What Else I’ve Been Reading

Benway_WelshCanada Day has always meant one thing: reading time! As I’m released from professional duties for a good six+ weeks every year that very day, I settle in for hours of daily glorious reading, snatching one book, moving to another, reading several simultaneously. This year, I was sadly foiled in my summer reading plans by a necessary PD excursion, a full week of my hols, folks. Hence, why I’m only getting into the swing of reading all the things when it’s nearly Bastille Day.

Willig’s Summer Country, at a wopping 480 pages, took all my attention and two books I’ve been reading since mid-June fell by the wayside. Now that I’ve finally settled into a routine, I finished them and will make a few comments about them here. One was Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree, a teen novel, which I read for professional reasons, but which I enjoyed immensely. The other was a historical murder mystery I struggled to like, Kaite Welsh’s The Wages of Sin … and sometimes loved.

Benway’s Far From the Tree is the story of three teens, adopted or fostered, who reunite to search for their birth mother. Ostensibly this is what it’s about; what it does with that material is something else entirely, something moving, profound, and wonderful. I sniveled A LOT. Welsh’s darker, adult tale is about one of the first female medical students at the University of Edinburgh in 1892. While volunteering at an infirmary for the poor and at times criminal, that is, prostitutes, procurers, and addicts, the protagonist comes across a murdered streetwalker and resolves to bring her killer to justice. Two more unlike books a reader couldn’t choose and my reading pace was glacial. While they have absolutely nothing in common, they did totally capture my attention for their last 50 pages.

Benway’s title points to her theme, with its play on apples and trees, children and parents. The blurb likes to say that it’s about family: our saccharine taste satisfied and a reader more likely to pick up the novel? (On the other hand, as Benway won the National Book Award and it ended up on various “best of” lists, it’s likely to attract readers). I digress. I’m always more partial to and interested in the theme of identity in young people’s lit. Figuring out who you are, in light of others, including and most importantly, family, and confronting adult issues and problems, gaining and honing an ability to reflect, to consider life retrospectively are key to great young adult fiction. Benway’s novel possesses all and offers three engaging, compelling, not-too-cool young people.

Thank goodness, the hyper-conscious, overwrought first person is absent from Benway’s novel. My Victorian soul was thoroughly relieved and satisfied. Grace, Maya, and Joaquin are funny, awkward, and smart. Benway alternates chapters about them, but retains the third person. The novel opens with sixteen-year-old Grace as she prepares to give birth. A teen pregnancy, a baby adopted, a young woman with a loving, supportive family who nevertheless lost her bearings and is mourning what is a right, but still difficult decision. This sets the scene and tone: Grace is self-deprecatingly funny, smart, tough, and drives the impetus to reunite with her half-siblings and find their birth mother. Maya is angry, impulsive, and sarcastic: I had a hard time liking her. Joaquin was my favourite, my weakness: afraid of doing wrong, strong, and not ever able to believe he is loveable. All three are smart, smart, smart, and analytic. The ending is a beautifully-rendered HEA: there’s closure, a party, and romance. I loved it. I thought: sentimentality resides in the romance genre and a beautiful young adult novel like this one and we are all the better for it in this dark world. I hope you read it, I’d love to chat about it.

Welsh’s novel is hard. Her protagonist, Sarah Gilchrist, has suffered horribly. I won’t dwell too much on the details; suffice to say, she was sexually assaulted and suffered the cures for nymphomania. Torment at the hands of cruel doctors, pseudo-cures for a pseudo-condition that are really about punishing women. Edinburgh, which I love, doesn’t look good in Welsh’s novel. It’s puritanical, judgemental, and its poor and downtrodden live in the most miserable of conditions. Nevertheless, Sarah and her need to see justice done for the sex-worker Lucy won me over in the first few chapters. I knew that Sarah’s own story was such that she identified with Lucy, but I thought it made the novel, at least at first, stronger.

Welsh lost her way: there were swathes of pages when Sarah didn’t consider the Lucy mystery, caught up as she was in keeping up with her studies, deflecting the derisive and cruel male medical students, contending with her female fellow students bullying her, and playing meek and mild with her aunt and uncle (who’ve taken her in after her parents disowned her and sent her to a sanatorium for wayward women, where she was subjected to humiliating examinations, among other things I won’t mention for fear of further spoiling). The aunt and uncle, who is a truly hateful man, are exacting, unkind, and controlling.

By the last fifty pages, however, as Sarah nears Lucy’s killer, and with her at times volatile, at times near-romantic relationship with the tragic, mercurial Professor-surgeon Merchiston, things get incredibly interesting. Sarah gains strength; she emerges out of fear and depression (thoroughly justified considering what she’s endured) and there’s a glimmer of hope, maybe even of love, surely of friendship. This is what a good ending can win a writer: a reader who maybe wouldn’t have gone to the next book, will. I like Sarah so much better, I’m intrigued by Merchiston and I want to know where they’re going next. I can’t whole-heartedly recommend Wages of Sin. In an attempt to be historically gritty and realistic, there was too much, ahem, effluvia, to make it a pleasurable read. In the end, it was a compelling one and I’d love to chat about this one too, with you, dear reader.

I feel like I’ve cleared the reading decks with the past three posts and I can continue onto my next summer reading challenges: another murder mystery from a series I enjoy, a historical novel, and my first Marilynne Robinson. I haven’t abandoned the Great Betty Read. I’m in the middle of Henrietta’s Own Castle and I can already see this one will become a great fave and sure reread.

6 thoughts on “What Else I’ve Been Reading

  1. Oh, Wages Of Sin–I had problems with that one, boy howdy! And most of my problems were with our heroine, Sarah.
    I thought the author piled on one or two too many miseries on her shoulders. (Ditto for the nominal hero as well). Sarah wins points for wanting to find some justice for Lucy, but her main investigative skill seemed to be jumping to conclusions and then brashly acting on them (Sarah almost ruins her friend’s marriage with one such conclusion, and I’m not sure the friendship will truly survive, even with a grovel-level apology from Sarah)
    I worry about the power imbalance between Sarah and the Prof and how that will affect any romance between them. (and the dramatic ending–so much for Sarah’s sleuthing powers and since Sarah was the POV character, this reader was left saying “That person is the villain? Really??”)
    What I enjoyed the most were the school related scenes–the classroom trials and tribulations of dealing with professors who don’t want to teach you; the general harassment by the male students, the cliques among the female students.
    I will probably read the next (which I hope includes a scene where Sarah murders her aunt and uncle using some undetectable poison. They deserve it!). I hope the author can better balance the school/mystery elements of the story. I also hope that Sarah learns to >think before she acts.

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    • I loved your take on this. My romantic soul appreciated the possible glimpse of some relief from the misery-fest that is Sarah and Gregory’s life. Like you, I’m going to read the next one and hope for more mystery and present relationships and less of Sarah’s truly awful backstory. I think Welsh piled on the misery to show how badly women had it then. I wish the same for the aunt and uncle … ugh. I read the blurb to the next book, out only in hardcover, and it involves the fiancé, but Merchiston is still in the picture. I hope Sarah and the almost-fiancé foil the lot of them, especially his parents and the uncle and aunt.

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  2. I think Wages suffered in comparison to the book I had just finished, as often happens.
    May i bring to your attention The Right Sort of Man–an absolutely wonderful post-WWII mystery featuring two very strong women and some very clever, witty writing.
    My GR review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2882275118?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1
    No real romance for either woman in this one, but I have hopes for further down the line.

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