In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
I count myself among the many, many people who found Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train to be a smart and tightly crafted thriller. It memorably created a clever twist on the unreliable narrator by making a first-person account of murder and memory subject to alcoholic blackouts, while remaining a briskly paced mystery. So while I had hopes for Into The Water, the novelist’s follow-up, I was especially curious to see which stylistic devices and literary choices are endemic to Hawkins the writer, and which were exclusively the purview of the previous story. It’s no surprise to discover that Hawkins has some recurring themes in her work—specifically, the faulty nature of memory, and the myriad ways our respective (and often conflicting) accounts of the past can shape our lives, relationships, and personalities in ways both understandable and disastrous. The book is a more sprawling affair than its predecessor, and while it’s also less successful, leaning heavily on the melodramatic, it nonetheless retains the author’s facility with unraveling a strange and ever-shifting mystery. In this case, it’s the death of Danielle Abbott, a single mother and artist whose plan to do a large project about the numerous women who ostensibly killed themselves in the river running through the small town of Beckford sets off an investigation that slowly pulls seemingly half the neighborhood into its orbit. The chapters are divided up from the perspectives of nearly a dozen characters, the better for Hawkins to explore her pet subject: the flawed faculty of memory, and its ruinous effect on the social contract between friends and family. Every character is haunted by their past—incidents that play out completely differently from person to person, things left unsaid, half-recollections that roil and shift from day to day—and the novel as a whole ends up a lengthy meditation on the regrets that haunt us.
More accurately, it’s about the ones that haunt women. Danielle’s daughter and sister, her former friend whose own daughter took her life in the river the previous year, a new-in-town detective inspector, and the local psychic all have inner conversations with the women now absent from their lives, showing how those closest to us never really leave, their personalities and passions imprinted on our minds, continuing to offer judgment and color our understanding of events as we try to carry on with the difficult business of living. The overburdened narrative sometimes gets in the way of these more intriguing character studies, unfortunately. The investigation into Danielle’s death soon becomes a Magnolia-esque “everything is connected” riff on violence and generations, with every single central character holding onto scandalous secrets, just waiting to reveal them at exactly the most dramatic moment possible. (Did I mention the psychic whose powers—pause for effect—might be real?) Despite the overstuffed plot and gimmickry, Hawkins has a real gift for exploring the manner in which we constantly turn things over in our minds, crafting inner monologues both rich and relatable. Into The Water may stumble over its more strained subplots, but it remains a lively, compelling, and surprisingly empathetic and humane page-turner.
The last time I read a Stephen King novel, I was in middle school. But with the hype surrounding the movie adaptation of It, the fact that I had some traveling to do this month, and my love of saying, “Well, in the book…” like a big old know-it-all, I decided to pick the massive 1,100-page brick of a paperback back in April. I’m about 700 pages in so far, and I have a few minor quibbles: Having seven main characters leads to a lot of repetition as each member of the Loser’s Club encounters It as a child and then again as an adult, for one, and I’d love to have a plot point for Beverly that doesn’t involve someone abusing her or being in love with her by the time the book ends. But it’s an engrossing read, and I didn’t really appreciate King’s eloquent turns of phrase as a child like I do as an adult. Most importantly, though, I was walking home about a week back on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and felt a little chill stepping over a storm drain. And let’s not even talk about the clown singing telegram who showed up at the office a few weeks back.
I recently went away for the weekend with the family to a land with no wi-fi, resulting in my first opportunity to sit down and actually read a book in many moons. Luckily, book editor Caity PenzeyMoog always has new, unread stock on hand, so I left the state with a handful of volumes, including Sara Paretsky’s latest V.I. Warshawski novel, Fallout. I always enjoy Paretsky’s take on the classic PI; her gritty female detective lives only a few miles from me on Chicago’s North Side, and often frequents the same city spots that I do. But in Fallout, for the first time, V.I. leaves the city for her main mystery, searching for a few missing persons in Kansas. Paretsky was apparently looking for a way to jump-start her longtime character, and this fish-out-of-water rural scenario was a perfect way to do it. As always with a Paretsky novel, I flew through the pages, anxious to get to the part where V.I. cracks the case, but only by putting herself in major peril first. But it was pretty perfect to be reading about the urban detective adjusting to life in the country, while I was doing the same thing, unused to simply reading in a setting that swapped out city sounds for bird chirps.
Turns out I should have purchased several copies of one of the other books I brought: All four members of our family (two adults, two kids) fought over Runaways. I know, I’m really late to this party, but I can see why so many people are so enthusiastic about it. Even the guy at Chicago Comics I bought the volume-one collection from said it was the reason he got back into comics as an adult. As everyone but two-months-ago-me knows, Runaways tells the story of a group of six disparate adolescents who discover that their parents are supervillains. Which is perfect, because as a teenager, aren’t all parents supervillains? As they hide out while figuring out what to do, they encounter a pet dinosaur, a few secret crushes, and even a traitorous mole in their midst. It’s the first book I can remember all four of us loving simultaneously, even if the twins looked at me a little suspiciously afterward. (I swear I’m not a supervillain, kids! Just my wardrobe alone completely disproves that theory.) I will be buying volume two shortly for us to again fight over, and then of course tuning into the upcoming Hulu series. As Oliver Sava puts it: