We may be transfixed by the January 6 hearings, but, when Donald Trump is back invading our dreams at night after 18 months absence, we can benefit mightily from a summertime escape into fiction.
Horse by Geraldine Brooks is a tour de force. A gifted, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Brooks has used thoroughbred racehorse Lexington, raised by a slave (Jarrett), to weave a story of American history, race relations, 19th and 20th century equestrian art, and the fight for human dignity that spans from antebellum South to contemporary Washington, D.C. Her always-rich writing moves back and forth among her many characters, creating scenes with an artist’s eye, easily using language appropriate to the eras in which the riveting narrative is set. This illustrious racehorse sired generations of winners and figured prominently in the lives of racing world devotees, breeders, artists and dealers who transferred his portraits from one generation over 160 years. One such painting falls into the hands of Theo, a Nigerian doctoral student who dives deep into researching its provenance. Race remains an issue for Theo in 2019 in D.C. as it had been for Jarrett in Kentucky in the 1850’s.
A couple of critics have faulted Brooks for cultural appropriation, (see this summer’s Atlantic Magazine) much as Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, was criticized for writing about Mexican immigrants trying to enter the United States. Can a white woman not write about slavery and racism or undocumented immigrants? Horsefeathers! Brooks is a master of historical fiction. If there are too many coincidences for you in the various story lines, remember, this is well-researched, beautifully written, and Brooks weaves the stories together in a rich and compelling narrative.
French Braid by Anne Tyler may seem bland compared to Brooks’ epic Horse, but it does what other Anne Tyler books have done: drills down most pleasantly into the complexities of family relationships through the lives of a middle-class Baltimore family. Tyler’s 24th novel focuses on Mercy Garrett, who, after long marriage and raising three children, gradually finds herself, develops her painting skills into a career and eventually moves into her small art studio. She and her husband, Robin, never declare themselves separated, though she quietly achieves independence selling home portraits to other families. With her simple writing style and selective detail, Tyler gently probes the daily lives and missed opportunities of the Garrett family. Its several generations are woven together like a French braid with wisps of hair springing out from the braid itself – much the way family members follow their own paths. Each chapter is in a new decade, and the family, whatever their resentments and rifts, are still drawn to each other with a certain tenderness. Tyler’s novels succeed with comfortable familiarity, and this one is no different.
The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen would probably require a second or third reading to appreciate this work of “creative non-fiction” in all its richness and complexity. One principal character is based on Ben-Zion Netanyahu, scholar, expert on antisemitism and the Spanish Inquisition, and father of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appears as a pre-teen in this narrative. The other protagonist is economics professor and taxation specialist Ruben Blum, the only Jewish faculty member of Corbin College, an upstate New York school mildly suggestive of Cornell. In creating Blum, Cohen seems to have drawn from literary critic and prolific writer Harold Bloom. Some chapters are essays on Judaism and antisemitism; others explore theories of history and politics of academic life. The central drama revolves around a visit by Ben-Zion Netanyahu to Corbin to teach a class, give a guest lecture, and be interviewed for a faculty position by a department committee, on which Blum has been invited to participate precisely because he is Jewish. He is tapped to chaperone Netanyahu for the weekend. Netanyahu arrives, surprisingly with his wife and three unruly children, who wreak havoc with the Blum house.
Comedy runs through the unfolding story, about being Jewish and academic small-mindedness, but the humor never obliterates the basic seriousness of the novel as it explores Jewish history, the state of American Jewry, Zionism and Israel. Some chapters are a heavy lift, filled with $10 words when $2words would have sufficed. As my friend Judy K, who loaned me the book said, “it is very different and very interesting.” ….but, I would add, not necessarily a beach read.
Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is about marriage (optimistic on the wedding day), suffocation of individuality, gender, ambition, parental responsibility, midlife crisis and sexuality. It’s told both from the perspective of Dr. Toby Fleishman, a successful enough 40-something doctor at a New York hospital, and that of his longtime friend, Libby. She observes Toby balancing his care with caring for his two children, 9 and 11, whom his about-to-be ex, Rachel Fleishman, an enormously successful celebrity agent, has apparently abandoned. In a deft handling of time shifting, Brodesser-Akner peels off the different layers of their relationships and shifts the reader’s sympathies from one Fleishman to the other. What starts out somewhat uncomfortably with an abundantly detailed and often humorous account of Toby’s website-initiated sexual encounters in Manhattan moves into a deeper understanding of the evolving relationships of couples as their needs and expectations change. The feminist diatribe gets a little repetitious, and the shift to Libby as the story-teller is a little jarring. The author is insightful; she’s a good story-teller, but this debut novel is not in the same class as Horse.