Home + CRM Review of Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder”

As a child, home was home. Where ever mom and dad were–that was home. For me, it was where I was safe and loved. Where my room was, where I snuggled into read a book and fought with my brother. It was familiar and warm and, well, just home.

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We moved a few times when I was a child — just regular moving. But that feeling was always there.

Two of the most memorable homes were in the country. A few acres and neighbors who were close enough, but not too close.

And then the teen years. The acres felt too big, the town too small. I wanted more (and partly because of me, but mostly because it made logistical sense with my parent’s business and where most of our activities were happening) we moved to the city (I won’t say big city, but it was a city, and it’s getting bigger all the time).

And, after graduating from there, I couldn’t wait to strike out on my own and get out of that city.

After many moves and many towns, I got married. And we began building out own home, a safe place for our girls.

It’s funny to think that as much as I wanted to get away from ‘home’ and the home town, I ended up in a place very similar. Maybe because it’s where I felt safe and loved. Where, for better or worse, they knew me best.

I think we’re giving our 200.gifgirls the same kind of smallish town, hometown feel that we grew up with (my husband grew up on a horse farm in New Jersey). I hope were giving them that same sense of security and love. Enough to make them want to leave the nest, but to know it’s here, filled with laughter and hugs.

Enough so they know that there is a place called home, and that they are always welcome (at least for the weekend).

Now, onto my review of The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.


 

Lib had a dizzying sense that time could fall into itself like the embers. That in these dim hints nothing had changed since the age of the Druids and nothing ever would. What was that line in the hymn they’d sung at Lib’s school? The night is dark, and I am far from home.

Emma Donoghue, The Wonder

 

The Premise

Deep in the heart of Ireland in the mid 1800’s lives a marvel of God’s love, or so we are to believe. Anna O’Donnell, eleven years-old, has lived off manna from heaven, eating nothing for months, drawing tourists and journalists to her family’s small cabin.

In order to substantiate the claims, a committee of village citizens has hired professionals to keep watch on the girl for two weeks. They call in a nun and Lib Wright, on of Florence Nightingale’s original nurses from the Crimean War (known as Nightingales).

Lib is suspicious of the claims, an agnostic (or maybe atheist) and non-Catholic. She’s scientific in her approach to the girl, checking every corner of the room in search for hidden food, taking notes on the girl’s condition day in and day out. Sitting with her for hours at a time, Lib is unable to avoid conversations with Anna. She discovers a quick mind and a clever, sweet girl.

Finding herself up against superstitious and devoutly Catholic villagers, Lib also must fight the blinders put up by the committee and Anna’s own family. All need it to be a miracle, bringing in tourists to their small village. But beyond that, they are devout Catholics, interested in sainthood for Anna. Nearly everyone involved is unwilling to see Anna as she is: swollen with dropsy, jaundiced, and dying as her body starves.

The town doctor believes she may be a medical miracle as well, thinking that she may be turning into a sort of plant, capable of living on air alone. The committee wants her to be a miracle, a martyr, a saint, in order to save their town. (Interestingly, the only two that seem to show real doubts about this course is the town priest and the nun.)

Lib is sure Anna is a hoax, and that her family is keeping the collections left by tourists. She watches Anna with detachment, unable to understand the child’s utter devotion to her Church. But when Anna’s health starts to fail, and no one will lift a hand to help, Lib starts to realize that she has to do something.

But will it be enough, and will it be in time?


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My Thoughts

I read a lot of books. And I get caught up in a large number of them. I fall for the characters, and then the stories. That’s the kind of reader I am.

And then I read a book with stark, beautiful prose. And I remember how much I love words. I remember that the best writers can tell a story with solid prose, rather than the flowery verbiage in many novels of late. I remember the words are the thing. With that kind of real, rugged prose, an author can do a better job of highlighting the characters and the story, taking the spotlight off the author’s ability to sprinkle a novel with their big, long descriptors.

Not that The Wonder is short on description. But it’s used to tell the story, not to draw attention to itself.

The story  itself is completely gothic, using the committee and the town, their religion and superstitions, as the most horrific monsters of all. We watch as a group of zealots allow a young girl to waste away, and she continues to let it happen, because she’s a child and these people are supposed to love and protect her.

I could have done without the nod to romance for the cold-hearted Lib, although it did give us a chance to understand why she is so cold-hearted. And it does work — as she thaws concerning Anna, so she is drawn to the handsome journalist.

The other sticking point for me is Donoghue use of a convenient device for Anna’s fervor, making it just a little too pat and obvious. I really wish she would have stuck to the religious for Anna, making it a reaction to the very recent potato famine (which had ended just seven years earlier), the death of her brother from unknown maladies, and her love for God.

But, as I said, the prose is perfect and beautiful, highlighting the strong story and characters rather than hiding the flaws behind ornate wordage. The Wonder is historical fiction, psychological thriller, and gothic novel all rolled into one well-written bag of goodness.

4.5 stars.

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Twelve Years Ago + CRM Review: “Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

 

I came across this Facebook post from seven years ago, and it started me thinking:

Five years ago today I was staring at the doctor’s face, listening while she told me my daughter had Down syndrome and she needed a blood transfusion (sort of, easier to explain it that way). I was shocked and didn’t know if I was up to the job. I was not sure what it meant to be the parent of a child with Down syndrome, even though I knew what Down syndrome was and had worked with kids with DS for years. It was scary. Ted was home, showering, coming back in a few. I called him to tell him what the doctor had said. We cried (now, knowing Katy, I wondered why I cried. It was the unknown) and he told me we would handle it. He got off the phone with me and Googled and learned everything he could. When he came to the hospital he was my light, my rock. “did you know they have a hockey league for DS kids?” he said excited. “When we open our restaurant, we will always have a job for her,” he said.

Two days ago, Katy turned 12. So let me expound on those seven year old thoughts a bit.

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about one week old

 

The doctor told me my daughter had Down syndrome, while also explaining that she had polycythemia–too many red blood cells. Really, though, I barely remember that part. I mean, I knew something was up, because the doctor was talking. But the first part of the conversation was blocking all other words.

 

My daughter had Down syndrome.

(A couple months later I was reading all the discharge papers about Katy, and realized what they had done the first few hours of her life. The had taken her blood, washed it, and put it back –basically — to get rid of some of her red blood cells.)

We had no idea before birth that she had Down syndrome. All the blood tests had come back normal, and, although I was on the edge of the age bubble, I didn’t have an amniocentesis, because it didn’t seem necessary and it wouldn’t have changed anything. Everything seemed ‘normal.’

I went into labor early. When she was born, both Ted and I wondered — she seemed to have some features of a baby with Down syndrome — but we only got a quick glimpse before they rushed her out to get her on oxygen (they had done the same with Libby, so we weren’t too worried about the oxygen part), and newborns are just plain squishy. Besides, it was almost 3:00 in the morning, and no one said a thing. So we put that worry aside. (Note to all: don’t do this to parents. Don’t rush the baby away and get all silent. A baby with Down syndrome may not be what parents are expecting, but it’s not a bad thing. Seriously.)

It was about four hours later when a doctor from our pediatrician’s office stopped by to tell me. And I did cry. I didn’t want to, I wanted to be better than that. But it wasn’t what I expected. I was crying because suddenly this was all unknown, pretty much, and I had no idea what I had done wrong (nothing).

In all honesty, at that point I was also wondering what people would think.

But mostly I was worried about how I was going to do this. Because, although I had worked with some individuals with Down syndrome as a volunteer, I had no idea how to raise a daughter with Down syndrome.

(I had no idea how to raise a daughter at all, as I was learning and still continue to learn with my both girls, but this added another dimension to what I didn’t know.)

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Katy at 4 months

I think this was the scariest day of my life. As I have the luxury of hindsight, I can say my fears were mostly unfounded (there were a lot of things I had to learn, but they pros have heavily outweighed the cons), but that doesn’t change how utterly terrified I was on that early morning.

And I was all alone. I don’t want you all to think that Ted (my husband) abandoned his wife who had just given birth. I SENT him home after I was settled in my room, before the doctor came to see me. He needed to shower and to get a few hours of sleep. And, in all honesty, I knew this was the quietest my life would be for awhile, the last few minutes of calm before we had two children under the age of two, and I wanted quiet. And I wanted to sleep. So I sent him home and was thankful for those few hours.

Until I needed him there.

But I called him, breaking the news quickly while I was crying. Bawling. He told me we could handle it (he was right). I called my mom. And then I let them make calls to others.

Ted came back to the hospital a couple of hours later and was full of information. Thank you, Google. He knew who to call and what was coming. He knew the good and the bad, thanks to Google. He was my strength and my calm.

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Katy at about 10 months

 

Those first couple of months were a whirlwind. She was healthy, and easy, and slept through the night at a pretty early age (I think about six weeks? Libby slept through the night after 2 weeks. We were lucky). She was a little fussier than Libby, but she was also easy to calm (hugs and love did it every time). She looked at her family (especially her sister!) with wonder and love.

And I remember looking at her when she was about three months old and thinking, “Huh. What was I so worried about? What was I upset about? I cannot imagine this girl any different. This is Katy, this is who she is. And she’s perfect.”

So, those are my thoughts two days after my daughter’s 12 birthday. She still amazes me everyday with her joy, her understanding of the others, her need to know and learn. She’s amazing, and she’s Katy. She’s our girl.

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12th birthday!!!!

 

Now, a review of the beautiful Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.


“Bad habits were all a matter of perspective, and as long as the present was viewed through the lens of the past, anyone would say he was doing a spectacular job.”
― Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

The Premise

This is the story of two families interminably intertwined through divorce, remarriage, and loss.

Fix and Beverly Keating are celebrating their  christening of their younger daughter, Franny, on a hot summer day in Southern California. Their small house is overflowing with people when Burt Cousins shows up uninvited. See Burt, a DA, needed to get out of his own house on a hot Sunday, away from his three kids and his pregnant wife. He remembers a fellow DA (as a former cop, his connection to the new father, also a cop, is as real his invitation to the party) mentioning the christening party, and he decides to drop in on the fun.

Unwilling to show up empty-handed, Burt grabbed an unopened bottle of gin, which he presents to the host upon arrival. The quiet party of overheated guests suddenly has a spark, as oranges begin to be juiced from the tree outback, and the gin seems to flow like water. Neighbors bring their own oranges as well as their alcohol, and the party slips into legendary status.

It is during that unlikely, legendary afternoon that Burt Cousins kisses beautiful Beverly Cousins, changing the life of everyone involved.

A few years later Burt and Beverly marry, and he takes her back across the country to settle near his family in Virginia, bringing the Keating girls, Caroline and Franny, with them. Fix is left behind in California, along with Burt’s ex-wife, Teresa, and his four children; Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie.

During most of the summer, all six kids are left to their own devices in Virginia (which isn’t that different than the rest of the year for the Cousins kids, with a single mother forced to work long hours as a paralegal). This is the story of their triumphs and tragedies, their lives together and apart.

It’s years later, when Franny is lost without direction in her twenties, and she meets the famous author Leon Posen. The two begin an affair and she becomes his ‘muse.’ But, after years of not writing, the book Posen he finally publishes is based on the stories Franny tells him of her childhood, of her sibling and step-siblings, “ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another” (from the back cover).

My Thoughts

Oh. My. Goodness. I love this book.

Ann Patchett tells the story of the Keatings and the Cousins with honesty, grace and truth.

Told in shifting timelines and perspectives, Commonwealth is a very character-driven story. There are a few core stories and hidden truths that are shared between the characters, but much of is told through differing characters’ memories. The publishing of Posen’s novel, thinly disguised as their lives, doesn’t come until later in the book, but it is a catalyst making them all realize how much they all meant to each other.

Each of these characters is so alive and real, so well drawn and fleshed out, creating a bond between the reader and each character. Or at least for this reader.

Even the most minor of the characters seems real. That’s a feat.

This easily could have been a story of siblings and step-siblings that hate each other and fall into dysfunction. And I’m not saying that they don’t grow up with their issues, each living an adult life that is, in part, a reaction to their childhoods.

But they aren’t hateful about each other, at least not mostly. Observing kids and steps and halfs and all sorts of siblings, it seems that’s mostly the way it goes. Kids bond together, making their own sort of society, no matter what, in some way, shape, or form.

Commonwealth stunned me emotionally. Heart-wrenching, stunning, poignant, and eloquent.

Thank you Ann Patchett. Thank you. I needed that.

5 stars. And then 5 more stars. And then a few more. It’s that beautiful.