REVIEW: The Dutch House

Though Ann Patchett’s novel The Dutch House tells the story of a brother and sister, Danny and Maeve, the real star of the story is the titular estate of their early childhood. The descriptions of it are lavish: the Dutch House “was a singular confluence of talent and luck,” and “seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on.” Its front windows “were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines.”

In fact, the house takes on a sort of mythical quality as the novel progresses, both in the mind of the reader and in the minds of Danny and Maeve. For the two characters, it comes to represent both an idealized version of the childhood that was taken from them, as well as their mutual hatred of the woman who took it from them. The Dutch House was originally purchased at the end of World War II by Danny and Maeve’s father, marking the beginning of his real estate empire. He was not an affectionate man – according to Danny, “the only thing our father really cared about in life was his work: the buildings he built and owned and rented out” – but he thought the house was wonderful. Danny and Maeve’s mother, on the other hand, felt entrapped in this grand home that once belonged to the since-deceased VanHoebeeks, and she left them when Danny was too young to really remember her. Later, their father was remarried to a woman named Andrea who already had two daughters. The pivotal event of the story, however, is that when Danny and Maeve’s father died, Andrea kicked them out of the house. Danny was still in high school, and Maeve was left to be his guardian, and neither of them had any claim to the Dutch House or any of its contents. The only thing left to them was an educational trust fund, which Maeve strategically drains by forcing Danny to go to medical school.

Though it is by all indications a work of historical or realistic fiction (the story inches closer to modern-day as it follows the siblings through adulthood), the enormous character of the Dutch House makes it read almost like a tragic fairy tale of sorts. It is a place of pain and a place of memories, and it nearly overshadows those of the living characters. The Dutch House’s mythical quality is reinforced by Danny and Maeve’s longstanding ritual of sitting in a parked car on the street in front of the house. It takes the whole story for readers to understand the relationship between the house and the two siblings, as well as the relationship between Danny and Maeve. I will not spoil the ending here, but I will say that the novel comes full circle at its conclusion.

The Dutch House is an engrossing novel of loss, relationships, and loyalties, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something thought-provoking and enjoyable to read!

REVIEW: Mary Ventura and The Ninth Kingdom: A Story

As much as Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom bears a whimsical title similar to that of a fantasy bildungsroman, this short story, recently recovered from the Sylvia Plath archives, is anything but. Underneath Plath’s vivid narrative lie dark ideas that foreshadow the author’s first major suicide attempt in 1953, mere months from when she finished writing the story in December of 1952. Upon its completion, during which Plath was a 20 year old student at Smith College, Plath submitted the story to the Mademoiselle magazine where it was rejected and largely forgotten until its official publication last June by Harper Perennial. The story follows a young woman named Mary Ventura and her reluctant journey by train to an indeterminate location referred to as ‘the ninth kingdom’. Shrouding the ninth kingdom is an unsettling aura of mystery – it is both Mary’s final destination and the last station of the train’s travel north – and despite Mary’s various inquiries, the reader remains equally in the dark of what is to await her.

“There are no return trips on this line,’ the woman said softly. ‘Once you get to the ninth kingdom, there is no going back. It is the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will. It has many names.”

Though the story makes for a one-sitting read, Mary’s allegorical tale requires more than a once-over in order to extract Plath’s views on female independence, fate, and mortality. What strikes me as most interesting is how the story not only ends but begins with a sense of finality: from the moment Mary climbs aboard her train of fate, she crosses an implied point of no return. Mary’s parents dismiss her concerns and assert that “Everyone has to go away sooner or later”, plunging Mary into a seemingly inevitable state of oblivion and compliance. Following this, a secondary character whom is referred to only as “the woman” emerges; unlike Mary, the Woman has taken the train before and is knowledgable in the ‘rules’ which passengers must abide by – one could interpret her as the classic teacher in a bildungsroman, or even Mary’s innermost thoughts, personified. This is emphasized by how Plath’s attentive prose draws a stark contrast between the Woman’s comforting presence and the bleak, sanguine train environment. Plath paints Mary’s surroundings in smoke and blood, a foreboding palette interrupted only by moments of the Woman’s “tenderness” and gentle guidance. The colors orange and red seem to flood Plath’s imagined world; from the plush seats and red ticket stubs that match Mrs. Ventura’s “painted red mouth” to the ominous sun visible from the train window, an “orange color… deepening into red”.

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is, as Plath affirms, a ‘vaguely symbolic tale’ – however, as with any allegorical tale, it’s difficult to ascertain what the ninth kingdom, the train, or Mary’s escape truly represent. Taken optimistically, the train and its oblivious passengers could represent a clockwork lifestyle from which Mary springs free out of sheer will, empowered by a refusal to accept a predestined path. However, interpreted with Plath’s battle with depression and early suicide, the train ride could represent a grappling with the truth of one’s impending doom, with Mary’s escape alluding to choosing premature death instead. With Mary’s premature suicide or train departure comes the ultimate irony – though freedom blooms from the ending’s springtime imagery, Mary is forever shackled with oblivion over her journey’s defining question: “But what is the ninth kingdom?”

REVIEW: The Cactus League

To baseball fans, MLB’s annual spring training is almost romantic. After a long winter without baseball, spring training finally marks the sport’s return.

Emily Nemens’ novel The Cactus League digs into the darker side, the hopefulness of baseball’s spring training replaced by a cast of characters all struggling in their own way.

The book reads less as one overarching story and more as a series of interconnected character studies. Each chapter focuses on one person connected with the Los Angeles Lions baseball team during its spring season in Scottsdale, Arizona. Each story stands on its own but focuses on a central thread: how the divorce of star player Jason Goodyear happened. Goodyear’s fall from grace is revealed bit by bit from the perspectives of those around him before finally telling it from his perspective.

The Cactus League is a baseball novel that clearly understands baseball. The game scenes are realistic, and more importantly, the book has a good grasp on baseball’s social scene. Many who have a connection to baseball are part of the story — the aging batting coach, the high-powered agent, the rookie fresh out of college, the “cleat-chaser,” the baseball wives. Each character has a vice and all are somewhat unlikeable, yet their individual arcs were compelling enough to keep me reading.

I was able to figure out (for the most part) what was going on with Goodyear halfway through the novel. It was unclear if that was the intention or not and the heavy-handed foreshadowing did detract a bit from the intrigue. That said, the character development for the other characters was strong enough to stand on its own.

Overall, The Cactus League was a good read that transported me back to the spring training we missed out on this year. I love character-driven stories so it was really interesting to get inside the heads of a wide variety of characters. At the same time, I wished some of the explorations had been deeper. While the idea of class and what it means to be rich, poor or somewhere in between was observed at length, many of the characters also had preconceived notions about race and gender that I felt were left unexplored. Some of the characters were racist or sexist or problematic in other ways. I didn’t have a problem with that in itself — people in general are often racist or sexist and that shouldn’t magically change in a book — but given the depth with which class was explored, I wanted to see more in the other areas as well.

While most of the book felt only loosely connected, the ending to The Cactus League was the payoff. It brought together many of the characters from the earlier stories and showed how in the cactus league, everyone’s lives were affected by the others and everyone had a different piece of the story. Not every character had their arc resolved, but the ending was a provocative conclusion to the main spine of the story.

PREVIEW: The Dutch House

Looking for something to read? New York Times bestseller The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, released in 2019, tells the story of a brother, sister, and a house in Elkins Park, PA over the course of five decades. It has garnered its fair share of critical acclaim, including as a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Book Review notable book, and one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2019.

The Dutch House is available from Literati Bookstore online (https://www.literatibookstore.com/), as well as in eBook format from Barnes & Noble or Amazon. Also check to see if your local library offers eBook borrowing services through OverDrive or a similar platform!

REVIEW: New Waves

Lucas, the main character in Kevin Nguyen’s novel that released early last month, “New Waves”, is a twenty-something, unambitious, mess. Working as the sole customer support representative at tech start-up Nimbus, Lucas and his closest friend Margo, an engineer at the firm, spend the majority of their time outside of working drinking at mediocre bars and complaining about work. When Margo is fired from the company for her lack of “team morale”, Lucas and her hatch a plan to get back at the company by stealing all of their username information.

But what happens when the friend you commit a federal crime against your previous employer with is hit by a car? Lucas is left to pick up the pieces, and as he takes on a job at a competing tech firm, Phantom, curiosity gets the better of him. But diving into Margo’s history and search history leaves Lucas with more questions than answers about the person he thought was his best friend. Nguyen navigates with dexterity Lucas’ grief and the fallout of loss while leading readers down a mysterious trail into Margo’s past.

Lucas is not exactly the kind of character a reader is used to rooting for. He is lazy, messy, and at times cruel. He has no real dreams he is pursuing. He only moved to New York City to escape working at his parents’ bed and breakfast back home in Oregon. His only real friend is Margo, and even the details and seriousness of their relationship is shrouded with a certain apathy. It’s unclear whether or not their friendship continues because of genuine connection, or pure convenience. After her passing, and a handful of discoveries, Lucas admits he was in love with Margo, “but what if I could love someone and not want to f*** them?”. This is where Nguyen falters.

The admittance comes a little over halfway through the novel. In some ways, it’s incredibly satisfying. From the beginning of my reading of the novel, I wondered if the matter would be addressed. While I was glad to get an answer, the minute I had it I realized I would’ve been better off without it. Lucas’ love for Margo is most interesting when it exists as a Schrodinger’s cat; it both exists and does not exist until this moment, and the novel is better off without Nguyen’s direct address of it. By doing so, Nguyen reveals the primary issue with his novel; it lacks any form of internal engine. Anything interesting in the novel conveniently happens to the characters, as opposed to any action happening based on the choices the characters make. And while it is engrossing initially to see Lucas flounder after the death of his beloved friend, it is apparent fairly early on that the character is aimlessly wandering through life, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. While Lucas does grow somewhat of a spine through the course of the book, it misses the mark for me. My desire for Lucas to grow, to change, to try is never fully met, despite what appears to be Nguyen’s careful cultivation of this feeling in readers.

“New Waves” is far from bad. Nguyen’s writing is admirable, and his form and integration of technology hit a mark that many “modern” books fail to do.  But at the end of the day, “New Waves” is a story about a whole lot of things happening to someone who doesn’t care enough to let it alter their outlook on life.

REVIEW: Beartown

Content warning: The book discussed centers around an instance of rape.

There are books that you read, then forget. And there are books that stay with you.

Beartown is one of the latter. This beautifully written book follows several residents of a hockey-crazed Swedish small town. It’s the kind of town that’s been ravaged by big businesses swooping into nearby towns. “You can’t live in this town,” they say. “You can only survive it.”

The town’s only source of pride is its hockey teams, which have faded in relevance over the years — except this year, when the junior team is good enough to make the semifinals thanks to a team built around a star player, Kevin, and a supporting cast that complements him well. But then Kevin rapes the GM’s daughter after the semifinal, and everyone in town is affected.

Beartown’s catalytic event doesn’t happen until nearly halfway through the 400-page book. This made it a bit hard to get into at first — but it was well worth it at the end, when the painstaking development of all the book’s main characters made it nearly impossible to put the book down. Every character is nuanced, and author Fredrik Backman wrote them in such a way that nearly every action is understandable, even if clearly not justified.

Backman’s writing is lyrical and full of ruminations on the meaning of hockey, family, life and loyalty. The natural flow of the writing is even more impressive considering the book is a translation from its original Swedish. Beartown also distinguishes itself from most sports books in that Backman clearly knows and loves hockey. The descriptions of the games read like they were written by a sports writer, and Backman also clearly understands the meaning of sports — and the way they can both bring people together and tear them apart.

Some books that deal with sexual misconduct come off as preachy; others are too dismissive. Beartown was neither. Backman handled the subject with empathy for the victim while also exploring the actions of those around her, both good and bad, and the forces pushing them to act certain ways. Hockey is the backdrop to all of this; in a place where the hockey team is one of the few sources of hope in Beartown and the junior team’s coaches have always stressed that the team comes before all else. That makes the fallout particularly devastating. In a town where hockey is everything, its citizens are forced to grapple with the dark side of both the game and human nature itself.

I love sports. But I’ve also seen the ways the same culture that makes them so appealing can also turn toxic, the way sports are sometimes used as an excuse to enable the horrific. In that way, Beartown was both timely and realistic. The events of Beartown are fictional, but they feel like they could happen — have happened — in so many different places.

The ending of Beartown was unpredictable and affecting. (I’ll admit I cried.) Few things in the book are as simple as they seem, and that extends to the ending. Beartown is dark, but it is ultimately hopeful. It was a poetic and poignant read that I wanted to keep reading after it was over. I know I won’t stop thinking about it anytime soon.