “Whose kid is this now?” and twice, “The fuck??” “What is a onesie, other than baby clothing?” Context wasn’t helping, so I did a web crawl. Okay, now I know. And isn’t tea usually mid-afternoon, with cookies or cake, and isn’t high tea formal and later? Do they have tea instead of lunch, instead of dinner, or are there four meals here?

And when I ran across spaghetti and peas for tea at 5 PM, again I wrote, “THE FUCK?”  Who eats peas in their spaghetti?

If a reader has to be confused, it’s better to have it be at the beginning and then catch up, than at the end, where one may walk away feeling stung and bewildered. Although I never did fully feel I had placed all of the characters, by the twenty percent mark I had a good feel for the primary ones and most of the others, and that was enough to make this an enjoyable read once I was oriented.

The story builds up to, and then centers around a party at the end of which adolescent Grace is found bloody and half-dressed, lying in the bushes. What has been done to her, and who has done it?

Ordinarily I would consider this a spoiler, but it’s provided on the book’s blurb and jacket, so readers are told right away this is our central problem. But there are layers that delve deeper, and these are what make this such an interesting read.

When is a parent over-protective, and when are they not careful enough? What makes someone a good parent? How much do we hold tight to keep our children safe, and when is it right to let things go; not only to trust our kids, but also to trust the world with our children?

There are no easy answers, but I found myself making small clucking noises when one parent or another makes what appears to me to be an error in judgment. Likely you’ll do the same, though perhaps not in the same places. The ambiguity makes it delicious.

The narrative point of view shifts from that of Pip, who is twelve, to that of Adele, one of the mothers. This is effective. Pip writes letters to her father, and they assume a portion of her narrative, adding a first person perspective, and at first I thought this device was too cutesy, but I changed my mind by the halfway point. It adds something that would be hard to inject as effectively any other way.

As to what has happened to Grace, there are so many possible villains, so many motivations and opportunities, but when the solution is finally reached, I feel as though the author has played us fairly. Sometimes a mystery writer will reach clear into left field for a solution. Perhaps they may discover a secret twin during the last ten percent of the story, or perhaps the villain is someone everyone had believed long dead. And that doesn’t happen here.

Ultimately I don’t think the story is really about Grace. The story is about trust within adult relationships. Misplaced trust can be dangerous; too much suspicion is toxic. And so the dance women do—and perhaps everyone does—is in trying to find the balance. It isn’t easy, especially when we are young parents, still learning the ropes ourselves.

Despite the tumble of characters at the beginning that I suspect will challenge many readers as it did me, I recommend that you read this book. It offers us something I haven’t seen anywhere lately.

The Girls in the Garden becomes available to readers in the USA Tuesday June 7, 2016.