literary fiction

When one reads a classic there are a million extra ways to be surprised, because for so long preconceived notions have been quietly stewing in our minds about what sort of story the book is going to tell. Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is just such a classic, first published in English in 1988 and an irrevocably iconic work ever since, second only to his Nobel Prize-winning 100 Years of Solitude. Yet in twenty-six years its story – the tale of Florentino Ariza’s devastating love and half-century of waiting for the beautiful Fermina Daza – will not be as instantly recognizable to readers, or as culturally ingrained, as the love stories between Rhett and Scarlett or Cathy and Heathcliff, for example. It’s a young novel yet, but there seems to be an enduring singularity to it that will allow it to slip through the grasp of convention for a long time; and it’s also an impressively subjective novel, with every page giving rise to new reactions in its reader, opening the door for uncountable opinions. These two factors alone make the prospect of writing about it rather staggering, to say the least, but it’s a novel that surely evokes a prolonged, unshakable reaction.

To refer to the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza as a love story, as it is most popularly categorized, seems to be an extreme oversimplification of everything García Márquez puts forward in the novel; likewise, to say that it’s a tale of unrequited love also doesn’t quite hit the mark. Instead, Love in the Time of Cholera embodies the entirety of love in all its scope and forms: through Florentino’s devotion to Fermina we see all-consuming love, while Fermina’s flighty responses range from adolescent love to the falling out of love (“the abyss of disenchantment”) and eventually a love born of time and understanding. When Fermina, driven away from Florentino by her father’s determination, marries the amiable Dr. Juvenal Urbino, her restless independent nature seems to find a home in married love, and here we find the perpetually unsteady but ultimately well-achieved journey of the novel’s only long-term relationship. Beyond this, as Florentino whiles away fifty years in wait for Fermina, his six hundred affairs explore the many other faces of love; sexual love, of course, being the most obvious. It’s in this way that Love in the Time of Cholera seems to be a character study of love itself, and García Márquez’s profound dedication to his subject uncovers the untidiness of love, its ability to both enrapture and disturb. What results is a novel of astonishing complexity and jolting honesty.

Neither Florentino nor Fermina (nor, for that matter, Juvenal Urbino) are presented to the reader as unflinchingly pure characters. Fermina is at times headstrong against romantic notions, sometimes childishly obstinate in the face of things that displease her for reasons we as readers are not always able to understand; but her agitated spirit has a way of reaching in and finding its kindred within the reader. Florentino, alternatively, forces romance on the novel’s unseen narrator in his furious, inherently selfish pursuit of satisfaction. His relationships with women are at turns perverse, depraved, and tragic, but somehow a character whose ideas and actions demand the reader’s objections manages to draw out compassion instead, perhaps through the perpetual naïveté that renders him childlike and starry-eyed even at old age. He contradicts his platitudes of undying devotion many times (six hundred and twenty-two times, to be exact) under the belief that the love he makes with other women is not real love, and the reader is left to wonder whether his mentality is an excuse for blatant obsession or a revelation of delusion. This is another example of the complexities García Márquez expertly leads his readers through, inviting us to question and probe and unearth the grittiness of love, or non-love, as it may be.

Perhaps the most riveting element of Love in the Time of Cholera is García Márquez’s prose, which will captivate the attention of readers new to his craft. The story unfolds through a narrative that is at once dense and fluid, a solid thing with a liquid quality that seeps into the reader’s bones. With very little dialogue, García Márquez relies almost entirely on his narrative power, which in itself is a remarkable departure from the typical structure of a novel; but also mystifying is his ability to weave through time without the convention of continuity. Deaths of prominent characters are merely mentioned and future events are revealed before their time with utmost nonchalance, a collective tactic that lets him playfully taunt the reader with the flimsiness of mortality, time, and other real-world structures. By this effect García Márquez aligns the most poetic reaches of his prose with his reader’s vulnerability; he opens the full heart of his Florentino and the uninhibited spirit of his Fermina to the reader, with an aim to leave us questioning everything we knew before beginning the story; he hits his mark with legendary ease and charisma, and with no small amount of mischief.

Love in the Time of Cholera was my March selection for the 2014 TBR Challenge (and I made it by the skin of my teeth, didn’t I?). It was my first time reading Gabriel García Márquez, whose work I’ve been meaning to read for many years, and I loved the experience. I think I had a much different idea of what sort of novel Love in the Time of Cholera would be, but it went an entirely different direction than I anticipated; I expected a complex and deeply thought-provoking book, which I got, but I never expected the complexities and depth to take the shapes they do. Such a very interesting work!

My tea of choice was Harney & Sons Bankok tea, which is a green tea with vanilla, coconut, and ginger; and I snacked on raw almonds, grapes, and Vincent cheese.

Title: Love in the Time of Cholera
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Genre: classics, literary fiction, magic realism
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (original English), Vintage (my edition)
Release date: January 1, 1988
Source: Personal collection
Buy the book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | BetterWorldBooks

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Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

by Casee Marie on March 12, 2014 · 3 comments

in Fiction, Reviews

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl tells the story of Korobi Roy, a strong-willed and spirited young woman who, despite the deaths of her parents when she was an infant, has known privilege with her grandparents amid their sprawling house in Kolkata. Much to the delight of her grandparents, Korobi has found love with the doting but elusive Rajat Bose and will soon marry into a family among the upper echelons of society. Still, in the face of all her life’s joy Korobi is listless; she longs for the blessing of parents she never knew, dreams of the mother whose death was entwined with Korobi’s birth. No sooner have Rajat and Korobi announced their engagement than unforeseen events unleash a wave of trouble on Korobi, led by a secret her grandfather has kept from her all her life. Propelled by her commitment to truth, Korobi leaves her fiancé and her seemingly perfect life behind as she ventures across an America still reeling from the recent events of 9/11. Against this foreign backdrop she’ll call on the depth of her strength as she searches for new truths: truths about her parents and about her own identity as well.

Oleander Girl is an expansive novel that weaves together many different emotions with vibrancy; there is at once a touch of romance and suspense, of family drama and the divide of social classes. While we are in America with Korobi, meeting the devious Mitra and his sweet wife, as well as the charismatic Vic and his uncle, we are simultaneously back in Kolkata where Korobi’s fiancé Rajat struggles against the machinations of an old flame, and where his family’s business – and maybe even their lives – face threats from within. Asif Ali, the Bose family’s Muslim chauffeur, maintains his own quiet life devoted to the family he serves, delighting in the antics of young Pia Bose who so reminds him of his sister; but when his devotion to the Bose family threatens both their well-being and his pride, he’ll do whatever is necessary to set things straight.

With such a plethora of different stories – each so wonderfully engaging that they all deserve mention here – the reader is kept continually on their feet, even with changes in narrative style throughout the novel; but Divakaruni’s studious attention to detail makes Oleander Girl a well-paced and sure-footed reading experience. Truly adept in her storytelling prowess, her elegant prose renders Korobi’s quest and the Bose’s familial drama into a colorful, dreamlike atmosphere that has a way of intensifying what is already a rich story. Kolkata comes to brilliant life, teeming with intricate details of sight and sound, while post-9/11 New York City recalls the unease and fragility of the time; seen through the eyes of Korobi, the vast differences between the Indian and American cultures are fascinating in their depiction. Divakaruni has a unique way of playing on the senses with words, bringing her readers most thoroughly into whichever world her narrative is drawing forth.

Not to be overlooked are the deeply empowering female characters with whom Divakaruni explores the height and depth of feminine strength across the generational divide; young Korobi lives on her own terms and owns her mistakes, while her grandmother finds the strength to face her husband’s secrets and the new trajectory of her life; little Pia Bose is a charming and fearless girl of privilege who will look convention and prejudice in the eye in order to call a servant her friend; and the Bose family matriarch, Rajat and Pia’s mother, is a brave example of a woman’s struggles and strengths as she endeavors the balance of being a mother, a wife, and a businesswoman. The results of Divakaruni’s efforts are four vastly different women, a collective homage to the infinite scope of human nature and an emotional study of what it truly means to be family. Profound and enlightening, Oleander Girl reaches into the heart of the human spirit and weaves a resplendent story of love, loss, discovery, and the ultimate search for self.

Title: Oleander Girl
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Genre: literary fiction
Publisher: Free Press (hardcover; March 19, 2013)
Release date: March 4, 2014 (trade paperback; Simon & Schuster)
Source: Simon & Schuster (c/o)
Buy the book: Amazon | Kindle | Barnes & Noble | BetterWorldBooks
Connect with the author: Website/Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

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Review: A Long Thaw by Katie O’Rourke

by Casee Marie on February 12, 2014 · 1 comment

in Fiction, Reviews

In her second novel following 2012′s Monsoon Season, Katie O’Rourke returns with a story of the heartbreaks and joys of family. As children cousins Abby and Juliet were inseparable, spending their summers creating a lifetime of memories together. Everything changed when Juliet’s parents divorced and her mother moved her to the opposite coast: while Juliet lived a struggle-filled life in California, all but raising her two younger sisters in the shadow of their mother’s neglect, Abby was left to grow up as the privileged only child of a loving, sustained family. Years later, Abby and Juliet come back into each other’s lives and realize that the two close-knit little girls have grown into two very different young women; but with faith in the power of family and friendship they’ll find that the girls they once were are still close at heart. Through familial struggles, boyfriend woes, and all the trials and triumphs of life, Abby and Juliet will be reminded of how they’ve each been the one person the other could always depend on.

A Long Thaw carries many of the same wonderful qualities that made Monsoon Season such an impressive debut and extends them into a somewhat more expansive sophomore novel. O’Rourke’s prose has a definite talent for drawing me into the story from the first page; the world of her fiction comes to life with impressive clarity and her characters are immediately interesting. I felt deeply connected to Abby and Juliet; their closeness was almost sisterly in the way that they didn’t really skip a beat reuniting, despite whatever years and secrets were there between them. As characters their differences balance each other out in a terrific paradox: sheltered, fortunate Abby is the protective one while Juliet, for all of the hardships in her life, is the more vulnerable of the two. They were, by effect, like puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly, in many ways two halves of one whole. In the same vein, their differences give way to plenty of misunderstandings – such as Juliet’s ability to always pick the wrong man and Abby’s perpetually high expectations of others – but as the story progresses it’s particularly interesting to see their vices switch. The novel became, for me, an engrossing look at two vastly different yet perfectly attuned characters, and how they bring each other closer and further away from their best selves.

Beyond their relationship as cousins, family dynamics play an even broader role in A Long Thaw, particularly between Juliet’s father Allen, Abby’s mother Rachel, and the cousins’ grandmother Mary. O’Rourke rotates her narrative focus to encompass all of these characters, a unique strategy that allows her to take the reader momentarily away from the current happenings of the story and back into the history of each person, revealing a depth of insight into all of the different personalities that come together in the novel. It would be easy for these asides to distract the reader, to cause us to lose interest when we’re taken away from the action, but it’s a testament to O’Rourke’s talent with building intriguing characters that we are willing to venture back into the past with them, ever curious to learn more. The pacing of O’Rourke’s prose is beautiful in itself, her narrative handled with serene straightforwardness; the recollections of Abby and Juliet’s New England summers as children captured, at least for me, the truest and most personal essence of familial memories. The novel’s atmosphere had a way of feeling instantly familiar while the story and structure were a constant reminder of its singular uniqueness. That alone makes A Long Thaw a worthwhile read, but perhaps its greatest charm lies in the full-heartedness of its two heroines and the contagious feeling of connectivity we get from them. With its deeply thoughtful prose and warm, honest storytelling, A Long Thaw proves again O’Rourke’s talent for taking us out of our own world and into the realm of truly engaging literature.

Title: A Long Thaw
Author: Katie O’Rourke
Genre: literary fiction
Publisher: Canvas
Available Formats: ebook
Release date: January 16, 2014
Source: Katie O’Rourke (c/o)
Buy the book: Kindle | Nook
Connect with the author: Website/Blog | Twitter | Goodreads

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Florence in 1943 is radiating calm before a storm, entirely at the disposal of its German allies whose soldiers spill across the Tuscan hillside with abandon, commandeering art and artifacts as they go. Gradually receiving the brunt of the Nazis’ focus are the Rosatis, a family of Italian nobility, and their idyllic estate, Villa Chimera. Here lives eighteen year-old Cristina Rosati, who exists in an otherwise blissful ignorance away from the tragedies of the war until she embarks on a love affair with a young Nazi officer that will ultimately lead her family on a treacherous downward spiral. Branded as traitors for hosting the Nazis, the Rosati family is left to witness their own fall from grace – if they manage to survive the war. Ten years later, police detective Serafina Bettini is investigating the gruesome serial murders of the remaining members of the Rosati family. She’s desperate to solve the mystery before the killer reaches the youngest of the Rosatis: Cristina. As Serafina’s investigation leads her further into the scandal of Villa Chimera and its wartime downfall, she realizes that she herself may have ties to the victims, and maybe even to the killer.

Chris Bohjalian’s strengths as a writer have consistently captured my attention as I’ve journeyed through three of his books this year. His latest novel, The Light in the Ruins, carries all the hallmarks I’ve come to know of Bohjalian’s artistry with fiction. As with The Sandcastle Girls, the richly imagined and beautifully researched history brings the era of the story to life in a way that takes historical fiction to an exciting new level. The characters, all portrayed with an intensity and depth that I’ve come to expect from the author, captured me from the beginning. Despite being a story full of people, one character never blurs with another; they each manage to take on a larger-than-life presence throughout the novel. Cristina’s determined spirit in her youth and Serafina’s ability to survive a horrific personal tragedy were inspiring; even the disturbing Nazi antagonist Colonel Decher and the villainous murderer at the heart of the story’s mystery compelled my attention at every scene. The Light in the Ruins is also very dedicated to its genre as a murder mystery; an entirely gruesome whodunit that never once feels contrived. The uniqueness that sets it apart, I think, is rooted in the experienced literary talent of the author, and his ability to truly outwit his audience. The novel’s narrative alternates from Cristina’s love affair with a Nazi in 1944 to the Rosati murders and Serafina’s investigation in 1955, with brief and successfully unsettling first-person interruptions from the faceless serial killer posed between chapters. Through the dual story lines Bohjalian finds a way of simultaneously telling his story from front to back and back to front, a device used similarly in The Sandcastle Girls and which I greatly enjoyed. I found myself on several occasions unseating myself as a reader in order to view the story from the perspective of a writer, to examine and appreciate the deftness and intricacy of its construction, something I’ve had a tendency to do with all of Bohjalian’s work. And yet I’m never distracted from the story. Everything seems to happen all at once, and so far it’s been vastly enjoyable every time.

At the core of the novel, The Light in the Ruins is powerful on many levels. Stepping out of the territory of the plot – the murder mystery – it broadens to touch on the subject of morality and love in, around, and well outside of the war’s reach. At times a gentle homage to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it captures the passion of youth; but it also examines the beauty of love’s strength in all its manifestation: between husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, partners, and beyond. I saw only the tense literary thriller coming; the emotional complexity left me breathless and a great deal less dry-eyed than I usually am at the final pages of a novel. Graceful and evocative, The Light in the Ruins delivers a romance, murder mystery, and a profound narrative on human nature in one beautifully crafted story.

Title: The Light in the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, romance
Publisher: Doubleday
Available Formats: hardcover, e-book
Release date: July 9, 2013
Source: Personal collection
Buy the book: Amazon | Kindle | Barnes & Noble
Connect with the author: Website | Facebook | Twitter

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