I’ll be talking about four books today; IN MIKE WE TRUST by P.E.Ryan; HOME BY NIGHTFALL by Charles Finch; THE WOMAN IN CABIN TEN by Ruth Ware; and my favorite of this post, the very good THE NIX by Nathan Hill. You can click on any of the titles in red below to be taken to either the publisher’s page or the author’s page for the books. Enjoy.
After having reveled in the glories of Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts, I worried the next author I read would be at an unfair disadvantage. So, what did I do? Followed up with Mr. Ryan’s — this time writing as P.E.Ryan — young adult novel, In Mike We Trust.
15-year-old Garth and his emotionally and financially stressed Mom are adjusting to a smaller life when the identical twin of Garth’s deceased father, Mike, a sort of prodigal brother/mysterious black sheep, arrives on the scene. Garth has recently come out as Gay to his best friend, Lisa, and to his Mom, the latter of whom wishes him to keep it quiet until he’s older, refusing even to discuss it with him. Mike shakes up the fearfully circumscribed world in which Garth and his Mom have mourned themselves into in ways that alarm Garth’s Mom, Lisa, and finally, Garth himself who is also falling for Lisa’s friend, Adam, further complicating matters.
This is a very fast read (with a slow-ish start) and, like I said, after The Dream Life of Astronauts, nothing stood a chance with me. I liked this well enough but something about Mike felt unfinished to me, as if the author meant him to be more, or to go in a different direction originally, but was convinced not to. In general, the characters and the story felt underdeveloped and too plotted and planned at the same time, unlike Astronauts, which was full of surprises and breathtaking realities, this felt predictable and not really from the truth of a heart.
I have read only one other in this series, a much earlier installment. The aristocratic Mr. Lenox, in 1876 London, having left Parliament, is partner in a detective agency. What I love about these novels is that you can pick up any in the series and it stands on its own, although I imagine having the entire backstory would enrich the experience. Too, I am a sucker for 19th century London tales. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, I just am. And, finally, the crimes may be awful but never grossly, sensationalized as are too many detective procedurals placed in modern times. I enjoyed it. While the Lenox series is not one for which I await and snap up the next installment as soon as it is printed, I always enjoy them when I do find one in my TBR pile.
I did not read Ruth Ware’s much acclaimed In A Dark, Dark Wood, so this is my first adventure with her writing. Travel writer on a ship; history of mental illness; thinks she sees a murder; nefarious goings on. Everyone thinks she’s crazy. Or drunk. Twists. Turns. All of which I saw coming from miles away. I must say, I thought this was slapdash. I can appreciate a mystery/thriller full of tropes, but, it needs to distinguish itself somehow, with brilliant literary quality or characters about whom you really care, and, for me, this just didn’t have anything to make it special. I think I’m suffering from an overdose of girl-on-a-train-itis.
I was wary of picking this up. Reasons: 1) It’s buzzy and I’ve been burned (a lot, of late) by buzzy books, those much recommended, literati-loved hot reads. 2) 628 pages. Again, the long books I have picked up of late have been less than compelling, all having seemed to me in need of trimming. In fact, the last two 400+ page books I started, I put aside, unwilling to devote that much of my time and energy to them after the first 100 not fascinating pages.
So, at the risk of being part of a buzzfest — The Nix was worthy of all 628 of its pages.
It begins with what appears to be an attack on a soon-to-be presidential candidate of obsequiously conservative stripe by a supposed sixties radical/criminal; one of our main characters, Faye, mother of our other main character, Samuel. She left him, decades earlier, with nary a thought as to his happiness. Or, so it seems, but like almost everything else in this wonderfully structured debut novel, it’s quite a bit more complicated than it at first appears.
In deftly handled time-leaps and alternating close-third points of view, the narrative flies, full of fascinating, well-limned characters in situations seesawing from laugh out loud funny to weepy sad, and while credibility is sometimes strained and stretched, it always feels grounded and done in a purposeful way.
Some reviewers have called this a satire on the sanctimonious times in which we live; maybe,there is this quote from Samuel’s literary agent, Periwinkle (who is much more than an agent but, read it):
“We’ve tested this. Your mom has huge crossover appeal. This is rare and usually unpredictable, the thing that pops out of culture and becomes universal. Everyone sees what they want to see in your mom, everyone gets to be offended in their own special way. Your mother’s story allows people of any political stripe to say ‘Shame on you,’ which is just delicious these days. It’s no secret that the great American pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.”
But I think to call the novel satire is reductive and misleading. I found the novel to be profoundly insightful into the ways in which we love and fear and fail and struggle and, mostly, misunderstand ourselves and others along the way, so busy are we sticking to and/or longing for the script we have in our head to come true, we miss the life we might be living. That is a difficult thing to capture, and Mr. Hill has managed brilliantly to do so.
Another theme, stated in various ways throughout the book, is this, early on: “The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst.” Stated again later in the novel: “Why do the best things in life leave such deep scars?” This concept explored along with the journey of self discovery, as in:
“What Faye won’t understand and may never understand us that there is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones. … Will she ever understand this? Who knows. Seeing ourselves clearly is the project of a lifetime.”
That’s beautiful. And while the underlying philosophy of many of the characters is one of cynicism and calculation, even still, there is this seed of hope, this patina of “well this is how it is, there must be a reason, I’ll keep going.”
I think it was that hint of optimism in the face of a horrifyingly unfair and often painful reality that struck such a chord in me. The world, right now, is horrifyingly unfair and often painful and terrifying, so, I appreciate a little optimism in my novels.
Not to mention humor, pathos, and insightful, moving, skilled literary writing.
Read it. Please. I think you’ll be glad you did.