Arts & Culture

Summer fiction

Mark Zurolo ’01MFA

Mark Zurolo ’01MFA

View full image

Caitlin Macy ’92
Random House, $24
Reviewed by Julia Glass ’78

Caitlin Macy ’92 possesses the eye of an anthropologist: keenly perceptive, cool verging on glacial. In these nine tales, she casts her astute gaze into the lives of educated, cosmopolitan American women who've swapped their souls for status or security: for a wealthy husband, a career in film or finance, the dream apartment (that perfectly situated classic six) -- even a coveted nanny. "Spoiled" they may well be, but they are often reflective and insecure as well, vulnerable to the complex emotions of intelligent people who see every nuance of the compromises defining their lives.

In "The Secret Vote," a successful lawyer, pregnant for the first time in her late thirties, begins to reappraise the integrity of everyone around her, including her husband, as she awaits her amnio results. In "The Red Coat," a woman with too much time on her hands vacillates between contempt and envy for her Ukrainian housekeeper, finally committing an act of theft in order to win the younger, more attractive woman's allegiance. "Taroudant" features a honeymooning wife who, fed up with her husband's insouciance, strikes out on her own in a remote Moroccan village -- a peevish move that leads to an act of violence, though not the one you're expecting. You'd be hard-pressed to think of these protagonists as "heroines." But if you love gloating over the foibles and miseries of the haute bourgeoisie, you'll savor this suite of well-honed portraits like a box of fashionably dark chocolate bonbons.

Macy is a skillful writer and gets the details deliciously (and comically) right. The ideal nanny is possessed of an "upbeat tranquility." A gathering of women trade complaints about their housekeepers' faults, from one who shrank a $250 cashmere sweater to another who "eschewed the organic products purchased online by her employer and instead cleaned the whole apartment with industrial-strength bleach that made even the cat's eyes water." Yet since most of the characters are Manhattanites living in a time when Lehman and Madoff had yet to fall (was that really less than a year ago now?), the prurience that might once have tasted so sinfully sweet now bears a bitter, even lurid aftertaste. I found myself wishing that Macy would love her characters half as well as she knows them; at times, the fascination that kept me riveted felt something akin to the suspense you feel when, stuck in traffic on a highway, you spot the flashing blue lights ahead and realize you're about to see the aftermath of a nasty accident. You know it's already happened, but you can't help wanting to witness the mayhem. After all, who are those strangers to you?

Novelist Julia Glass ’78 is the author of I See You Everywhere and the National Book Award–winning Three Junes.




The Sweet By and By
by Todd Johnson '91MAR
William Morrow, $24.99
Reviewed by Janice P. Nimura '93

Todd Johnson's debut novel is the type that turns you into a casting director. His vivid ensemble of women, whose shared link is a North Carolina nursing home, is a fresh take on steel magnolias.

Elderly, elegant Margaret, frank and cranky, could have been played by Jessica Tandy; Lorraine, Margaret's unflappable and compassionate nurse, might make a nice role for Oprah. Then there is Rhonda, a prickly hairdresser whose weekly visits to fix the hair of the residents chip away at her emotional defenses. Toni Collette, maybe. The youngest of the four narrators is April, Lorraine's ambitious daughter, who has exceeded her mother's dreams by becoming a doctor. Halle Berry?

The Sweet By and By is a love story told in aphorisms. That love can be maternal, romantic, spiritual, and sisterly. But too often, it is expressed in treacly greeting-card sentiments that diminish Johnson's wonderfully distinct characters. Would hard-partying Rhonda really declare, "Faith to me is putting my heart where my hope is"? Does Lorraine need to tell us that "Time heals, it's true, but it don't erase"?

Time, not plot, drives the story, an unhurried meander past weddings and funerals, holidays and graduations, every occasion deepening the comfort the women take in each other. Each finds her own faith, and Johnson should have faith enough in them to let baser instincts tarnish all those hearts of gold just a bit. Still, this is a diverting read. Someone should make a movie out of it.

Janice Nimura '93 reviews books for the New York Times and other publications.




Blindspot: A Novel by a Lady in Disguise & a Gentleman in Exile
by Jane Kamensky '85, '93PhD, and Jill Lepore '9PhD
Spiegel and Grau/Random House, $27.95
Reviewed by Cathy Shufro

All prudence fled my house when this Book entered. I cast aside my duties, I burned my candle low, in the reading of it. The teller of this tale is a Scottish Face-Painter, dogged by debt, who flees Edinburgh in 1764 for the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay. There the gentleman employs an Apprentice yclept Edward Weston. The lad's letters to a bosom friend disclose that Edward Weston is, forsooth, Fanny Easton, a lady in disguise.

Soon is their household enlarged by the advent of an unredeemed captive, a genius. He vows to prove as murder the mysterious death of a friend, a gentleman who has denounced slaveholding. Contention abounds, for in the city upon the hill, the British yoke chafes.

Romance, too, soon enters the house: though the painter seeks a Widow Bountiful, he finds himself distracted by a stirring in his heart & loins for his apprentice, Edward (or, as the Reader knows her to be, Fanny).

Not the story alone seduced me, but word play most witty: riddles, puns, and quotations, and also other play -- carnal -- that happily escaped the scrutiny of the Board of Censors.

The learned Reader might remark on figures from True Life, for the two authors toiled in libraries, galleries, archives &c. to build fiction inspir'd by Truth. Their researches surely have merit, for they were apprenticed to scholars at Yale, that seat of learning, and their novel honors a dear Professor, viz. John Demos. Now themselves Professors of History close by Massachusetts-Bay, the authors remain fast friends. This tale is the fruit of their labours, and O, dear Reader, what pleasures await you!

Cathy Shufro toils mightily as a writing tutor and lecturer in the Department of English.




The Magicians
by Lev Grossman '97MPhil
Viking, $26.95
Reviewed by Bruce Fellman

What would Harry Potter and his mates have been like had they been able to finish Hogwarts, go on to a very difficult and highly selective college of magic, and move to New York City? J. K. Rowling's celebrated (and copyrighted) characters do not make an appearance in Lev Grossman's classy and suspenseful fantasy tale, but there are plenty of parallels.

Quentin, the angst-ridden, brilliant, and socially inept 17-year-old protagonist, feels "cold all the time, like he was trapped in his own private individual winter." But after a college admissions interview goes badly wrong -- the interviewer, an ancient Princeton alum, turns up dead -- Quentin somehow finds his way out of his hometown in Brooklyn and into a thicket that leads him straight to a school called Brakebills. This college isn't in any higher-education guide -- or, for that matter, on any map -- and any fan of Potter, Tolkien, or C. S. Lewis knows what's coming.

Quentin and his fellow aspiring magicians master all manner of spellcraft, turn into geese and randy foxes -- in this novel, there's plenty of sex -- play a brutal intercollegiate game called Welters (alas, no broomsticks), and consume massive amounts of alcohol as they stumble toward graduation.

Thanks to a magical trust fund, the twentysomethings don't have to work after leaving school and so pursue utterly meaningless lives in Manhattan. But the lurch into Bright Lights, Big City territory is averted when Quentin and company find a way into the pages of a fictional set of novels about a land called Fillory. There, Quentin gets a chance to prove himself, as he and his friends are pitted against a hideous, and hideously powerful, once-human beast who has turned this gentle kingdom into Pyongyang. "We're going to Fillory," declares one of Quentin's friends. "We have to. This is going to change everything."

Bruce Fellman, managing editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine, is an aficionado of fantasy. 


The comment period has expired.