I’m partial to books with characters that surprise me. I’m not talking about characters who are simply unreliable narrators. Nor am I referring to a housewife who suddenly pulls her face off and reveals herself to be a cyborg. I call those tricks, not surprises. But a character who quietly reveals a side of herself, or an element of himself, makes me question my assumptions and shifts my reading experience to something deeper and more satisfying. Surprises like that expand my understanding of the story and where it is going.
So, with that in mind, I offer you two books that I read on a recent vacation when I wanted more than Vanity Fair, but less than War and Peace. They are perfect for the distracted, but still attentive, reader.
Dear Daughter: A Novel, by Elizabeth Little
I started this as we pulled out of the train station in Vienna, and finished it as we pulled into Berlin hours later. Don’t even ask me about the scenery; I saw nothing but the print on the page.
Jane Jenkins is a trash-talking twenty-something, sprung from prison on a technicality after serving ten years for the murder of her wealthy, socialite mother. Nicknamed “Janie” by the press, Jane is a staple in the diet of gossip and innuendo that feeds a voracious public seeking celebrity disaster. She partied and slept around, shopped like a pro on Rodeo Drive and overindulged in multiple illegal substances. It was a rare week when her face wasn’t on the cover of every sleazy newspaper at the checkout counter. Ask anyone: they know everything about Janie, and she so killed her mother. Ask Jane: she knows everything about Janie too. But Jane is a mystery to her.
Jane remembers almost nothing about the night her mother was killed. She knows she detested her mother. She knows she was found at the scene with blood on her hands. What she doesn’t know is if she did it. And now, unexpectedly, she has a chance to find out. Armed with sarcasm, prison smarts, and expletives to suit any occasion, Jane gives the press corps the slip and heads to her mother’s home town in South Dakota for answers.
And that’s when the fun starts. Before long, Jane’s dirt mouth is dropping words like “malapropos,” “liminality” and “recamier.” She sits down to dinner and notes one of my personal bugbears: “My knife was mislaid. I flipped it blade side in.” She has the good sense not to call the hostess’s attention to the “broken hollandaise.” Suddenly Jane is way more nuanced and the book is better for it. But who is this person?
It turns out Jane was shipped off to a tony Swiss school at an early age and actually paid attention in class. She knows quite a bit about quite a lot, and she’s a keen observer of people including, at long last, herself. In short, there’s more to her than $50,000 crocodile Birkins and Chateau Marmont.
Elizabeth Little, in her debut novel, gave me enough of both sides of Jane to satisfy both sides of myself. One minute she had me laughing out loud, and the next I was looking up Catullus and Simonides on Wikipedia. I loved it – and I loved Jane.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
I got on the plane for home, curled up in my seat, and BAM, A.J. Fikry had me at
I do not like postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism.*
A.J. is the irascible and opinionated owner of Island Books, a treasure of a bookshop off the coast of Massachusetts. A.J.’s wife has died, his shop is going belly up, he drinks himself to sleep most nights, and he’s been robbed of his only treasure, a first edition of Poe’s Tamerlane. Granted, he thinks Tamerlane is “jejune crap,” but it was going to be his ticket out of the book business when the economy turned around, and now it’s gone. Right about then he finds a precocious two-year-old named Maya on his doorstep, sitting alongside an Elmo doll. A.J. has always despised Elmo because he “seems too needy.”
The winning cast of characters includes Amelia, a publisher’s rep who captures A.J.’s heart; a cop with seriously untapped intellectual potential; A.J.’s sister, who has a story of her own; her philandering husband; and, a bookstore employee who doesn’t like Alice Munro because her characters are “too human.” I mean, really, what’s not to love here?
The book’s success is anchored in its author’s knowledge that her primary audience is avid readers who live in fear of the end of the local bookshop. The book is packed with wry asides about literature and reading that will resonate with any serious reader. A.J., Amelia, and even Maya see themselves, one another, and most of the world through the lens of books they have read and loved (or, often in A.J.’s case, hated). Example: when Maya arrives, A.J. figures his best bet for raising her will be using The Fall of the House of Usher as a “decent primer on what not to do with children.”
As Maya starts to grow up, A.J. gets his life back, the cop discovers there’s more to life than Jeffery Deaver mysteries, and business at Island Books picks up. And then, alas, life happens in unexpected and sometimes sad ways.
The appearance of Maya and the disappearance of Tamerlane form the small mysteries at the heart of the story. As the plot progresses, we discover our first impressions of several key characters may have been wrong. They are more complex and interesting than we realized and, once again, a book is better for its characters’ surprises.
A.J. Fikry would probably have detested this book because it’s a touch sentimental. But if you love books and bookshops, you will love it.
*For the record, I’m fine with postmodernism.