More books to delight and challenge,pt. 1-fiction by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross-posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

The Lioness of Boston by Emily Franklin is a lush historical novel about Isabella Stewart Gardner, Belle of Boston, an upper class young woman who refused to limit herself to the cultural norms prescribed by the wealthy social elite of her time and who, in her struggle to assert herself, made an impact on the art world and all of history. Her outspokenness and outlandishness (for late 19th century staid Boston) and feminist spirit won the disdain of her Brahmin social circle.

Married in her early twenties to businessman and philanthropist John “Jack” Gardner, she suffered from social exclusion. Deep and searing personal loss compounded it when their young son, “Jackie,” fell ill and died. A subsequent pregnancy ended in miscarriage and deprived her of the capacity to have more children.

The book is about ISG’s lifelong quest to fill that emptiness and find purpose. In pursuit of knowledge, she made friends with Harvard intelligentsia, attended lectures and began to collect rare books. Gradually she moved into the realm of art, meeting artists, buying paintings and objets d’art.  Her “out there” style earned her constant coverage and mockery in the society columns. She traveled constantly, to Paris, London, and especially to Venice to acquire the great masters.  Her acquisitions eventually found a home by the Fenway in Boston, in a Venetian-style palazzo we now know as the Gardner Museum.

Franklin has done a splendid job using a treasure trove of letters to bring to life Gardner’s relationships with Harvard art historian Charles Eliot Norton, artist John Singer Sargent, author Henry James, and Bernard Berenson, the art historian who facilitated many of her acquisitions. Steeped in history, The Lioness is still a novel, and Franklin colorfully imagines scenes of Gardner with Oscar Wilde, Berthe Morisot and luminaries.  She brilliantly captures the late 19th and early 20th cultural scene in Boston and beyond. Finishing this wonderful book leaves the reader wanting nothing else but a speedy return visit to the Gardner Museum to share the essence of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s lasting gift to the world.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is a spellbinding coming-of-age novel that is also a murder mystery.  Set in New Bremen, Minnesota, a rural town outside of Minneapolis/ St. Paul, it focuses on the family of Nathan Drum, a W.W. II veteran who has given up the practice of law to become a minister, one who preaches every Sunday at three churches and whose top priority is helping families in crisis. His wife, Ruth, and daughter, Ariel, are gifted musically. His 11-year-old son Jake, is a stutterer who doesn’t talk much but astutely observes the comings and goings in the community. His 13-year-old son Frank, who is inquisitive, bold and often impulsive, throws himself into uncovering truths that adults don’t always want revealed.

It is Frank who tells the story, some 40 years later, of the summer in 1961 when three young people die violently. There are suicide attempts, domestic abuse, alcoholism, class tensions and other societal ills. But there are also moments of grace, ineffable beauty of the season, glorious traditional and newly composed music, the loyalty of brothers and military comrades, the sheer fun of community celebrations.

Small-town America is a rich backdrop for a host of wonderfully drawn characters, a mix of good and bad, smart and dumb, unthinking and deeply philosophical, selfish and generous, religious and agnostic, optimistic and cynical. Most especially, this book is about anger and forgiveness. Ordinary Grace is one of those novels that this reader didn’t want to end.

The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft is intense, richly literary, surreal, sometimes exotic, challenging and frankly bizarre. I rarely give up on a book once started, but, at 50 pages in, I didn’t think I’d make it to the end though I was eventually drawn to finding out its mystery.  The main story line follows eight translators gathering for many weeks in a town near the Bialowieza Forest in Poland, near the Belarus border, to translate the most recent novel by acclaimed Polish novelist Irena Rey.  They only know each other by the native language into which each is to translate from Polish.  The Argentinian narrator is translating into Spanish; we come to know her as Emilia. (Author Croft is herself a translator.)

The setting is at the edge of a deep forest, heavily populated by birds, other animals and insects and densely covered by trees, ferns and funghi, in a constant cycle of growth and decay.  There is granular recounting of the condition of the flora, the changing of the seasons, the impact of climate change and government-run logging. In addition to snakes, frogs and bats, there are also mythical creatures and suspicion of ghosts.

One of the book’s several themes is the creative process and the role of translators (mostly unheralded) on an author’s literary success. There are subplots of sex, jealousy, even a duel. But the story is driven by the sudden disappearance of “Our Author,” Irena Rey, a manipulative irascible character whose home is filled with art, photos, memorabilia and stolen antiquities, through which the translators sift for clues to her disappearance. None of the characters are particularly relatable, and, though I did make it to the end (no spoiler alert here), I can’t recommend the book with any enthusiasm. Reputable reviewers have called this book a “romp.” Not I, despite its moments of satire.  If you do read it, please let me know what I’ve failed to appreciate.

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