Review | The Saint Zita Society, Ruth Rendell

cover-1The Saint Zita Society is an upstairs/downstairs-type story about the servants who live in Hexam Place, London. The eponymous society is a loosely organized servant union that serves as little more than a chance for the servants to get together and talk. Ruth Rendell is primarily known as a crime writer, and a crime is indeed committed midway through the book. However, the focus of the story is on the soap opera-like relationships between the residents of the building.

I love the upstairs/downstairs genre, and Rendell’s cast of colourful characters easily suck the reader into a world of sex, scandal and secrets. My personal favourite was Thea, who declares at the first meeting of the Saint Zita Society:

“I am not a servant.” Thea helped herself to a handful of mixed nuts. “You may be but I’m not.”

“What are you then?” said Beacon.

“I don’t know. I just do little jobs for Damian and Roland. You want to remember I’ve got a degree.” [p. 2]

The sad reality is that Thea does these little jobs for free and that Damian and Roland, her landlords, take advantage of her. She is acutely aware that while they found her useful, they didn’t particularly like her. They didn’t even care enough to ask what she did for a living (teaching IT and word processing part-time) and “were only nice to her when they wanted to ask a favour or had a reason to be particularly cheerful.” [pp. 36 – 37]

I love the glimpse into the perceived social hierarchy even within the “downstairs” world, and I found Thea’s desire to connect with her “upstairs” world landlords on an equal footing tragic.

I’m a major fan of crime fiction, but to be honest, I would have preferred it if Rendell hadn’t included the crime element at all, nor the menacing presence of a character who thinks a god speaks to him over his mobile phone. Rendell had created such a rich world with her characters that I wanted to spend more time exploring their lives, without (and this feels very odd for me to say) being distracted by the crime angle.

I also wanted the Saint Zita Society to play a larger role in the story. Admittedly, this may just be a personal preference on my part rather than a commentary on the quality of the storytelling, but given the major social gap between the servants and their bosses, I would have loved to see how the bosses would have reacted to the servants actually taking a stand. Rendell does touch on some injustices, such as Thea’s invisibility to her landlords and the pressure exerted upon a young valet to sleep with his boss’s wife, even though he is really interested in the daughter. However, she pulls short of focusing on the social commentary, and personally, I think that would have made the novel more interesting.

Finally, I really, absolutely hated the ending. To be fair, this is an emotional reaction more than an objective assessment of the quality of the ending. I don’t know if it felt as rushed and unnecessary to other readers as it did to me, but in any case, I was pissed off at what Rendell did with one of the characters. So if the author was attempting to elicit an emotional response, she succeeded. Still, I hated it.

Overall, Saint Zita is a good book. The characters were engaging, and the multiple story lines fascinating. Still, even without taking into account the ending, I wish Rendell could have done much more with it.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Calling Dr. Laura, Nicole Georges

When Nicole Georges visits a psychic for her twenty-third birthday, she finds out that the father she’s always believed to be dead is actually alive. Now, having grown up in a family of secrets and lies, Nicole considers the need to confront her mother about two things: the identity of her father, and the fact that Nicole is gay. The back blurb compares Nicole Georges’ Calling Dr. Laura to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and while Georges lacks Bechdel’s sly humour, she also doesn’t get bogged down by Bechdel’s philosophizing. The result is a straightforward, rather earnest, heartfelt narrative.

Georges highlights the difference between her adult life and her childhood memories through her drawings — her life in her twenties is sketched with realistic detail, while her flashbacks to her childhood are sketched in simple, stylized shapes such as a child might draw. This shift in style highlights the child Nicole’s innocence, and thereby emphasizes the pain such a figure must undergo, watching her mother being abused by various husbands. I especially love Georges’ use of this technique in a scene where the adult Nicole has a particularly devastating piece of information confirmed, and the character shifts back to the child version for two panels, before shifting back to adult mode.

The Dr. Laura in the title actually plays less of a role in the narrative than I expected. Pressured by her girlfriend to confront her mother, Nicole finally calls Dr. Laura Schlessinger for advice. The author has included bits from the actual transcript of their conversation in the memoir, and while the radio personality seemed harsh, it seemed to be the tough love Nicole needed.

Georges does a good job illustrating the atmosphere of stress and deceit in which she grew up. She relates incidents such as stress-related bowel irregularities that lead to an embarrassing situation with a friend, conspiring with her mother to skip school as long as her stepfather never found out, and having to call 911 when her stepfather tried to strangle her mother. As she later points out, even whens he discovered her biological father was still alive, her experience with fathers hasn’t given her much incentive to find him. She struggles not just with the fear of confronting her mother, which comes hand in hand with her coming out to her mother as well, but also with the fear of meeting her biological father. The simplicity of Georges’ narrative enhances the emotional impact of her decisions; she is thoughtful without becoming too introspective. While her tone felt at times too flippant, it’s an understandable way to cope with her fear, and adds realism to her narrative.

Calling Dr. Laura is a touching tale of growing up, of coming out and of trying to make sense of one’s family. The biggest emotional wallop is reserved for the end of the book. Like the rest of the book, it is heartfelt but rendered with understated precision. It’s telling that Nicole feels most free to talk about her concerns over the phone with a radio personality or over email with loved ones. The medium provides a comfortable layer of protection, yet what comes through most strongly is Nicole’s vulnerability. Calling Dr. Laura is a sweet, simple story, surprising in how much it can reveal through so little. Well done.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson

9781443419109Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is about… Well, the title says it all, doesn’t it? Allan Karlson escapes the nursing home just before the party for his 100th birthday and, on a whim, steals a suitcase at the bus terminal. Unfortunately for him, the suitcase contains a lot of cash, and this leads to a hilarious, utterly absurd chase that involves a hot dog stand operator, an elephant and a lot of unexpected twists.

We also learn about Allan’s life before the nursing home. This is where the comparisons to Forrest Gump come in — like Forrest, Allan is involved in a wide range of historical events, meeting such historical figures as Mao Tse-Tung (and his wife!), Stalin, Kim Jong Il and several US presidents. Like Forrest, Allan is unaware of the massive influence of these figures on world politics, but unlike Forrest who really is an innocent, Allan is an apolitical explosives expert. He knows how to blow things up, and he doesn’t care how his skills are used. This isn’t meant to imply that he’s a cold-hearted man who sells his skills to the highest bidder, but rather that he mostly just wants to be left alone playing with his explosives, and yet the world just won’t leave him alone. Take for example this episode with an immigration officer:

And the more the immigration officer got out of Allan, the less fascistic the Swede seemed to be. He wasn’t a communist either. Or a national socialist. He was nothing at all, it would seem, other than an expert on explosives. As for the story of how he came to be on first-name terms with General Franco, it was so ridiculous that it had to be true — he could hardly have made it up.

Since he had no better ideas, the senior immigration officer arranged for Allan to be locked up for a couple of months. Unfortunately, the months turned into years, and the immigration boss mostly forgot about Allan, until one day he found himself discussing the case with his brother when they met at the family farm in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. [p. 102]

The novel is hilarious, but as seen in the passage above, Jonasson’s humour is dark, at times satiric, and at others even disturbing. Allan’s life is filled with misadventures and random streaks of good luck, and it’s mostly Allan’s nonchalance at everything that keeps the story humorous rather than tragic. Jonasson’s writing as well has a sharp bite — dramatic incidents are immediately undercut by quick quips and mundane things are inflated to absurdity.

100-Year-Old Man is a fun, quirky read. Some parts dragged, and even though the ARC I received is less than 400 pages long, at times, the book felt longer. Then again, with 100 years to cover, the story is understandably packed with events. Still, I love Jonasson’s humour, and I enjoyed seeing history through Allan’s eyes.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.