2020 was an interesting year, to say the least, and with a term that is definitely more generous than it deserves. Everyone went through it, and then some. Like a cursed amulet in a horror movie, I feel that this year presented everybody with challenges that were guaranteed to test them in cruel and unforeseen ways that were unique to their psychological profile. Hardest of all was that we could not gather in person to seek support from our family and friends at a time when we needed it the most. Our circumstances shielded us from a lot of misfortune, and for that I am immensely thankful. But I am still more than happy to put 2020 behind us. On the bright side, I did appreciate how people reached out to each other more than ever this year, even if it had to be done over the phone, on video chat, via text/online message, or even through the mail. I hope that, if anything, this year makes it a little easier going forward for people to admit when they are having a hard time and need some support. I believe it is incredibly brave when someone has the courage to ask for help, even if all they need is empathy and some kind words. I never, ever mind when someone needs to do that. In fact, I am grateful for having the opportunity to be there for them (something for me to keep in mind for myself). On that note, thank you to the many people who were there for us this year. Here’s hoping we can see some of your lovely faces in person before the end of 2021!
I managed to surpass my reading goal this year. I didn’t manage to hit any of my other goals, especially when it comes to my writing, but I’ll take my wins where I can get them. Part of the reason I read so many books is that I started work on a special research project. I wasn’t planning on including those titles in my annual tally because I don’t consider those titles to be “for fun,” and that’s the goal of the 52 in 52 resolution. But I still read them, and they do make up part of how I spent this difficult year. So I’ll include them in the record, but they’ll be listed under their own separate category. With that in mind, I read 59 books as part of my “fun” target, and 17 books for “special research,” making for a combined total of 76.
I’ll be the first to admit that, this year, I used reading as an escape hatch more than ever. I read far fewer historical fiction books than I normally do. It was suddenly not as enjoyable to immerse myself in a significant historical moment when the world around me was undergoing one as well. I was in the middle of reading “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra in March when everything locked down. It is a beautiful, tragic, eye-opening book with a narrative style unlike anything I’ve read before. In any other year, it might have made my Top Ten. But it is set in the 1990s during the Chechen-Russian Wars and, consequently, has a lot of violent and heartbreaking subject matter. I managed to finish reading the book, but it was a struggle. And I didn’t have the energy to think about it for long after. Don’t get me wrong: I think it is extremely important to read books that broaden my perspective and educate me on the experiences of others, especially those less fortunate than I. But I just couldn’t do it this year. There were some days when all I could do was lie in bed and, instead of obsessively continuing to refresh news sites and my social media feeds, download a digital book from the library. It’s a privilege to be able to do that, I know. Being able to turn away from the outside world is not a choice many people get to make, especially this year. But it’s what I did to make it through my hardest days. I’m hoping you don’t hold it against me that, for this year at least, I was unable to commit to some of the tougher material that we were being asked to do. I promise I’ll do so when I’m feeling stronger.
So, after all that, here is my top 10 of 2020!
- The book was very immersive, enjoyable to read, and I found I had a hard time putting it down.
- I would recommend the book wholeheartedly to a friend.
- I would definitely read the book again, and may even consider buying my own copy (if I haven’t already).
1 & 2. In The Woods and The Likeness, Tana French.
When everything locked down last March, I was fortunate in that I could continue to borrow books digitally from the library. It had been some time since I last browsed the online catalogue of titles on offer, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the selection was far more extensive than the last time I had done so in 2018. I don’t tend to read a lot of mystery novels, perhaps because I already consume a lot of that media form through podcasts and television shows. But when I came across Tana French’s The Secret Place listed on a page of available titles, I decided to give it a try. It was the first digital title I checked out in 2020. And so began my year of Tana French. I have since read all 8 of her novels, the first 6 of which are part of her “Dublin Murder Squad” series. You can read these books in whatever order suits your fancy. Each of them features a different narrator that has minimal overlap with the main characters and plots of the other novels. The Secret Place, where I began, is Book 5 of the series. However, if you haven’t yet started them and you have a choice in which book you pick up first, I would suggest that it is worth reading them in the order that they were published. Especially since the first two are, in my opinion, the best. They take up positions 1 and 2 on my list.
1. In The Woods begins with a note of caution from its narrator: “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective,” he states. “I crave truth. And I lie.” He will do anything to solve a case, regardless of who he hurts in the process. Much of this has to do with an incident that took place in Knocknaree, the small County Dublin town where he grew up. It was a place where the unthinkable never happened, at least until August 12, 1984 when Adam Ryan, then 12, and his two best friends, Germaine (Jamie) and Peter, failed to return home after playing in the nearby forest. Adam was found during the subsequent search wearing bloodstained shoes and a torn shirt, but was so traumatized that he had no memory of what had happened in the woods to his friends, who had disappeared without a trace. 22 years have since passed. Adam is now going by his middle name, Rob, and he is working on the Dublin Murder Squad. And before you ask, no, he didn’t become a detective as part of a mission to solve his childhood mystery, thank you very much. He has only ever reviewed his cold case file once, on his first day, and has not looked at it since. In fact, he has done his best to sever all connections that link him back to that fatal afternoon. What’s the point of obsessing over something you can’t remember? The only person he has ever talked to about his involvement in the case is Detective Cassie Maddox, his partner and best friend. Cassie won’t tell anyone, as she has a few secrets of her own—the largest of which is that she was nearly killed back when she was still working undercover. She misses the adrenaline thrill of her old job, but she’s less likely to get hurt with the Murder Squad. Rob and Cassie are a great investigative team. They keep their heads down and they work hard to rack up their solves on drug-related murder cases that are high in number, if a little low on glamour.
This all changes when a big case comes rolling into the squad room when nobody is there to take it but Rob and Cassie. An archaeologist has called in to report the discovery of a body at their dig site. The victim was a young female who had been killed recently, and her body was placed on top of a Bronze Age ceremonial stone located at the dig sometime during the previous night. Cassie accepts the case before she and Rob learn that the crime scene is located in the woods outside Knocknaree. Unfortunately, it’s then too late for them to back out without making a big fuss about why. But no matter, Rob’s not worried. He and his family moved away from Knocknaree shortly after the disappearance of his friends, and he hasn’t been back since. There is next to no chance that the two cases are connected, and surely no one still living there will recognize him after all this time…
Cassie and Rob slowly start to untangle the mystery around the murder of 12 year-old Kaity Devlin. Kaity has an identical twin, Jessica, and an older sister named Rosalind. Their father, Jonathan, has recently been the target of several threatening phone calls due to his involvement in a campaign against the building of a new motorway that will run through the wooded area alongside Knocknaree. Some residents are excited about the resulting increase in the value of their homes this development will bring, while others are angry that the construction of the road will forever destroy a historically significant region that features evidence of human occupation back to the Neolithic era. The archaeological dig is in fact a rescue operation, with its workers scrambling to recover whatever information they can before work begins on the motorway in a few short weeks. Is the controversy surrounding the motorway project heated enough to result in murder? There is also something strange about the Devlin family dynamic, and Rob is determined to figure out what it is. Did Kaity’s father, a long-time Knocknaree resident, have something to do with her murder? As Rob considers this possibility, he suddenly remembers something about that long-ago August afternoon: Jonathan was there, too. The truth about what happened to Kaity is now inextricably tied to the disappearance of Jamie and Peter. Rob’s urgency to uncover it flares into obsession, and he is willing to burn anything that stands in his way—even if that includes the person he cares about the most.
2. Months have passed since the concluding events of In The Woods. Cassie Maddox has since transferred out of the Murder Squad and into Domestic Violence. It’s depressing work, but comes with a lower likelihood of wrecking her head the way her last murder case did. She has very nearly reached the point where she would consider herself to have successfully moved on when she gets a frantic call from her boyfriend, who is still a part of the Murder Squad. Once she assures him that she is okay, he urges her to come and join her at the crime scene of a new case he has been assigned to. Cassie is initially resistant, but finally agrees. One final request: when she arrives, could she make sure she is wearing sunglasses and a hood pulled up over her head? Curious, but okay. When Cassie gets to the scene, an abandoned house in a field outside the small village of Glenskehy, she is even more surprised to see her old boss from Undercover, Frank Mackey. It’s been years since she last saw him, which was shortly after she had been stabbed while working an undercover assignment for him. The purpose for Frank’s involvement in this case slowly sharpens into focus when Cassie sees the body of the murder victim and learns her name: the victim looks exactly like Cassie, and she goes by the name Alexandra (Lexie) Madison—the very alias that Cassie had formerly used when she was undercover.
Who was this girl? Why was she using Cassie’s fake undercover name? And, most importantly, who killed her? It’s going to be a tough case to crack. There is next to no evidence and the most likely suspects— the four friends that this woman lived with— are not talking. The seed of an idea has taken root: Frank wants Cassie to go undercover as the murdered woman so that they can catch her killer. It’s incredibly dangerous and unorthodox but, intriguingly, the circumstances have all lined up so that it’s actually possible. Cassie knows that she should refuse the assignment, but she can’t help herself. The prospect of going undercover makes her feel more alive than she has felt in a long time: “This girl was like a dare, flung hard and deadly accurate straight at me: a once-off chance, and catch it if you can.” Her adrenaline is primed and she wants to prolong the thrill of it, so she agrees to the risk of pretending to be the woman who called herself Lexie Madison. The story Cassie and Frank devise is that Lexie barely survived the attack, of which she has no memory, and needs a few days to recover in the ICU. This gives Cassie and Frank time to do their research and prepare her for the role.
All too soon, Cassie is driven to the grand Georgian mansion in which Lexie lived, a short distance away from the abandoned house where her body was found. Lexie’s best friends are all anxiously awaiting her arrival in their shared home at Whitethorn Manor: Daniel March, Justin Mannering, Raphael (Rafe) Hyland, and Abigail (Abby) Stone. Lexie had used her fake name to enroll as a student at Trinity College, with a focus on English literature; this is where she met Daniel, Justin, Rafe, and Abby, who were in the same program. Presently, they were all Ph.D. candidates finishing up the last of their teaching and dissertation work. This group of five friends were all fiercely, even strangely, close. When Daniel inherited Whitethorn Manor from his great-uncle, he invited the others to live there with him rent-free. It was an offer they couldn’t refuse, even if it meant a daily commute to and from Dublin. Cassie quickly falls under the spell of living at Whitethorn with the group. They are all incredibly smart, funny, and charming. It’s nice living with a set of friends so close that they feel like the family an orphaned Cassie never had, with everyone spending their evenings together reading books, sipping wine, and marking papers by a crackling fireplace. Cassie finds it recklessly easy to slip into this version of Lexie, nearly forgetting that she was created by an unknown woman who, for mysterious reasons, assumed her fake name. Cassie can almost pretend that she’s not actually an undercover detective trying to track down a killer; that she’s not on deceptively thin ice, possibly living with someone who still wants Lexie— her— dead. This picture-perfect world is simmering with an unnamed hostility that boiled over once already. Cassie is good at her job, but she is on a clock. She has to uncover the truth of what happened before she gets caught, or before the killer decides they need to finish what they started. And the terrifying weight of everything she doesn’t know will crush her sooner rather than later.
Both In The Woods and The Likeness are extremely good books. Once I had started them, I couldn’t put them down. I actually enjoyed The Likeness a little bit more, but I have it listed as number 2 instead of number 1 on this list because I believe you can’t fully appreciate the second book in this series without having read the first. Both books feature a couple of plot points that require you to willingly suspend your disbelief as part of their core premise (nobody on a murder squad realizing that one of their detectives was involved in a childhood disappearance case; Cassie’s identical appearance to a murder victim), but it is entirely worth doing so. Tana French’s prose is both lyrical and compelling. Her characters are clever, flawed, and complex. The mysteries are absorbing and delicately crafted, with excellent twists and reveals. The author also provides a window into the social and economic conditions of Dublin in the mid-2000s, not shying away from the dormant political and class-related hostilities that still exist between the Irish and the English. I found it really easy to slip into the relationships that are explored in these books. Cassie and Rob’s friendship makes up the emotional core of In The Woods, and it is comforting to spend time with them—until, suddenly, it isn’t. Like Cassie in The Likeness, I felt the pull of living in a beautiful historic house that’s a little rough around the edges, bonding with friends over literature and wine, wanting to belong so badly that you ignore all the reasons why you don’t. Our hunger for connection is primal, and I could definitely relate to Cassie’s need for it. In a year where we were discouraged from traveling and spending time with people outside of our own household, these two books were successful in providing me with a (lesser) means to temporarily do both.
If you read both of these books and find you want more, there is a television adaptation of them available in which both plots are compressed into a single season. I understand why this was necessary to suit the narrative format of a television show. However, I feel that doing so resulted in some important plot points being cut, and there are other parts that don’t quite fit together. The books are definitely way better: read them first.
3, 4, & 5. The Cruel Prince; The Wicked King; and The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black
Like mysteries, I don’t tend to gravitate toward fantasy novels. Not because I don’t like them, I just tend to prefer historical novels more. But my decision to eschew historical fiction for the greater part of the year meant that I had room to select books from other genres, which is what led me to reading Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. The three books of this series make up numbers 3-5 of my Top Books of 2020 list. I’m only going to discuss some of the events of the first book in my review, as I don’t want to spoil the story by talking about what happens later in the second and third books.
The prologue to The Cruel Prince sets the scene with seven-year-old Jude Duarte, her identical twin sister Taryn, and their nine-year-old sister Vivienne (Vivi) spending a lazy Sunday afternoon at home watching cartoons. Their mother is cooking hamburgers and their father is busy in his workshop out back. The three sisters are close, even if Vivi is a little physically different from the twins. Vivi has unusual cat-shaped eyes, and her ears have lightly furred points. This doesn’t matter to Jude or Taryn, although their parents do seem to be a little anxious about Vivi—they often talk about her in worried, whispered voices. It is during the hottest part of that summer day that the sisters’ lives change forever. A tall stranger suddenly appears at their front door and, after Jude opens it, forces his way inside. The stranger draws a sword and incredibly, yet dispassionately, murders the girls’ parents in front of them. As the sisters scream and cower in fear, the stranger leans down to Vivi and tells her several unimaginably true things: he is Vivi’s biological father, and the girls’ mother was his human wife; Vivi’s mother stole Vivi away from him by faking their deaths and escaping to the human realm with the man who would later become Jude’s and Taryn’s father; and the stranger is now going to take Vivi back to her true home—a part of Faerieland known as Elfhame, where she will live once more with her own kind, the fairy folk. He will bring Vivi’s half-sisters, Jude and Taryn, with them, as he is too honour-bound to abandon the now-orphaned human daughters of his faithless wife. He tells Vivi, “I may be cruel, a monster, and a murderer, but I do not shirk my responsibilities.” The prologue ends with Vivi’s father and the three sisters embarking on their journey to the fairy realm.
The first chapter of the novel picks the story up ten years after the events of the prologue. Vivi’s father, Madoc, is a highly-ranked member of the Faerie Gentry, serving as General to High King Eldred, the ruler of Faerieland. There are many different kinds of fairy folk living in this world, and Madoc is a Redcap—the most violent and bloodthirsty of them all. Madoc resides in a castle in Elfhame with his family which, in addition to the three sisters he forcibly collected from the human world, includes his second wife, Oriana, and his seven-year-old son, Oak. Madoc has remained true to his sense of duty, raising the two human girls as if they were his own. However, this doesn’t mean that Taryn and Jude have experienced a warm, safe childhood. Faerieland is a dangerous place to be a human, even if you have the protection of a feared and respected military leader. Other humans can be found in Elfhame, but none of them have ever been given the privilege of living as if they were trueborn children of the Faerie Gentry. Even if Madoc insists on their equal treatment, the simple fact is that Jude and Taryn are freakishly different from the other creatures who inhabit this world. In Elfhame, humans are considered lower class. They are mortal, whereas the ageless fae can live forever if they are not killed. Humans can’t help but come up looking stupid, weak, and ugly in comparison with the cunning, powerful, and beautiful fairy folk. Most importantly, humans cannot perform magic nor defend themselves from it, so they are easily made victim to the cruel glamours and magical compulsions that the fae inflict upon them. The only advantage humans have is that they can lie, whereas the fae cannot. Madoc has bestowed Jude and Taryn with an honour that the other fae resent, but his protection can only extend so far.
To further complicate things, Jude and Taryn are also now at an age where they need to secure their own place in this fantastical world. Although they are lesser beings living in a realm that was never meant for them, Elfhame has become their home and they are determined to stay. Jude reflects: “Maybe growing up the way we have, bad things feel good to us. Or maybe we are stupid in the exact same way as every other idiot mortal who’s pined away for another bite of goblin fruit.” (Vivi, as the legitimate half-fey daughter of Madoc, does not have this same pressure to please her father or earn her right to live in Faerieland, so the trilogy primarily focuses on the conflict facing the two human sisters). There are two ways in which mortals can become permanent members of the Faerie Court: they can marry into it, or they can be accepted based on their demonstration of a superior skill (such as metallurgy or lute-playing). Jude and Taryn, although identical in appearance, differ in their respective approaches to this endeavour. Taryn seeks to attain her place through love by marrying a member of the Faerie Gentry. Jude, perhaps recalling how well that went for their mother, has decided instead to follow the example of her murderous stepfather by training to be a warrior. She will fight for her place, and plans on showcasing her martial skill in an upcoming tournament. There, if she manages to catch the eye of one of the six heirs of the royal household, she could be granted a knighthood and become a member of their royal guard. It is a momentous time for Jude to get involved with Faerie Court politics: High King Eldred has decided to abdicate so that one of his sons, Prince Dain, can succeed to the throne—the coronation is scheduled to happen shortly after the tournament. Jude hopes to earn Prince Dain’s favour not only because he is the heir-apparent, but because his circle of influence contains the court’s best warriors and strategists, including Madoc. These are the fairy folk that Jude feels she would best fit in with. The other five royal heirs are less likely to provide her with an appropriate place at court. Most disagreeable of all to Jude would be trying to seek a place with Prince Cardan, the youngest and cruelest of all the High King’s heirs.
Jude and Taryn have long been acquainted with Prince Cardan as they attend school with him and the other young members of the Faerie Gentry. Although the human sisters have often been the victims of pranks and bullying by their faerie classmates, they have successfully avoided far worse treatment by keeping their heads down. They have learned that it is far better to endure countless small humiliations than risk escalating a conflict with opponents who have a terrifying degree of power over them. By making themselves appear small and boring, the sisters have so far managed to stay relatively safe amidst their dangerous, terrifying peers—a defensive strategy that is far easier for Taryn to follow than it is for Jude, who chafes with the need to stand up for herself. Circumstances immediately take a turn for the sisters when one day, for some reason, Prince Cardan and three of his closest, nastiest friends suddenly decide that the human sisters are interesting. As a result, their aggression towards the girls intensifies. The pranks become crueller, the humiliations more severe. Prince Cardan, Valerian, Nicasia, and Locke are entertained by how easily they can terrorize the sisters. But suddenly, Jude decides she has had enough. She knows she is hopelessly outmatched, but she refuses to back down, especially when Prince Cardan tries to intimidate her out of fighting in the upcoming tournament. “Yes, they frighten me,” Jude admits of Prince Cardan and his friends, “but I have always been scared, since the day I got here. I was raised by the man who murdered my parents, reared in a land of monsters. I live with that fear, let it settle into my bones, and ignore it.” Not only is she tired of making herself small, she is now ready to confess to a risky, thrilling secret: “I do not yearn to be their equal,” she states, in reference to the fairy folk. “In my heart, I yearn to best them.”
Little does Jude know that she will soon have an opportunity to do so when a scandalous betrayal at Prince Dain’s coronation annihilates the existing social order. Amidst all the bloodshed Jude realizes that, in order to seize her one impossible chance, she must team up with her gravest enemy. In doing so, she suddenly becomes the most powerful player in a realm where she was once powerless. To say such a position is tenuous is an understatement. How long can one human girl retain control over a world full of cruel, fantastical, immortal creatures? Are Jude’s wits enough to keep her and her loved ones safe from those determined to kill her?
Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy was so good that, for a brief moment in time, I actually thought about how much fun it would be to write my own fantasy novel. Madness, right? That is how engrossing this story was: the words seem to have cast their own spell over me, daring me to think that I could easily write a tale as compelling. That’s the power of a truly great writer, to make the work look effortless. The world of Elfhame is expansive and expertly crafted. I appreciated how seamlessly the author blended her original ideas of magical creatures and practice with existing folklore. The narrator’s sense of urgency, danger, and determination never lets up, making for a propulsive read. I think I managed to make it through the entire series within the space of a week. If you’re interested, there is also a companion e-novella, The Lost Sisters, which features the events of the first book told from the perspective of a different narrator (I didn’t include this title in my official 2020 tally).
6. City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert
Back in 2017, Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear was my third top book of the year. It serves as a stirring pep talk for anyone who is struggling to live a life driven more by their curiosity (and their creative expression of it) than the fear1 that wants to limit them. City of Girls is an excellent companion to Big Magic. A few quotes from the latter apply wholeheartedly to the tone that underlines the former, especially2: “It’s okay if your work is fun for you. It’s even okay if your work is totally frivolous. That’s allowed. It’s all allowed.”
You can definitely tell that this book was fun for Gilbert to write, and as a result it is a pleasure to read, from its very epigraph, which features a quote by Colette: “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.” The book is structured as if it is a correspondence: the narrator, Vivian Morris, is responding to a letter she has received from a younger woman named Angela Gecco. Angela had written to Vivian to inform her of her mother’s passing. None of the three women are close. But the death has given Angela the opportunity to ask a question that has probably puzzled her for a long time, inquiring of Vivian, “what were you to my [late] father?” Vivian replies that it is not her place to tell Angela what she, Vivian, was to him. Instead, Vivian can tell Angela what he was to her.
The book flashes back to the summer of 1940, shortly after 19-year-old Vivian has been dismissed from Vassar College on account of never attending classes and failing every single one of her freshman exams. The recent death of her beloved grandmother may have had something to do with this, but so too could Vivian’s attitude toward further schooling: “How many more books does a person need to read in order to prove that she can read a book? I already knew who Charlemagne was, so leave me alone, is how I saw it.” Vivian is a disappointment to her upper-class parents and elder brother, Walter, aged 21. Vivian has never gotten along with her family, nor does she feel inspired by the conventional expectations they have for how she is to live her life. Thankfully Walter, who is studying engineering at Princeton University, is living respectably enough for the both of them. Vivian spends the first two weeks of June at home driving her parents’ crazy, at which point they decide to ship Vivian off to New York City to live with her father’s sister, her Aunt Peg. Vivian is accompanied on her journey by her sewing machine, which she calls her “demented beautiful soul-twin.” The sewing machine, and the exceptional skill with which she uses it, were both gifts from her grandmother. She doesn’t know it yet, but they will provide her with everything she needs for her new life in the big city.
During World War I, Vivian’s aunt, Peg Morris, trained as a Red Cross nurse and was stationed in France. She soon found that she was more talented at organizing entertainment for the injured soldiers than tending to their wounds. Peg had a knack for “turning out shows in field hospitals and barracks that were cheap, quick, gaudy, and comic.” While in France, Peg met and befriended a British nurse, Olive Thomson. After the war concluded, Peg and Olive went to London. There, the women decided to enter the world of theatre with Peg producing and directing, and Olive supporting her efforts in a secretarial capacity. Peg was in the midst of producing a revue (a variety show with sketches, songs, dancing, and comedy) in the West End when she met her husband, Billy Buell, a handsome American military officer renowned for his playboy charm. Peg and Billy moved back to the US after their wedding, with Olive tagging along, where they created a theatrical touring company. For a time, they had a comfortable partnership touring the country for most of the 1920s with their troupe; Billy wrote and acted in their revues, while Peg, assisted by the ever-loyal Olive, managed and directed them. They never aimed high, desiring only to have a good time and “avoid more adult responsibilities.” However, in 1930 they had an accidental hit that ran on Broadway for a year, with a movie following in 1932. Peg and Billy made a lot of money, but the success ended their marriage. Although they never officially divorced, Billy stayed in Hollywood while Peg and Olive returned to New York in 1935.
Back in New York, Peg used her half of the movie royalties to buy the Lily Playhouse—a great, big, collapsing lump of a theatre that Peg poured money into “the way an indulgent heiress might pour money into the drug habit of an opium-addicted lover—which is to say bottomlessly, desperately, and uselessly.” Everything about the Lily Playhouse is very rough around the edges: the audiences, the performers, the scripts, the profits. The Lily doesn’t attract tourists, critics, or even New York’s traditional crowd of theatre-goers. Its purpose is to provide working-class entertainment for the working-class people that make up its largely immigrant neighbourhood, and that’s it. Peg insists that she would “rather put on a good leg show than bad Shakespeare.” And so the Lily’s productions serve as little more than an excuse to have a pair of singing, tap-dancing lovers part and then reunite amidst an enthusiastic kick line of New York’s most beautiful showgirls. The revues change every few weeks, but their content tends to be more or less all the same—and equally forgettable—due to the Lily only having three backdrops. Ticket prices are kept low in an effort to make the theatre competitive with the local movie houses, arcades, and illegal gambling dens. Even still, the audiences are sparse. Olive, the sole practical, financially-minded figure to be found in a company of people devoted to playing make-believe, is trying her best to keep the Lily afloat. Unfortunately for her, this means she is a major killjoy to everyone else, and her efforts aren’t always appreciated, even by Peg.
No matter its tawdriness, Vivian falls immediately, hopelessly, in love with the Lily Playhouse and all those who reside within it. “The Lily Playhouse was unlike any world I’d ever inhabited,” Vivian tells Angela. “It was a living animation of glamour and grit and mayhem and fun—a world full of adults behaving like children, in other words.” Although Vivian is ostensibly under the care of her aunt, she soon realizes that Peg is not interested in being her authority figure. Vivian is free, for the first time in her life, to do as she pleases. She is given no formal job, but quickly finds a way to be useful by volunteering to help the showgirls and dancers with their outfits (the Lily has no budget for costuming). Above the theatrical and office space, two of the Lily’s four storeys contain apartments for Peg; Olive; the absent Billy, whose rooms Vivian is thrilled to occupy; Mr. Herbert, the Lily’s hapless playwright; Benjamin, a talented songwriter, composer, and piano player; and Celia Ray, an impossibly beautiful and vain showgirl. Celia soon makes herself at home in Vivian’s more comfortable lodgings, even sleeping in the same bed, without bothering to ask for permission. Vivian doesn’t mind having the showgirl as a roommate, though, explaining, “I got to be near her glamour, and she got to be near my sink.” The two soon develop a regular routine of hitting the town nightly after Celia’s performances at the Lily. “Drunk, pinwheel-eyed, briny-blooded, brainless, weightless—Celia and I spun through New York City that summer on currents of pure electricity,” Vivian describes. “Instead of walking, we rocketed. There was no focus; there was just a constant search for the vivid.”
Vivian is so swept up in the excitement of being young and living at the Lily in New York City that she fails to notice the creeping reach of the Second World War, until a pair of British refugees show up at the theatre in September 1940. Edna Parker Watson3, a British stage actress, is an old friend of Peg and Olive; the three met while entertaining troops on the French battlefield during the First World War. Edna and her husband, Arthur, had come to New York earlier that summer so that Edna could rehearse for a play she had been cast in. Unfortunately, the financing for the production dried up well before its opening. And then the Watson’s town house was destroyed during the German bombing of London. Edna and Arthur were trapped in New York with no jobs (all the other theatre productions had been already cast), no safe transit back to the UK, and no home to return to even if they could have managed to do so. They had been staying at a hotel, but their funds were running low. Peg heard of their plight and, never one to turn away a friend in need, invited them to come stay at the Lily Playhouse. Peg could even provide them with a small income if they were interested in performing. Edna charms everyone in her orbit. She is a professional actress of the highest calibre: intelligent, magnetic, witty, and, for Vivian, the living embodiment of true glamour. “Her greatest gift, though, was warmth,” Vivian says. “She delighted in all that she beheld, and it made you want to stay near her, in order to bask in her delight.” Unfortunately, Edna’s younger, exceptionally handsome husband is less pleasing, being somewhat dim-witted and in possession of a mean, jealous streak. Nonetheless, Vivian is thrilled when Edna takes her under her wing. The two of them collaborate on Edna’s costume for her debut on the Lily stage. Edna’s attention makes Vivian feel more interesting and alive than she ever has before, and she thrives under the actress’ mentorship.
Life at the Lily Playhouse gets complicated when Peg decides that she needs to create a show that is worthy of her friend’s talent. Unfortunately, such a task lies well beyond the capabilities of the Lily’s regular creators and performers—especially those of its resident playwright, Mr. Herbert. Surely, this is a good enough reason for Peg to consult with the best writer she knows: Billy Buell, her estranged Hollywood husband. She is only going to ask his advice, she assures Olive, who is deeply opposed to the idea. It won’t be like last time, or the time before, or the time before that. But Olive knows that Billy’s effect on Peg is akin to that of a vampire: once he’s invited in, his ambition supersedes all. Eventually, he will lay waste to all those foolish enough to buy into what he’s selling. But wouldn’t it be incredible if, after all this time, the Lily Playhouse produced a hit? With a star as talented as Edna, it’s entirely possible. Billy eagerly returns to New York and, within mere days, has written the play, titled City of Girls, and taken over nearly the whole production. His unsettling suggestions include actually auditioning talent rather than just using the Lily’s regular performers; raising ticket prices, which will alienate the playhouse’s loyal customers; and daring to actually invite critics and New York’s more discerning theatregoers to opening night. Through it all, he is spending far more money than the Lily’s box office has ever managed to earn—which makes Olive rightfully nervous. The newcomers have breached the insular equilibrium of the playhouse, and no one will emerge unscathed: least of all Vivian, whose childish disregard of consequences will finally burn her, big-time. Will the play be successful, or will Peg’s gamble on Billy bring about their ruin? If the play is a hit, will it forever change the Lily Playhouse and the fortunes of those who reside within it, or will it tear everybody apart? Don’t forget that there’s a war approaching and, no matter how affecting the personal dramas at the Lily may feel to its residents, there are bigger issues near at hand. There is always room for frivolity but, sooner rather than later, Vivian has to learn how to balance her desire for fun with the necessity of growing up. Can she rise to the occasion?
If you are looking for a fun, escapist novel that still has enough emotional weight to occasionally hit you in the gut, Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls is an excellent choice. It is joyful, effervescent, and thoroughly entertaining. Yet it doesn’t shy away from heavier issues such as loss, guilt, disappointment, and regret. Gilbert’s narrative style is infused with a bright, self-deprecating wit. Delightful characterizations and turns of phrase are found on nearly every page. One of my favourites: “I’m aware that many things were not better in the 1940s. Underarm deodorants and air-conditioning were woefully inadequate, for instance, so everybody stank like crazy, especially in the summer, and also we had Hitler.” In this way, the first part of Gilbert’s novel immerses you in a world sparkling with colour, humour, and gaiety. It was so wonderfully refreshing to take a break from the pandemonium of 2020 by slipping into these pages and pretending, at least for a little while, that I was visiting somewhere safe with considerably lower stakes. And yet when the novel progresses into more consequential ground, I was ready to make that journey too. The author guides you through the hurt that her characters experience, but does so in a manner that feels cathartic and healing. At the end of the book, the narrator, matured by her own reckoning, offers comfort to another character. She assures this character that, yes, things happen to people that are beyond their control, and these things can be unfair. But the thing that happened has no reflection on the character’s worth as a person. It means nothing: neither positive, nor negative. It’s just what happened. The character doesn’t have to continue to define themselves based on it. They can choose to let it go. To grow beyond the guilt of it, to shed the expectation of what the world expects you should be and just be who you actually are. Because the world itself is flawed and crooked. When it tries to sell you a prescriptive bill of goods, remember that it is lying to you. The only thing that matters is your effort to be a good person, whatever that looks like, and to do all you can to not hurt other people. Whew, did I say this book was escapist? Because it is! I was bereft when I had finished it. Getting to write this review was a great excuse to re-immerse myself within it.
7. The Wildling Sisters, Eve Chase
Moving to a new community just over a year ago meant that we had the opportunity to seek out a new local bookshop. Happily, we found one that has a good mix of new and used titles available. Even though the shop is small, its offerings are thoughtfully curated. This makes it easy to find something I’m interested in every time we go there. It is certainly thanks to the careful work of this book store owner that I came across a new author, Eve Chase, for the first time while browsing the shelves of this shop. I had not heard of Chase before, nor had I previously come across her work. But the three novels she has published so far practically contain a checklist of everything I like best in a book: a narrative split between two time periods, one historical and one present-day; a beautiful abandoned house that has seen better days, preferably accompanied by a once-magnificent garden that has since been left to grow wild; and a mystery that the present-day protagonist is trying to solve through clues in historical artefacts like letters, diaries, photographs, etc. This book caught my eye because of its beautiful cover, plus the endorsement quote from my favourite author, Kate Morton. And because the book was used, it cost me less than I was expecting. Yay for local bookstores! The Wildling Sisters is my favourite of Chase’s three novels, and is #7 on my list.
15-year-old Margot Wilde and her three sisters, Flora (17), Pam (16), and Dot (12) are less than thrilled to be spending the summer of 1959 with their Aunt Sybil and Uncle Perry at Applecote Manor, located in the Cotswolds. The teenage girls would much rather stay in London, the centre of all things interesting, than be stuck in a dreary old house in the literal middle-of-nowhere. The girls are also worried about how awkward it will be to stay with their aunt and uncle, as they haven’t seen them in a long time; not since that summer, five years ago, when their 13-year-old cousin Audrey disappeared. No trace of Audrey was ever found, and her grief-stricken parents are now mere shadows of the vibrant, loving people they had once been. In addition to the sorrow and pain that surely await the Wilde sisters’ arrival at Applecote, Margot is also a little nervous because there were some whispers that Uncle Perry may have been responsible for his daughter vanishing. In spite of all this, the girls’ mother, Bunny, insists that they go. She has an incredible job opportunity waiting for her in Morocco, and she needs to get out of London, at least for a little while, in order to get over a bad breakup. She’s been doing her best to try and get ahead as a single working mother since her husband, Clarence Wilde, died in a car accident 12 years ago. This could be the career break Bunny’s been waiting for, and she’s sure it won’t hurt the girls to spend some time with their father’s relatives at his childhood home. Reluctantly, the Wilde sisters agree with her scheme.
The experience of living at Applecote Manor that summer is akin to staring at a funhouse mirror: for the most part, the people reflected on the glass look the same, but the loss of Audrey stretches their proportions in odd and upsetting ways. The four sisters do their best to avoid their aunt and uncle, shying away from their profound grief. Flora and Pam soon find a new way to occupy their time when they meet two young men, Harry and Tom, who are also spending their summer in the local area. The two elder sisters happily partake in more adult activities with their handsome neighbours, spending their days at the nearby river flirting, swimming, and smoking. Once inseparable, the sisterhood has now been cleaved neatly in two, with the elder sisters leaving a jealous Margot and painfully shy Dot to fend for themselves. Margot particularly suffers from her sisters’ neglect, but she soon finds a new source to provide her with a complicated form of affection: Margot is the Wilde sister who most closely resembles her cousin Audrey, and Aunt Sybil is all too ready to draw Margot into the empty space her daughter used to occupy. Margot, hungry for the attention, reluctantly complies. But Margot soon finds that playing at being Audrey is more upsetting than it is comforting, and Aunt Sybil is not the only one to catch Margot’s resemblance to her cousin. As the summer draws to a close, Margot’s suspicions about what happened to Audrey bring her perilously close to the truth. Is it too late for the estranged Wilde sisters to unite once more, in order to protect one of their own?
In the present day, Jessie and Will are looking for a country home to escape the crush of big-city London living. Applecote Manor, although in need of a little loving repair, seems to be perfect. It’s close enough to London that Will can still commute into his office when necessary, but it is remote enough to feel like a fresh start. And that is what this family sorely needs. They need to get Will’s 16-year-old daughter, Bella, “far away from what she did to that girl, and everything that happened.” Jessie also needs to find a way to get her stepdaughter to, if not like her, at least to stop actively hating her. It would also be nice if she could get Bella to make an effort with Bella’s 3-year-old half-sister, Romy. And if Jessie is being honest, she is relieved to move out of the London house that was once home to Will, Bella, and his first wife, Mandy, who passed away four years ago. Jessie hopes to make Applecote Manor feel like a place where they all belong. Unfortunately, an unexpected crisis at work calls Will back to London almost as soon as they move in. Between that and a spell of bad weather, his stay in the city is extended indefinitely. It is up to Jessie to try and balance, on her own, the needs of her resentful stepdaughter, her too-curious toddler, and the necessary renovation work around the manor. To top it all off, Bella is determined to prove that the move to Applecote Manor was a bad idea. When Bella discovers that a young girl went missing on the property some 50 years earlier, she becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her. At first, Jessie is annoyed by Bella’s efforts. But she is soon drawn into the mystery as well. The old house is full of secrets, and it seems eager to provide them with some answers that have long been buried…
I was drawn to The Wildling Sisters largely because it was set in the Cotswolds, which I fell in love with when we visited a few years ago. It is a beautiful, magical place full of history and charm that felt, to me, like it was brimming with stories waiting to be discovered and told. I would love to go back there again when it is safe to do so. In the meantime, this novel proved a very worthy travel substitute, as I had hoped it would. The author’s writing is vivid, lyrical, and emotional—effectively bringing the hot summer of Applecote Manor to life through its engagement of all five senses: “Today there is a breeze, but it is warm and wet, like a lick.” The author also masterfully captures the sense of what it is to be a 15-year-old girl caught at the precipice between childhood and adulthood: at once fearful of abandoning the comfort and safety of the former, while also longing to throw oneself recklessly into the free-fall of the latter. Margot feels this pain acutely, as she is divided between her two elder sisters, who are now firmly more adult in their desires and behaviours; her younger sister, who is yet a child, at least for one more summer; and her lost cousin, who will never have the opportunity to grow up. Margot reflects: “Tears curl hotly into my ears, not just for Audrey, but the way life hurtles forward so, leaving the past standing alone, shrinking, like a forgotten child on a deserted railway platform.” This is a thoughtful, dreamy, suspenseful book well-suited to the hot, sultry days of summer.
8. The Vanishing Deep, Astrid Scholte
The Vanishing Deep is set in a water-laden world, possibly Earth or at least a planet very similar to it, that experienced a cataclysmic event known as the “Great Waves” 500 years earlier. This disaster was brought about when the Old World, on the brink of war due to its massively overcrowded population and scarce land resources, decided to defrost a small part of the glaciated land that covered more than ⅓ of the planet. Unfortunately, the method used to do so ended up melting all of the ice instead of just a minor portion of it. As a result, the ocean levels rose and submerged nearly all of the Old World, killing billions of people. The only land that remained above sea level consisted of the very tops of tall mountains or cliffs, which ended up forming a series of 50 new islands. At first, the survivors of the Great Waves gathered on these islands. But they soon realized that, in order to survive, the land needed to be used for agriculture rather than habitation. So the people went to the sea and scavenged what large pieces of metal they could from the Old World below. The rusting skeletons of former skyscrapers were hauled up and joined together with large anchors to form around 15,000 floating cities, known as Reefs. Each Reef is zoned to the island it is located closest to within a 500 mile radius. Most of the islands are owned by private research facilities, which are dedicated to the growing of crops and the scientific pursuit of ensuring the continued survival of human life on this watery planet. The activities of these facilities are funded through the taxation of citizens on their adjoining Reefs.
17-year-old Tempest (Tempe) Alerin lives on Equinox, the largest of these Reefs with a population around 10,000 people. Tempe has suffered the characteristic losses of someone who lives in this cruel, unforgiving world of water. Five years ago, her parents were killed during a storm that caught them while they were still out on the water with their boat; their bodies were never found. Then, three years later, Tempe’s older sister, Elysea, drowned while she was out diving. Tempe has been on her own ever since, and spends her days scavenging the sunken Old World city below Equinox, looking for goods that she can trade for money. It’s exactly what Elysea was doing the day she died, but Tempe has no choice. She needs to raise the funds necessary to survive and, more importantly, to see her sister again. This is possible because, unlike their parents, Elysea’s body was recovered and taken to the private research facility on the nearby island of Palindromena. 50 years ago, the scientists working on the island discovered a process that allows them to temporarily revive drowning victims for a 24-hour period. This miraculous and grisly procedure grants grieving families the opportunity to meet with their loved ones for a final time. This is done in a carefully controlled setting, guided by a facility worker known as a “Warden,” and family members are urged not to tell the “patient” that they died. If the patient finds out and becomes understandably upset, they are quickly sedated, bringing a premature end to the experience. Unfortunately, the resurrection is too taxing on the body to then allow for a second attempt. Even if it were physically possible, the procedure is prohibitively expensive. The bodies of drowning victims like Elysea are kept at Palindromena in a state of preservation for ten years, as it can take a long time for families to raise the necessary funds. This is why Tempe spends her days scouring the sunken city for valuable relics. But rather than love and grief, Tempe’s desire to see Elysea is motivated by a sense of rage. She has only recently found out that Elysea was out on the water with their parents the night they died, and that Elysea told someone she was responsible for their deaths. What did Elysea do? And why did she keep it from Tempe? Tempe is determined to find out. While out diving one morning, Tempe is lucky enough to find something that will finally earn her the rest of the money she needs to resurrect Elysea. At last, she will have some answers. She schedules the Revival appointment for the very next day.
Lor lives and works in the basement of the facility at Palindromena, where the bodies of the resurrection candidates are kept in tanks filled with water and crushed coral. It is a dark, horrifying place, but he is used to it. In fact, it is exactly the kind of life he deserves after what he did to his best friend, Caylan, years earlier. Lor and Caylan were out rock climbing when a storm began to gather around them. Although Caylan wanted to turn back, Lor insisted they continue. The boys were tethered to each other so Caylan had little choice but to follow after his friend. But the rain made the rocks slippery and, soon, Caylan lost his grip. To the horror of their friends, watching nearby, the boys fell from the cliffside and into the ocean below. Lor lived, Caylan died. And so now Lor remains in the basement, haunted by his guilt, where he is determined to avoid ever being seen by anybody he used to know. How could he face them? The only person who still seems interested in trying to be his friend is Raylan (Ray), a young man who recently started working at Palindromena as a Warden. Ray has his own reasons for working at the facility beyond its incredible salary, which is five times more than what he could earn on Equinox. So Lor knows it’s a big deal for Ray to ask him for a favour. Ray has been scheduled to guide a last-minute Revival, but he has some plans he is truly loath to cancel. Although Lor is reluctant, he agrees to fill in for his friend. The Revival procedure is automated through a device that Ray can give him. All Lor has to do is provide some gentle emotional support for the grieving family member, remind them not to tell the patient that they are dead, and supervise them while they interact in a locked room. Oh, and not get caught. Ray can’t afford to lose this job.
So it is Lor, pretending to be Ray, who serves as Tempe’s Warden for Elysea’s resurrection. Tempe is ready to confront her sister but, when Elysea is brought into the recovery room with her, she finds her fury quickly dissipating. This is her sister, after all. Someone she loved and has truly missed, in spite of all her anger. And although Elysea has been given a drug that makes her forget her drowning and the hours leading up to it, she is too smart to fall for the lie that Tempe tells her about what is going on. Their parents worked at Palindromena, after all, so it takes no time for Elysea to figure out that she must have died and has since been revived. Further, she does not want to spend her final hours trapped in the recovery room. When Tempe demands to know what happened to their parents, Elysea offers her a deal: she will tell Tempe, but only if she breaks Elysea out of Palindromena. Remarkably, thanks to Lor’s inexperience and reluctance to get Ray in trouble, they manage to do so. Once free, Elysea and Tempe embark on a dangerous mission to uncover the truth behind their parents’ disappearance. But they have to move recklessly fast. The clock is ticking, and Lor and Ray are soon in hot pursuit of them. Turns out, the resurrection process is a little more involved than it appears. If they don’t get Elysea back to Palindromena before her time is up, there will be deadly consequences for more than just Elysea.
The Vanishing Deep is a thrilling, suspenseful novel that I raced to finish in a manner very similar to the urgency in which its characters were compelled to act. The heading of each new chapter indicates how much time is remaining, which encouraged me to keep reading even at the close of the previous section. The author has masterfully crafted a fascinating dystopian world whose main issues (overpopulation, resource scarcity, rising ocean levels) are uncomfortably close to our own. This environment is presented with enough detail to make it feel real and interesting, while at the same time not bogging the reader down with too much information (a very delicate balance, one that I am very guilty of not maintaining as you can see with this very post). The heart of the novel considers two important questions: what would you do if you could bring a loved one back from the dead, albeit for a short amount of time?; and, alternately, what would you do if you found out you only had 24 hours in which to live? These questions serve as merely the starting point for the characters in this novel. They soon find that their increasingly complicated circumstances, combined with that unforgiving countdown, constantly demand them to make harder, faster decisions. And yet they are human: full of hurt, regret, compassion, and fear. How far would you go for love? What would you be willing to sacrifice? The Vanishing Deep is a fun yet meaningful piece of science-fiction that stays with you long after you put it down.
9. The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
The Dutch House came by its name not, as one may expect, for its architecture—which is not Dutch at all, but rather more neoclassical and French/Mediterranean in its influence—but for the family that built and first lived within it. Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, first names unknown, made their fortune in cigarettes during the first world war. They used their money to buy 200 acres of farmland outside of Philadelphia where, in 1922, they finished constructing their three-storey mansion. It is an imposing, elaborate house: the third floor has a ballroom; there are six bedrooms on the second floor; and the curtainless windows on the first floor allow for a straight view across the grand marble foyer, through the observatory, and into the backyard. The VanHoebeeks didn’t want for privacy when they first designed the house: they were more enamoured with their view looking out down a wide valley and towards a distant forest, than concerned about who could be looking in. But the VanHoebeeks only had “seven good years before the bankers started jumping out of the windows.” As the VanHoebeeks sold off their estate piece by piece to pay off their mounting debts, the growing town of Elkins Park drew ever closer to the Dutch House. By the time Mrs. VanHoebeek, the last surviving member of that unfortunate family, died of pneumonia in 1945, there was nothing left for the bank to claim but the house, its contents, and the side yard.
In 1946 all of this is purchased by Cyril Conroy, a war veteran and aspiring real estate mogul, as a surprise for his wife, Elna, and their (nearly) 6-year-old daughter Maeve. To say that Elna hates it is an understatement. “God’s truth, our father was a man who had never met his own wife,” Maeve later tells her younger brother Danny, the story’s narrator, who was born just over a year after the Conroy family moves into the Dutch House. Elna is deeply uncomfortable with the largess that comes with living in such a house and being surrounded by all of its grand furnishings, including two remarkable portraits of the hapless VanHoebeeks that still adorn the entryway; she is further embarrassed by the privilege of having household staff. Cyril, who is thrilled with his purchase of the Dutch House and its reflection of his family’s social ascent, is entirely oblivious to the unease of his wife. He decides that he wants to have a portrait of Elna painted that would rival the splendour of the matching VanHoebeeks, and hires a famous Chicago artist to come stay at their house for two weeks in order to do so. Elna refuses to sit for the artist, and so instead it is 10-year-old Maeve whose countenance is immortalized on canvas and hung on the wall across from the VanHoebeek portraits, “not as big, but every bit as good.” This art commission seems to have been the breaking point for Elna, as it is only a short time later that she leaves her husband, her children, and the Dutch House. She announces that she is going to India where, following the example of Mother Teresa, she intends to devote herself to the poor.
Elna’s departure sets up the other members of the Conroy family to “become characters in the worst part of a fairy tale.” She is the only person to seemingly escape the strange, punishing gravity that the Dutch House exerts on all those who live within it. The fairy tale villain arrives five years later when Maeve and Danny are introduced to their father’s new friend, Andrea, and her young daughters, Norma and Bernice (called Bright). Having vastly misunderstood how his first wife would feel about the Dutch House, Cyril seems to have been determined not to make the same mistake twice. “Your father thought that house was the most beautiful thing in the world,” Jocelyn, one of the housekeepers, says to Danny and Maeve, “and he found himself a woman who agreed.” Unfortunately, Cyril corrects his course a little too strongly. Danny, only 8 when he first meets Andrea, can already sense the impending turn in his and Maeve’s fortune through how enamoured his soon-to-be stepmother is of the VanHoebeek portraits: “‘[i]t must be a comfort, having them with you,’ Andrea said to [Cyril], not of his children but of his paintings.” Maeve and Danny began their childhood with one mother who hated the Dutch House and everything about it too much to stay, and find it abruptly ended by a stepmother who loves it all too much to leave.
Four years later, Maeve and Danny find themselves expelled from the Dutch House, thwarted in their shared desire to take over their father’s company, and legally stripped of all fortune but an educational trust that only Danny can take advantage of. Maeve becomes the driving force in Danny’s life, even more so than she already was, compelled to repay Andrea for banishing them from the Dutch House through the only method available to her: Danny’s education. Against his own wishes, Danny is sent away from his beloved sister and his friends to complete his high school education at an expensive boarding school. And although he shares his father’s passion for real estate, Maeve later urges Danny to enroll in medical school. “You don’t have to be a doctor, you only have to study to be one,” Maeve tells Danny. “Once you’re finished you can play a doctor on television for all I care. You can be anything you want, as long as it requires a great deal of schooling.” One might think that such an expectation would lead to Danny’s resentment of his over-controlling sister. But it is a testament to Patchett’s writing that, instead, the reader feels how firmly and lovingly the siblings are bonded to each other. Their connection is forged by the shared, unspoken grief they have for their parents, which they redirect into anger over their banishment from the Dutch House. Danny says, “[t]he house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.” When Danny comes home to visit Maeve between school terms, they spend hours together parked in Maeve’s car across the street from the Dutch House. “Because I was fifteen and generally an idiot,” Danny states, “I thought that the feeling of home I was experiencing had to do with the car and where it was parked, instead of attributing it wholly and gratefully to my sister.” Maeve is similarly pleased to spend this time with her brother, saying to him, as she blows cigarette smoke out the car window: “Five whole days with you at home… The best five days of the year.” Maeve is Danny’s north star, the source of nearly all insight Danny has about the world around him, and he feels she can do no wrong. How could you not find comfort in such a relationship? And yet, there are some hints that Danny’s extreme attachment to his sister has consequences in other areas of his life, namely in the relationship he has with his wife, Celeste. Will Danny ever grow beyond the margins of self-definition that Maeve set for him as an adolescent? Will the siblings ever move beyond their sense of irredeemable loss over the Dutch House? And when Maeve invites someone back into their lives with tragic consequences, can Danny forgive her for this single uncharacteristic act of vulnerability?
The Dutch House is one of those rare books that has the ability to get beneath my skin. It is at once absorbing, maddening, comforting, and deeply moving. Maeve and Danny’s banishment from their childhood home is the defining resentment of their life. Together, they spend years crouched over the site of this shared injury, using the layers of their raised scar tissue as a blanket to keep them warm. Who they could have become without this mutual grievance is lost to the years they spend dwelling in it. The siblings may grow older, but their development is suspended in the amber of this moment. “It’s like you’re Hansel and Gretel,” Danny’s wife, Celeste, says of him and Maeve. “You just keep walking through the dark woods holding hands no matter how old you get.” Thankfully, the novel forces the siblings to eventually reckon with this malignant behaviour by giving them a chance to forgive those who wronged them—not for the good of those who hurt them, but for their own. It may be uncomfortable for them to do so, but necessary. This proves to be a disquieting, but similarly essential, theme for me (and other readers) to consider: what long-standing, simmering resentments have I allowed to direct the course of my life? Is it in my best interest to allow them to continue to do so, or is it past time that I encourage them to release its hold? It’s not a fun examination to make, but it is an important one. And as The Dutch House was a 2020 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Fiction, I presume it is one that resonated with many.
10. Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
The city of Shaker Heights4, Ohio, has a bold motto: “Most communities just happen; the best are planned.” A fitting theme, as the streets of Shaker Heights were laid out in 1912, making it one of the first planned communities in the United States. The founders of Shaker Heights strove to create a little utopia, confident that they could design the perfect community through a set of restrictive covenants and building guidelines known as “Shaker Standards.” These regulations prevent the city from being developed in any way contrary to how its founders intended, and “includes protection forever against depreciation and unwelcome change.” They ensure that Shaker Heights is filled with the right kind of people: idealists, altruists, progressives. Those who want to do the right thing. Those who appreciate what all those rules are for. The residents of Shaker Heights want to be “just like everyone else, only better.” It is a predominantly wealthy community, but surely that is the only aspect of the city that came about by coincidence rather than design.
Mrs. Elena Richardson, referred to throughout the novel as Mrs. Richardson, fully embodies the idealism and pragmatism of the Shaker Heights community in which she was born and bred. Like the founders of her beloved hometown, she believes that everything can and should be planned out. Doing so helps one avoid “the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.” The longest and furthest she’s ever gotten from Shaker Heights is the four years she spent studying journalism at Denison University, located a 2.5 hour drive to the northeast. She met her future husband, Mr. Bill Richardson (referred to as Mr. Richardson in the book), on their second day of classes. By the end of the month, they were in a committed relationship and had made plans for their future together. They married after graduation, and moved into a house of their own in Shaker Heights. Mrs. Richardson got a job as a junior reporter at the local paper, Mr. Richardson started law school, and in the following years they had four children: Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Isabel (Izzy). The only wrinkle in Mrs. Richardson’s life thus far was the difficult pregnancy she had experienced with her youngest daughter, and Izzy’s resulting premature birth. Although Izzy ended up being fine with no long-lasting issues, Mrs. Richardson had by then developed her life-long habit of scrutinizing her daughter for “signs of weakness or disaster.” Mrs. Richardson’s fear later transitioned into anger, then resentment. The trauma of this near-tragedy, and the lack of control that Mrs. Richardson had over it, made her more critical and controlling of Izzy than she was of her other children. Lexie and Trip pick up on their mother’s frustration with Izzy, and mimic it by treating her as if “she’s a dog that might go rabid at any minute.” Izzy, understandably, chafes under this severe attention. She seems to have been born to push her mother’s buttons, and resists any efforts Mrs. Nicholson makes to try and control her behaviour. Izzy is also a passionate advocate for others, and often takes it upon herself to revenge those she feels have been unfairly treated. Thankfully, she is not entirely alone in the household: she gets along better with her brother, Moody, and her father, who admires her spirit. In spite of this tension, the Richardsons appear to be the perfect Shaker Heights family. They’re rich, popular, respected, and well-connected. Which makes it all the more surprising when, one quiet Saturday morning in May 1998, Izzy burns their house down.
The first spark of this conflagration flickered into being eleven months prior, in June 1997, when a new set of tenants moved into the Richardson’s rental property on Winslow Road. Mrs. Richardson’s parents had bought the duplex as an investment property a long time ago, and used its rental income to help support Mrs. Richardson through college and the early years of her marriage. Mrs. Richardson inherited the property after the death of her parents, and its income has since become supplementary rather than necessary to the Richardson family finances. As a result, Mrs. Richardson has adopted a charitable approach when it comes to renting the two suites. She keeps the rent low because she wants to attract the right kind of tenants, “people she feels are deserving but who had, for one reason or another, not quite gotten a fair shot in life. It pleased her to make up the difference.” It was thanks to this act of generosity that her long-term downstairs tenant, Mr. Yan, an immigrant from Hong Kong who worked as a bus driver and a handyman, had the opportunity to live in a nice neighbourhood that he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. He was a “kind person to whom she could do a kind turn, and who would appreciate her kindness.” So far, Mrs. Richardson has not had the same luck finding an appropriate upstairs tenant. When she meets Mia Warren5 and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl, she feels like she has found the perfect opportunity to help someone deserving, and approves their rental application.
Shaker Heights is unlike anywhere Mia and Pearl have ever lived, and they themselves are very different from the people who typically live there. There are many new rules the Warrens have to learn about what they can and cannot do, and still more that they remain unaware of for a long time. The community’s obsession with appearance is an example, beginning with the design of the duplex. Every house on Winslow Road was designed to hold two families, but from the outside they all look to contain only one. There is one front door, one mailbox, and one house number. The separate entrances to the two units, one upstairs and one downstairs, are hidden behind the front door. This is one of the many afore-mentioned “Shaker Standards,” supposedly implemented to help residents avoid the stigma of living in a shared rental property. There is no shortage of similar regulations that strive to delineate proper Shaker residential etiquette, such as: the placement of garbage for collection day (never on the front curb, but concealed in the back yard where it is fetched by a golf cart and brought to the waiting truck); the height of one’s lawn (fines are issued if it’s not kept below a crisply-mown six inches); and the style of one’s house (one of three are permitted: English, Tudor, or French, with corresponding restrictions on their allowable paint colours). Mia and Pearl’s existence, which has up until now been entirely nomadic and unpredictable, could not be more different from the deliberate nature that defines their new community. They have lived in 46 different towns since Pearl was born, keeping their possessions limited to what they can move in their Volkswagen Beatle. Mia’s strategy has always been based on her strict refusal to get attached: not to a place, not to an apartment, not to anything. She works odd jobs to make ends meet, but her true calling is as an experimental photographer. Her art is as transitory as her lifestyle: she only ever takes one series of photos of her projects; no reprints. Mia and Pearl stay in one town only long enough for Mia to complete a single project. Once she has finished and sent her prints to her art dealer in New York, it’s time for them to move on; they don’t even bother to leave a forwarding address.
But Shaker Heights is different. This time, they’re staying put. That’s because, in the spring of 1997, Pearl became so ill with pneumonia that she had to be hospitalized. This led to Mia reevaluating the isolated, lonely life her daughter has experienced so far, and she decided that Pearl deserved more. Pearl deserves a good school—Shaker Heights is said to have the best in Cleveland—and friends. Friends like Moody Richardson, not yet 16 years old, who meets Mia and Pearl as they are moving in. Moody is fascinated by how different the Warrens are from everyone he has known before. Their furniture is sourced from distant neighbourhoods where people are allowed to put their discarded belongings on the curb. They use coupons, own a hammer, and do their own handiwork. He is stunned when Pearl confesses that not only is this the first time she’s had her own bedroom, but it’s also the first time she and her mom have ever had their own house (he’s tempted to point out that technically it’s only half of a house, but thankfully doesn’t). Growing up the way he did, Moody “could almost not believe that people could be so poor.” However, Moody is more curious and open-hearted than he is snobbish, and soon he and Pearl are inseparable. Nearly two months later, at the end of July, Moody decides to introduce Pearl to the rest of his family.
Moody comes to regret this later, as he had sensed deep down that, by doing so, “somehow it would change everything, the way in fairy tales magic was spoiled if you shared the secret.” Pearl quickly falls under the spell of the rest of the Richardson family. How could she not? It had always been just her and her mother. For Pearl, the greatest wealth the Richardsons possess is the sureness they all seem to have about themselves, and their ease with their place in the world. There is also an abundance of family members, two parents and four siblings! Brothers and sisters to spare! And they are all so nice. Lexie, about to enter her senior year of high school, is warm, popular, and bright; Trip, a junior, is sporty, handsome, and charming; Moody, a fellow sophomore, is artistic and musical; Izzy, a freshman, is rebellious and principled. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson welcome Pearl readily into their fold, encouraging her to feel as readily at home as any of their children. For someone raised not to form attachments, it is an entirely different way of being. However, before long, Moody begins to feel resentful about the time Pearl spends with the rest of his family, particularly Lexie and Trip. Mia, too, begins to worry about the influence this new family has on her daughter—especially when she discovers that Pearl helped Lexie cheat on a college application, and after Pearl comes home late from a party smelling of weed and alcohol. So when Mrs. Richardson suggests that Mia could come over a few times a week to clean their house and nightly to cook dinner, Mia agrees. She’s been managing well enough with her part-time job at a local Chinese restaurant, but this would give her an opportunity to keep an eye on her daughter. And so that first spark builds into a small flame.
Pearl is unhappy about what she perceives to be her mother’s unnecessary intrusion into her life with the Richardson family. Izzy, surprisingly, is far more receptive to Mia’s presence. When Izzy gets suspended from school for disrespecting a teacher, she finds herself telling Mia why she behaved the way she did. Instead of lecturing or criticizing her, Mia does something surprising: she asks Izzy, “What are you going to do about it?” For Izzy, having an adult look her straight in the eye and grant her a sense of agency is moving and powerful. “Until now, her life had been one of mute, futile fury,” Ng writes. “The very idea that she could do something stunned her. In those words she heard a permission to do what she’d always been told not to: to take matters into her own hands, to make trouble.” This is a dangerous seed to plant in a community like Shaker Heights, and in a family that has Mrs. Richardson at the helm. Izzy latches onto Mia, recognizing in her “a kindred spirit, a similar subversive spark to the one she often felt flaring inside her.” She insists that Mia take her on as an unpaid assistant, so she can learn more about her work as an artist. Mia doesn’t need the help but she recognizes Izzy’s hunger for mentorship, and so she accepts the offer.
In this way, the lives of Mia and Pearl become increasingly intertwined with those of the Richardson family. This itself would be fertile enough ground for conflict. But what could have been left to slowly simmer is cranked up to a full boil when the Warrens and Richardsons end up on opposing ends of a local family’s custody dispute. Mrs. Richardson finds herself wanting to play dirty, and decides to dig into Mia’s past. For a woman who prides herself on her straight moral compass and generosity of spirit, it is a surprisingly selfish act. Still, she finds a way to justify it to herself. Lexie and Moody will commit similar transgressions in their friendship with Mia, all of which have far-reaching consequences. As the judge hands down their final decision in the custody case, the residents of Shaker Heights reach their breaking point. Little fires have been set everywhere, and they are ready to burn everything to the ground.
This is an addictive, absorbing novel. The characters and their back stories are so vividly drawn that I feel like they could be real, that they are people I actually know. And that’s exactly the point. This story deftly explores what happens when regular, everyday people—the ones who might otherwise expect that they would do the right thing in a difficult circumstance—choose instead to hurt others for their own gain. It’s a very timely issue to consider. That this fictional novel is set in the very real city of Shaker Heights, which was itself founded on the premise that all you needed to create a perfect community was to plan for it, is particularly poignant.
Does it feel like I cheated my Top 10 a little bit, by having multiples? If so, here are a bonus 3 to make up for it. No write-ups, though, because the length of this post is already ridiculous.
11. The German Heiress, Anika Scott
12. The Royal We, Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan
13. Open Book, Jessica Simpson with Kevin Carr O’Leary
Tana French Special Category
The other 6 books I read by Tana French were also good, so I am going to include them here as a separate cluster ranked according to how much I liked them.
14. The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad #5)
15. The Searcher (standalone, published 2020)
16. Faithful Place (DMS #3)
17. The Wych Elm (standalone, published 2018)
18. Broken Harbour (DMS #4)
19. The Trespasser (DMS #6)
- The book was somewhat immersive and very entertaining.
- I was able to put the book down, but I still looked forward to picking it up again soon.
- I would be excited if I heard a friend had read it, but I might not otherwise bring it up in conversation.
20. The Daughters of Foxcote Manor, Eve Chase
21. Black Rabbit Hall, Eve Chase
22. Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
23. The World That We Know, Alice Hoffman
24. All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
25. The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck
26. The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
27. The Girl From the Savoy, Hazel Gaynor
28. The Mistress of Paris: the 19th Century Courtesan Who Built An Empire On A Secret, Catherine Hewitt
29. The Splendid & The Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz; Erik Larson
30. Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany, Marthe Cohn with Wendy Holden
31. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed By Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold
32. Nordic Tales: Folktales from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark. Illustrations by Ulla Thynell.
- I enjoyed many parts of the book.
- I would suggest the book to a friend who expressed interest in the subject or author.
33. The Heir Affair, Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan
34. The Herd, Andrea Bartz
35. Finding Freedom: Harry & Meghan & the Making of A Modern Royal Family, Omid Scobie & Carolyn Durand
36. The Meaning of Mariah Carey, Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis
37. Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid
38. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra
39. The Women Who Spied for Britain: Female Secret Agents of the Second World War, Robyn Walker
- I found the book mildly entertaining, and an acceptable way to pass the time.
- The book had some interesting parts, but I might not bother recommending it to a friend.
40. Red, White & Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston
41-43. The Falconer Series, Elizabeth May: The Falconer; The Vanishing Throne; The Fallen Kingdom
44. A Killer in King’s Cove, A Lane Winslow Mystery, Iona Whishaw
45. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
46. The Duke and I, Julia Quinn
47. The Viscount Who Loved Me, Julia Quinn
The following books were still okay but, for various reasons, I had expected to enjoy them more than I did. As a result, I was a little disappointed in them.
48. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed—Beautifully written, but a victim of my poor timing. Too stressful to read and properly enjoy in the state of mind I had at the time.
49. The Brideship Wife, Leslie Howard—I picked up this book because I thought it was going to be set in Victoria in the mid-19th century. Maybe all of 3 chapters took place there! So a victim of my poorly directed expectations.
50. Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze-Age to Silver Screen, Greg Jenner
51. Night Stages, Jane Urquhart—I thought this was going to be a book about a female pilot in WWII. This was indeed the character’s background, but the book was set many years after the war had ended, and didn’t include any of her war-time adventures.
52. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, Bess Kalb
53. The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age America; Karen Abbott
54. Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works and Why It Matters, Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding—Interesting topic, but I had already enjoyed most of the material in its original form as a podcast.
Books I Had A Hard Time Getting Through
55. The Dutch Wife, Ellen Keith—Well written, challenging subject matter, but also a victim of my poor timing as I was not up to handling it at the time I read it.
56. Luster, Raven Leilani
57. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Samantha Irby
58. Rodham, Cutis Sittenfeld
59. The Other Story, Tatiana de Rosnay—I hated this book so much, and it was the first one I read in 2020! Sometimes the problem with having an unlikeable narrator is that it makes the rest of the book unlikeable as well.
Historical Research Books
I have these titles listed separately because the quality of a good research book is not the same as its readability. However, I have ranked the books somewhat in order of preference.
60. The Gorge of Summers Gone, Denis Minaker
61. Unrepentant Madam: Stella, Linda J. Eversole
62. City in Colour: Rediscovered Stories of Victoria’s Multicultural Past, Mary Wong
63. More English Than the English: Terry Reksten
64. Glorious Victorian Homes: 150 Years of Architectural History in British Columbia’s Capital, Nick Russell
65. Victoria: A History in Photographs, Peter Grant
66. Upstarts & Outcasts: Victoria’s Not So Proper Past, Valerie Green
67. Wish You Were Here: Life on Vancouver Island in Historical Postcards, Peter Grant
68. Henry & Self: The Private Life of Sarah Crease (1826-1922), Kathryn Bridge.
69. Emily, July Lawson
70. A Day of Signs and Wonders: Kit Pearson
71. Sensational Victoria: Bright Lights, Red Lights, Murders, Ghosts & Gardens; Eve Lazarus
72. If These Walls Could Talk: Victoria’s Houses From the Past, Valerie Green
73. The Olden Days Locket, Penny Chamberlain
74. Shack Island Summer, Penny Chamberlain
75. Everything Vancouver Island: Peter Grant
76. Vancouver Island Book of Musts, Peter Grant
That’s it for 2020! (Except for the footnotes). Thank you for reading my post! Did you read any of the same books as me? Did any of them make your top 10 list? Let me know if you came across any exceptionally good books this last year—I’m always open to recommendations.
1 At the beginning of 2020 (pre-pandemic), I found one of the quotes from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic resonating with me more than ever: “Fear is boring. It’s a song with one note, with one word only, STOP! Fear never has anything interesting or subtle to offer. It never changes, never delights, never offers anything. It makes predictably boring decisions… It will never know love or jealousy or triumph.”
2 Another quote from Big Magic that I appreciate is: “You are not required to save the world with your creativity… Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help other people, I always think, Oh, please don’t. Please don’t try to help me. We will feel the weight of your heavy intention. I would so much rather you wrote a book to entertain yourself than to help me. Or to save yourself or relieve yourself of a burden. Don’t try to save or relieve us.”
Some quotes that I like from City of Girls:
“After a certain age, we are all walking around this world in bodies made of secrets and shame and sorrow and old, unhealed injuries. Our hearts grow sore and misshapen around all this pain—yet somehow, still, we carry on.”
“At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.”
“It’s not fair, but it’s what happened. It’s just the way things are, and it means nothing.”
3 Edna Parker Watson’s character in City of Girls is inspired by the life of Katharine Cornell, an American stage actress, writer, theater owner, and producer. Look her up! She’s fascinating! My favourite story is about the time in 1933 that Cornell and the rest of her theatre company, due to rain and washed out roads, showed up late for a performance in Seattle at 11:30 pm. Surprisingly, the sold-out crowd of 1,200 was still waiting for them! Normally, it takes the crew 6 hours to set up the stage. The audience waited and watched, with the curtain raised as per Cornell’s insistence, while all of this was done, remarkably, in an hour. At 1:00 am, the play finally began. Cornell’s biographer, Tad Mosel, states: “The audience had paid the actors the supreme compliment of having the faith to wait for them, and the actors responded with the kind of performance actors wish they could give every day of their lives. When the final curtain fell at 4:00 am, they received more curtain calls than they ever had.” Live theatre—there really is nothing like it.
4 Shaker Heights is a real city located about 13 kms (8 miles) southeast of downtown Cleveland. The author, Celeste Ng, lived there from the time she was nine years old until she left for college. She was a high school student in the time period that the novel was set, from 1997-1998, similar to her young characters. The city gets its name from the religious group that once owned the land upon which it is situated, the North Union Community of the Society of Believers, better known as the “Shaking Quakers” or the “Shakers” because of their “ecstatic behaviour during church services.”
5 In the novel, Mia and Pearl’s ethnicities are not defined. In the television adaptation, which I have not yet seen, these two characters are black women. The author, Celeste Ng, who is Asian American, mentioned in an Atlantic article that she had thought of Mia and Pearl as women of colour, but didn’t feel like she was the “right person to bring a black woman’s experience to the page.” From this article, it sounds like the television show furthers the contrast between the Richardson and Warren families by bringing race into the picture. The article also indicates that the showrunner and the writers took great care with how they did that. I am looking forward to watching the show (maybe when I’m finally done writing this blog post?) and seeing (hopefully) how much richer the character dynamics are with this update.