The Sisters of Summit Avenue, by Lynn Cullen***-****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy, which I received over a year ago. I began reading this story numerous times, but I didn’t find it engaging enough to continue, and so each time I began it, I would end up returning it to my queue in exchange for something I liked. However, I recently began moving through my backlog with assistance from Seattle Bibliocommons, where I was able to get audio versions of those I’d left by the wayside. Ultimately, this is how I was able to follow through, and it’s a good thing, because the last half of this book is far better than the first half.

The story features three women, all of them in the American Midwest in the early 1920s. The sisters are Ruth and June, and their mother is Dorothea. June is the golden one, the prettiest and most successful. Ruth, who is younger, just resents the crap out of June. And she can tell that their mother loves June more.  June, on the other hand, is Betty Crocker; one of them, anyway. One of the few career opportunities open to women involves inventing recipes for Betty; answering Betty’s mail; and playing the part of Betty on the radio. Women visit the company expecting to meet Betty, and thy are outraged to learn that no such person actually exists.

Meanwhile, Ruth and her family remain in the family home with Dorothea, and the sisters are estranged. Their mother hates to see them this way, and she schemes to bring them together.

The narrative shifts between the three women, and from the past to the present. When we are taken back to their youths, we learn what has come between them, and what assumptions, grudges, and secrets each holds that has not been said.

The first half of this book feels like it will never end. The sloppy pop-cultural references grate on me, particularly when the shortcuts result in inaccuracy. For example, when the stock market crashes, Cullen has men jumping from skyscrapers left, right, and center, when in fact, this is mostly myth, or at best, hyperbole. At most there was a single jumper in real life. Historical fiction at its best teaches us in an enjoyable way, but when readers are presented with urban legends as reality, it is a letdown.

By the halfway point, I am only still listening to this book because I have to make dinner anyway, and having put in as much time as I have, I figure I may as well finish it up. My review is on its way to being three stars at best, and possibly two. So imagine my surprise when at the 55% mark, the whole thing wakes up! The female character that has been the least interesting up until now is Dorothea, but now we learn the meaty parts that she has kept secret, and there we find the key to everything else. I am so astonished that my jaw drops, and I stop chopping vegetables and gape at my tablet, which is streaming this story. Oh, heck! Seriously? This is why…? Oh, holy crap. Who knew?

From that point forward, it’s an entirely different ballgame. When I head for the kitchen, I’m already thinking about what I heard the day before, and looking forward to the next bit.

Those that enjoy character-based fiction could do a lot worse, as long as you take the historical parts with a grain of salt. Overall, I recommend that if you read this book, you should get it free or cheap, and prepare to be patient.

reposting All We Had: A Novel, by Annie Weatherwax***** Comes Out Tuesday!

All We HadThis quirky, funny, poignant story had me from hello. How often have you read a really strong mother-daughter novel? The legendary Marge Piercy brought some our way, and of course Amy Tan. Does Annie Weatherwax deserve a place in such auspicious company? I think she does.
Ruth and her mother have nobody and nothing, apart from each other and whatever they can throw in the car, and most of that stuff might not actually belong to them. They sleep together on whatever flat surface is available, sometimes a nasty mattress in an unfinished basement, but they call no place home.
Sometimes it seems more that Ruth is raising her mother than the other way ‘round, and so the fur flies when her mother suddenly decides to exert authority.
Does this sound like anyone you have known? It rings true to me. I’ve known people like this, both professionally and in my personal life. A friend in social work once told me that this “type” of kid keeps it together until she is in her mid-20s and then falls apart, because she didn’t get to scream and act out as an adolescent. At least in developed Western societies, the adolescent stage is necessary to development; if a kid can’t do it at the socially acceptable time of life that most people do, she’ll do it later.
And the fact that I found myself thinking such things, making such predictions for a fictional character, proves exactly how real Ruthie and her mother became to me as I gorged on the literary feast Weatherwax has cooked up. I was notified by Net Galley that since the book was coming out August 5, it would be nice to have my review run in early August, just before its release, and so I set the galley aside when I hit 60 percent. Later, I told myself. You can read it later.
I couldn’t stand it. I have over 100 unread books, most of them used, some of them galleys with a sell-by date on them, but I dove back in mid-July, like a dieter on a chocolate binge. I’ll run this review on my blog in July and then run it again in August, because All We Had is not just any story. It’s the story that couldn’t wait.
Rejoining mother and daughter, then, we head westward. Mom is determined that come what may, Ruthie will go to college, and she has her eye on the Ivy League schools. No matter how many boyfriends she takes up with, moves Ruthie and herself in with, and then books it (sometimes with the guy’s car and almost always with some of his money), their journey continues toward New England.
That is, until they come to Fat River, Ohio, a place that proves exceptional. It is here that Ruthie becomes fast friends with Peter Pam, the transvestite waitress at the local diner. People are different here in Fat River. Nobody has a lot of money, but there is such character here, a sense of community surpassing anything they had ever believed was possible for people like themselves, and the cynical, wise-cracking, foul-mouthed Ruthie and her mom find their defenses breaking down, a bit at a time, as the town takes its hold on their hearts.
What happens from there you will have to learn by yourself. I couldn’t tear myself away. I don’t know whether this book will be a best seller, but I do know that I would have been the poorer for not having read it.
Highly recommended!

All We Had: A Novel, by Annie Weatherwax*****

All We HadThis quirky, funny, poignant story had me from hello. How often have you read a really strong mother-daughter novel? The legendary Marge Piercy brought some our way, and of course Amy Tan. Does Annie Weatherwax deserve a place in such auspicious company? I think she does.
Ruth and her mother have nobody and nothing, apart from each other and whatever they can throw in the car, and most of that stuff might not actually belong to them. They sleep together on whatever flat surface is available, sometimes a nasty mattress in an unfinished basement, but they call no place home.
Sometimes it seems more that Ruth is raising her mother than the other way ‘round, and so the fur flies when her mother suddenly decides to exert authority.
Does this sound like anyone you have known? It rings true to me. I’ve known people like this, both professionally and in my personal life. A friend in social work once told me that this “type” of kid keeps it together until she is in her mid-20s and then falls apart, because she didn’t get to scream and act out as an adolescent. At least in developed Western societies, the adolescent stage is necessary to development; if a kid can’t do it at the socially acceptable time of life that most people do, she’ll do it later.
And the fact that I found myself thinking such things, making such predictions for a fictional character, proves exactly how real Ruthie and her mother became to me as I gorged on the literary feast Weatherwax has cooked up. I was notified by Net Galley that since the book was coming out August 5, it would be nice to have my review run in early August, just before its release, and so I set the galley aside when I hit 60 percent. Later, I told myself. You can read it later.
I couldn’t stand it. I have over 100 unread books, most of them used, some of them galleys with a sell-by date on them, but I dove back in mid-July, like a dieter on a chocolate binge. I’ll run this review on my blog in July and then run it again in August, because All We Had is not just any story. It’s the story that couldn’t wait.
Rejoining mother and daughter, then, we head westward. Mom is determined that come what may, Ruthie will go to college, and she has her eye on the Ivy League schools. No matter how many boyfriends she takes up with, moves Ruthie and herself in with, and then books it (sometimes with the guy’s car and almost always with some of his money), their journey continues toward New England.
That is, until they come to Fat River, Ohio, a place that proves exceptional. It is here that Ruthie becomes fast friends with Peter Pam, the transvestite waitress at the local diner. People are different here in Fat River. Nobody has a lot of money, but there is such character here, a sense of community surpassing anything they had ever believed was possible for people like themselves, and the cynical, wise-cracking, foul-mouthed Ruthie and her mom find their defenses breaking down, a bit at a time, as the town takes its hold on their hearts.
What happens from there you will have to learn by yourself. I couldn’t tear myself away. I don’t know whether this book will be a best seller, but I do know that I would have been the poorer for not having read it.
Highly recommended!