Review | Murder Chez Proust, Estelle Monbrun

16284882Can Marcel Proust inspire one to murder? In Murder Chez Proust, Adeline Bertrand-Verdon, the unlikeable president of the Proust Association, is murdered just before a Proust convention. There is an assortment of suspects, including colleagues, lovers, and her assistant Gisele Dambert. Through a stroke of luck, Gisele owns a set of previously undiscovered notebooks used by Proust which proves the originality of a key scene in one of his most famous novels. It would have settled a debate in Proustian circles, and Adeline was going to steal Gisele’s research and publish a book.

Gisele is probably the most intriguing character in the book – an aspiring Proust scholar who lives with her cat and has a penchant for carelessness. She makes some idiotic decisions, such as letting Adeline know about her research, but overall, you root for her to succeed.

Murder Chez Proust is a solid, entertaining cozy, with an Agatha Christie-type list of suspects, and a genteel approach to murder. As someone unfamiliar with Proust’s work, I probably missed a lot of the significant little tidbits the author provided, but I did enjoy the description of how the interpretation of a single scene in one of his books can cause such heated scholarly debate. I wish the book had been more steeped in the academic world – the strongest scenes featured the politicking that goes on behind the publication of academic research, and I would have liked a bit more sense of that atmosphere.

There was a subplot mystery that I admit drew most of my attention — Gisele loses the Proust notebooks and tries to track down a hotel employee who had held them last. In some ways, it stole the spotlight from the main murder mystery, but it may just be because Gisele is a more interesting character than Adeline who, though villainous and potentially intriguing, was never quite fleshed out enough to go beyond a stereotype.


Thank you to Thomas Allen for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Tampa, Alissa Nutting

9780062280541Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is a brave exploration of an uncomfortable subject, and the author’s brazen treatment will cause even the most inured reader to stop and think. Celeste Price is an eighth grade English teacher with a sexual preference for fourteen year old boys. Similar to Lolita in theme, it is starkly different in its approach. Unlike Humbert Humbert, Celeste pulls no punches in her description. She is unapologetically sexual.  The language is forthright and highly charged. As I posted on Goodreads: “Holy hell, Tampa. Powerful, intense, and I’m only 7 pages in.” And Nutting never lets up.

Female pedophiles aren’t as often discussed in popular culture as their male counterparts. Films like The Graduate for example even romanticize the adult female/teenage male sexual relationship. Nutting takes this trope head on by making her protagonist be only in her 20s — she’s young, beautiful, certainly an object of fantasy herself for many of her students. She is also hyper aware of her age, and understands that seducing these young boys may no longer be as easy when she starts getting wrinkles. Yet she is also, unmistakably, a sexual predator, unapologetic and despite the boys’ own fantasies, abusive of her power.

Nutting uses lurid sexual detail with purpose. At times, the scene reads almost like erotica, until you remember that the object of Celeste’s fantasies is a fourteen year old boy. The story is especially horrifying because of Celeste’s job as a teacher, a profession she chose precisely because it puts her in close proximity to the boys she wants. She sets her sights on one of her students in particular, selecting him because he is just shy enough to keep her secret, but bold enough to risk pursuing a sexual relationship with her. Her schemes to seduce the boy are horrific, particularly because her openness as a narrator implicates the reader in her plot. As an adult, we see how she is manipulating the boy and we want to rescue him, yet as readers, all we can do is watch.

Here, the sensual prose also implicates the reader by forcing us into Celeste’s psyche, without even the buffer of Humbert Humbert’s coyly seductive language. Either you are hyperaware the entire time about the boy being only fourteen, in which case the very act of reading feels disgusting, or worse, you forget for a time, and find yourself drawn into the eroticism of the scene, only to recoil with even more disgust when a detail (smooth skin, hairless legs) reminds you of what exactly is happening in the scene. Nutting employs a more brazen form of seductiveness than Nabokov in her prose, and in doing so creates a different type of discomfort. The book design itself plays into this approach; the jacket of the hardcover edition is made of velour, providing a velvety soft surface that invites stroking and that provides the reader with a highly tactile experience.

Celeste is too unapologetic about her proclivities to be an anti-hero, or anyone the reader can ever really cheer for. However, she is certainly a compelling, memorable character. Her utter lack of remorse, and total disregard for the need to sugarcoat her desires for the reader make her in some ways even more reprehensible than Humbert Humbert. Still, when she describes her disgust for the adult male form, you understand why sex with an adult male isn’t an option at all for her. Her horror at the thought of sex with her husband, or with any adult male, is palpable. You do not cheer her on, yet when things come crashing down, you can’t help but feel for her. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Nutting manages it well.

Tampa is not an easy book to read, but it is powerful. Nutting uses shock value to a purpose, and creates a memorable protagonist in Celeste. The ending somewhat falters because it feels rushed, and the final page in particular feels unresolved. Still, overall a compelling book that demands attention.

Review | Kiss Me First, Lottie Moggach

16169852Kiss Me First has an intriguing premise: what if the main thing that stops people from acting on suicidal tendencies is the thought of the grief their loved ones will suffer? And what if, thanks to people’s ever-increasing digital footprint, a website can help you ease that transition? What if this website can help you distance yourself slowly from your loved ones even after you’re gone, so that by the time they’re aware of your death, their grief won’t be as sharp?

It’s an audacious idea, and a sobering realization that for some people, this might actually work. How many of our friends and family members interact with us only through email and social media channels? If it were someone else emailing and posting on Facebook on our behalf, how many of our family and friends will really know the difference? We’d like to think that the difference would be obvious, yet for someone who is determined to disappear, how difficult would it really be to do so?

Moggach tells the story from the perspective of Leila, a lonely, isolated woman who finds a sense of belonging in the website Red Pill, where members engage in ethical debate. She soon catches the attention of website founder Adrian, who invites her to join the inner circle and help a woman named Tess arrange her own death. Here’s where the story becomes especially powerful: the concept of using the internet to mask one’s suicide is compelling enough, but Moggach points the spotlight on the people who can make it happen. A perennial outcast, Leila is understandably caught up in what she learns about Tess’s life. As Leila practices impersonating Tess online, she begins to fall in love with Tess’s life, and eventually, begins to allow it to dominate her own. The lines between the reality of her life and the fantasy of Tess’s blur, and it’s an easy slope for Leila to fall, because, after all, this fantasy is no longer a life that Tess wants for herself. And when Leila’s genuine, albeit horribly misguided, attempts to form human connection are cruelly rebuffed, it is heartbreaking to read.

Even though told through Leila’s point of view, Moggach creates a compelling character in Tess as well. Beautiful, beloved and successful in so many aspects, Tess is nonetheless deeply troubled. She desperately wants to escape her life, to the point of paying Adrian to help her make it happen, but her decision to escape is itself another kind of trap. Having hired Leila to impersonate her, it gets progressively harder for her to back out and decide to live after all. At times she hesitates, and Leila convinces her to keep going, and it is to Moggach’s credit that Leila doesn’t appear a monster in such scenes — rather, we feel her pain and understand her desire to clutch on to Tess’s life, even as we hope Tess does choose to live.

It’s an intense, emotional thriller, and the conversation around assisted suicide remains unresolved. The story does have its clear villain, though perhaps the tougher question is about the way of life that allows such a person as Leila to reach such a depressing level of isolation, and a person like Tess to be able to disappear, if not easily, at least believably. Kiss Me First is a powerful debut novel, and highly recommended.


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