Family Life Is Fraught: Resistance & Change in Three New Novels

A no-nonsense book journal!

While looking over my 2022 book journal the other day, I wondered, How have I managed to read so few new books this year? “Must get out of my rut!” I scrawled. But the truth is, I  hesitate to mention books by living authors unless I am 100% enthusiastic, because the least criticism hurts writers’ feelings.  And they do find the blog!

Here is a catch-up column about three intriguing new novels, which I sincerely recommend.

Relationships with mothers can be fraught.  Bridget, the narrator of Gwendoline Riley’s edgy novel, My Phantoms, recently published by NYRB classics, has a wittily vexed voice that captivates us from the opening page.  Although she has moved to London to reinvent herself,  she can’t avoid contact with her eccentric mother, Hen, who lives in Manchester. 

Hen is an awkward, fragile, desperately lonely woman, who attends lectures and free art exhibits every night, but cannot engage with people.  Bridget wants nothing to do with her:  she will not even let her mother see her apartment.  And she is brusque with her on their yearly outing to a restaurant  to celebrate Hen’s birthday.  When  Bridget gives her a set of Elena Ferrante’s books, Hen keeps texting her to ask if she has “Ferrante fever.” 

Bridget does. Hen does not.

“I don’t know who anyone is 😢,” she wrote.

Later:  “Is Lena Lina or Lena Lulu?  Argh!”

And later:  “Still waiting for Ferrante fever.” 

Hen continues to try new things, embarking on package tours of foreign countries in old age.  Yet hers is in many ways hers a tragic life, to outsiders, and we do wish Bridget could be kinder – especially when Hen does cry – but we understand, oh so well, how difficult families are.

I expected Tessa Hadley’s new novel to make the Booker longlist this year.  It did not.  If you’re interested in the 1960s, you will be intrigued by Free Love, a brilliant novel that captures the personal and social changes of a decade defined by radicalism, rock and roll, thrift-shop fashions, and the destruction of the nuclear family.

 The action is catalyzed by the flight of Phyllis Fischer, a bored housewife and mother of two who flees to London after she falls in love with Nicky, a radical, fractious, twenty-something freelance writer who is the son of a friend.   Her absence devastates her family, because she even refuses to reveal her whereabouts to her staid husband.  Her rebellious teenage daughter, Colette, skips school, goes drinking, and dresses unconventionally, while angry 12-year-old Edmund goes to boarding school and tells everyone that his mother is dead.  

Yet Phyllis and Colette bloom in the chaos of of the vibrant ’60s, changing their ideas about history and politics, listening to the Beatles, and living in a run-down, but slightly hip, neighborhood in London.

One of my favorite novels is Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, characterized by magic realism inspired by Garcia Marquez and other South American writers.  But few writers are more eclectic than Allende.   Her latest novel, Violeta, set in an unnamed country in South America, is a spirited page-turner, translated from the Spanish by by Frances  Riddle.  

The vibrant narrator, Violeta, born in 1920 during the influenza pandemic and dying in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, writes a letter to her grandson about her dashing life, which was shaped by a wild, mischievous childhood in a house peopled by an eccentric extended family; a radical English governess who is a suffragette and changes the tenor of family life; Violeta’s rise as a businesswoman who designs and manufactures prefab houses for the poor,  her survival of a terrifying dictatorship, and  two marriages and a passionate affair with a roguish  pilot, who is the father of her two children.  

The first hundred pages are as good as anything Allende has written, and the rest is consistently entertaining.  

I loved these books, and hope that one or more will suit you too.

2 thoughts on “Family Life Is Fraught: Resistance & Change in Three New Novels”

  1. I enjoyed the review; it’s always particularly fun to read recommendations written by a reader who cares passionately about the book. I actually picked up a copy of Riley’s My Phantoms fairly recently, as it sounded so intriguing (of course, it’s now at the bottom of the ever expanding TBR pile).
    I’ve read a little of Hadley’s work, although not this particular novel, which, I’ve noticed, has gotten great reviews. I, too, was a little surprised that Hadley didn’t make the Booker long list. Although I’m not a tremendous fan, I do think she’s very talented; I almost wonder if she’s not a bit underrated? I think this tends to happen to writers who are a bit more prolific than the norm and Hadley is able to publish with great regularity. Anyway, Free Love is definitely in the queue!
    As for Allende — dare I confess I’ve not read ANYTHING by her?

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the reviews! I did enjoy Riley’s witty, if disturbing, book, and NYRB has published another of hers, First Love. I can never predict the Booker , but I do think some good writers never win the awards, Hadley among them. Free Love is a little different from her others: she says she was reading Margaret Drabble and Nell Dunn to prepare for it.

      As for Allende, her first book, The House of the Spirits, remains my favorite, but is really for fans of magic realism.

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