The Girl You Left Behind (JoJoMoyes)

In a word: Feel-good

The Girl You Left Behind

If you follow us on Instagram you may remember that I almost didn’t even finish this one. But I am so glad I did!

The first quarter of the book set up the back story in this enjoyable past/present mystery. The story of two sisters holding down the home front in German-occupied France felt SO reminiscent of The Nightingale that I thought it might be better to try it again later. But as I kept reading, I found myself caught up in the other half of the narrative: the modern-day story of sweet and sad Liv, stumbling into a new love four years after the tragic death of her husband.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Moyes is a good storyteller, and her writing is clear and uncomplicated. For bluffer history nerds like myself, the historical setting was interesting. And while I am in the minority, at least according to Goodreads and Amazon reviews, I also enjoyed the modern-day story, which revolves around the mystery of a painting: a portrait by a lesser-known Impressionist, once hung in a French hotel, taken to France after the war, now in the possession of a British architect who bought it on a sidewalk in Spain.

Now, I said that this book will appeal to history bluffs, not serious scholars, and I kind of think the same is true of semi-literary readers as well. The plot and characters would not hold up under intense scrutiny, and I suspect the historical details would not fare much better. So if you have high standards in either of these areas, you may pooh-pooh this selection. But if you’re able to enjoy a story without asking too many questions, this may be right up your alley.

Many of the issues in the story are serious– World War I in the past and a tragic widow in the present, not to mention morally complex themes like wartime infidelity and post-war reparations. Nevertheless, I’m categorizing this as a beach read– somehow it just doesn’t feel that heavy when it’s all said and done, thanks in part to a very satisfying ending. (A bit too neat? Perhaps. But like I said before, don’t ask too many questions.)

Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell)

In [two] word[s]: Totes adorbs

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When I first started this book, I was not charmed. I found it annoying, overdramatic, and a little abrasive (This is often my first impression of high schoolers, so I should not have been surprised, given the two teenaged narrators.). But I was trapped in a rocking chair with a sleeping baby and nothing to read but my Kindle app, so I kept going… and I fell in love.

This story is just the cutest. The narration flips back and forth between the two main characters, giving us two insights into the events that are unfolding. Both protagonists are misfits in their own way: she’s the new kid, overweight and badly dressed, he’s half-Korean and nerdy. They share a seat on the bus. Although they don’t speak at first, they slowly bond over comic books and mix tapes. As their relationship develops, the sexual tension becomes the school bus in the room every time they’re together.

Somehow this novel manages to be sweet and overblown in all the right ways without being melodramatic or saccharine. Part of it is the matter-of-fact perspective of the characters themselves (there is no narrator to bog the story down with commentary or description). Part of it is the harsh setting: this sweet love story unfolds between characters who deal with abuse, poverty, bullying, and clueless parents.

I devoured this story and reached the ending in less than 24 hours. I hadn’t been watching my progress bar and was totally unprepared for the story to be over. I texted Leslie: “DROP EVERYTHING. BUY THIS BOOK AND READ IT TODAY. TELL ME WHAT DOES THE POSTCARD SAY???”

~~~

from Leslie:

As I’ve stated before, I am very easily persuaded into reading things. I had read a book by Rainbow Rowell before (Fangirl-also a really fun read), so I was eager to try out Eleanor & Park. I completely agree with Lindsey’s assessment-it was a perfect YA book. Completely dramatic, but also adorable. I also read it in about 24 hours and immediately called Lindsey to chat about it.

After the abrupt ending, I did a little searching on Rainbow Rowell’s website, and I thought this quote was a perfect summary of why I loved the way she closed out the story:

I mean, I know it’s not really an ending; there aren’t wedding bells and sunsets. This isn’t the end for these two people. It’s just where we leave them.

But they’re 17 years old.

And I don’t believe that 17-year-olds get happy endings. They get beginnings.

A Kate Morton Roundup

I discovered Kate Morton a year and a half ago. I just finished all five of her novels, and each one has been a compelling read.

Kate Morton Roundup

Here’s what you always get with Kate Morton: A mystery or secret from the past. A split narrative– a person in the present seeks to discover the secret by reading old documents, interviewing people in nursing homes, and searching through old attics and trunks. Meanwhile, the original story unfolds from the perspective of one or more of the involved persons, often set against the backdrop of World War I or II. And–my favorite part– a twist at the end, which has been known to make me talk out loud to my book when I stumble upon it. (Usually, I say “WHAT?” and then I tell the secret to my nearby husband, who will never read the book, and who can never fully appreciate my shock.)

Now that I’ve completed the entire Kate Morton catalog to date, here’s my personal ranking of each title:

#1: The Secret Keeper
I had mixed feelings about this one the whole way through, because I didn’t like some of the characters. But the last fifty pages bumped this one all the way to the top of my list. The ending is perfect, in my opinion– the perfect blend of shocking, redemptive, and full of poetic justice for all.

#2: The Lake House
This one is fun because one of the main characters is a writer, and it’s always interesting to read novels about novelists. Before I read this, I heard someone say that the ending is just a bit too neat, and I wonder if that tainted my perspective? But…I felt like the ending was just a bit too neat. (The final fifty pages were my least favorite part of the book, but I loved getting there–the twists and turns of the unfolding mystery kept me guessing!)

#3: The House at Riverton
This was my first experience with Morton, and I can still quote the line that wrecked me when I read it. I’d tell you, but it’s a spoiler! This plot and conclusion are terrific, but tragic, which is why it’s bumped to third place. I like the redemption that comes at the end of #1 and #2.

#4: The Forgotten Garden
This one featured sad but compelling characters, including another writer, which is always a plus. However, the plot lacked the shocking conclusion. I read the last few pages thinking, “Oh, okay,” instead of “AAAHHHH!” Apparently the Morton Twist is very important to me, because this one tiny flaw knocked an otherwise interesting story all the way to fourth place.

#5: The Distant Hours
I finished this one late last night, at least an hour after I’d intended to be asleep. It has everything I look for in a Kate Morton book, including not one but several surprising twists. But everything was just so SAD, I closed the book feeling totally bummed out. It had several elements that always make me despair: former-glory estates, regretful old people, tragic misunderstandings, untreated/mistreated mental illness, dysfunctional families, traumatized children. I mentioned in another post that I’d been wanting a book that made me feel all the feels, but I take it back. Some feels are better left unfelt.

The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)

 

In a word: Devastating

The Nightingale

I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. But, the setting is France during World War II, so you know it’s not going to be an upbeat beach read. This is the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, each of whom faces her own struggle to survive.

In German occupied France, food is scarce. French police cannot be trusted to protect their own citizens. Men are sent to hopeless battles, and women and children are not safe in their own homes. Neighbors snitch. Politicians capitulate. Friends disappear. The details of this novel are a reminder that war is hell, even when the fighting is far away. And in an environment of fear, corruption, and desperation, human relationships are complicated.

On a most personal level, reading novels like this is always helpful in a shaming kind of way; “experiencing” the suffering of others offers healthy perspective. It helps me realize the smallness of my daily complaints (Can’t lose 5 pounds of baby weight! Grocery store out of 50% less sodium green beans! Ugh, where are my Tic Tacs?). I also am reminded what a bubble of extravagant prosperity I live in, and without which I would probably die. Were scarcity to enter my world in such a way that I depended on my own canning to survive the winter, for example, my family and I would starve. The contrast between Vianne’s life and mine makes me feel humble and grateful.

It’s hard to read stories like this where evil is so stark. Tales of brutality and terror are easier to stomach when they happened long ago; I can write it off as “another time,” perhaps even feel that it’s only to be expected among primitive, uncivilized peoples. But stories of World War I and II are especially stomach-wrenching for me: these are people so much like us, who live in a recognizable world that is suddenly turned upside down. I think this is why novels from this time period are so powerful: against the backdrop of a horrifying moral landscape, stories of hope and human triumph shine even brighter.