The Evolution of Jane by Cathleen Schine
This book is a mess. The main character, Jane Barlow Schwartz, is meant to be eccentric and charming, but she comes off as an annoying whiner. The Galapagos Island setting and endless musing on Charles Darwin’s revolutionary insights on species and evolution are meant to add depth to the characters and interest for the reader but are often irritating and sometimes tedious. I had decided to leave this novel unfinished after the first four chapters until I saw that the fifth chapter flashed back to the crux of the plot: the girlhood best-friendship of Jane and her distant cousin Martha, who in the first of several utterly unbelievable coincidences, turns out to be Jane’s guide on her cruise through the Galapagos. Jane is on the cruise to take her mind off her recent divorce and the appearance of Martha as her guide sparks her interminable whine throughout the novel: Why did Martha stop being her friend? Turns out the question is a MacGuffin of the worst sort, one with an answer so simple and so obvious that the reader feels cheated and ill-used by the revelation. Q. Why did Martha stop being Jane’s friend? A. Because her family moved away from the town where Jane continued to live. Now I know why people actually throw books across the room, which is where this one would have ended up had it not been a library borrow. I picked up this book because I thought Schine did a decent job in a contemporary retelling of Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” with her 2010 novel, “The Three Weissmanns of Westport,” but I’ll be giving the rest of her oeuvre a pass.
How It All Began by Penelope Lively
Like a lot of contemporary fiction I’m reading these days, Penelope Lively’s new novel might have borrowed a title from Anthony Trollope: “The Way We Live Now.” Although Lively’s story lacks the fully-detailed financial shenanigans of Trollope’s longest novel, it does provide a similar shapshot of a set of typical people in a certain place and time, which in this case is educated and affluent Londoners today. The story spins off the mugging of an elderly widow named Charlotte Rainsford, whose resulting broken hip sends out ripples of effect that change — at least temporarily — the lives of a bunch of people, most of whom don’t even know Charlotte. Charlotte’s daughter Rose and her husband must accomodate her in their home for her recovery, and Charlotte must struggle to recover her prized independence. Rose’s sometime unavailability requires her employer, a retired history professor, to sometimes call for help on his sole relation, a niece named niece Marion. Marion must add juggling her uncle’s needs to the challenge of rescuing her interior-design firm in the lean times of post-crash Britain, both of which put stress on her affair with Jeremy. Jeremy’s own business dealing with architectural elements reclaimed from old buildings is also struggling even before his wife discovers the affair and demands a divorce. And an Eastern European immigrant who Charlotte is teaching to read English must now meet her for tutoring sessions at Rose’s home, where he and Charlotte’s daughter develop an unlikely friendship. Lively’s actual title — “How It All Began” — is mostly inappropriate, it seems to me, because it implies a before-and-after demarcation that doesn’t exist for all of the characters in this ensemble cast. The life of only one of those characters is profoundly changed as a result of the ripple of effect set off by Charlotte’s mugging. The rest experience a period of turbulence before settling back into post-mugging lives that appear as placid as their pre-mugging lives. Much of Lively’s novel is told through interior monologue, and she’s such a fine writer that each character’s interior voice is both distinctive and captivating. One of the things I especially liked about this book is the fact that she has two elderly characters who are interesting, not merely geezer cranks used for effect. However, on the flip side, the other characters, with the exception of one 20-something academic who appears very briefly, are all middle-aged. Rose and Jeremy both have children who might have been used to present a younger point of view, but that’s really an unfair quibble. Reviewers should stick to the book that was written and not gripe about the book they wish had been written. I quite enjoyed this one as a light summer read, and I’ll be trying some other titles from the prolific Lively.