Kathleen Rooney || Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk

The main theme in Lillian Boxfish is simple: our main character takes a stroll through New York on New Year’s Eve. A remarkable feat given her age, Lillian is almost ninety years of age. Whilst walking she shares her memories of her life.

Lillian is a divorcé with one child, who has moved to the suburbs. Lillian has stuck to the city, to New York. She has moved there when she was a young girl and has built, contrary to expectations, a successful career in advertisement. She turned out to have an exceptional talent for witty clever lines. And for charming poetry.

Whilst walking Lillian remembers her life in advertisement, the love of her life and of all the parties she went to. She also remembers the discrimination of women at work, the sexual innuendo’s, the spite between the women themselves. When Lillian is pregnant, her co-workers are the first to comment on her choice for husband and child. Having lived and advocated a care-free life this unexpected step is frowned upon. At home, Lillian just keeps on working and delivering her lines.

When she grows older Lillian gets more and more set in her ways, she finds change difficult and does no longer fully grasp the world she is living in (end of the eighties of the previous century). One of the most striking scenes in the novel is when she is interviewed on television. She expects to be applauded for being one of the ways who opened doors for younger generations, only to be judged quaint and old-fashioned by the younger women present. She breaks off the interview and leaves the studio with dignity.

Not a lot happens in Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk. The reader looks back on her life and is given new memories in a calm and orderly way. The novel is about the description of an age long gone by and about a main character who impresses and touches you. I thoroughly enjoyed walking along with Lillian.

Lillian

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Julian Barnes ||The Only Story

The Only Story is a love story, describing a love that sets the perimeters for one man’s life without him at first understanding the consequences of falling in love. Casey Paul is a student when he falls in love with Susan Macleod, mother of two daughters his age. By the time the novel ends he has retired and has come to realize what this love affair has caused him.

Paul, nicknamed Casey by Susan, is a young student when he meets and falls in love with Susan. He sees falling in love with her as an act of defiance, of challenging society. He is not the one who will go with the masses and submit to chosing the right girl, picking the right type of job, doing whatever society demands of him. He believes himself to be different, he laughs at the world.

Only after having moved in with Susan he comes to realize grown-up life is not just a laugh. Living and sharing your life with somebody else is a serious business. Especially if the other person fails to live up to expectations. Paul aka Casey sees the love of his life grow more and more dependent on alcohol, he has to adapt his expectations of life. When he decides that loving Susan has become too painful, when he considers himself a burden in her life, he succumbs and becomes the person he has always dreaded becoming: a conformist, someone who does not go for the ultimate but is satisfied with an average result.

In The Only Story we see Paul aka Casey changing from a slightly bragging over-confident young man into a conformist, somebody who has come to accept what life has thrown at him. Barnes takes us along in his life, from young man to pensionado, sharing his inner thoughts about life and love with us. The Only Story wavers between love story, novel and philosophical essay. In those chapters the philosophical aspect is kept to a minimum, the reader is invited to share Paul and Susan’s troubles with them. I thoroughly enjoyed those chapters, despite the fact that they revealed an increasingly tragic story.

The more philosophical chapters were definitely meant to slow read. Sentences and phrases had to be read slowly, sometimes repeating one to grasp its meaning. I must admit that being a daily commute reader The Only Story did not always fit into two times two hours stretches of train. Those are the chapters that should be re-read and re-read in order to appreciate what was being said.

Barnes managers to keep Paul at a distance from us, the readers, all the time. He never lets us close to him. As a result Paul remains a distant character, someone you cannot always sympathize with. Paul becomes one of those persons that leads his or her own life, never bothers anyone but never truly touches anyone. As a reader I was kept at a distance from Paul, he never touched my heart.

I loved The Only Story. I borrowed the novel from the library. I would not be surprised if I find myself buying a copy in order to re-read pages from time to time. The Only Story is not a novel to rush through, it demands attention and slow reading. For that effort you will be rewarded with beautiful phrases and thoughts.

 

Only story

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Melissa Broder || The Pisces

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

What shall I say? What to think of this novel about a woman who comes to realize that she is afraid to commit in a relationship and who, at the end, how American, does finally commit to someone? Some critics found The Pisces hilarious. I must admit that I find it shocking people can laugh at the lives of some seriously disturbed women. I predict a movie adaptation that will focus on the slapstick elements of the novel. I’ll not go and see it.

Main character Lucy has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend. To get over him she moves to California in order to take care of her sister’s house and beloved dog. Having attacked her ex’s new girlfriend she has to join a therapeutical group. It’ll not come as a surprise that the other women in the group all come with their problems. It’ll also not come as a surprise that our main character feels superior to her group members. Anyone any idea what’ll happen?

Lucy discovers Tinder and sleeps with two Tinderdates. She does not enjoy this, she even finds it painful. Still she endures and behaves submissively towards the men. Next she meets, sitting on a rock looking out over the ocean, Theo, who happens to be swimming along in the middle of the night. Mutual love at first sight. A slightly uncommon doomed relationship starts. One Lucy sets life on hold for, neglecting her sister’s sweet little dog.

The relationship with Theo combined with the fact that Lucy’s ex shows an interest again (distance creates attraction) make for a mish-mash of therapeutical thinkings on love, commitment, the grass always being greener on the other side. I more or less felt like I was reading a self-help manual, not a novel. A very serious one as far as I was concerned, I could not see the (intended) fun of it. I suppose Broder by means of slapstick-like exaggeration wanted to put into perspective all those women who think about love and relationship a lot, managing to stay away from serious ones by brooding.

Could be. I know for certain that I could not find any irony in the extent into which Lucy is prepared to help herself to love and sex. It really annoyed me. If The Pisces had not been nominated for the Women’s Prize I would probably not have finished it.

Pisces

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Madeline Miller || Circe

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

Life amongst gods is not easy. You could be part of the wrong crowd, you might not be pleasing enough, you might just be another tool in the games being played. You could also turn out to be more powerful than you give yourself credit for. Enter Circe, daughter of Perse, a empty-headed nymph, and Helios, the Greek sun-god. Upon her birth he immediately proclaims she’ll be of no use: not pretty enough to be married to an important god or human.

Circe is left to her own devices. Slowly discovering that there is more to her than anyone thinks. She has a tendency to care: for gods and humans alike. She craves love and attention. When she falls in love with a human she is desperate for him to become a god and be able to love her eternally. Upon discovering that she can actually transform him into a god and her rival Scylla into a monster her life changes. She is a witch and in a smooth act between striving gods, one of them Helios, she is sent into exile to Aiaia.

Enter Hermes, Daedalus and Odysseus. God and men who’ll play an important part in Circe’s life on Aiaia. She finds herself quite content to live on Aiaia where she is left to her own devices and practices on her witch’s skills. She has occasional sex with Hermes who keeps her informed on life amongst the gods and learns a neat trick: when sailors and warriors start visiting Aiaia, thinking they can rape her, she turns them into pigs. She realizes she differs from her fellow gods when she is forced to leave Aiaia in order to help give birth to her sister’s son, the minotaur.

Daedalus is the one who comes to take her. He becomes her lover, through him she finds she has more consideration for mortals than for her fellow gods. She is sad to leave him when she returns to Aiaia. Many years later Odysseys lands on her shores, history repeats itself: they become lovers. The child of their union will change both their lives.

Greek mythology plays an important part in Circe. Circe’s thoughts and emotions an even greater part. It is clear from the start that she a caring god, she does not willingly hurt creatures, she suffers for the hardships of the humans. On Aiaia, despite being an exiled recluse, she finds herself. This journey into herself is the important theme in Circe. Miller expertly takes us along in Circe’s life, we see Circe change and grow throughout the pages. Her ultimate change, which I will not reveal, you’ll have to find out for yourselves, does not come as a surprise.

Circe is not always a nice god, she has her ups and downs as well. She is probably the only one who realizes that not being able to die has a rather negative effect on character. Her fellow gods are self-centred and do not care about anyone except themselves. Circe from the start is the exception, she grows to accept that the facility to die is an advantage.

Miller turns Circe from a minor god into a strong woman, willing and capable to find her own way. She finds strength in what the other gods consider to be a flaw, it enables her to challenge them when her son requires action. I loved Circe, novel and goddess turned woman. Miller has her character develop in a smooth and natural way. As a reader I can understand what she stands for, what she craves. Circe is not perfect, she is probably the only goddess acknowledging this fact.

Circe is well-written, the story is built up well, Circe’s character development logical. Minor detail that the men in her life remain stereotypes, Circe is woman enough to carry the novel.

Circe

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Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott || Swan Song

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

There was a moment I was about to close Swan Song for ever. I really did not look forward to several hundred pages more of gossip, high society ado about nothing, who is in the picture most, who is about to lose. Fortunately I persevered and was rewarded with gossip turning into the painful description of one man’s downfall. Truman Capote at his most vulnerable.

Swan Song centres on a novel that Truman Capote is about to publish. Pre-publication of a chapter has his best friends in turmoil: he has revealed some of their best known secrets, shared with him during intimate moments between friends. He has crossed the line between things that are meant to remain between friends and literary input. The chapter causes a rift between Capote and two of his lady friends that never closes again. Capote proclaiming not to understand why, only trying to help his best friends by sharing the truth about their husbands.

Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel sometimes reads like the gossip pages in magazines. Capote seemingly having befriended the richest amongst the rich, we see their world through their eyes: holidays on large yachts, everything provided for, luxurious clothes, fine dining, drinks, drugs and alcohol. It is also the world of having to tread carefully everywhere: someone might steal your husband, ruin your reputation before you know it. Capote is the one the women in this world do not need to fear, he has his Jack. They, his swans, the friend they can confide in.

One could almost feel sorry for Capote’s swans: a life in public is not always easy. On the other hand, no one has forced Babe, Slim, Gloria, Marella, CZ, Jackie and Lee to become the wives of very successful and wealthy men. They know what they are in for, they know they have to tread carefully whilst their husbands can do as they please. JFK telling Jackie to spend less time with an Italian industrial whilst at the same time probably sharing his bed with other women himself just one example of the hypocrisy of the time and set.

We are introduced to Capote when he has become an old man; alcohol and drugs have taken their toll. He is an addict, suffering from hallucinations, having lost the majority of his friends and the love of his life, Jack. Life in the limelight might be spectacular, it does have its disadvantages if you are prone to addiction. Capote’s swans seem to understand this better than he himself. Though they also consume large quantities of drugs and alcohol they do seem to know the boundary. Him being born out-of-wedlock, child to a woman who was never made out to be a mother, only one of many reasons for Capote becoming a victim of drugs and alcohol. Slim and Gloria’s background is not that cheerful as well.

After becoming successful Capote throws a party that has people talking for ages: will I be invited? What will it be like? What celebrities will come? Greenberg-Jephcott spends many a page on the preparations for the party and the party itself. I am sorry to say I could have done without them. As I said before, it felt like reading an overdose of gossip. I did like Greenberg-Jephcott switching perspective from swan to swan all the time, bringing the women closer and closer to us. I also liked those chapters in which she painstakingly describes Capote’s downfall. Succumbing to his addiction, no longer knowing what is real or fake, talking to imaginary friends who died ages ago.

In the novel Capote never grows up. Though he is an adult, he remains the child desperately hoping for his mother to pay him attention, desperately hoping for people to like him. Throwing away his friendship by trying to score another bestseller. He is a sad, sad man for a number of reasons. Greenberg-Jephcott referring to him as ‘the boy’ is a sure sign of the child underneath the man.

Did I like Swan Song? Certain parts of it? No. Though I recognize the pages and pages filled with high society are well-written, oozing nervousness through words and the construction of sentences, I just did not find them interesting. I really could have cared less who went with who, left who for whom and was left behind. I definitively preferred those chapters and pages dedicated to the swans, their one-on-one relationship with Truman, their fears and worries, those final chapters portraying a man who has come down so low he no longer recognizes his low.

Greenberg-Jephcott is a pretty good writer, she managed to capture the sphere of fifties and sixties journalism with its exaggerated tone reporting on the happy few. Did I notice the parallel with the unpublished novel? Off course. Still, I wished she would have used that talent to give us more pages on Babe, Slim, Gloria, Lee, Marella and CZ.

Swan

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Lillian Li || The Number One Chinese Restaurant

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

Lillian Li introduces us to the Han family and some of their employees. Central place of action: the Duck House. This traditional Chinese restaurant provides a living for the Hans and their employees. Once a successful place, now it has become one of those places that provide decent food, nothing more nothing less. Younger brother Jimmy runs the restaurant whilst his brother Johnny has taken a teaching job in Hong Kong. Turns out both brothers do not see eye to eye as to the future of the Duck House. Fate intervenes

The Number One is foremost a novel about families, their intricacies, the things outsiders will never get to know. Chinese families living abroad being determined by tradition and loyalty to those who have made a better life outside of China possible, whether by legitimate means or not.

Lillian Li does not give us easy to love characters. Jimmy is too selfish, too whimsical, too prone to make the same mistakes time and time again; Johnny is slightly pedantic, firm in the believe that he is the only one who knows best. Nan is loveable, she does make you wonder though why she puts with son Pat and long-time best friend Jack. Their stories run parallel, Li changing perspective between them, when fate intervenes and burns down the Duck House, providing Jimmy with the chance of starting the restaurant of his dreams. One that serves high-end cooking.

Children Annie, Johnny’s daughter, and Pat, Nan’s son, are the linking pins to both families. Neither family being pleased with their child passing the boundary between owners and employees (or should I say servants …). The love for their own child is the own thing they all share. The Duck House being mere business

Through the character of Uncle Pang Lillian Li the world of extortion and crime is introduced to the Number One Chinese Restaurant. Pang is by no way the benevolent uncle he claims to be, he is Chinese mob and does not hesitate a second in saving his financial interest in the Duck House and its predecessor. He is the one who determines success of failure.

The new restaurant proves that a change of scenery by itself is not enough to completely change lives. The Hans, Nan and Jack find it difficult to change long-time habits, if not careful they’ll repeat previous mistakes and make matters worse. I will not reveal which one of them manages to turn his or her life around and start afresh. The Number One Chinese Restaurant is like the Duck House: it is a pleasant, well-written novel that offers no great surprises. A good read that proves to be quite satisfying.

Chinese

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Sarah Moss || Ghost Wall

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

Ghost Wall starts intriguingly: we witness an execution ages ago. Later on it becomes clear that the execution was in fact a ceremonial sacrifice. One of those we are reminded off by corpses found in the bog.

Next Moss switches to the here and now: a group of people re-enacting life in the stone age in a national park, with lots and lots of bogs. A professor and his students are trying to lead the life of people who had to hunt and gather in order to survive. They are joined by a bus driver, and his family. He turns out to be the most fanatic, making his wife and young daughter undergo realistic hardships and agonies.

Sylvie, the adolescent daughter, is the person giving an account of what happens next. Slowly revealing the nastier side of her father. Also revealing that something intended as fun can have serious consequences. At some point the novel reminds one of predecessors such as Lord of the Flies. What happens when a group of people is left to take care of itself? Will they forget civilization and common decency? Since I really liked Ghost Wall I leave it to future readers to discover for themselves.

Though Ghost Wall is a short novel, Moss manages to paint a complex picture. We are given insights into possible prehistoric thinking, into the mind of an adolescent desperate to escape her restrictive, violent environment, into the difference between people accepting their fate and those protesting. Sylvie starting to trust student Molly turns out to be a turning point in her life. Molly helps her in a way her own mother is (made) incapable of.

Sylvie’s father is a self-taught expert on prehistoric life. He has read an enormous amount of publications, has practised gathering whilst roaming national parks. Taking daughter Sylvie with him. Affording her an opportunity on the one hand, restricting her enormously on the other hand. One suffers with her, one suffers for her upon realizing she does not have the tools to escape from her world. As far as she can see her only option is running away from home. Meeting the students acquaints her with a different world, different options. Her ineffective, helpless mother is no longer the one to follow.

Apart from the intriguing content Moss is also a more than capable writer. She has constructed her novel well, writes beautifully. Her imagery has you walk in a national park yourself. You can almost feel, smell and taste the re-enacters camping site.

Towards the end things escalate, you’ll have to read Ghost Wall yourselves in order to discover who is about to be sacrificed, who is the one ending madness. I loved Ghost Wall. I would have finished it in one go if not … Definitely one to read.

Ghost

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Valeria Luiselli || Lost Children Archive

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

Luiselli has written a complex novel about an actual topic: children being denied access to the States, being separated from parents and family. In combining different perspectives, poetry and story lines she has succeeded in making Lost Children Archive factual and personal at the same time. Luiselli herself refers to her novel as a dialogue of texts, references to sources are interlinear markers (her words, not mine).

Main characters are a couple and their children. They meet working on the soundscapes of New York, join their families and start drifting apart when they have finished recording the languages heard in New York. He decides to investigate sounds related to the last Apache chiefs, she is looking for two Mexican girls, lost on their way to the States. They set off on a road trip through hard-core Trump country, both realizing though not as yet acknowledging their marriage is falling apart. Husband, wife and children carry with them boxes containing relevant documents. Those boxes will play an important part in Lost Children Archive.

At first the perspective is that of the wife. She accounts her side of the relationship falling apart, her husband searching for something she cannot fathom. She describes her impression of red-neck America, the country of Trump voters who distrust strangers. We share her feelings of anxiety and concern for her marriage, their children and the lost children, innocent victims of a political battle. One of the boxes contains an elegy of lost children, which allows Luiselli to switch to the perspective of the unknown narrator who presents us with the story of young children finding their way to the States. This harsh tale adopts elements of myth and folklore.

Whilst the family travels on we get drawn into the tale of the lost children, no longer certain whether the two Mexican girls are an actual part of the elegy of are woven into it. Halfway through the novel another switch of perspective occurs: his son takes over. This change of perspective introduces the point of view of a young child, adding the opportunity to personalize the story. When the young boy and his even younger step-sister set out to find the Mexican girls the anxiety, the concern are no longer for anonymous children. The lost children become known to the readers, they are given a face. They are no longer something you read about in the newspaper.

At a certain point it is no longer clear whether we are reading a realistic tale or a dream sequence. Luiselli has mixed up fact, myth and dream. Her use of lines from songs, poetry and novels adds further complexity. Story lines are combined to form new story lines. At some point in the novel I felt realism was taking over too much, only to be surprised by the personal perspective of the young boy.

Lost Children Archive is a complex novel. Its complexity however serves a purpose, its not the novel’s goal. The many layers Luiselli expertly intertwines make for a novel that is factual, personal and dreamlike at the same time. I loved the complexity, I loved the fact that Luiselli made it clear that your child can just as easily become a lost child. Chilling and warming at the same time.

Lost

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Oyinkan Braithwaite || My Sister, the Serial Killer

womens-prize-for-fiction 2019
Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

Korede is a very efficient nurse on the verge of being promoted, smitten with the ever so handsome doctor she works for. Her feelings are unrequited. Not that strange if you take into account that she considers herself ugly and unattractive. The story is told from her perspective only, we will never know whether she is too strict on herself. Comparing herself to her gorgeous younger sister.

Ayoola is a beauty who lives for clothes, partying, friends and her social network. She has a major issue though: she has already killed three lovers with a big big knife. Big sister Korede helps her clean up the mess and stay out of the hands of justice. At first I felt surprised: why would Korede help a sister who does not help her sibling in any way. Korede is the only one doing the supporting. Their mother expects this from her oldest daughter, she scolds her when she does jump to the rescue of Ayoola straight away. In the meantime pointing out to Korede that she is the ugly one in the family.

Then Ayoola meets the love of Korede’s life, the ever so handsome doctor. She has done her utmost to avoid this meeting since she realizes he is likely to become the next victim. She cannot prevent it from happening however and as expected, he falls head over heels in love with Ayoola. Even asking her to marry him. Next Braithwaite has the story take an unexpected turn which I shall not share with you.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is definitely not just a thriller. Braithwaite reveals elements of the youth of both sisters step by step, major trauma has affected both sisters. Korede being a workaholic, Ayoola chasing men no longer surprises. Braithwaite gives us new facts in carefully considered small doses, sticking to Korede’s perspective makes that we are given only one point of view.

Korede is a professional, though not necessarily a nice person. She does not seem to get human relationships, she scolds her co-workers and is definitely not one for co-operation. She has only one confidante: a patient in a coma. She confides in him and tells him everything: about her insecurities the murders her sister has committed. When he wakes up she lives in constant fear of him remembering and telling. Though it becomes quite apparent to the reader the man is not exactly a nice person, Korede is incapable of justly translating the way he treats his family.

Ayoola is shallow, she is the only person she is interested in. She does not care for the rest of the world, including her sister. One wonders why she has such power over her older sister. She is nasty to Korede all the time, she takes advantage of her all the time. Braithwaite unravels the motives of both sisters step by step, showing the complicated world they live in. Their lives are based on a traumatic youth determining all of their actions. Keeping them prisoners in a destructive vicious circle.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short novel, almost morbid. Braithwaite has used the murders to unravel the sisters’ complex relationship and personalities. Despite the title My Sister, the Serial Killer is about the psychology of trauma not about solving a crime. Braithwaite has delivered a short though complex novel that convinces from the start and has us discover the truth about two sisters caught in a complex relationship.

Serial

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Tayari Jones || An American Marriage

womens-prize-for-fiction 2019
Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

I’ve got a problem with An American Marriage. The novel is well-written, leaves no doubt as to the fallibility of the American justice system when it comes to Afro-Americans, at the same time showing their opportunities in life. A nice balance. My problem lies with the main characters and their rather forced correspondence when he ends up in jail.

Roy and Celestial meet and become a dream couple. He is building up a nice career in business, she is an artist constructing beautiful dolls. He coming from a small village, she from big city Atlanta, he being raised in a lower middle class family, she not being denied anything in her youth does not make a difference to them. They are happy. Until he is falsely accused of rape and ends up in jail. Their marriage turns out to be less stable than they believed it to be.

Jones changes perspective expertly. She has Roy, Celestial and would-be lover Dre do the talking, she has Roy and Celestial communicate through letters one entire chapter. The variety makes for a more layered novel. Unexpected occurrences add to those layers. It is missing in Roy and Celestial themselves. He is a slightly cocky young man who feels he is entitled to a better life, she daddy’s little princess who cries for help whenever something bad happens.

Do I mind Celestial not being prepared to wait ten years for Roy to leave jail? No, not really. Do I mind her not telling this face to face? Yes, actually. Do I mind Roy clinging to the hope that Celestial will return to him? No, his circumstances allow for that. Do I mind him turning into a kind of stalker? Yes, I do.

There is absolutely no doubt Roy has been screwed by the justice system. He is convicted for a crime he obviously did not commit. The description of his life in jail is to the point in its social structure and dangers. The parallel with Celestial who is becoming more and more successful as an artist painful. Their correspondence is a nice touch, I found it to be too constructed, not flowing in a natural way.

Jones has given her novel the title An American Marriage. What am I to conclude? That modern American couples are slightly spoilt and immature? That a modern American marriage cannot cope with setbacks? Did I hope the two main characters would face their troubles with more dignity? I suppose so, yes. I am afraid I should have focussed on the terrible injustice brought on Roy and Celestial, Oprah probably did. I could not get past the fact that Roy and Celestial are too much type-cast. Too bad the main characters did not enforce the otherwise well-written novel about severe injustice.

American

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