Notes from the Couch
No, I haven’t started psychotherapy. Here are a few short reviews of books I’ve read while confined to the couch fighting off a virus:
The Scenic Route, by Binnie Kirshenbaum
I started this one on a train trip north last fall, and then abandoned it when I returned home to a shelf full of library books with due dates. Usually this means I’ll never finish it, or that the impression the book makes on me is diluted. But I managed to pick it back up and get the momentum back. The main character, Sylvia, is a divorced woman who loses her job and heads to Italy on a whim. She meets up with a married middle-aged man, and they take off on a meandering road trip and affair, financed by his wife’s money. Along the way she entertains him with stories about her family and an eccentric friend. Sylvia’s voice is an unforgettable mix of self-deprecating humor, longing, and regret. We know going in that the affair doesn’t end well: “This is the story of Henry and me. I wish it had a different end.” But Sylvia’s voice keeps us reading anyway.
The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
This book is somewhere between a multi-character novel and closely related short stories. It’s one of the best examples I’ve read in this format. The focus is an international newspaper based in Rome, and the characters are reporters, copy editors, their significant others, and the paper’s mysterious publisher, his descendants, and in one case, their Basset hound. The time span jumps around from the 50s to the present. It sounds distracting and confusing, but Rachman weaves his characters together so well that it makes a satisfying whole. The chapters are newspaper headlines like “Global Warming Good for Ice Creams,” and “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126.”
The Irresistible Henry House, by Lisa Grunwald
The idea for this novel came from the author’s research on a university website about the history of home economics. Grunwald saw a baby-on-bearskin-rug photo and clicked through to find out who “Bobby Domecon” (short for Domestic Economics) was. She learned about the “practice baby” concept, where a child from a local orphanage who was cared for by a class of home economics students in a “practice house.”
As the author says, “I know!”
Regardless of the noble aim of training future mothers, it’s an unsettling idea, raising all kinds of ethical questions. Grunwald wondered what emotional effect this would have on a child, and concocted the imagined life story of one such baby, Henry House. To further complicate the story emotionally, the unmarried instructor at the practice house forms an unhealthy attachment to Henry, and, despite the closed adoption, he learns who his birth mother is.
author photos, from top: