I was drawn to Secret of a Thousand Beauties after reading an interview with Mingmei Yip on Women’s Fiction Writers. Her fascination with the Chinese tradition of female oppression aroused my curiosity. Set in China during the 1930’s, Secret of a Thousand Beauties explores one woman’s journey to escape the horrible fate of a Ghost Marriage.

Couples were often betrothed in childhood, or even before birth. Since only half of children survived to adulthood, many lost their fiancés. Because they had already pledged marriage, the cruel custom was to marry the woman to the dead man. As a practical matter, this meant she was a slave to her supposed in-laws.—Mingmei Yip

Finding the right starting place for a story is essential, yet often difficult. I don’t know if Yip struggled with the opening of Secrets of a Thousand Beauties, but her choice to have Spring Swallow run away after the marriage ceremony to her dead fiancé is brilliant. The immediate peril for our heroine makes us fear for her safety, wonder how she will survive and worry about the consequences if the in-laws find her. As the story progresses we come to understand Spring Swallow’s rebellion is only the first of many. She is forced to take risks because Yip refuses to allow our heroine to get comfortable.

In my experience, death like a cunning fox, is always lurking around the corner ready to catch you off guard.

Spring Swallow learns to stay one step ahead of the fox when she joins a community of embroiderers. The lessons given by Aunty Peony—a former imperial embroiderer—provide a solid foundation from which her inner strength blossoms. These secret techniques of this ancient art form are life lessons Spring Swallow continues to draw upon. They are also invaluable guideposts for writers.

Pause and think for a moment before you sew your first stitch—since the next thousand stitches all derive from this first one. Placing the first stitch is like laying the first brick of a house. If it is done wrong, the structure will be slanted and collapse.

Although rebellion on Spring Swallow’s part persists throughout the story, once she receives this lesson we never see her do anything quite as impulsive as running away after her ghost marriage. She weighs options and chooses sensibly not only for herself, but for the other women she has grown to care about.

Yip seems to have followed this advice as well. By starting the story in the midst of upheaval she set her heroine on a trajectory of action. Starting earlier would have created a sense of lethargy for the protagonist and the reader; later, and our heroine’s inner turmoil and motivation would’ve been less clear.

Even if a mountain collapses outside your window, you shouldn’t look, but continue to work.

Even though Aunty Peony has taken on a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete Spring Swallow is not allowed to help. Five months pass before she is given the opportunity to embroider simple items like hats and slippers. Yet, she works daily for such long periods her fingers swell and become calloused. Eventually Aunty recognizes her skill and promotes her to lead embroider.

There is controversy over Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,ooo Hour Rule. Although I agree with this Huffington Post article that other factors are also important to master a skill, I believe as Spring Swallow and Aunty Peony that the most important ingredient is showing up to do the work.

These are not art, only craft. […] They try too much to please. […] when work is slick, the connoisseur will reject it.

Mingmei Yip’s novel is the antithesis of this statement by Aunty Peony because as Amy Sue Nathan mentions in her interview with Yip, Secret of a Thousand Beauties resonates with “the passion the author has for her subject and for storytelling.”

The soul Aunty Peony hopes her apprentices will bring to their own work is one of the hardest lessons for Spring Swallow to learn. But her devotion to perfect the ancient art of embroidery allows her to develop into the strong woman she was meant to be, and in turn, helps her secure a family that she never expected to be in her future.

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip is a tender and compelling tale that shines a spotlight on Chinese culture, life and art.

IN THE WOODS by Tana French

In The Woods was published in 2007. I bought my copy in 2009 because agents and editors continued to rave about Tana French’s storytelling. But curiosity didn’t get the better of me until this past spring while I was in the midst of wrestling with another draft for my WIP. The timing was perfect. Nothing spotlights your faults as a writer better than reading a book by an author who excels where you flounder. This is what Tana French taught me about first person narratives.

1-Tension in first person narratives stems from the narrator’s personal unrest.

French’s narrator, Detective Robert Ryan, was abducted with two friends at the age of twelve. He was the only one found. He has no memory of the incident. He knows the facts of the case only because he read the police file after he made detective. But while investigating the murder of a 12-year old girl found in the same woods where he was abducted, Ryan’s desire to recall what happened to him surfaces.

I had started trying—for the first time, really—to remember what had happened in that wood. I prodded tentatively around the edges of it, barely acknowledging even to myself what I was doing, like a kid picking at a scab but afraid to look. 

Ryan doesn’t admit to this quest until almost halfway through the book, but his vulnerability and the fear of discovering the truth is integral for many of his observations from the beginning.

Men like him—men who are obviously interested purely in what they think of other people, not in what other people think of them have always made me violently insecure. They have a gyroscopic certainty that makes me feel bumbling, affected, spineless, in the wrong place in the wrong clothes.

Although first person tension may stem from the narrator’s personal unrest, readers don’t want to get sucked into a victim’s POV. Whining is no way to acquire friends. I empathized with Detective Robert Ryan because he refused to let past events influence his present. His ability to bounce back, his inner strength, made me want to stand by him for the long haul.

I suppose the whole thing must have had its effects on me, but it would be impossible […] to figure out exactly what they were. I was twelve, after all, an age at which kids are bewildered and amorphous, transforming over-night, no matter how stable their lives are; and a few weeks later I went to boarding school, which shaped and scarred me in far more dramatic, obvious ways. It would feel naive and basically cheesy to unweave my personality, hold up a strand and squeal: Golly, look, this one’s from Knockernaree!

2-The best way to avoid backstory is to step away from the facts.

By illuminating only the essence of the situation, French allows the reader to snuggle up faster with the conflict and relationships the protagonist is dealing with.

That weekend I went over to my parents house for Sunday dinner. I do this every few weeks, although I’m not really sure why. We’re not close; the best we can do is a mutual state of amicable and faintly puzzled politeness, like people who met on a package tour and can’t figure out how to end the connection.

3-The most intoxicating chemistry happens outside of the bedroom.

Because sex is such an integral part of television and film these days, I think its easy to forget the real chemistry that leads to the bedroom begins in tiny observations.

The oversized raincoat made her look about eight, as though she should have had matching Wellies with ladybugs on them, and inside the red hood were huge brown eyes and rain-spiked lashes and a face like kittens. I wanted to dry her gently with a big fluffy towel, in front of a roaring fire.

This moment between Ryan and his new partner Cassie Maddox spurs the imagination and establishes their friendship. There is a misstep down the line, but the momentum of the story is driven by the magnetic bond between them, sparked solely through simple observation.

4-The protagonist’s inner journey is the secret to engagement.

In the Woods is a police procedural. The chapters are atmosphere rich with in-depth conversations, all related to the murder. The information Detectives Ryan and Maddox uncover is wound so tight there is no telling how it will unravel. Then the case dries up.

This case was like an endless, infuriating street corner shell game: I knew the prize was in there somewhere, right under my eye, but the game was rigged and the dealer much too fast for me, and every sure thing I turned over came up empty.

French shows us the tedium of detective work by keeping us abreast of all the factors the police need to eliminate in order to get a clear glimpse of the killer. As a result the readers feel as exhausted and frustrated as Ryan and Maddox. But the reason I kept turning the pages during the stagnation was Detective Ryan’s inner journey. As his past becomes more present he begins to fall apart and make mistakes on the job. I questioned whether I could trust him. The time bomb nature of his emotional state was the thread that carried me through to the didn’t see it coming end.

In The Woods is a mystery, police-procedural, psychological thriller and an exemplary study guide for writers who wish to learn more about first person narratives.


On ne naît pas femm: on le deviant.

One is not born woman; one becomes woman.

—Simone de Beauvoir

The above may be one of the best preface quotes ever. Not only does it prime us for the journey it feels as if the sentiment was the springboard for Becoming Josephine. For me it was a relief because the novel’s cover, though lovely, led me to believe the emphasis of the story would revolve around the romance between Rose Tascher (eventually Joséphine de Beauharnais) and Napoleon Bonaparte. Simone de Beauvoir’s quote lifted this assumption from my mind and allowed me to be transported back to libertine France under Heather Webb’s deft prose.

The sheer number of people rendered me speechless. Hordes shuffled along the roadside carrying packages, toting their children, or walking arm in arm with friends. Odors assailed my senses; rich coffee wafted from cafes, sweaty horses and fetid piles of animal waste assaulted, flowery perfumes and warm bread tempted. Street vendors, juggling performers, and the incessant clopping of hooves whirled together in an orchestra of sounds.

The establishment of setting and atmosphere is one of Webb’s strengths. Her attention to detail deepens the reader’s understanding of her characters’ point of view, conflicts and dreams. And when the moment calls she uses this painter-like style to ramp up the suspense.

I sucked in the steamy air, heart thundering in my ears. A screech sounded from the shadows. The familiar shapes of the wood grew grotesque in the fading light. I ran faster. Serpents slid from their holes when the heat of the day faded, seeking victims for their poison. I had witnessed bitten men convulse with frothing lips and blue-black swelling beneath their skin. I shook my head to dispel the images. I couldn’t think of that now.

I recently read Webb’s second novel, Rodin’s Lover, and was captivated by the way she used the passionate intent of her characters to drive the story forward. Her dexterity with Intent also shines here.

I studied the silk rug. I would go to court, I vowed. I would mingle with nobility, with or without Alexandre. But first I must make friends. I would begin tonight.

By zeroing in on Rose’s desires we’re able to tap into her strength and heart and observe how they grow throughout her life.

Rose’s transformation to Josephine astonishes and inspires. On the surface Rose Tascher’s life is Pygmalion-esque. When she arrives in Paris for her arranged marriage, her fiancé Alexandre is put off by her attire and the frankness with which she speaks, yet by the time she meets Napoleon she has learned that every part of her manner is a…

…tool to secure one’s station, like the ruse of love.

But unlike Eliza Doolittle, who grows into a higher station in life and ends up finding love, Rose’s integration into high society enlarges her view of the world.

What a grandiose idea. I had never given a slave’s freedom any thought, let alone the “rights” of women, I accepted our roles—those of the slaves in their fields and the Grands Blancs running their plantations. Our sugarcane would rot, our plantations crumble without the Africans. Where would we be then? Yet Fanny had given me much to ponder.

As the revolution in France intensifies many of Rose’s family and friends are arrested and eventually she joins them in the cells of Les Carmes prison. The filth and squalor of such confinement, particularly in this period of time, can lead to individuals becoming angry, callous or withdrawn. Not so for Rose. Although she physically wastes away to almost no one at all her empathy for others expands. She continues to use whatever connections she has to petition for the release of everyone she knows, no matter what the odds. Her open heart will eventually bond her to the people of France. Still, Rose is not a soft touch.

I cough deeply, uncontrollably, as if I might vomit my organs. I sucked in a ragged breath and leaned against the wall. I ran my hand over the naked skin on my neck. A few days before, Delphine had chopped my locks into jagged disarray with a knife, borrowed from a jailer. My enemies would not shave my head in front of a mocking crowd.

In this moment, Marie-Josephe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie de Beauhanais—who has yet to meet Napoleon—though frail is triumphant. Her determination never to be a victim is an inspiration and a testament to the strength of all women.

Becoming Josephine exemplifies Simone de Beauvoir’s quote: One is not born woman; one becomes woman. Rose Tascher’s story was meant to be told and Heather Webb delivers it brilliantly.

ANCIENT LIGHT by John Banville

I recently attended the revival of David Hare’s Skylight on Broadway. During the First Act one of the characters made spaghetti. By intermission I was starving. My hunger could’ve become a distraction. Instead it made me more alert. My imagination pulsed eagerly while the sauce simmered. Ancient Light has nothing to do with spaghetti sauce but John Banville’s opening made me salivate: my mind begging for the story to move faster while I prayed for it to move as slow as possible so I could savor each image fully.

Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother. Love may be too strong a word but I do not know a weaker one that will apply. All this happened half a century ago. I was fifteen and Mrs. Gray was thirty-five.

Our narrator, Alexander Cleave is in his sixties. His acting career has faded like the romance in his marriage. His view of the world is bleak ever since his daughter took her own life. But under this veil of darkness he sees the past through the power of some ancient light, and there he is able to relive a transformative time of his life, and with detailed accuracy captures the dizzy joy and selfishness of adolescence.

I watched her with a mounting sense of alarm, no longer fearful of discovery but of something much worse, namely, that the shock she had got would cause her to take fright and flee […] If I were to lose her, how would I bear it? I should leap up now, I knew, and put my arms around her, not to reassure her—what did I care for her fear?—but to prevent her by main force from leaving.

I’ve been writing in one form or another since the age of eight and started telling lies earlier than that. But it wasn’t until Banville’s protagonist began to recall his childhood affair while attempting to sort through the current turmoil of his personal and professional life that I realized our memoires are nothing more than stories we tell ourselves. How we choose to remember the events in our lives shapes our success, productivity and our present happiness. As a result I was enthralled with Alexander’s ability to pull back from the moment in order to telescope in for deeper insight.

What an ill-assorted pair we must have looked, the obscurely, afflicted, stark-faced girl with her scarf and dark glasses, and the grizzled, ageing man sunk in glum unease, sitting there silent in that ill-lit place above a winter sea, our suitcases leaning against each other in the glass vestibule, waiting for us like a trio of large, obedient and patiently uncomprehending hounds. 

Banville paints such a complete picture moment by moment the book feels like an enormous landscape even though we are peering through a tiny lens of the protagonist’s life.

It makes no sense, I know, but if on a crowded beach on a summer day the swimsuits of the female bathers were to be by some dark sorcery transformed into underwear, all the males present, the naked little boys with their pot bellies, and pizzles on show, the lolling, muscle-bound lifeguards, even the hen-pecked husbands with trouser-cuffs rolled and knotted hankies on their heads, all, I say, would be on the instant transformed and joined into a herd of bloodshot, baying satyrs bent on rapine.

Alexander Cleave’s experiences, past and present, appear complex as he sorts through the whys and hows that brought these events about, and yet, time and again, he zeroes in on the truth with such simplicity we are tickled by his succinctness.

…a bond of sorts had begun to forge itself between us, and we found ourselves quite easy together there, or as easy as two actors standing in each others light could hope to be.

The above is also a lovely example of a peacefulness that resides in Banville’s protagonist even though he speaks most often of his tormented soul. Ancient Light is a beautiful, poetic examination of memory, loss and hope from the point of view of an actor, who has spent his life pretending to be someone else. His honest revelations and humor give us pause and challenge us to lift the curtain on our own past and see what we might discover.


I’ve grown tired of the Second World War. Perhaps it’s a result of being raised by a WWII veteran and a mother who was infatuated with John Wayne. From The Longest Day and Stalag 17 to The Best Years of Our Lives and the Dirty Dozen, I’ve watched all of them at least a half a dozen times. Add the more recent movies of Spielberg and Eastwood and my mind short-circuits when I start to count the hours of my life given over to the atrocities of war. So, I’m a tough audience to surprise. But Anthony Doerr’s novel that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction did just that.

The title is brilliant. All the Light We Cannot See. The faith, hope and strength of character needed to believe such a statement is reflected in our protagonist Marie-Laure LeBlanc. Raised by her father—the principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris—after her mother died in childbirth, Marie-Laure loses her sight at age six. From that moment her sensory awareness develops a higher level of sensitivity.

The real intersection [of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge] presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.

Marie-Laure’s insatiable curiosity breaks down the narrow focus of the reader in such a way that our senses tingle too. So when she describes someone for us, our response is, “Yes, of course.”

When the wind is blowing, which is almost always, with the walls groaning and shutters banging, the rooms overloaded and the staircase wound tightly up through it’s center, the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being: apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.

Losing her sight becomes the foundation of Marie-Laure’s strength. Her father helps develop this inner resourcefulness by encouraging her to learn braille and by building intricate wooden boxes that she must manipulate in order to open and find the prize. Through these puzzles she learns there is nothing she can’t accomplish.

Strength and courage embody all of Doerr’s characters. Werner Pfennig, an orphan whose genius with radios leads him to the academy for the Hitler Youth and eventually to track the Resistance, has also learned to rely on his inner strength. But his survival skills don’t numb his heart to the inhumanity around him.

Werner is succeeding. He is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.

While Werner wrestles with his inability to act against his duty others, like the Old Ladies’ Resistance Club in Marie-Laure’s neighborhood, do all they can to muck up the progress of the Third Reich.

The women funnel a shipment of rayon to the wrong destination. They intentionally misprint a train timetable. Madame Hébrard, the postmistress, slides an important-looking letter from Berlin into her underpants, takes it home and starts her evening fire with it.

This risk-taking, Werner’s inner turmoil and Marie-Laure’s faith becomes the tapestry of hope that runs throughout the novel and plays counterpoint to the atmosphere of suspense that Doerr creates on each page.

From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point.

Thanks to the heightened sensory world of a blind girl, All the Light We Cannot See allows us to shake off our apathy, awaken our empathy and ask ourselves, What choices would we make to survive while staying true to ourselves and humanity? Doerr’s novel is a tenderly written tale about one of the most devastating moments in history. A book to be savored and pondered.

FALLING UNDER by Danielle Younge-Ullman—2015

My first encounter with Falling Under was in 2011. Mara Foster’s journey hit me the way Wylie Coyote gets hit with an anvil. You can read my awestruck review here.  I stand by each word but after a second reading I want to zero in on the specifics that have made me a fan of Danielle Younge-Ullman.

In addition to simply loving the story I chose to reread Falling Under because I’m currently wrestling with a broken and flawed protagonist in my own novel. I also wanted to take a closer look at a second person narrative (Mara remembers her past through this POV), for the new story I’m writing. Benefits were gained on both counts and I received a bonus. Prior to picking up Falling Under I agreed to read a novel about the holocaust with a friend for discussion. From the first page I struggled to engage with the story and the protagonist. By the time I finished, my frustration was so huge I seriously contemplated giving up reading any new books until my own manuscript was done.

Then the next night I snuggled up with my reading restlessness and Falling Under.

Ask Santa for a new bike, and you might get it. But Daddy might leave on Christmas Day.

I was instantly transported out of my reading funk and completely engaged with a little girl whose name had yet to be uttered. Danielle Younge-Ullman’s writing flows with a dynamic crunch. She makes you hungry for every detail of Mara Foster’s car-wreck-of-a-life. And each detail is delivered with raw honesty and twisted with a sad humor that screams of this character’s emotional imbalance.

You are fourteen and nobody fucks with you anymore. Your best friend is awesome, you can drink without puking your guts out, and your mother has a Master’s degree.

Mara Foster has more than a few issues and yet I’d like to be her, personally experience her journey because I know the transformation will be phenomenal—these were my thoughts when I was only sixty-nine pages in. This is how well Younge-Ullman delivers a flawed protagonist. But Mara is more than her broken self. She is an artist, determined to succeed and her passion oozes into us, like when she sees the work of her mentor.

It’s not her fault she doesn’t feel the longing, the tug, the absolute YES that ricochets through you when you see something so wild and beautiful. You will never be this good, but now you have to spend your life trying.

But while Mara’s passion bubbles and transforms the reader never loses contact with the emotional turmoil in her life. Every relationship is a double-edged sword magnified through her artistic sensitivity.

Huge love floods you and you want to leap out of your chair and into her arms. […] And love is what you see in her eyes too, and a need as huge as your own. Then her face changes. Out goes the love and in comes the face that could freeze oceans, the voice that is like a whip cracking.

Mara’s relationship with her mother is one of the most painful and accurate depictions I have ever come across in literature. The push and pull between them rings with such truth you want to yell at them as much as you want to hug them.

What I covet most about Falling Under, other than the beautiful, conflicted mess of Mara Foster is the simplicity Younge-Ullman uses to deliver the story. Again and again she sticks to the facts.

I fall asleep with Erik in my skin and Hugo on my mind. 

Nothing like fearing something inside to get me outside.

The exposure of truth without fuss ignites the reader’s imagination and emotions rise while conflict is underscored. Then when the time is ripe, when the reader least expects it, Younge-Ullman grips tight to the facts and dives deeper to the core of Mara’s fears.

You rip the condom open yourself, put it on him and then slide yourself down until he is so deep it hurts. You like the hurt, you pull the hurt into you, hold it close, and let it simmer and ache up and down your spine and into that place where your soul must be. 

Mara’s honesty, her insistence on taking responsibility for her actions allows us to accept behavior we otherwise might not tolerate. We root for her because we know from the moment we meet her on Christmas Day that she deserves better.

Falling Under deals with pain and loss, and the courage needed to move through fear in order to breathe into life.

LOLA CARLYLE’S 12-STEP ROMANCE by Danielle Younge-Ullman


A: You lean toward morose drama in the winter and itch for free-wheeling comedy in the summer.

B: You’re afraid to venture into the Young Adult pool because it’s just not what you read and too many decades have passed since you were a teen, or

C: You’ve stumbled into a reading or writing slump…

then Lola Carlyle’s 12-Step Romance is about to change your life. Still uncertain?

Lola Carlyle is lonely, out of sorts, and in for a boring summer. So when her best friend, Sydney, calls to rave about her stay at a posh Malibu rehab and reveals that the love of Lola’s life, Wade Miller, is being admitted, she knows what she has to do. Never mind that her worst addiction is decaf cappuccino; Lola is going to rehab.

Lola arrives at Sunrise Rehab intent on finding Wade, saving him from himself, and—naturally—making him fall in love with her…only to discover she’s actually expected to be an addict. And get treatment. And talk about her issues. […] Oh, and Sydney? She’s gone. 

Sounds like a story Nora Ephron would’ve brought to the screen. Nora Ephron-esque, funny, heartfelt situations call to me more and more these days, so I couldn’t resist taking the plunge with Lola.

Danielle Younge-Ullman delivers this zany tale with an enviable flare thanks to her irresistible protagonist. Lola and her antics at Sunrise Rehab captivated me so much I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a Young Adult novel. One reason we fall under Lola’s spell is because she is so adamantly clear about who she is.

I am a celebu-spawn, after all. And though we celebu-spawn are universally expected to come up short in looks, talent and moral fortitude and very often do crash and burn, we survive in a world that is completely wack, so we are also smart, resourceful, creative, and endlessly determined to get what we want. 

Of course this unwavering belief in herself also puts us on alert that Lola’s vision is about to blur. And it does shortly after entering rehab, where she is forced for the first time in her life to expand her narrow focus.

…on my way back to meet Adam I glance into one of the other rooms and see a blond-haired girl curled up and moaning on the floor.

Wow. The rooms are nice and the view pretty…but these people do not look like they’re at a spa. They do not look like a steam, a pedicure, and a light lunch will fix them.

From the moment Lola understands she’s not in Kansas anymore her self-portrait begins to crack.

I feel like he knows, like he can see something I haven’t seen and he knows about my dad and what I feel way deep down, and all I want to do is curl up into a ball and cry like I’m some kind of whiny reject instead of the very smart, strong, resourceful, unsinkable Lola Carlyle I am supposed to be.

But just because her expectations for an Oz-like rehab fall short and her vulnerability starts to show doesn’t mean she’s going to quit. Sure she thinks about it, she’s human. But one of the extraordinary things about Lola is how she rationalizes her behavior. Her reasons are ridiculous, yet grounded and they reinforce the strength of her character—a strength that is deeper than even she realizes.

On the pro-staying side, I have put a lot of time and energy into this project. […] And if I leave, I’ll just have to go back to my boring life where there is no chance at all to help Wade, much less make him fall in love with me. […] And leaving might be kind of like chickening out. So in that sense, staying is a matter of bravery. And selflessness. And honor.

Lola Carlyle’s 12-Step Romance has a hilarious premise and an adorable protagonist who, in spite of her celebu-spawn status, is Everyteen and that is why Younge-Ullman’s novel is going to rise to the top of the YA stacks. True, she is not an addict and she feels out of place in rehab because all the other inmates have more horrible issues to deal with, but Lola’s pain and the events in her life are no less horrible or degrading for her. The inadequacies and alienation these teens feel, regardless of their addictions, are universal and Younge-Ullman illuminates the damage with a sensitive hand while offering practical solutions through her heroine.

When I was a teen I was enamored with The Bell Jar. Today I’m smitten with Lola Carlyle’s 12-Step Romance. Both novels expose the emotional unrest and fragile nature of teens as they face the extraordinary challenge of seguing into adulthood. If I were a teen I’d carry both in my backpack; but Esther Greenwood would be on my mind while Lola Carlyle would be in my heart.

Slide into Summer with Lola Carlyle’s 12-Step Romance.

RODIN’S LOVER by Heather Webb

Move over Catherine and Heathcliff, Camille and Auguste have arrived. They now stand where you once did, on the summit designated for the most passionate lovers in the saddest love story of all time. This all-consuming, real-life affair comes to the page thanks to the sensitive and ruthless storytelling of Heather Webb. From the first sentence to the last we are absorbed in a world of over-heightened emotions, where sensory input arrives in 3-D. It is the artistic world of Belle Époque Paris with all the magical allure, prejudices and injustices of the time fanned out before us.

Despair hit her like an ocean wave, filled the hollow of her chest, her lungs, until she felt as if she would drown. She perched in the doorway of a condemned building and sucked in steadying breaths. 

Camille’s journey to break through the glass ceiling of the Belle Époque art world is no small feat. In order to get to Paris, attain a tutor and an atelier of her own she must agree to meet with the suitors her mother chooses. To her credit she plays the respectability game only long enough to get herself rooted in the artistic world of her dreams. Camille Claudel’s passion and single-minded determination to excel may appear reckless at times (she alienates almost everyone she meets) but we can’t help admire her devotion and self-confidence.

She would fight the men controlling her fate the only way she knew how by creating more, by pushing harder, by leaving them breathless with emotion when they examined her sculptures. 

We are never in doubt of Camille’s intentions. They drive her forward with enviable abandon. But the reason we fall in love with her and August Rodin, the reason we pray they can sort through the obstacles in their paths in order to enjoy the kind of relationship they both deserve is due to Heather Webb’s ability to place us inside the heart and soul of an artist. We are always looking through an artistic lens.

The afternoon sun slid from its pedestal in the sky, yet heat radiated from the paved walkway and muggy air stuck in their throats and clung to their clothing.

And with the eyes that see flowing fabrics, movement and emotions there is also confidence and insecurity—professionally:

Despite Auguste’s show of enthusiasm the familiar tide of yearning rushed over him each time a friend advanced and he ran in place.

and personally:

Auguste released her as if she had bitten him. Embarrassment, then hurt crashed over him. She did not want him—and of course she did not! What was he thinking. 

Passion and fury permeates Rodin’s Lover. This emotional messiness underscores the love affair, heightens the mood to build suspense and leads us directly into the pathway of Camille Claudel’s descent into madness. Her downward spiral is delivered with such beautiful complexity we are as confused as she and, like her, wish to deny what’s happening.

They argued, but their conversation muddled and sloshed in her mind. She envisioned their words as strings of pearls browning and disintegrating before evaporating out of her ears like a stream of smoke. What in the devil was the matter with her? She cursed herself for drinking too much. 

Although I’ve coveted Rodin’s work ever since my first art history class in college, I knew nothing about his personal life, or Camille Claudel until I saw Midnight in Paris. The scene where Paul Bates argues with the tour guide over who was Rodin’s mistress is one of the reasons I wanted to read Heather Webb’s historical novel. Rodin’s Lover not only satisfied my curiosity about one of the most tumultuous relationships in the history of the art world, it made me long for the artistic world of Belle Époque, the way Midnight in Paris makes me long for Paris in the 1920’s.

Rodin’s Lover touches the artist within us all; the part of ourselves that refuses to fold silently into the mindset of the masses, and strikes boldly against the wind so our hearts might soar.

THE MAGICIAN’S LIE by Greer Macallister

The Magician’s Lie, the title alone portends an unreliable protagonist and arouses intrigue before we open the cover. Then debut novelist Greer Macallister drives our curiosity into full bloom with an opening that is its own magic show.

Tonight, I will do the impossible. The impossible is nothing new to me. As I do every night, I will make people believe things that aren’t true […] I will weave a web of beautiful illusion to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world. 

We see no smoke or mirrors. Instead, we experience a magical pulse through the words Macallister selects. She is a temptress of words. At times she understands that which grows simplest grows best.

They sit together in silence, two figures in two chairs on the fringe of the circle of lamplight.

Simple, yet provocative. Other times she indulges our senses.

Here every smell was on top of every other, good or otherwise. Garlic and perfume and manure. Silk and smoke and mud. Voices come to you the same way: a trilling woman’s soprano shouting out the price of oysters, overlapping with a Sicilian shopkeeper’s dusky accent and two German teenagers arguing at full volume, blotting out a whispering grasp of Irish girls on their way to work.

But she never goes too far because, like her protagonist (the Amazing Arden) the smoke, the mirrors and the slight of hand is rooted in her character and drawn on only when the need arises. Macallister offers an invitation we can’t resist and we follow her without hesitation or doubt.

Arden is one of the strongest female characters around. She defies the odds at the turn of the century and rises to the top of the masculine world of magic. The obstacles she needs to surmount to reach such success are delivered to us in her own words after she is arrested for killing her husband. The murder allegedly carried out on stage during her incredible trick of sawing a man in half. Whether she is lying about the events that led her to this moment, or telling the truth doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter to this reader because Arden’s determination to stand against all opposition, without hesitation, is an inspiration. My empathy for Arden was so complete, I never believed I could turn away from her, even if she ended up being despicable.

Another reason we latch on to Arden’s strength has to do with how powerfully Macallister delivers vulnerability.

Pouring cheap gin on top of today’s news and tonight’s gore has hollowed him out like a rotten stump.

This passage is from Virgil Holt, the officer who arrests and interrogates the Amazing Arden, and the other Point of View character, in The Magician’s Lie. Arden’s and Virgil’s point of views are designed to secure our objectivity as the facts of the case unfold. But the beauty of these opposing forces lie in how they keep us on a tightrope of tension, wondering what is true and what is false. This two-person point of view is also where the real magic of the novel happens.

I only blinked on occasion, because when a powerful woman who smells of rosewater instead of dung tells you to stay still, you know everything depends on how still you can stay, and for how long. 

One person’s control over another is at the core of every riveting piece of fiction, and Greer Macallister delivers by adhering to her protagonist’s advice.

The novelty of being a woman would get audiences in the theaters once, but I needed to handle them just right once they were there. 

Macallister keeps us hooked by showing us how Arden gains and loses control of her life through the unexpected twists that occur, again and again. Each shift of power expertly interwoven with the inner turmoil of the characters.

He stands up and turns his back so she can’t see his face. It isn’t fair. He has all the power and none of it. The ceiling seems lower than it did an hour before, the room, smaller, though he knows that’s not possible. So much is riding on this night. He can’t afford to lose control. 

The Magician’s Lie may be Greer Macallister’s debut novel, but she is no novice. Like the Amazing Arden she spins a story that challenges your powers of observation.

THE SCARLET LETTER by Nathaniel Hawthorne

One of my favorite lines in literature was written by Arthur Miller for Death of a Salesman and spoken by Linda Loman in order to get her sons to recognize their father Willy’s emotional stability is fragile at best.

Attention must be paid.

Four words layered with meaning; a sentence that forces us to reexamine all that has occurred prior to this moment, and alerts us to the upcoming wreckage we have sensed but cannot see.

Hester Prynne is not Linda Loman. But both women understand any hope for transformation only comes from facing the truth, and for Hester that means living out her punishment on a daily basis.

Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee.

These six words define her as a woman of strength. Her willingness to face the humiliation of her sin without dwelling in self-hatred or playing the victim opens our hearts to her. But Hester’s true strength lies not in her ability to endure the repetitive judgment that is laid upon her each day, but in how she avoids growing callous as a result.

…she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sins in others hearts.

Hawthorne’s greatest gift as a writer might be his ability to construct complex characters. He accomplishes this by never shying away from the inner or the outer struggle of each character. He conveys both elements through poetic imagery that seems to circle round until it lands dead in the center of what he is targeting. The rhythm of his prose feels like a lost art and is a joy to bathe in.

…his look became keen an penetrative. A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight. His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that save a single moment, its expression might have passed for calmness.

No matter how hard the characters try, they cannot hide their inner torment and as it seeps out of their grasp other characters sop it up.

The young minister, on ceasing to speak, had, withdrawn a few steps from the group, and stood with his face partially concealed in the heavy folds of the window-curtain; while the shadow of his figure, which the sunlight cast upon the floor, was tremulous with the vehemence of his appeal. Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him and taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her mother, who was looking on, asked herself,—“Is that my Pearl?” 

The deep interconnectedness of these characters is another element to appreciate in Hawthorne’s prose. He wastes no time in connecting the dots between Hester Prynne, Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. The incident that fuses these three together has already passed. By placing the incident out of our reach, he forces us to tap into the tension that ricochets between the characters. This sphere of tension is what ignites our need to wonder as Shakespeare might say, “How will this fadge?” The situation is a disaster and we cannot look away. Why is that?

No matter how beautiful the prose, The Scarlet Letter is a bleak novel. Why do we stay tuned in? Why do we choose to wade through the fleshy sentences and paragraphs that seem only to underscore the dismalness of these characters’ lives? I believe the answer is found within Chapter One: The Prison-Door.

But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as she went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him. 

This rose bush does more than establish the color red without mentioning it. Roses also combine the delicate beauty of their petals with the pain of thorns. So before we meet any of the characters we accept the idea of pain, but are reminded of beauty and the potential for hope that rises from it. Hawthorne feeds our desire for hope with the presence of Pearl.

But the brook, in the course of its little lifetime among the forest trees, had gone through so solemn an experience that it could not help talking about it, and seemed to have nothing else to say. Pearl resembled the brook, in as much as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious, and had flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom. But unlike the little stream, she danced and sparkled, and prattled airily along her course. 

Pearl is the reader’s salvation against the unhappiness and self-torment Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth are determined to carry. Her tenderness, as sporadic as it is, and her effervescence, encourages readers to be mindful in their life choices to avoid what her elders have experienced.

When I first finished The Scarlet Letter my heart was heavy. Weeks later, I recognized that although Hawthorne’s novel could never be considered a light read, at its core it is filled with love, and the story examines how well or poorly we make use of this natural element of life.

Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.

If this seems unbelievable, read The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck and discover the passion of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Then come back to The Scarlet Letter and bathe in the beauty of another era of life and the written word.

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