“The Margot Affair” by Sanae Lemoine

This is a book cover for The Margot Affair

In times like this, I think for me reading helps keeps me sane and my mind open. And, it’s a brief mental respite. You know how in Mary Poppins, Mary, the kids+Bert jumped into the chalk sidewalk painting and were immersed in another world? That’s the sensation I felt reading The Margot Affair – from the first page I felt like I lived inside the character’s world. It comes out next week but I was lucky emough to snag an ARC from #netgalley. Sanae Lemoine paints just beautiful word pictures – you can practically hear the clinking of spoons hitting saucers at an outdoor cafe and smell the baguettes baking on the Parisian streets where the titular character, teenage Margot, lives with her Mom, famed stage actress Anouk. The story of Margot, the illegitimate daughter of Anouk and a rising French politician (married) and the fall out of what happens when Margot takes extreme action to expose herself to the public and finally get recognized as his second family and to prove she and her mother were the one he loved the best. It’s a touching story, and the underlying theme of someone feeling invisible and urgently needing to be heard and seen weren’t lost on me right now. I also really loved the descriptions of Paris landmarks, the food…everything really comes to life almost as if you’re there. Almost. I loved this book and can’t wait to read the author’s second book. It left me crazing more – and craving fresh French bread with creamy real butter and homemade pear jam. 

“With or Without You: A Novel” by Caroline Leavitt

This is a book cover for With Or Without You

You’ve probably seen those Dateline or 20/20 stories about people who wake from a coma with a talent they never had pre-coma, like speaking fluent French, playing the trombone or juggling. That “wake up,” both literal and figurative, is the set up for Caroline Leavitt’s With or Without You. Following the success of Cruel Beautiful World (which I loved!), this novel details the way in which a coma upends the lives of its main characters. (Life taking an unexpected, unwanted, 180-degree turn sounds kinda familiar right about now, huh?)

The story begins in the living room of longtime couple Stella and Simon, who are in the midst of a late night argument. Stella is a responsible nurse, while Simon is a languid rock musician whose star has dimmed considerably since they’ve been together. It’s the eve of Simon’s departure for a possible comeback tour, and they’re revisiting a recurring subject. After 20 years as a couple, Stella is ready to settle down and have kids, but Simon wants to stay untethered to keep chasing his music dreams. They fight. They drink. Pills are introduced … and Stella’s in a coma by morning.

The rest of the story unfolds from the point of view of several characters including Simon, who’s experiencing a real role reversal having to take care of Stella; Stella’s estranged mother, who is not Simon’s biggest fan; Stella’s doctor/best friend, also in the anti-Simon camp; and Stella herself. As Stella remains comatose, life still moves forward and her “absence” and subsequent “awakening” bring about major changes, creating a domino effect that touches all of her relationships.

Leavitt’s skill as a story teller made me feel like I was right there in the middle of their little circle, both cheering for and jeering against the decisions the characters make along the way. To be so engrossed in a book you can actually picture yourself in it is a rare treat.

THE FINAL WORD: With or Without You is gorgeously constructed, full of multifaceted, nuanced characters and presented with unwavering honesty. And the book’s premise of learning to accept major life changes, especially the kind that are forced upon you, is something we can all relate to in 2020. Basically, your summer reading list is not complete without this book.

* I was invited to participate in With Or Without You’s blog tour by Algonquin Books. The book is available beginning Aug. 4, 2020.

“Hieroglyphics” by Jill McCorkle

Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle is a beautifully told story that intertwines the narratives of four characters: Lil and Frank, an elderly married couple; and Shelley, a young and recently abandoned single mom, and her quirky son. They are linked by a house that was once Frank’s childhood home and is now home to Shelley and her son. Its Frank obsession with nostalgia that drives his desire to return to the North Carolina town where he grew up—more specifically, that house. Or at least, that’s what McCorkle wants us to believe.

The idea of revisiting meaningful places from one’s childhood struck a chord with me immediately. I’d give anything to go back to my late grandmother’s house in Chattanooga, Tenn. I can still picture each room perfectly—and in my mind, it’s the same today as it was in the ’80s.

After establishing the house as what links the main characters, the story travels back and forth through decades, ping-ponging between pivotal events in each of their lives, while slowly unearthing experiences of profound loss, stunning betrayal, family dysfunction, discovery, redemption, love and acceptance. If it sounds like it could be confusing or difficult to follow, it isn’t, as the author moves between narratives seamlessly. Admittedly, I found myself more invested in one character’s story over another’s and wanting to stay with their storyline a bit longer, but in the end, the balance works in a way that only a masterful writer, like McCorkle, could pull off.

One of the main takeaways I got from this wonderful book is something I think is super relevant right now: Every single person is dealing with things you have no idea about. Think about the old man sitting next to you at the doctor’s office, the elderly woman in the car behind you at a stop light, the young mom listlessly dropping items in her grocery cart, the boy you passed on the on the sidewalk using a towel as a Superman cape. Just like you, every one of them has a story, a turning point, a weight they carry on their shoulders, a life incident that shapes who they are and the paths they ultimately take in life.

THE FINAL WORD: I loved going into the “cave” with McCorkle and seeing how she “translates” the characters for us lucky readers. Her unique literary light shines on every page, making Hieroglyphics a book I’d highly recommend.