Reviews by Zara Raab
The Bones of Paris: A Novel of Suspense By Laurie R. King
New York: Random House, 2013
The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein
New York: Workman Publishing, 2013
Margot A Novel by Jillian Cantor
New York: Penguin, 2013
Note: To meet all three authors in a lively panel, join us for our National Reading Group Month event on October 19th, co-sponsored by Litquake.
A student in Paris in the late 1960s, I traveled briefly with a group of French artists, who, styling themselves Avant garde, held a black Mass, surrounding a beautiful French woman with candles on an altar while chanting phrases my French wasn’t up to comprehending. As I now know, this was hardly Avant-garde; the Dadaists and Surrealists had been doing it with more flair in the 1920s. In that fecund decade of excess, Laurie King sets her new mystery—The Bones of Paris—among just the sorts who were likely to be interested in the darker side of the occult, when surrealists were playing games of exquisite corpse and Emmanuel Radnitzky (better known as Man Ray) was taking fashion photographs and creating surreal paintings.
King’s kingpin is a tall, gangly, good-looking detective named Harris Stuyvesant, an ex-patriot traveling around Europe on freelance assignment after quitting the FBI. He’s like a lot of other Americans in Paris in the 1920s, including Hemingway, who like Man Ray has a role in the drama. Stuyvesant drinks too much, dates too many Place Pagalle women, and sleeps with far too many. One of the latter is a wealthy American orphan, Philippa–Pip––Crosby, who, were she tamer and her wealthy American family less troubled, might be straight from a Henry James novel. But she’s gone missing, and her light-hearted letters to America have stopped coming. That’s when her uncle, a shadowy figure named Ernest Crosby, contacts Stuyvesant. That Stuyvesant’s slept with Philippa some months earlier complicates the plot, as does Stuyvesant’s new relationship with Pip’s roommate in their Paris flat where Picasso drawings adorn the wall—not because Pip’s family is rich (although it is) but because in the 1920s Picassos were affordable. Not to mention an old love from England who turns out to be engaged to ––well, I don’t want to give that away.
King’s draws an appealingly broad canvas, weaving multiple plots and interlocking characters. She’s deft at creating the historical context that helps us experience the story and brings people and places to life—whether World War I heroes and the respect verging on reverence accorded them in France, or the catacombs of Paris where the sewers ebb and swirl, and the bones of the dead undergo their centuries long diagenesis. King evokes the ominous significance of what has been suppressed––suppressed and buried––in the lives of murderer and victims alike, as in all three of the novels considered here, it is the unacknowledged, suppressed or unconscious material in the characters’ lives that––in being revealed––moves the story forward. In The Bones of Paris, it is up to the State, in the form of detective Stuyvesant allied with his colleague from the French police, to solve the case. But it is the artists and writers in the studios and cafes in Pigalle and Montmartre, the Dadists and Surrealists who create their works, the Hemingways who boxed and drank, to bring us the experience. One artist in particular finds expressive beauty in bleached bones. Whose bones you couldn’t possibly guess, and I won’t say.
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Lauren Grodstein’s writing in The Explanation for Everything, deftly seamed with factual and scientific material, has the clarity and logic of good nonfiction, the simplicity of good journalism. A self-avowed agnostic, Grodstein uses the shining, state-of-art laboratory of the novel to reveal the chasm that separates human lives from theory, whether the theory is evolution, intelligent design, or evangelical Christian belief.
Professor Andy Waite is her case in point. In theory, Professor Waite is impressive: He is a professor of biology at Exton Reed College in New Jersey with a degree from Princeton; a protégé of the famous evolutionary scientist Henry Rosenblum; director of an expensive laboratory designed to prove the genetic basis of alcoholism in mice; a good father devoted to his two motherless daughters; a rational man in control of his life. In fact, when we look a little deeper, we find that Andy Waite is human––and flawed. He often converses with the ghost of his dead wife; he has trouble admitting his lab results are inconclusive; he callously ignores the feelings of a helpful neighbor; he is easily tempted by the flirtations of a young transfer student eager to prove intelligent design; and he carries on a vindictive campaign against the young felon who killed his wife in a driving accident. With his exceptional C.V., his passivity and taste for revenge, Andy is the comic hero who must find his way, taking his life in hand and forging of it something moral and purposeful.
To the comedy of Andy’s life, his erstwhile Princeton mentor, the genius Henry Rosenblum, provides a tragic backstory. Andy had already settled in his own career in New Jersey some time ago, when Rosenblum acquired another student, a second-generation Korean right out of Harvard with a brilliant mind who exchanged two adoring and devoutly Christian parents for an exciting future in Western science. Here, too, The Explanation for Everything translates ideas using archetypes. Henry is the Faust who sells his soul for his work, and Anita Lim is his sacrificial lamb, a brilliant student who cannot find meaning in molecules, but is thwarted by Rosenblum when she finally makes contact with her deeper self, realizes the emptiness at her core, goes in search of meaning elsewhere. A simple plot, a small cast, a fascinating glimpse of what can result when the frontal cortex of a human gets ahead of organic development. Real-time evolution will trump evolutionary theory every time.
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Margot and Anne Frank died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen before the war ended. But what if one of the girls had survived like their father, Otto Frank, who later found and published Anne’s diary? Anne Frank is alive and well as Amy Bellette, living in a rural New English cottage, according to Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s eponymous Ghostwriter of 1979. The concept of a Frank daughter surviving the Holocaust, while not entirely new, is given a new twist by Jillian Cantor’s Margot, making it a natural for reviews by both Time and O, the Oprah Magazine.
The context of any story about Anne Frank’s sister Margot is bound to be broad, but Cantor wisely keeps her canvas small, only brushing in with light strokes the outlines of Margot’s traumatic escape and the stages of her journey to Philadelphia. This is the City of Brotherly Love where she and Peter Pels, a teenage also hidden in the secret annex in Amsterdam, had––as Margot tenderly recalls––promised to meet after the War. In this fictional account, Peter was Margot’s beau, not Anne’s, never mind Anne’s diaries, and the jealousy that Anne’s interest in Peter sparked in Margot, along with Margot intense feelings of survival guilt, are sources of suffering for this young immigrant. Her situation is all the more poignant because the character Cantor has created in Margot cannot fully comprehend what she has undergone: her survival and integrity as a functioning person depends upon this comprehension not reaching full consciousness.
So we meet Margot in her thoroughly American guise, a single girl who misses her old boyfriend (Peter), but who is definitely interested in someone new (her young boss). A decade or so earlier, she swore a pact with Peter to take on new names—hers would be Margie Franklin—and embrace a new life after the War, even if it meant giving up their Jewish identities in an anti-Semitic world. So now, like other girls in the city, she’s a working girl, a Gentile typing briefs for Rosenstein, Greenberg and Moscowitz, Attorneys-at-Law, the private secretary of a named partner’s son, the young Joshua Rosenstein. But The Diary of Anne Frank has just come out in the movies, and she passes the marques with trepidation on her way to check the address of a house that may belong—after all these years—to Peter. On the city street, as in the office, she is careful to roll down the sleeves of her sweater, worn even on warm days to hide the Nazi identification number tattooed on the inside of her slender wrist.
She’s only half hoping to find Peter, for she’s falling in love with the good-looking, unattached Joshua Rosenstein even as she types his correspondence and observes his dalliance with a sparkling Jewish heiress from the suburbs. Margot-Margie is leading a double life, a life she may want to integrate and reveal when Joshua, who can no longer deny the attraction that has lurked below the surface for many months, finally admits to her over coffee that he could never marry a Gentile.
Zara Raab’s latest books are Fracas & Asylum and Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name? finalist for the Dana Award. Two earlier books, Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, evoke the rainy darkness of the remote northern California coast where she was raised. Her poems, reviews, and essays appear in Poetry Flash, Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, The Dark Horse, and Poet Lore. She is a contributing editor to the Redwood Coast Review and Poetry Flash and lives near the San Francisco Bay.