A Fairytale, An Amazing Story, & A Sad One

I finished three more books! The theme of this trio was “books that start with A” (I can’t be creative all of the time). Book #45 was After Alice by Gregory Maguire (the fairytale); book #46 was Atonement by Ian McEwan (an absolutely amazing one); book #47 was called Angels by Denis Johnson (the sad one).

Honestly, I want to talk about Atonement for this entire post, because that is an amazing book that I regret putting off for so long. But obviously I’ll discuss them all, because that’s tradition and because I love talking (writing) about books.

I loved Wicked a lot but I’ve always been hesitant to read Gregory Maguire’s other books. I don’t really know why, but it may have to do with the fact that I fell hard in love with the Wicked musical soundtrack before I read the book (like… really fell hard in love. I used to act out “Defying Gravity” in my room quite a bit.) Then I saw Wicked in Chicago (shout out to my mom) and cried and the story has always been something more magical for me, probably because of that connection.

But I loved the story of Alice in Wonderland, which I read earlier this year or late last year*, so I figured it would be worth a try. Maguire is known for his retelling of fairy tales. It’s a cool, immersive, alternate-perspective way to think about stories that most of us have probably been hearing for most of our lives. I just don’t know if it worked out in this case.

I didn’t hate the book, I just didn’t love it and wasn’t too disappointed when it was over. I think that the original Alice in Wonderland  is so whimsical and clever, but also so accessible (it was for children, after all) that anything but would have a hard time comparing.

Maguire focuses on the real-world things that were happening around Alice’s family’s home throughout the day she went missing in wonderland. The book follows Ada, the friend that the original Alice mentions briefly in the real Alice in Wonderland. Ada is, unfortunately, kind of a buzzkill. So seeing wonderland through her eyes just wasn’t the same, and really wasn’t that enjoyable for me. There were kind of clever parts, and a bit of word play, but it felt pretty bogged down and slow to me. Again, I didn’t hate it, I just probably won’t reread it.

Atonement, though. Wow. What a beautiful book. It also fits into the “sad” category I mention above, but more than anything else it was beautiful. Ian McEwan can write. And after finishing this book, I went to a bookstore this weekend and had to stop myself from buying like 4 of his other books. I did buy one though, Amesterdam, can’t wait to read it next time I have an “A Books” category. Also, sorry for any *spoilers* below

Atonement is the story of a family living in England as the world is ramping up for World War II. This family, the Tallis family, is living out a blissful, ennui- and tension-filled summer until one fateful night when, after a day full of misinterpretations and assumptions, a girl named Briony accuses a long-time family friend, Robbie, of raping her cousin, Lola.

Briony Tallis was a super interesting character. Infuriating and horrifying, but also interesting. The story begins when she is 13; Briony being on the cusp of womanhood combined with her need for control and her somewhat single-minded and overly-driven desire to be A Writer, and therefore a narrator, cause her to make hasty and damaging accusations about the son of the family’s old gardener.

Robbie belongs to a lower class than the Tallis’ in a time when class shouldn’t have really mattered as much as it had before. Mr. Tallis opted to pay for Robbie’s education, something that Mrs. Tallis apparently harbored resentment for. The oldest Tallis girl, Cecilia, is 23 at this time, home for the summer, and comes to the undeniable realization of her attraction to Robbie.

This sets off a chain of events that ultimately leads to a lot of people’s unhappiness. It’s an incredible book and, as usual, I’m not doing it justice. It’s about passion and love and growing up and regret and forgiveness and mistakes and the irreversible damage we can cause by just being flawed, young, and human. It’s also just as much about war and the pointlessness of fighting. Everyone please read it.

Last but not least: Angels. This was an outlier as far as my book-shopping process usually goes. Normally, I’ve heard of the author/title before I consider getting a book, or I’ve at least seen the cover on the front table of every bookstore during that season. This one, I just sort of picked up. I had never heard of it, had never heard of the author, knew nothing about the story, kind of liked the cover, and thought the quotes made it seem promising.

And it was! I was pleasantly surprised. This book was full of horrible American lives and very unlikable characters. Jamie was a single mom on the run from her abusive husband (that’s not what makes her unlikable, by the way); while traveling on a cross-country Greyhound, she meets a man named Bill Houston. He’s an ex-con who’s been married and divorced three times (also not what makes him unlikable.)

Bill is mean and Jamie is reckless. I don’t necessarily blame either of them, but I always love being confronted with characters who I’m quick to condemn. It forces me to realize my own biases and try and consider their lives from their unique perspectives. I’ve never been an alcoholic robber and I’ve never been an abused wife who feels lukewarm about her children.

Anyway, this story follows the two as they reconnect and recklessly travel across the country, eventually ending up in Arizona with Bill’s family. Bill has two brothers, one of whom is addicted to heroin and another who’s been to jail and travels around assisting a full-time robber. Shenanigans ensue. Jamie has a mental break. Bill is arrested.

I cried very hard at the end, which surprised me. It took a while for me to get into it, but I think this book was a really nice, if bleak and harsh, peek into the underside of America – a place that makes it easy to  hide your mistakes and pretend that bad things don’t really exist if you ignore them hard enough. It came out in the 80’s, too, a time I’m finding myself more and more interested in. Things in the 80’s were weird.

So those were my books! A+ for my A books (I had to.) ◊

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