This summer, I somehow missed my annual offering of new “beach read” books, those volumes that don’t require a long time to digest, but deliver a bit of cheerful escape during the hot summer months. I have no explanation for my omission beyond having been involved with minor matters of health and major matters of sloth.
Herewith, a couple of late-entry beach reads from the comfortable couch of your occasional critic.
DREAMING IN FRENCH
By Megan McAndrew
Published by Scribner, © 2009; Hardcover, 314 pp
Three differing jacket quotes for this novel refer to it as a “comedy of manners,” a “coming-of-age” story, and “a meditation on cultural identity.” These rather inflated descriptions equate to an odd 3-way hybrid, but somehow each one of them seems apt for what is in fact a very entertaining and thought-provoking book.
The narrator is a young girl named Charlotte Sanders, an American girl who, when we meet her, lives in Paris during the late 1970’s. Frank, her father, is a lawyer, scion of an old Connecticut family, a Yale graduate, and culture-loving intellectual. Her mother, Astrid, is from Kentucky, a vibrant, stylish, self-made woman who is far more interested in fashion and society than in philosophy or museums. She thrives on the gossipy, ex-pat society of Paris, where she is free to create herself apart from her hard-scrabble youth.
Charlotte has an older sister, Lea, who is both a source of information and an irritation to her, as what older sister is not. Their evolving relationship involves classic sibling struggles and rock-solid, loving support, especially during the period of their parents’ divorce.
That divorce is occasioned by Astrid’s affair with a Polish dissident, an affair discovered by Frank when Astrid sneaks off to Warsaw to bring her lover some money intended to further rebellion against Communism. When Astrid is caught by the police, Frank (“there are some things that are unforgivable”) refuses to go to her aid. It is Charlotte and Lea who make the trip, contact the embassy, and enable their mother’s return to Paris.
Astrid, cast off by Frank, decides to go to New York. Lea elects to stay with her father, and Charlotte decides to go back to America with her mother. The divorce (and consequent remarriage of Frank) throws both girls into life-patterns that are quite different. Lea marries the son of a former Polish prince, and eventually bears him several children. Charlotte turns to scholarship, but also discovers an ability to attract men she meets in the library (!), and several one-night stands ensue. Accepted by Yale, she engages in a rather more stable affair with a Pakistani classmate, but he ultimately marries a bride chosen for him by his family.
What is perhaps most satisfying in this novel is the author’s ability to make us care deeply about the various characters. Even the ones that initially seem stuffy or flighty or silly are given respectful treatment. Their trajectories intersect throughout a period of 20 (or so) years, with entirely plausible interaction, and while there is a great deal of humor in this little book, there is also remarkable compassion.
Megan McAndrew has written one previous book, entitled, provocatively, “Going Topless.” I’ve not read it, but think I may, based on my pleasure in reading “Dreaming in French.”
DRAWING IN THE DUST
by Zoe Klein, © 2009
Published by Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, Inc.; Hardcover; 358 pp
Drawing in the Dust is an adventure tale/romance written by a woman who, in addition to being a writer, is the senior rabbi of a large congregation in Los Angeles.
In the Author’s Note at the back of the book, Klein tells us that out of all the great books of the Bible that she studied in seminary, she “fell most deeply in love with Jeremiah,” that most dour and desperate of prophets. Her response to this love was to sit down and write “a fifty-two chapter book in the style of the ancient prophets,” ostensibly written by a woman named Anatiya, which she titled “The Scroll of Anatiya.”
Klein’s purported purpose in doing so was the rather New Age, touchy-feely desire “to reach back into his (Jeremiah’s) world and give to him the way his words and visions have given to me. I wanted to weave an enduring love into his terror-filled days.” We are not subjected to the entirety of this bit of hubris, but Klein uses quotations from her supposed book to head the chapters of her modern novel. They are more than enough.
That said, Drawing in the Dust is a lively enough tale of (a) the purported discovery of Jeremiah’s tomb, complete with the skeletons of Jeremiah and the fictional Anatiya entwined in his coffin, no less, and (b) the romance between a 40-ish female archaeologist and an intense Israeli man. The latter seems quite possible despite her Catholicism and his orthodoxy, but the former seems a rather brazen leap of imagination.
This book is, in fact, a bit of an odd duck. If you are up for suspension-of-disbelief and are not too distressed by a less-than-satisfactory rendering of Biblical style in those chapter headings, the modern part of the story is an engaging romance, and qualifies for a good beach read. It is also an interesting look at the daily workings of an archaeological dig, as well as the competitive world of financing and government control thereof, along with a reasonable bit of “can’t we all just get along” commentary on the Arab/Jew/Christian mix in the Middle East.
If only Klein hadn’t stuffed the prophet and the lady into that single casket ...
©2009 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomen.com