The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Frank could not play music, he could not read a score, he had no practical knowledge whatsoever, but when he sat in front of a customer and truly listened, he heard a kind of song. He wasn’t talking a full-blown symphony. I would be a few notes; at the most, a strain. And it didn’t happen all the time, only when he let go of being Frank and inhabited a space that was more in the middle. It had been this way ever since he could remember.

34203744My first Rachel Joyce novel was a home run! The Music Shop is a page-turning, earnest, feel-good novel, something I’d say we all could use more of these days. It helps if you’re a music lover, but even if you aren’t this novel has plenty to offer. In fact I could see myself someday reading this again for comfort in a time of stress.

Most of the book takes place in 1988, around a struggling record shop that’s on a shabby, quiet street in a nondescript (I think unnamed?) British suburb. It’s owned by Frank, a man who has an uncanny knack for finding just the right album to shake up a person’s life in the way that they need. As good as he is as connecting people with the right music, he is a failure in the love department, not letting anyone get too close to him emotionally. We get hints of past trauma in his upbringing but it’s not until later in the book that the mystery of his past is revealed. Meanwhile, the CD age is upon him, and his record vendors are pressing him to stock CDs in his shop. He refuses, affronted by their lack of character.

But CD sound was clean, the reps argued. It had no surface noise. To which Frank replied, “Clean? What’s music got to do with clean? Where is the humanity in clean? Life has surface noise! Do you want to listen to furniture polish?”

Add a cast of quirky, mostly sweet fellow Unity Street shopkeepers and a bumbling, adorable shop assistant named Kit, and you have a winning atmosphere for the action of our story. A beautiful woman named Ilse Brauchmann faints outside Frank’s shop one day, and his life is never the same. Unable to face what he really feels for Ilse, he starts giving her “music lessons” at a nearby cafe, bringing her albums to listen to with accompanying listening notes. Frank’s shop business is not so good, as people start to want CDs and the city falls on hard times in general. People just aren’t shopping on their little street like they used to. As we watch Frank try to find ways to save his shop, and as he gets closer to Ilse, we also get glimpses of his past in chapters that depict his unusual upbringing by his less-than-maternal mother, Peg. She is the one who makes music so important in his life, but she also does a lot of emotional damage to young Frank with her parental shortcomings. And we come to find that the mysterious Ilse Brauchmann has some secrets of her own.

I just loved this book! I was occasionally frustrated with Frank, for being too guarded and obtuse, but I forgave him when I found out what had scarred him from wanting to love again. The novel had a cinematic feel to it, sort of like a combination of “High Fidelity” and a good rom-com like “You’ve Got Mail” or Notting Hill.” A couple of scenes made me laugh out loud. And the writing is really lovely, not overly descriptive but evocative all the same.

The water was blue-gray with the day’s reflection and trees, and dimpled as far as they could see with the falling rain. They sat for a long time, just watching the rain and smiling, her with one oar, him with the other. By now their hair was so wet it stuck to their heads, and the shoulders of her coat were more black than green, but they stayed out there in the middle of the lake, until the cloud shifted and the evening sun came out, and everything around them, every leaf, every blade of grass, every rooftop in the distance, shone like a piece of jewelry. 

This is the kind of book that made me want to sit down and listen to music the way I used to listen to it in high school. I’d sit on my bedroom floor and do nothing else but let the music wash over me, playing my favorite songs over and over, for hours. I’ve never had a record player of my own, I came along too late for that; my first music was cassette tapes and then the first ones I bought on my own were CDs. And now almost all of my new music purchases are from iTunes. But record albums are making a big comeback, and I’m actually considering getting a record player for the first time.

In any case, whether you’re a music lover or not, this is a heartwarming book that celebrates community and friendship, and taking the risks necessary to live a full life filled with love and relationships. If you’re searching for a lighter contemporary read, one with heart and wit, look no further than The Music Shop.


Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (#AnneReadalong2017)

“We must keep a little laughter, girls,” said Mrs. Blythe. “A good laugh is as good as a prayer, sometimes – only sometimes,” she added under her breath.  She had found it very hard to laugh after the three weeks she had just lived through – she, Anne Blythe, to whom laughter had always come so easily and so freshly.  And what hurt most was that Rilla’s laughter had grown so rare – Rilla whom she used to think laughed over-much.  Was all the child’s girlhood to be so clouded?  Yet how strong and clever and womanly she was growing!  How patiently she knitted and sewed and manipulated those uncertain Junior Reds!  And how wonderful she was with Jims.

“She really could not do better for that child than if she had raised a baker’s dozen, Mrs. Dr. dear,” Susan had avowed solemnly.  “Little did I ever expect it of her on the day she landed here with that soup tureen.”

433533What a way to end the #AnneReadalong2017!  I didn’t know what to expect from Rilla of Ingleside after the previous two books in the series, which for me were a two-star and a three-star read, respectively.  This one was a gem, darker and emotionally richer  than any other entry in the series.  Anne’s youngest daughter, Rilla, changes from a dreamy, aimless, fun-loving girl to a resourceful, courageous, dependable young women under the shadow of the First World War and its hardships.  We see how the community of Glen St. Mary rises to the occasion, offering its sons and brothers to the cause with bravery and grace.

There are many things to love about Rilla, from the trademark Montgomery descriptions of  beautiful landscape to the beginning exploration of Rilla’s young love life.  And I can’t forget to mention precious Dog Monday, Jem’s loyal furry friend who waits for him at the train station for the duration of the lad’s time at war.  I got choked up a time or two thinking about him getting excited every time the train pulled in and young men came home.  And one of my favorite characters from books past is in fine form here:  the formidable Susan, who isn’t shy with her opinions at all.

“When I wake up in the night and cannot go to sleep again,” remarked Susan, who was knitting and reading at the same time, “I pass the moments by torturing the Kaiser to death.  Last night I fried him in boiling oil and a great comfort it was to me, remembering those Belgian babies.”

“We are told to love our enemies, Susan,” said the doctor solemnly.

“Yes, our enemies, but not King George’s enemies, doctor dear,” retorted Susan crushingly.  She was so well pleased with herself over this flattening out of the doctor completely that she even smiled as she polished her glasses. 

Rilla herself is a marvelous character, growing and changing from a frivolous, happy-go-lucky girl to a young woman of great character and heart.  I love how she decided to take care of the sickly, orphaned baby Jims, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father was at war.  She made no pretense of liking babies at first, and I admired her honesty, but she grew to love little Jims as if he were her own, and it was sweet to see the change.  (SPOILER AHEAD) I was sad that she had to give him back to his father but happy that they would be so close and she could still see him often.  I also appreciated her maturation as it applied to her “frenemy” Irene Howard.  (Oh, Irene was just evil!)

Irene was not, as Mrs. Elliot would say, of the race that knew Joseph. 

We get to see what it was like to send away beloved sons, brothers, and sweethearts across the sea to fight, to dread every time the phone rang or the news came in.  And Walter – oh, Walter!  I won’t spoil anything that happens with Rilla’s beloved older brother Walter, but his conflicted soul at the war’s outset was a deft portrayal of what many young men went through, probably.  His letter to Rilla broke my heart.

This book ended up on my year-end Best Of list because it captivated and moved me.  I feel like I’ve read quite a few books set during the Second World War but not as many featuring the First, so that was a welcome change.  It was especially poignant when characters near the end remarked on how humanity might change for the better and learn lessons from the horrors of this war – little did they know that just twenty years later they’d be facing similar heartache and loss.

I’m so glad I participated in the AnneReadalong2017, and I want to thank Jane from Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie from Death By Tsundoku for co-hosting this event!  I never would have made it all the way through the series on my own, without the framework of one book per month.  If I had quit, say, after book five, I would have missed this marvelous last book of the series.  For anyone who, like me, didn’t read this series in their childhood, I definitely recommend them – well, the first five books and the eighth book, anyway!  🙂  They are delightful, a real respite from the crassness and noise of our time as well as entertaining, humorous stories with characters to fall in love with.


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I have NO idea what made me pick up My Name is Lucy Barton.  I didn’t even have it on my “To-Read” shelf on Goodreads!  Or rather, I did have it on my To-Read shelf, but somewhere along the line I had taken it off in one of my periodic purges.  Perhaps I just wanted something short to read (it’s 191 pages in hardcover.)  Behind on my Goodreads Challenge, I probably wanted the feeling of accomplishment that finishing a book can bring.  Once I started reading this, I didn’t want to stop.  I just loved it.

25893709This is a small story, told in snippets, of Lucy’s time in the hospital battling a serious infection, and how her emotionally and physically distant mother came to stay with her there for a short time.  It’s breathtaking in its spareness, with small moments of heartbreaking beauty surfacing from Lucy’s memories of that time.  We also get glimpses of her horrible, impoverished Midwestern childhood – just enough to show us their tragedy but not enough for the reader to become overwhelmed.

There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking:  It was not that bad.  Perhaps it was not.  But there are times too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.  This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. 

She escaped her upbringing because a teacher introduced her to reading, and she fell in love with books.  Also, she stayed as long as she could at school each day because it was warm, and her house had no heat.  She earned a full scholarship to a college in Chicago, and when she came home for Thanksgiving, she couldn’t fall asleep at night because she “was afraid I would wake and find myself once more in this house and I would be in this house forever, and it seemed unbearable to me.”  We get a glimpse of a horrific incident between her father and her brother when the brother was caught wearing his mother’s clothes, and we are told of times that Lucy was locked inside the family truck, before she was old enough for school, either as punishment or as a substitute for daycare.  Gilbert expertly portrays a young child’s terror at being left alone and thinking that no one is coming back to save her.

But this book sounds so bleak when I write of these things!  Where is the beauty, you ask?  What made you love this book, Laila?  Well, the beauty is in the small ways in which Lucy and her mother fumble and try to connect while she’s in the hospital, the gentleness of Lucy’s doctor, the way Lucy falls in love with New York City, in the way she writes of her first husband and their early days.  It’s in the way Lucy clawed her way out of a horrible life.  Strout is simply a master as gutting the reader with the simplest of images and the most precise sentences.

What else made this book resonate so strongly for me?  Well, maybe it was the feeling I got while reading it, one of intense longing for my childhood.  My childhood was pretty good overall, no traumas like the ones Lucy faced.  My parents and extended family always loved me, of that I never once doubted.  But my parents are divorced, and I admit that if they told me today that they would get back together I would be overjoyed.  I know that my relationship with my mother has never fully recovered.  This is a story of mothers and daughters, a very specific, troubled mother-daughter relationship, but a reader like me can feel echoes of my own past here.  I also felt the nostalgia for the places of my childhood, like my grandparents’ house, which is no longer in the family, as they have both passed away.  So much of my life was spent there in middle Tennessee, in summers and on holidays, and now it’s just gone.  We have no reason to travel there any more, and it breaks my heart.  Lucy’s past was awful, but there were moments when she seemed like a little girl rather than a grown woman with kids, and she just wanted the security and reassurance of her mother’s love, like any of us want that from time to time.  What was most heartbreaking was the sense that she was worth more than the tiny scraps her mother was able to give her.

This was a book that connected deeply with me, but I’ve read Goodreads reviews and blog reviews where this was not the case.  So I don’t know – maybe it will resonate with you or may not.  I love that it took me by surprise, and that I randomly picked it up after disregarding it for so long.  I devoured it in two days, and still I wanted more, but I also felt like I knew Lucy enough to see her as a fully formed character.  She was doing the best with what she’d been given – she had flaws, but she also has great strength.  (I haven’t even mentioned that she became a writer!  There’s this whole side story line with a New York City author who inspires Lucy, it’s beautifully rendered.)  I immediately checked out Strout’s follow-up that came out this year, Anything is Possible.  I’m trying to not get my hopes up too much, trying to let it have room to surprise me in a good way as well.  My Name is Lucy Barton is going on my upcoming year-end Best Of List.

Have you read this, or any other of Strout’s novels?  What was the last book that surprised you in a good way?



Mini-Reviews: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson and News of the World by Paulette Jiles

They were both great!  Four stars. THE END.

Tempted as I am to stop there, I feel like I owe these books a bit more, so here I go.

15721638I mentioned the first book in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series waaaay back in 2015 in this post.  I didn’t really give it a proper review, but I did credit it with ending a mini reading slump!  I don’t know what prompted me recently to pick up the second in the series , The Madness Underneath, other than to say that I was looking for some entertainment, a lighter read that also brought some thrills.  It delivered on both counts. Paranormal YA isn’t really a genre I’ve typically read in the past, but I do enjoy this series very much.  Maureen Johnson is very funny, both on Twitter and on paper.  To catch you up, this is a series about an American teenager named Rory who, while a student at a London boarding school, almost chokes to death, and from then on has the ability to see ghosts. Oh, and there’s a Jack the Ripper copycat killer on the loose, and Rory meets a group of other young people who have similar abilities and work secretly for the British government (the Shades.)  In this installment, Rory’s parents have taken her out of school (she almost died in the whole Ripper brouhaha) but there’s another mysterious murder nearby, and her therapist inexplicably recommends that she return to school.  Rory thinks that the new killings are linked to the Ripper case, but she has to get the Shades to believe her.  There’s quite a cliff-hanger to this book, and I gather that some fans of the series didn’t like where this was leading the third book, but I found it to be compelling.  It definitely won’t be another two years before I read the third, The Shadow Cabinet!

25817493I read Paulette Jiles’s News of the World for my book group this past month.  I’m SO GLAD this one was chosen as our pick, because I probably wouldn’t have ever picked it up myself.  I only read historical fiction every now and then, and typically haven’t read much Western fiction.  But I ended up LOVING this. The writing (Laila clutches chest!) Oh my goodness, it was just elegant and moving but SO SPARE; not a word was wasted in this slim book (209 pages by my paperback edition.)  It’s a story about an older man in Reconstruction era Texas, named Captain Kidd, who goes from town to town with a set of newspapers and reads the news of the world in town halls where the illiterate and those without access to news come to hear him speak and give him their dimes.

And then he had come to think that what people needed, at bottom, as not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information.  And he, like a runner, immobile in his smeared printing apron bringing it to them.  Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.

In Wichita Falls, a freighter friend of his offers him a $50 gold piece to deliver a young girl to her aunt and uncle near San Antonio.  She’d been captured by the Kiowa tribe four years before (her parents were killed) and raised by them. She’d forgotten she knew any other way of life or language but theirs.  This unlikely pair travels a long and dangerous path down through Texas.  There’s an incredibly entertaining shootout scene along that way that thrilled with cinematic detail.  The two bond over the miles, and the Captain, father to two grown daughters, is revealed to have a tender heart along with his obvious intelligence and righteous conscience.  I fell in love with his character.  (In my mind I kept seeing actor Jeff Bridges playing Kidd, but I hear that Tom Hanks will play him in the forthcoming movie version.  He’s a favorite of mine so that’s okay.)  Anyway, this is just a beautifully written, compelling read about a time I really found myself wanting to know more about.  The friend who recommended it to our book group also loved Charles Portis’s True Grit.  I’ve seen that movie (probably where my imagining Jeff Bridges came in) but not read it.  I think I’m going to have to give the modern Western genre another look now.

Have you read either of these?  Have you read anything else by Paulette Jiles? I’m very curious now about her other books.  What about True Grit, the book – anyone have thoughts on that?  Are there other Western books I should take a look at?

Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery #AnneReadalong2017

Note: Jane at Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie at Death By Tsundoku are co-hosting an Anne of Green Gables series readalong for the remainder of the year.  Check out their blogs for more info on how to join the fun!

“Gilbert darling, don’t let’s ever be afraid of things.  It’s such dreadful slavery.  Let’s be daring and adventurous and expectant.  Let’s dance to meet life and all it can bring to us, even if it brings scads of trouble and typhoid and twins!”

68f9201c86e4a036de539fc195ea8766--anne-of-windy-poplars-large-housesAh, the power of low expectations!  I’d been warned by Melanie that the even-numbered books in this series weren’t as good as the odd ones.  Plus, my own experience with the second book made me set my bar pretty low for Anne of Windy Poplars.  How nice to be surprised!  I ended up really enjoying this and felt almost sad when I finished it.

Windy Poplars introduces a new kind of structure to the series, with many of the chapters in the form of letters from Anne to her beloved Gilbert Blythe.  I confess that when I read the first chapter I thought, “Dude, this chapter is too long to be an actual letter to someone!”  But then I just went with it and forgot about my minor quibble.  Anne tells Gilbert early on that he’ll only get a romantic letter from her when she has exactly the right kind of pen.  I am most grateful that we are spared the lovey-dovey stuff between Anne and Gilbert.  Call me a crank, go ahead!  This book is about Anne and her last years of being an independent,  single young lady. I can read all about shmoopy-ness in the next book (or so I hear!)

I didn’t know if I could take all the ridiculous Pringle business at first.  In fact, as I took notes during my reading I labeled two people “pills” and two others names that I won’t print here out of decency.  🙂  But Anne worked her innumerable charms (and wasn’t above a little innocent suggested blackmail) and turned around all the unfriendly and hostile Pringles and others in Summerside.  Two of my favorite victories of Anne’s were when she sat with the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Gibson, allowing Pauline to go to her friend’s wedding and enjoy a glorious day of freedom, and the matchmaking of Nora and Jim Wilcox.

I actually shed some tears when I read about poor Teddy Armstrong.  I could tear up just thinking about it now, his poor father all alone without a picture of his beloved little boy.  Finding his nephew Lewis brought some measure of peace but still it was a very sad event, the saddest so far in the series.

AnneOfWindyPoplarsI very much enjoyed Anne’s hosts, Aunt Chatty and Aunt Kate, and their no-nonsense housekeeper Rebecca Dew.  Rebecca’s funniest moment was when she grumbled, “Do you s’pose they’ll ask us at the judgement day how many petticoats we’ve got on?” and then went into the kitchen before anyone could comment.

I was left with a sense of melancholy when I finished the book, because I realized that this was the last installment before Anne and Gilbert get married.  Don’t get me wrong, I am all for their marriage.  It’s just that Anne is such an independent, strong, resourceful young woman in a time when most young women didn’t dare have dreams or independent lives beyond the hope of marriage and children.  Maybe I’m anxious because I’ve never read the series before and I just don’t know that Anne will retain her strong nature and not just become a mother to little “Davy and Dora”-type kids.  I want Anne to continue to solve problems and bring people together and charm people into doing what she wants!  Maybe those of you who have read this series before can soothe my fears on that score.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by Windy Poplars and would definitely consider reading it again someday. The epistolary nature grew on me, as did Anne’s (sometimes unlikely) propensity for matchmaking and solving people’s problems.  Four stars.

(This is book #13 of #20BooksofSummer.)

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (#20BooksofSummer Book #2)

I had low expectations going into Paula Hawkins’s second novel, Into the Water.  I liked The Girl on the Train – liked, didn’t love.  I certainly turned the pages fast enough, reading it in less than two days.  But I didn’t think it was worth all the tremendous, overwhelming hype that it got, and I certainly didn’t think it was the best mystery published in 2015.  But I knew that her next book would be one of the most popular of the year, and I was curious enough to give it a go.  I’m very glad that I did, because it was a compelling, layered, twisty mystery with an almost Gothic feel that kept me wanting to return to its pages.

Basic premise:  Single mom Nel Abbott is dead, turning up in The Drowning Pool, a stretch of river in the English town of Beckford that has seen many women taking their lives in its waters.  Or have they been victims of foul play?  Only a couple of months earlier, a high school girl was found in the river, an apparent suicide, with stones in her pockets.  She was the best friend of Nel’s daughter, Lena.  Is there a connection between the two events?  Nel was writing a book about the sordid history of the river and its victims.  Did she come too close to the truth for comfort?

61OLegHQzvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Told from multiple perspectives, including the type-written pages of Nel’s manuscripts, this mystery was layered with secret upon secret.  It seemed every person in the town had a grudge against Nel, even her own estranged sister, Jules. It’s Jules’s perspective that we get the most of, and we see the sisters’ complicated history in flashbacks.  Her grief is overshadowed by something she thinks Nel played a part in  when she was thirteen and Nel was seventeen, something Jules has never recovered from emotionally.

Some of the women you wrote about are buried in that churchyard, some of your troublesome women.  Were all of you troublesome?  Libby was, of course.  At fourteen she seduced a thirty-four-year-old man, enticed him away from his loving wife and infant child. Aided by her aunt, the hag Mary Seeton, and the numerous devils that they conjured, Libby cajoled poor blameless Matthew into any number of unnatural acts.  Troublesome indeed.  Mary Marsh was said to have performed abortions. Anne Ward was a a killer.  But what about you, Nel?  What had you done?  Who were you troubling?  

I liked the feminist tone of the book.  Issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and statutory rape play a part in the town’s sordid past and present.  In fact, now that I think about it, almost much all the men in the story are creeps.  Not that the women are saints – they’re pretty messed up too, only they don’t seem to be holding the power.  I liked Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, an outsider to the town brought in to help local police with the investigation. She injected a bit of humor in an otherwise pretty dark book.  I chuckled at her frustration when I read this bit:

Seriously, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides, and grotesque historical drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.

20-booksWith so many suspects and secrets I admit I didn’t know the identity of the murderer until the very end of the book.  It wasn’t a shock so much as a “Yes!  That makes sense!” feeling.  It was a satisfying ending for me, considering all the plot elements swirling through its pages.  I would say that this book was not about the “big twist” or the surprise ending as so many contemporary thrillers are.  Instead, it’s a book about the complexity and unreliability of memory, and the ways in which “troublesome” women have been dealt with over time.  So my second book for 20 Books of Summer was a hit!  I was pleasantly surprised by how much I like this, and I will definitely be putting Ms. Hawkins’s next book on my TBR.  If you plan to read it, know that it’s pretty different from her first book; for me, that was a good thing.


Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

I came to love the Williamsburg Bridge, once I learned how to walk it.  I was mostly alone, a few all-weather bikers, a few heavily bundled Hasidic women.  I walked either in some dusky circumference of gray light or some blotchy, cottoned afternoon.  It never failed to move me.  I paused in the middle of the filthy river.  I stared at the trash eddying in currents and clinging to docks like wine dregs cling to a glass.  Simone had mentioned the orphan’s dinner as Howard’s to me.  I thought of them all up there at Howard’s on the Upper West Side.  I thought of Jake in a Christmas sweater.  I told them I was busy.  Remember this, I told myself.  Remember how quiet today is.  I had the newspaper, which I would keep for years, and I was on my way to lunch in Chinatown by myself.  As I contemplated the skyline this double feeling came to me as one though, pressing in from either side of the bridge, impossible for me to reconcile: It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave.

Have you ever read a book with a full awareness all the time of how other people might hate it?  While I was reading Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter I kept thinking, “I shouldn’t like this as much as I do.”  The main character, a twenty-two year-old named Tess, consistently makes such poor choices. She’s kind of a blank slate as well, and we don’t learn very much about her past at all.  Pretty much every person in the novel is messed up in some way.  There’s really not much plot.  And yet I couldn’t stop reading.

41fe52droflI’ve never been a server, I can’t really cook, I don’t consider myself to possess a particularly refined palate, and still I find myself drawn to books and television shows about food and drink. Sweetbitter is set in New York City, which hits another one of my bookish buttons.  It is divided into four seasonal sections, beginning with summer 2006.  Tess has left an unnamed place, a place she only describes by evoking “the twin pillars of football and church, the low faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs, mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts.”  Tess’s past is not really important in this story.  Instead we jump with her into the deep end of big-city, high-end restaurant business, and into the extraordinarily messy social lives of her co-workers, most of whom have been there for years.

She becomes fascinated with Simone, a senior server, and Jake, a bartender. They have an obvious and ineffable connection with one another, and despite being aware of that, Tess develops a raging crush on Jake.  Simone, who is in her thirties,  takes Tess under her wing, teaching her about wine and food and giving advice about life.  Tess comes to trust her and depend upon her as a sort of mother figure, all the while becoming closer and closer to Jake.

She cut me a piece of cheese and handed it to me – “The Dorset,” she said – and it tasted like butter but dirtier, and maybe like the chanterelles she kept touching.  She handed me a grape and when I bit it I found the seeds with me tongue and moved them to the side, spit them into my hand.  I saw purple vines fattening in the sun.

“It’s like the seasons, but in my mouth,” I said.  She humored me.  She cracked whole walnuts with a pair of silver nutcrackers.  The skins on the nuts felt like gossamer wrappings.  She brushed the scattered skins onto the floor, with the grape sees, the pink cheese rinds.

Let’s be generous and say that I understood about seventy percent of what Simone said to me.  What I didn’t misunderstand was the attention that she gave me.  Or that by being close to her, I was always in proximity to him.  There was an aura that came from being under her wing, with its exclusive wine tastings and cheese courses – the aura of promised meaning.

I mentioned bad choices earlier.  There is so much cocaine, so much alcohol flowing through these pages, so many casual and not so casual sexual escapades and heartbreaks. Thwarted ambitions, people using one another, people tethered to one another and to the restaurant in unhealthy ways.  But there is also the energy and the life of the nightly dance of cook, server, and guest, the camaraderie of going to the same bar with your co-workers every night, the thrill of learning to exist as an adult in New York City.  This is really a coming of age story.  I thought of myself at 22, fresh out of college, so lost without the structure of school, my identity so unformed.  I found myself feeling sympathy for Tess as she blunders on the job and in pursuit of love.  She makes bad choices, but damn it, she owns them.

Isn’t this what you dreamed of, Tess, when you got in your car and drove?  Didn’t you run away to find a world worth falling in love with, saying you didn’t care if it loved you back?

Danler’s writing is exquisite.  It hums and vibrates and pulled me along effortlessly.  I found myself picking up the book at every spare moment, and when I had to put it down again it was with unwilling resignation.  In this time of my technology-induced short attention span, I can’t tell you the last time I had this immersive experience of reading.  I know that some may find this author pretentious, or the plot boring, or Tess utterly unlikable. As for me, I simply lost myself in this world – a world I don’t want to inhabit in real life, but found so beautifully rendered that I couldn’t take my eyes from.