The Literary Horizon has been gleefully featuring fantasy and historical fiction recently, but I’m going to slow things down a bit this week. Today, I’m taking a look at some contemporary fiction that’s caught my eye.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
From the moment Ruby Lennox announces her own conception (“I exist!”), it is clear that she is a narrator who will leave no stone unturned in her account of family life above a pet shop in England. Not content simply to describe her own circumstances, Ruby investigates the lives of the women in family both past and present, from her great-grandmother’s affair with a French photographer to her mother’s unfulfilled dreams of Hollywood glamour. Hurtling in and out of both World Wars, economic downfalls, the onset of the permissive ’60’s, and up to the present day, Ruby paints a rich and vivid portrait of heartbreak and happiness, and from it draws a rare understanding of the shared secrets, hopes and failures that unite every family.
I have a soft spot for family sagas, as Amazon so wonderfully categorizes this novel. It’s the reason why I love playing The Sims 2 so much–I get to create, watch, and manipulate a family saga of my very own! (It almost always includes alien babies.) Toss in a self-aware narrator, and we’ve got something that appeals to me.
I first ran across Behind the Scenes at the Museum in Teresa’s review over at Shelf Love, where she praises Atkinson’s talent for making a fairly straightforward contemporary novel something wonderful, especially Ruby’s voice. Lesley at A Life in Books also praises Ruby’s voice, and notes that Atkinson ties up every single loose end in the conclusion. The next time I’m in the mood for a family saga, I think I’m reaching for this one.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum was published on January 1, 1995.
The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman
Artfully imagined, intricately detailed, eerily poignant: these are the outstanding features of Carol Goodman’s literary thrillers. She is part novelist, part craftsman—and The Drowning Tree is her newest masterpiece.
Juno McKay intended to avoid the nearby campus of her alma mater during her fifteenth reunion weekend, but she just can’t turn down the chance to see her longtime friend, Christine Webb, speak at the Penrose College library. Though Juno cringes at the inevitable talk of the pregnancy that kept her from graduating, and of her husband, Neil Buchwald, who ended up in a mental hospital only two years after their wedding, Juno endures the gossip for her friend’s sake. Christine’s lecture sends shockwaves through the rapt crowd when she reveals little-known details about the lives of two sisters, Eugenie and Clare—members of the powerful and influential family whose name the college bears. Christine’s revelation throws shadows of betrayal, lust, and insanity onto the family’s distinguished facade.
But after the lecture, Christine seems distant, uneasy, and sad. The next day, she disappears. Juno immediately suspects a connection to her friend’s shocking speech. Although painfully reminded of her own experience with Neil’s mental illness, Juno nevertheless peels away the layers of secrets and madness that surround the Penrose dynasty. She fears that Christine discovered something damning about them, perhaps even something worth killing for. And Juno is determined to find it—for herself, for her friend, and for her long-lost husband.
Shocking secrets of a family dynasty revealed at the women’s college that was named after the daughters? (One of whom who bears my name properly spelled?) I know mysteries and I have a tenuous relationship, but I’ve heard such good things about Goodman’s writing that I just can’t resist.
Alayne of A Crowded Leaf introduced me to this book in her review, where she especially notes Goodman’s use of scenery–doesn’t the thought of a drowned statue garden just make your imagination run Gothic? S. Krishna at S. Krishna’s Books also quite liked Goodman’s use of mythology, although she does point out that the mystery isn’t exactly mind-blowing. Still, I definitely think this is the Goodman novel to start on.
The Drowning Tree was published on December 28, 2004.