Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Rodham


Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, RODHAM (Random House, 2020) is one of her best. In short, RODHAM is the alternative autobiography of Hillary Rodham Clinton—part roman Ă  clef, part fantasy novel for progressives and part lamentation for the Hillary that might have been had she not married Bill Clinton.

The novel begins with Hillary’s 1969 Wellesley graduation speech, with its impromptu opening a response to U.S. Senator Edward Brooke’s condescending remarks on political activism that he gave right before hers. This is a great beginning, for it illustrates the first public blaze of political acumen for which Hillary would later become renowned. In the fraught years following 1968, Hillary emerges as a reflective ally in civil rights issues and a conscientious workhorse in legal aid cases (and later as a professor and politician whose drive to help others is a major motivation for her decisions).

The first third of the novel covers her meeting Bill Clinton at Yale, law school, and eventually accompanying Clinton to Arkansas to teach at the Law School at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Some reviewers have cringed at the few somewhat explicit sex scenes between Bill and Hillary, but they comprise just one piece of the larger portrait Sittenfeld creates to illustrate the alluring “aura of Bill Clinton.” At the end of the day, her verdict appears to be that he is a brilliant, charming philanderer—and possibly predator—who churns out Arkansas folksiness to disarm others, and whose soft skills and ability to work a room are otherworldly.

The novel breaks from reality as Hillary drives out of Arkansas leaving Bill in the rearview mirror. From there, she pursues a successful career as a law professor at Northwestern, enjoys solid relationships with her best friend and her family in the suburbs (save her father, Hugh, who is mean and cruel to the women in his life), runs for the U.S. Senate against Carol Moseley Braun, and ultimately runs for president.

This novel is so enjoyable not because it excavates any new territory about the Hillary Clinton we currently know, but because it brilliantly imagines the Hillary that we wanted her to be. That’s a heavy burden for a living person to carry, of course, but for a novel, it is deliciously entertaining. Sittenfeld does give Hillary some foibles, but not many. Hillary admits few missteps in this novel and offers no regrets.

Sittenfeld made the bold choice to write in the first-person, and the voice she gives Hillary is relatable, crisp, sympathetic, and keen. This choice affords us a vantage point into Hillary’s imagined interior life that often makes us feel like we are reading a truly honest memoir.

RODHAM is captivating from beginning to end. It is a work of great imagination that is heartbreaking, compelling, and funny in equal turns. The subject of this book is obviously not for everyone. But Sittenfeld’s dynamic prose and gifted storytelling is engaging for every reader.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Hide Away


Buckle up and prepare yourself for the thrilling ride that is Jason Pinter’s new novel, HIDE AWAY (Thomas & Mercer, 2020).

This page-turner introduces a new character, Rachel Marin, a witty, resourceful and incisive mother of two whose strong sense of justice is the well-earned outcome of events in her recent past. Rachel’s vigilante tendencies, and her determination to keep the secrets of her past buried, provide for some dramatic entanglements with local detectives who are investigating the apparent murder of a once popular former mayor, Constance Wright.

This scenario sets in motion a complex and layered plot that has elements of police procedure, amateur detection, and even broad humor. At just over 400 pages, the book is rewarding because Pinter invests in every character, so much so that the ending is a juicy and satisfying payoff.

The story takes place in Ashby, Illinois, which is where Rachel moves with her children after experiencing some horrific events in her home state of Connecticut. From Pinter’s descriptions, Ashby feels like a city about the size of Rockford—small enough for people to be familiar with one another, but enough to accommodate a range of wily characters and shenanigans. It’s a place where one can be involved in day-to-day community events but also be anonymous. The city is important to the story.

For the first 200 pages or so, you’ll read and feel entertained and curious, you’ll keep turning the pages. You might fear that you’re approaching that saggy middle part of a novel—but you’re not, not in HIDE AWAY. The action heats up considerably (in fact, there are several action scenes in this book that are superbly written, not an easy feat!), and before long you think you’ve got it figured out. But I promise—you don’t!

The story unfolds more or less chronologically, but a few chapters shift back in time to help fill in background. I liked this approach because I didn’t have to remember everything about Rachel and her life before moving to Ashby.

I love a big crime novel with a meaty, satisfying ending, a reward for all the clue-finding and image-making you’ve done in your mind while living with the characters and their concerns. HIDE AWAY is as good a thriller as you’re likely to read in 2020. I recommend it!

FTC Disclosure: I chose an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book from an array of free books on offer at a major mystery convention.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Nothing More Dangerous


Bicentennial celebrations are on most Americans’ minds in 1976, but for the residents of small town Jessup, Missouri, it’s going to be a long hot summer in NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS, Allen Eskens’s bracing new novel (Mulholland, 2019).

Ah, Missouri. Despite its two major metropolitan areas, the state is profoundly rural, one of those “between” parts of the country that straddles the American heartland and whose people embrace sociocultural aspects of the west, the south and the midwest. This makes it a perfect setting for murder—and for exploring the web of relationships among the townspeople, and the oblique forms of racism, prejudice and sexism that perpetually bubble just below the surface and burst over at contentious moments.

Boady Sanden, fifteen years old, is the hero of the novel. He lives with his widowed mother and is the odd man out at the local private school; he dreams of the day he can escape Jessup for the big city. And then one day, the bookkeeper of the plastics factory—the town’s biggest employer—disappears with a bunch of money. This sets in motion a series of events that turns the town, but most importantly Boady’s life, upside down.

Charles Elgin, from the company’s headquarters in Minnesota, is dispatched to Missouri to oversee the plastics plant and find out what happened to the missing money. Charles, his wife, and his teenage son, Thomas, move in across the street from Boady and his mom and their neighbor, Hoke. The Elgins, though, are different from the other folks. They’re from cosmopolitan and progressive Minnesota, and they also happen to be black, in contrast to deeply white and rural Jessup.

Thomas and Boady develop a fast friendship that tests the historical yoke of in-group loyalty that the other Jessup teens have harnessed onto Boady. And, as cruel manifestations of prejudice by some white extremists in the town become progressively violent, Boady has to become more engaged in his hometown than he would have ever imagined, while mustering the gumption that is foreshadowed in the opening scene of the novel.

Allen Eskens has honed his skills in five previous novels (THE LIFE WE BURY) and in NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS, written a story so absorbing and characters so real that the payoffs feel much more substantial than they otherwise might in a nonseries novel. Eskens takes some risks for a crime novel. The book starts with a slow burn, and there’s no body until about page 139. Some of the surprising twists—and there are plenty—have less to do with the central crime itself, and much more to do with resolving multiple strands of tension and action that have built up over the course of the novel.

NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS is a coming-of-age novel in the best sense. Eskens vividly evokes the ethos of boyhood in the character of Boady, and he does it particularly well by plumbing the teenager’s hopes and fears: from Boady’s daydreaming to his plan for escaping Jessup, to his fears of what length a school bully would go to exact revenge. The novel is written in first-person singular, in Boady’s voice, which is not the easiest technique for this story even though it is clearly the correct choice.

There are a few places early in the book where it appears that Eskens will moralize or preach (given the heady thematic underpinnings of the plot, one could see why), but fortunately, he does not. Instead, Eskens sets the scene thoroughly and takes his time putting flesh on the characters. The payoff is that by the time the pace increases, the reader is totally invested in the characters. The last third of the novel is utterly propulsive, and I consumed the final hundred pages in a white heat of page turning.

A lot happens in the lives of Jessup, Missouri during the summer of ’76. Some things wonderful and some things folks would rather forget. “But memories aren’t like photographs; they can’t halt the passing of time. Instead, they lay like footsteps along a path, each determined by the step that came before and colored by the ones to follow” (pp. 243-244).