The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

A vibrant, thought-provoking literary puzzler about identity and self-determination.

diver's clothes

“You stand in the middle of the small square, thinking about your options.” Vendela Vida’s (The Lovers) vivid fourth novel, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, is surprising in several ways, beginning with its unusual second-person perspective: you are the protagonist.

“You” are a woman traveling alone from Florida to Casablanca, fleeing troubles at home that are only gradually revealed to the reader. What you seek is unclear: a vacation? An escape? But what you find instead is the immediate theft of your passport and wallet–in short, everything you need to travel or return home. This abrupt change in circumstances is terrifying but also strangely freeing.

As the rest of the story unfolds, the unnamed protagonist spontaneously reacts to situations as they present themselves. You accept a passport and wallet that was stolen from another American woman, offered by the Casablanca police in lieu of your own, and take on that woman’s identity. You accept an unlikely job offer as the stand-in for a famous American actress. You hang out backstage with Patti Smith, date an older Russian businessman, even undertake a little acting. When circumstances get hectic, however, you are tempted to use your newfound skills in spontaneity and anonymity to disappear again.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a complex, enigmatic fable about starting over, the nature of identity and the possibility of escaping the past. Vida’s meticulous release of details, knowing use of suspense, colorful evocation of Morocco and tantalizing characterization make this a singular, revelatory and deliciously satisfying novel.

This review originally ran in the June 16, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 cameras.

Maximum Shelf: Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 10, 2015.

did you everAcclaimed memoirist Bill Clegg (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man; Ninety Days) offers a profound jolt with his first novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, the impetus for the creation of Gallery Books’ new literary imprint, Scout Press.

June Reid’s world is splintered and lost in an instant. In the early morning of her daughter’s wedding day, her farmhouse explodes and burns, killing June’s ex-husband; her current boyfriend, Luke; her daughter, Lolly; and Lolly’s fiancĂ©, Will. Did You Ever Have a Family maps the circumstances of the blaze and follows the aftermath of this tragedy as it affects June and other members of the families and communities of the victims.

In Clegg’s unusual composition, each chapter belongs to a different person, with the reader left to configure their connections. Some of their stories are told in first person, some in third, and almost all in flashbacks. This ever-shifting perspective highlights mistakes and misunderstandings, including June’s; other characters provide small revelations, thereby contributing to larger questions. The relatives and acquaintances of the deceased are joined by others with less clear ties, who appear to the reader in ever-widening concentric circles. Thus Clegg slowly and skillfully reveals the night of the fire and the nuances of the surrounding community in deft disclosures, through different points of view and with deep feelings.

June’s farmhouse is located in the small Connecticut town of Wells, where the locals are employed, somewhat resentfully, in serving weekend people from New York City. June had first been a weekender, and later moved in full-time. She ruffled some feathers when she began dating Luke, a handsome young man some 20 years her junior with a complicated history, about whom everyone in town had an opinion. June’s own family is not uncomplicated: following her divorce, she struggled to get along with her daughter, Lolly, a dreamy girl who apparently blamed her mother for the fracturing of the household. But June had worked to get to know Lolly’s fiancĂ©, Will. She was counting on a future. In a moment of unguarded exasperation, she rhetorically asked Will’s sister: “Did you ever have a family?” After losing hers in such a spectacular, gruesome fashion, June eventually departs Wells carrying no identification, with only her car keys and a bank card left in the jacket she was wearing when she ran out of her house.

Early chapters focus on native Wells residents: friends, neighbors, the florist contracted for the wedding, the caterer who never got paid. But as characters gradually expand and diversify, the geography of Did You Ever Have a Family also spreads as the narrative unfolds, until its focus ranges from the east to the west coast of the United States. The lives of many are altered by the loss of June’s family; their simply expressed, easily understood emotions belie the gut-wrenchingly awful stories they tell. And each is ultimately working to build or define family, with varying degrees of success.

Lydia is Wells’s town outcast, busty and socially awkward, who gave birth years ago to a baby whose father had to have been African-American, although Lydia’s husband was red-haired and pale. That baby would grow up to be an intelligent, athletic, convicted felon–June’s boyfriend, Luke. When readers meet her, Lydia is chafing under the opinions of small, mean minds and loud voices. Town gossip holds Luke responsible for the tragedy, and thereby confirms Lydia’s low social status. Following an estrangement of several years between mother and son, June had orchestrated a tentative reconciliation. But when June leaves town following the funerals of everyone she loved, Lydia loses not only her son but her only friend. After June deserts Wells, gossip gains strength, and may yet destroy what the fire didn’t.

Supporting characters include a teenage neighbor who helped fix up the yard for the wedding and who carries his bong with him everywhere, and the family of June’s never-to-be son-in-law, Will, who return home to Washington State to mourn him. At a small seaside motel on the West Coast, a couple who have fled their own tragedy in Seattle worry over their new guest, a ghostlike woman who rents by the month and never leaves her room. And with yet another perspective, the reader learns the identity of Luke’s father, although Luke himself never did. These characters and vignettes are not disconnected, although their relationships become clear only over the course of Clegg’s masterfully woven story.

June and Lydia inhabit the center of this wondrous, grave and glorious story, but each voice that speaks up in Did You Ever Have a Family is gripping and invokes the reader’s sympathies. Every character and every small tragedy is a sensitively portrayed, complex, and compelling study on its own. What first appears to be a tale of grief in the face of unspeakable loss grows with its own momentum, until finally its scope is much wider than initially suspected. The expansive and surprising result eventually portrays the building of community and the possibility of recovery, even forgiveness. Did You Ever Have a Family is an elegant first novel, carefully composed and beautifully, hauntingly written.

Rating: 8 daisies.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Clegg.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

The fictional portrait of a real-life, rough-edged, hard-drinking “Mother Teresa” on New York City’s tough streets in the early 20th century.

saint mazie

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg (The Middlesteins) brings to life a true historical figure–movie theater proprietress Mazie Phillips–as a fully realized, full-color, unlikely hero.

They called her Queen of the Bowery. She was bottle-blonde, busty, husky-voiced and crude; she was a self-described good-time girl with a gruff manner, partial to men and drink. But she was also a humanitarian, though she would never have admitted it. Attenberg’s inspired story takes the form of a historian’s fictional collection of material: entries from Mazie’s diary, excerpts from a draft of her unpublished autobiography and interviews with descendants, acquaintances and local experts on New York City’s past.

Mazie begins her diary on her 10th birthday, in 1907. She is new to New York City; her older sister, Rosie, has rescued her and the youngest, Jeanie, from domestic violence in Boston. The three sisters form an odd but lasting household with Rosie’s husband, Louis, beloved of all three. From this day forward, Mazie remains in the city, drinking through Prohibition, assisting the wounded at the Wall Street bombing in 1920, and pinching pennies to help her neighbors through the aftermath of the 1929 crash.

Saint Mazie‘s structure establishes an evocative tone of both ancient history and immediacy. Mazie’s love affairs and friendships are wrought with sensitivity and nuance; Nadine, the barely-named researcher behind the story, surfaces with rare, delightful hints to her own personality and motivations. Mazie’s life is compelling, heartrending and irresistibly paced, but it is Attenberg’s subtle storytelling decisions that make this novel unforgettable.

This review originally ran in the June 2, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 postcards.

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

lola quartetAnna is seventeen, with a baby, and she’s on the run. Ten years later, Gavin’s life is falling apart: he loses his job and his New York City apartment, and returns to small-town Florida with his tail between his legs. As he tries to patch a life back together, he also searches for a piece of his past that’s gone missing: an old girlfriend who disappeared, and a daughter he never knew he had. To solve the mystery and unravel the intrigue that has followed them into the present, Gavin will have to reconnect with the members of the Lola Quartet, his old jazz group from high school.

The Lola Quartet is told from several different perspectives in disjointed chronology, like Station Eleven, although its circumstances are less imaginative: Gavin and his former band members inhabit the same world that we do. The characters are all fully-developed and interesting people, with complexities and inner conflicts, and the story keeps us moving right along; this is a difficult book to put down. The thread of music that runs through the book – as a down-and-out jazz musician obsesses, and the gifted are said to “have the music” – is another sparkling element that brings these people to life. The Florida that Mandel evokes is hypnotic in its humidity and quiet threats. I found it an interesting twist that Gavin is a boy from Florida who can’t handle the heat.

This is not the masterpiece that Station Eleven is, although it’s a very enjoyable read. There were a few plot twists that I felt could have used a little more explaining, or else been left out. The character who compels all those around her, for whom everyone else makes sacrifices, didn’t show the kind of charisma I would think necessary to draw those loyalties; and I know sometimes these things are just inexplicable, but I still would have appreciated a little more expression of her magnetism. But the setting and the characters are as real as can be; the story has momentum and suspense; The Lola Quartet is a novel to lose yourself in.

Rating: 7 photographs.

Old Heart by Peter Ferry

A sweet, tender story of a decades-old, dreamed-of romance and the less elegant realities of aging.

old heart

Peter Ferry (Travel Writing) crafts a wise and delicate novel of aging, love and autonomy in Old Heart.

Tom Johnson is an old man. He has been widowed, and thereby freed from a troubled marriage, for a number of years. His adult children have begun pressuring him to sell the house in Illinois and move into a home. The motives of his son the gambling addict are suspicious; his daughter’s are likely pure. His eldest child, who had Down syndrome, was Tom’s best friend, but his death has given Tom the opportunity to pursue an old mystery. And so Tom plots to run away, leaving no clues behind save a note for his family: “I am not coming back.” He then travels to the Netherlands to track down a Dutch woman he knew during World War II, with whom he had “invented love.” He knows the chances of finding Sarah alive are poor, but he is driven nonetheless. “This is my life, whatever is left of it,” he writes in the note to his children.

The half-hidden narrator of Old Heart is Tom’s granddaughter Nora, a graduate student who had just begun recording the story of Tom’s return from the war and the beginning of his long-lived but unhappy marriage. When Tom makes his escape, Nora is the only one he takes into his confidence, and she relates parts of his story from her perspective. In other chapters, he chronicles his personal history–the parts where he meets and loves Sarah–in long letters to Nora. Throughout, the question of Tom’s mental competence looms over his narrative.

Of course, upon his arrival in the town where he knew Sarah, Tom does not find what he hoped he would; what he finds instead is far more complicated. In the winding path he travels–from Illinois to Eindhoven, and from dream to reality–Tom instead learns a lot about what he wants, what he has the right to expect from his life and where he’s come from. And despite his age, he continues to grow, and finds a chance to love.

Old Heart is earnest and, yes, occasionally sentimental, but also pensive and eventually enlightened. It is at once a romance, a meditation on the complications of end-of-life independence and the responsibilities of family, and a lovely personal history. In a slim, unassuming read, Ferry opens intriguing questions and introduces his reader to complex and deeply likable characters. The result is delightfully warm and universally appealing.

This review originally ran in the June 4, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 decisions.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (audio)

station eleven

Wow. The entirety of this book is every bit as good as it seemed when I wrote about it some time ago. I am reeling, very sorry that it is finished, and will want to track down more of Emily St. John Mandel’s work as soon as I can. Thanks again, Liz, for the great recommendation as always.

Station Eleven has two settings, dually in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic future world, and with flashbacks to the world of here and now. The story begins with the beginning of the collapse, when during a stage production of King Lear the lead actor dies of a heart attack onstage. The audience member who tried to save him leaves the theatre, stunned, as a highly virulent and fast-acting flu virus sweeps through his home city of Toronto; warned by a friend who is an ER doctor, he stocks up on supplies and holes up with his brother in the brother’s apartment. His brother lives on the 22nd floor and is in a wheelchair, so they do not evacuate the city.

Flash forward 15 or 20 years, and now we follow a group called the Traveling Symphony, incompletely named because they also specialize in Shakespeare productions. The world has changed: almost the entire human population of every continent died of the flu, with only small bands of people left and little technology. There is no more electricity, no more fossil fuel, no more computers. Small communities have formed but are insular and suspicious, and sometimes violent; life is hard. The Traveling Symphony brings some light to this regretful world – art is still beautiful – but the symphony members are not exempt from the hardships; they carry weapons, deal with uncertainty every day.

The story is told in disjointed chronology, jumping back and forth between the pre-collapse world and the world after. Each of these two timelines runs chronologically, but we alternate between the two. The third world is that of Station Eleven, a fictional creation of one of our characters that also bears on the real world both before and after the flu epidemic.

Perspective shifts as well between several characters, some of whom we follow both before and after the collapse – if they survive. They have aged 15-20 years in that time, which presents some interesting possibilities and points of view. It also ramps up the suspense and tension: what happened to this person or that, did she live, does he ever find his loved ones again, and do they see any consequences for their actions? Mandel is expert at teasing us with these questions, and I heartily second Liz’s feeling that this book ends too soon: I too want more.

Mandel exhibits genius in the details of all three of the worlds in this story. Her characters are outstanding: nuanced and complex people with strengths and flaws that we can mostly learn to love but never worship. The struggles of these characters ask questions of the reader: what kinds of behavior are justified by hard times? What technologies would be hardest to live without, and is there anything to be gained by going “back to basics” or back to a less technological era that we often regard as “simpler”? What is the value of art; what do we want out of it? What is the meaning of friendship? If computers and cars and airplanes and iPhones suddenly went away, should we teach the next generation about them or let that history go silent?

As a novel-reading (listening) experience, I thought Station Eleven was nearly as good as it gets: entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, thought-provoking, stimulating, colorful, well-written, compelling. As a cultural critique, I found it useful as well, although as I contemplate global collapse in its various forms and our strategies related to it, I want to think about forms of collapse that are rather more our fault than this is. That’s a little awkward; what I mean is, the flu in this story is sort of an act of god, a thing that happens to us, but I think it would be useful to think about economic, environmental, societal collapse due to human hubris and poor decision-making. The flu could be a version thereof, less directly. Still, its results are instructive or at least stimulating.

The narration on this audio production by Kirsten Potter is very fine. I told my parents partway through that there were two readers, a man and a woman, but that was wrong; between listenings, I clearly got confused, due to Potter’s fine acting of male and female perspectives throughout.

Mandel is a nuanced writer with a keen imagination. I can’t wait to discover more of her work and recommend this novel highly.

Rating: 9 knife tattoos.

Girl in the Moonlight by Charles Dubow

A lifetime of love and lust, with a backdrop of fine art, vast wealth and high society.


In Girl in the Moonlight by Charles Dubow (Indiscretion), Wylie Rose has known the Bonet siblings since he was 10, when he fell out of a tree and broke his arm at a party on their massive estate. He studies painting with the elder son, who becomes a dear friend; he admires the younger twins and the rest of the family, who are all brilliant, luminous, talented, beautiful and tremendously rich. But it is Cesca, two years older than Wylie, who hypnotizes him, and ruins him for any other woman or any other life than self-destructive devotion to her.

From a distance of decades, adult Wylie reflects on that life–always coming when Cesca called, from their first sexual encounter when he was a teen through her unpredictable comings and goings over the years, and the apparently mature and healthy relationships he throws aside for her in Manhattan, Paris and Barcelona. She seemingly can’t help her flirtations, manipulations and self-destructive behaviors. Wylie feels for her like “an exile misses his homeland or an old man misses his youth.”

Dubow’s writing is a bit uneven, but often inspired in its phrasing, evoking a mystical atmosphere around Cesca’s mesmerizing power and the rarefied world she travels in: extraordinary wealth, titles and estates around the world, artistic success and broken hearts. Wylie and Cesca see tempestuous years pass in struggling to define the magnetism they feel for one another, and readers will be spellbound by the process.

This review originally ran in the May 26, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 5 martinis.

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