Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Immortalists

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A few months ago, I picked this up, liked the first chapter, and then put it down because I became too busy. Earlier this month I picked The Immortalists up again, and I regretted it. Not because it was horrible. I simply did not get along with it at all. Why? Well, it’s definitely a “me” thing. If you are not in good place mentally, you may want to avoid this one for now. It could be triggering to anyone who is sensitive to reading about grief, trauma, suicide, self harm, or abortion.

It’s New York City in 1969, and the Gold children, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, escape their parents’ apartment long enough to visit a woman who is rumored to have the ability to predict the day you will die. The children receive their predictions with mixed reactions, but such a simple and supposedly “fun” outing ends up complicating all of their lives for many years to come. The Immortalists follows the Gold children into adulthood as they experience the unique challenges that the 80’s, 90’s, and the new millennium brought to the United States. The novel is broken into four parts, with each part following one of the Gold children.

Fortune telling, death days, family, and historical fiction, it all sounds great! The reality is that this is really just a historical fiction family saga with a little magical spice thrown in. That’s still an interesting premise, but if you are excited about this being a magical realism novel, you might be disappointed. After the fortune teller gives them their death dates, the rest of the novel focuses on the characters’ adult lives. Though the day of their deaths obviously play a large role, it is more of an underlying driving force than being in the forefront of the plot.

I really enjoyed seeing different parts of the country at different points in time. We get to see New York in the late 60’s and early 70’s and San Francisco and Las Vegas in the 80’s and 90’s. Although the book was not very descriptive or atmospheric, it was nice to see such an interesting historical backdrop to the family drama. The family isn’t overtly dysfunctional, but as time goes on, it is easy to see the cracks in the family’s foundation, which is what the novel is mostly about. The family as a whole have some issues with communication and openness, but more and more issues crop up as their death dates approach.

I couldn’t help thinking that a lot of what was predicted became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In particular, a couple of the children made some (in my view) very odd, out-of-character, and just plain bad choices that led to very bad things happening. A few of the family members likely had some mental illnesses and issues with trauma, but I had a hard time believing some of the characters’ reactions and actions. I know I’m speaking in extremely general terms here, but hey, that’s the trade off when I try not to spoil anyone!

The family is Jewish, and I liked that their faith actually played a role in how they processed their problems and viewed the world. Each child of the family even had a different way of viewing and utilizing their faith, and some were more optimistic than others, of course. There were also some very beautiful lines and some interesting connections between main and side characters. The characters were all pretty “gray” in that no one was always perfect or good. They made mistakes and did morally questionable things, but no one was painted as a true bad guy either. There are touches of levity and humor, but the novel as a whole I would describe as melancholy.

The book is about life, and life isn’t always great. The choices you make can be far-reaching, and the impact certain people make can change the course of another’s life. The book is often sad, but if you have recently lost someone, I could see how it may also be comforting. For me, it was not, but everyone copes differently. I hesitate to rate this one. For pure reading enjoyment, 3/5 stars. However, the book was not bad, but as far as family sagas go, it was solid but not standout.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Essex Serpent

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Cora Seaborne’s husband has passed away. She isn’t terribly upset about this, but she knows she should act the part of the bereaved widow. Cora is a free spirit who enjoys nature and science. A woman being interested in these “masculine” subjects is frowned upon in 1890’s England, but she does not care. Upon hearing about the sightings of the “Essex serpent,” Cora moves herself, her son, and her female companion to the countryside to investigate the serpent. However, Cora finds much more than a mythical beast. She finds love, friendship, and her identity.

If I had to describe this novel in one word, I would choose slow. The pace of the plot and character development is steady but slow, which may turn off some readers. If you want to relax, enjoy beautiful writing, and read about some Victorian romantic drama with a touch of feminism, I would say that The Essex Serpent is a good fit. Personally, while I enjoyed what read, I had to push myself through the first 100-150 pages. I listened to most of the novel on audio book just to get into the story. However, once I become attached to the characters, it became a much more enjoyable reading experience.

Despite my summary and most blurbs going on about Cora, there are at least a dozen other characters in the novel that get not insignificant page time. Most of them are well developed with their own beliefs, personalities, and relationships. (There are a few that I would have liked to see more of, particularly Cora’s son.) There are also love triangles and romantic pairings everywhere. The book is less about the mythical serpent and much more focused on the relationships (both romantic and not) the characters have with one another. This is not a bad thing, but it should be said so that no one gets the wrong idea about the plot. Yes, the serpent is alluded to often and has an effect on the townspeople, but it seems secondary to the lives of the main characters.

I was slightly disappointed by The Essex Serpent, but I had very high expectations for the mythological aspect of the novel. This is much more of a Victorian romance with a bit of folklore thrown in. Still, I would give The Essex Serpent a 3.5 out of 5 stars for its beautiful writing and strong characters.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

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I do not usually buy books new or buy them soon after they are published, but this was an exception. I felt like this book would be a five-star read for me, so I made a point to buy it quickly. It sounded magical, Gothic, and character driven, which are all things that I love in books and in historical fiction in particular. It was also short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. So, you know, that must mean something for a debut author… The good news is that I was not disappointed by my assumptions about the book, but the bad news is that it fell slightly short of my five-star expectations.

Mr. Hancock is a merchant from a wealthy family, but as of late, his luck and wealth has taken a bit of a turn. He has not heard from one of his ship’s captains for quite some time. He is worried that the ship might be lost because that stroke of bad luck would cripple him and his family. When the captain shows up without a ship but with some exotic cargo, Mr. Hancock is not quite sure how to proceed. Angelica Neal was a rather famous prostitute, but she found a man to keep her. Unfortunately, that man died, leaving Angelica to fend for herself once again. Mr. Hancock’s special cargo brings he and Angelica together, but they come from vastly different lifestyles. Can the two of them find any common ground when it seems everyone else is against them?

I was correct that this was a character-driven novel. It is a slow, slow burn, which could easily turn many people off. Thankfully, the characters are quite well written, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Mr. Hancock is a rather simple, honest, and innocent man, but he is still imperfect in some ways. Angelica is at times grating with her expensive, luxurious tastes and ill judgement, but by the end, I warmed up to her. Angelica may seem superficial, but in reality, she is a complex character that evolves throughout the novel with her discovery of her true self. Admittedly, I do not think that the other characters grow and change as much as Angelica. There are a handful of other important characters like Angelica’s cold assistant, Mrs. Frost, and Mr. Hancock’s niece, Susanna (Sukie). They are all well constructed and realistic, but if you do not like the characters, you may dislike the novel as a whole.

The author’s writing is very descriptive but not overly embellished. I had hoped that the writing would be a little more lyrical, but it was still very good. There’s a reason that this book has earned some acclaim. One gripe some readers might have is that it isn’t really a very fantastical novel. When the title says mermaid, you expect a mermaid. I expected a bit more magical realism, but there really wasn’t much magic or much “mermaid” in the novel. Don’t go in expected to see Ariel from The Little Mermaid is all I’m saying!

If you expect magic and traditional mermaids, I would advise you to adjust your expectations slightly but not give up on reading the novel entirely. This is simply more of a literary, historical novel than magical realism or a fairy tale retelling. If you love getting to know characters very well, enjoy a well-described historical atmosphere, and like just the lightest touch of magic, you will likely enjoy The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock as much as I did. Four stars!

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Incarnations

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I have barely been reading lately, and I hate it. I apologize for missing a few weeks of reviews. I started a new job, and it has been occupying a lot of my time. But you’re not here to read about all of that, are you?

The Incarnations follows a man who has a not-so-great job. Beijing taxi driver, Wang Jun, lives a dull, modest life with his wife and daughter. One day Driver Wang finds a letter in his taxi from someone who knows all about his life. The letter almost sounds like the writer is stalking him. Driver Wang keeps the letter to himself, but more and more letters find their way to him. The mysterious writer claims to know Wang from their previous lives. The letters go into great detail about who Wang was in his past lives, and they begin to urge Wang to leave his wife. Wang feels himself drawn to the letter writer, but the writer is convinced that Wang is his/her true love.

My favorite thing about this book was its writing. The novel takes place right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The descriptions of Beijing as it prepares to host an international competition are claustrophobic, dirty, frantic, and at times dystopian. Quite a few scenes also take place in China’s past via Wang’s reading of the mysterious letters. The author describes the cruelty, poverty, and riches of past eras just as well as she details modern Beijing. The novel includes many nods to true historical events and people, but it also includes some folklore and mythology.

The characters are well-rounded for the most part, but the characters from the historical sections feel a bit more flat and fairy-tale like. We are led to believe that certain characters are Wang’s past selves, but they do not always feel like present-day Wang. Perhaps the historical characters give insight to parts of Wang’s inner self that he represses, but there is a chance that Wang or the letter writer are unreliable narrators, which adds another layer to the story.

The plot of the book had a lot of promise, but in the end, it did not satisfy my expectations. The historical sections did not feel like they meshed well with the modern parts. Despite how prevalent the historical portions were, they did not feel like they had much impact on the overall plot. Perhaps if there was more of an echo of repeated events and character actions between the past and present sections, the novel as a whole might feel more cohesive. I also felt like the novel ended too soon. I am very interested in knowing the outcome of some of the ending events.

This is a book that definitely gives you a lot to think about. It might even be a solid book club selection. The plot, historical facts, folklore, and daily life in Beijing make it a smart and expansive novel, but the execution could have been slightly tighter. I gave The Incarnations 3/5 stars.