Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

street of houses painted in bright daubs of color
Bright paint covers heartbreaks.

Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road begins in the 1980s as a chatter of Dublin teens take their first jobs.

Ria Johnson is a home-and-hearth, family-and-friends type. Like most of her girlfriends, she plans to work only until she lands a husband. Ria’s best friend, Rosemary Ryan, is a “career first, fellows later” type.

When slick salesman Danny Lynch is transferred to the real estate office in which Ria and Rosemary work, both are smitten. Danny has eyes only for Ria. When they marry, Rosemary is Ria’s maid of honor.

Danny helps a sleazy businessman unload an unsaleable property, acquiring a 1870’s home on Tara Road and the businessman’s mentorship in the process.

Thirteen years later, Ria is about to tell Danny she wants a third child, when Danny says he’s leaving her for his young, pregnant girlfriend.

While still reeling from the news, Ria accidentally picks up a phone call from a woman in America who wants a home for the summer. Impulsively, Ria and Marilyn decided to exchange houses for two months.

Each woman gets to see life—and herself—from a different perspective.

Sadly, although all Binchy’s female characters have life-shattering experiences, few learn from those experiences anything more than how to put a good face on a bad situation.

Tara Road by Maeve Binchy
Delacorte Press. ©1998. 502 p.
1999 bestseller #10; my grade: B

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Irresistible Forces

symbol for electrical attraction is dust jacket art elementIn Irresistible Forces, Danielle Steel revisits one of her familiar plot hooks: the difficulties created when one party in a marriage wants children and the other doesn’t.

Here the high-power, happily married couple are Steve and Meredith Whitman. Steven is a surgeon in a New York City trauma hospital; Meredith is a Wall Street investment banker. Both are dedicated to their jobs, work long hours, consider themselves happily married.

Steve wants kids. Meredith doesn’t.

Meredith is arranging an IPO for a California tech firm, which means spending a lot of time on the road in the US and Europe with Callan Dow, the firm’s founder and CEO.

Callan is attractive, rich, divorced, with two kids. He tells Meredith that her unwillingness to have a child means she isn’t committed to her marriage. That rattles her, but she ignores it.

After the IPO is a success, Callan offers Meredith a job. Steve urges her to take it; he’ll find a job in California and they can have a baby.

Steel pairs both Meredith and Steve off with new partners.

It’s left to some other novelist to write the story of how both Meredith’s and Steve’s second marriages fail, which they surely will.

Irresistible Forces by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1999. 372 p.
1999 bestseller #9; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Rose Madder by Stephen King

An old oil painting wrapped in ripped brown paper.
A romance starts with an oil painting

Stephen King begins Rose Madder at the end of a marriage.

One day Rosie Daniels can’t take any more. She takes her husband’s debit card, painfully walks to the bus station, and rides away from the husband who repeatedly had put her in the hospital.

Her husband, Norman, is a cop. He’s really good at finding people.

Rosie gets off the bus in a city in the next time zone. She has no family, no friends, no job skills.

She has to find a way to survive until she can build a new life for herself.

Rosie finds friends, work, and a decent guy at supersonic speed.

That story alone would be enough for most novelists to tackle. As he did in his 1994 novel Gerald’s Game, King makes his heroine’s situation worse by bringing in a supernatural element. In Rose Madder, that element is a painting of another world into which Rosie is literally drawn.

Had King confined his tale to the real world, the story would have been terrifying.  The addition of the supernatural dilutes the story’s impact with fake gore and glosses over the long-term physical and psychological effects of abuse.

Rose Madder does no favors to readers or abused women.

Rose Madder by Stephen King
Viking. ©1995. 420 p.
1995 bestseller #7; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Daddy by Danielle Steel

Front dust jacket has gold type on medium blue background, no imagesDaddy is most unusual for a Danielle Steel novel: It’s told almost entirely from a man’s viewpoint.

The novel opens with a brief history of the 18-year marriage of Oliver and Sarah Watson, who met as students at Harvard.

When she became pregnant, Sarah wanted an abortion. Oliver had talked her into marrying him instead.

Although Sarah hadn’t wanted babies, she’s a wonderful mother to their three children.  Oliver thinks they have a perfect marriage.

Then Sarah announces she’s been accepted into a master’s program at Harvard. She leaves right after Christmas.

The reactions of Oliver and the children are predictable: They’re hurt, angry, feel abandoned, wonder what they did wrong.

While they’re trying to deal with those issues, Oliver’s father is trying to cope with his mother’s dementia while also trying to pretend it’s not happening, and Oliver gets a big promotion that requires the family to move cross country to California.

Daddy attempts to explore the “What do women want?” question, but Steel can’t get beyond the surface. For Oliver (and perhaps Steel and her legions of devoted readers) the answer is that real women want a man and children.

Daddy isn’t a great novel, but it’s extraordinary for a Danielle Steel novel.

Three days after reading it, I could still remember the plot.

Daddy by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1989. 352 p.
1989 bestseller #3; my grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

How to Save Your Own Life

How to Save Your Own Life is a divorce story, which is the flip side of a love story.

Isadora Wing, neé Isadora White, tells the story.

front dust jacket: close-up of kissing couple
Kissing couple are married, about to marry, or divorcing. 

Isadora wrote the best-selling novel Candida Confesses, which her fans say is not only Isadora’s personal story but theirs as well.

Isadora, 32, has been married for eight years to Bennett Wing, a psychiatrist who sees his analyst and advises Isadora to talk to her analyst.

Bennett and Isadora never talk. They occasionally exchange information and have sex together even when they aren’t talking at all.

Isadora has had affairs, but when she learns Bennett has had affairs that all their friends knew about— and assumed she knew about—she begins to divorce Bennett emotionally, intellectually, sexually.

Her marriage to Bennett makes her distrust the possibility of a happy marriage.

Erica Jong makes Isadora’s tale feel absolutely true.

That’s her novel’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

Although Isadora clothes her observations in quotable witticisms, so many people have had experiences like Isadora’s that there doesn’t seem to be anything new in Jong’s retelling of it.

The love poems that compose the final chapter, however, reveal the uniqueness of Isadora’s experience.

They’re worth the price of the book.

How to Save Your Own Life:
a novel by Erica Jong
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, ©1977. 310 p.
1977 bestseller #8. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Oliver’s Story in which Oliver grows up

Oliver Barrett IV, last seen at the end of Love Story mourning his deceased wife, is still emotionally dead 18 months later when Oliver’s Story opens.

Oliver's Story dust jacket is all text: title, author, and a reference to “Love Story”
Oliver’s Story dust jacket: Just the facts.

Even Jenny’s father thinks its time workaholic Oliver started looking for a new love.

Friends introduce Oliver to a pediatrician, who doesn’t appeal to him, though he finds himself unexpectedly enjoying her family of classical musicians and their music.

Oliver starts seeing a psychiatrist.

He refuses to talk to the shrink about his relationship with his father.

Oliver accidentally meets a woman who intrigues him. He doesn’t even seem to notice that Marcie’s snappy, smart-mouth comebacks sound like Jenny.

But what Marcie Nash tells Oliver about herself doesn’t add up. What does she do with her time? Why won’t she level with him?

Oliver’s Story is twice as long as Love Story, but it’s still Oliver talking about himself—and he’s really rather a jerk.

On the plus side, Erich Segal lets readers finally learn the reason for Oliver’s alienation from his parents.

And he lets Oliver begin to act like an adult.

However, I can’t help wondering what might have happened if Segal had let Oliver accept the Steins’ invitation to join their living room orchestra.

Oliver’s Story by Erich Segal
Harper & Row, ©1977. 264 p.
1977 bestseller #5. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Rabbit Redux is a literary Pompeii

Rabbit Redux is the second volume of what would become John Updike’s four-book series about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Although Redux is peppered with allusions to Rabbit, Run, readers who haven’t read that will feel slightly out of place.

Red, gray and blue striped cover suggests things out of whack in Rabbit Redux
The moon landing happens during Rabbit Redux.

The novel is set in 1969 in Brewer, a small Pennsylvania city whose neon outskirts conceal a decaying core left by the middle class folks like the Angstroms fleeing to the suburbs.

Harry takes the bus (“It stinks of Negroes.”) to work downtown. Janice drives the car to her job so she can meet her lover conveniently.

Janice moves in with her boyfriend.

Invited to a seedy bar by a black man with whom he works, Harry agrees to give a bed to a runaway, who says she’s 18 and drug free.

He brings Jill home; soon she and Harry’s son, 13-year-old son Nelson, are pals and Jill’s sharing Harry’s bed.

Then Jill brings home a black drug pusher wanted by police and things get complicated.

Reading Updike is like visiting Pompeii today: You see ordinary people going about ordinary lives captured as their world blew up and caught them unaware.

Rabbit Redux would be worth reading just for its glimpse into American culture circa 1969.

Rabbit Redux by John Updike
Knopf, ©1971 [my copy, 1981] p. 407
1971 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mrs. Mike is a charming teacher

In Mrs. Mike, Benedict and Nancy Freedman created a story in which humor and heroism struggle against tragedy and terror. The good wins, but the price is heavy.

Mrs. Mike dust jacket
Mrs. Mike, first edition jacket

In 1907, 16-year-old Katherine Mary O’Fallon leaves Boston for Calgary, Canada promising her mother she would “dress warm and keep dry and not go out into the night where there were bears.”

She’s scarcely off the train before Michael Flannigan of the Canadian Mounted Police sweeps her off her feet and into the Northwest Territory where bears are just one of the dangers.

Kathy adapts too readily to wilderness life to be entirely believable, but she is such a sweetheart readers will chalk it up to love and determination. Mike is also larger than life, but he’s not a paragon. We can forgive some exaggeration since Kathy tells the story and she’s biased in Mike’s favor.

The Northwest attacks Kathy and Mike where they are most vulnerable — through their children — and makes them question their commitment to each other.

Mrs. Mike speaks eloquently of the need to maintain a sense of perspective: Parents whose children have burned to death don’t fret over burned toast.

That’s a lesson worth learning.Identification of review of novel that wasn't a bestseller but has become a classic.

And Mrs. Mike is a charming teacher.

Mrs. Mike by Benedict & Nancy Freedman
Coward-McCann, 1947; 312 p.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Arrangement: an Elia Kazan production in novel form

The Arrangement is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit without any clothes on.

Elia Kazan’s story gets off to a fast and sordid start.


The Arrangement: A Novel by Elia Kazan
Stein and Day, 1967, 544 p. My grade: C+.

car hit by tractor-trailer truck
Who does this deliberately?

“Indispensible Eddie” Anderson, an advertising executive (also known as Evans Arness, muckraking magazine writer, and as Evangelos Arness, son of a bankrupt Greek rug merchant) is having an affair from a girl from his office, Gwen Hunt.

Helped by a psychiatrist, wife Florence has learned to not notice Eddie’s profligacy.

Eddie leaves nude photographs of himself and Gwen where they’ll be found and brought to Florence’s attention.

Florence convinces Eddie to try to repair their marriage.

Some months into the reconciliation, Eddie drives his car into the side of a trailer truck.

While Eddie’s body heals, his mind gets increasingly unbalanced.

He ends up in a mental institution.

When he’s released, Eddie moves in with Gwen. They both work part time at a rural Connecticut liquor store. Eddie starts writing to clear his mind, moves on to writing short stories.

Eddie and Gwen are repellent characters. They don’t grow up; they just grow tired.

In the end, Eddie wonders if all the drama was necessary.

I wonder too.

Is writing fiction more noble than telling stories about consumer products?

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Doomsday: Heritage and modernity at war and in love

Ex-soldier Arnold Furze has spent five years trying to bring Doomsday, a hillside farm, back to productivity.

Arnold falls for the pretty daughter of one of his milk customers in the cheap residential development below his farm.


Doomsday by Warwick Deeping
Alfred A Knopf, 1927, 367 pp. 1927Bestseller #3 My grade B+.

photo of dairy farm, 1921

Mary Viner is impressed by the sexy farmer, but turned off at the thought of being a farmer’s wife.

Mary debunks, heads for bright lights. Within a few months, she marries a wealthy financier with the personality of a fence post.

Arnold marries a farmer’s daughter. Their happy marriage is ended by a speeding automobile.

When Mary’s husband commits suicide over his financial failures, she returns to her late parents’ home.

In a standard romance, widow and widower would find each other again and live happily every after, but Warwick Deeping is no standard romance novelist.

Arnold and Mary both have a lot of maturing to do before either can think of happiness.

Deeping’s novel takes its name from the 1086 record of English land holdings called the Domesday, or Doomsday, book. The land is central to the novel.

Arnold and Mary, respectively, represent the war between enduring values and modernity. The split focus keeps Doomsday from being a great novel, but it doesn’t keep it from being fine entertainment.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni