Category: The Bestseller Code 100 (page 1 of 15)

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Categorized as a romance novel, Me Before You is not your typical romance story.  It’s an engaging take on the Pygmalion story, Worldly Rich Guy (Will Traynor) meets Low-Aspirations Poor Girl (Louisa “Lou” Clark), takes a liking to her, and decides to widen her horizons – only in this story we have a twist.  Worldy Rich Guy has suffered a debilitating accident that left him a quadriplegic and he no longer wants to live.  And, of course, Low-Aspirations Poor Girl falls in love with Worldly Rich Guy and wants to save his life.

This post contains spoilers.

Me Before You* by JoJo Moyes

 


(*Amazon Affiliate link)

A Love Story

 Me Before You is a refreshing and captivating love story.  In addition to its unusual plot, author JoJo Moyes gives us realistic characters and believable dialogue.  The interactions between both Lou’s and Will’s family members ring true.  Lou drew me in immediately and I quickly forgot I was reading a book for the purpose of writing a review and instead lost myself in the story.

It was expected that Lou would fall in love with Will – this is a romance, after all.  But in a true romance, love conquers all, right?  So it’s a bit of a shock when it becomes apparent that Lou’s love isn’t going to change Will’s mind.  What does change is the quality of those last weeks at the end of his life.  Lou provides Will with a challenge that has nothing to do with his own physical challenges, that of broadening Lou’s horizons.  What began as Lou’s challenge to give Will a reason to live becomes Will’s challenge to give Lou a wider world to live in.

Life Meaning

Me Before You compels the reader to contemplate on the question, “What is a life worth living?”  Is Lou truly living or is she just allowing life to happen to her?  Does Will, looking at a life of continually diminished horizons and increasing pain, have the right to decide when he no longer considers that life worth living?  Rarely does a romance novel tackle such difficult questions, but Moyes manages to do so with finesse.

I enjoyed Me Before You much more than I expected to – I find most romances to be too sappy or juvenile.  Jojo Moyes shows that a romance can be a true-to-life love story without the fairy tale “happily-ever-after” ending.  Because of that, I’m looking forward to reading the continuing story of Louisa in the sequel After You.

Have you read Me Before You by JoJo Moyes? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 61.  The Choice by Nicholas Sparks (2007) – Discussion begins April 30, 2018

#BestsellerCode100: Me Before You by JoJo Moyes Writer’s Review

Let’s take a look at  Me Before You by JoJo Moyes from a writer’s perspective.

This post may contain spoilers.

Me Before You* by JoJo Moyes

 


(*Amazon Affiliate link)

When I finished this novel, I didn’t want to review it; I wanted to reread it.

Quote from New York Times reviewer Liesl Schillinger

It is easy to agree with that sentiment.

Characters

Louisa Clark is an unremarkable young woman who is a bit adrift in her life. At twenty-six, she still lives with her parents, grandfather, and sister, Katrina (Treena). She has a boyfriend, Patrick, but he seems far more interested in running than in her. When she loses her job at a restaurant, she answers an ad for a companion, where she meets Will Traynor. Will was left a quadriplegic when he was hit by a car. He lives with his parents and has a nurse named Nathan.

Louisa takes the companion job, but struggles at first. Because this is a romance, Will serves as the “lost soul” archetype.  He is brooding and tortured, often ignoring Louisa or taunting her. Eventually, he begins to warm up to her spunky personality.

When she learns that Will intends to kill himself at the end of six months, Louisa decides to try to convince him that life is worth living. Will she succeed?

Narrators/Point of View

Louisa Clark, the protagonist, narrates the most of the book from the first person point of view. About half way through, however, some of the chapters switch to other character’s points of view, including Will’s mother, father, Nathan, and Louisa’s sister. It was a bit startling to hear from different characters so far into the book, but Moyes felt it was necessary to add more depth to their stories.

The change of narrators may be significant because many of the books picked by the computer algorithm for The Bestseller Code challenge list have alternating narrators or voices.

 

me-before-you

 

Discussion

There is much to savor in Me Before You. The writing is smooth and without pretension, which makes it effortless to read. Jojo Moyes pulls readers in and takes them on an intense emotional journey. It is hard to put the book down once you start.

The issue of assisted suicide adds a lot of depth to the story and takes it well beyond the typical romance. What inspired the author to explore it? In the back matter, Moyes reveals she has two relatives who require constant care, but it wasn’t until she read about a young rugby player who committed suicide after he was left quadriplegic by an accident that she decided to tackle the topic.

As a side note, Moyes isn’t the first novelist to have a quadriplegic character or to explore the difficult topic of assisted suicide. For example, Jeffrey Deaver’s main character Lincoln Rhyme is a criminologist who has only limited movement. In the first novel of the series, The Bone Collector (1997), Rhyme has contacted a doctor to evaluate him as a candidate for assisted suicide. Almost immediately, however, he is drawn into a case and he puts it off.

In Me Before You, some of the “smaller” aspects of the story are especially well crafted. The tension between Louisa and her sister is one example. When Louisa asks for Treena’s room when Treena goes off to school, a battle of words ensues that rings so true to anyone who has a sibling. It is pitch perfect.

Although it is a bittersweet, heartbreaking romance, the writing in Me Before You hits all the sweet spots. It is a wonderful example of how to craft a novel.

Join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 61.  The Choice by Nicholas Sparks (2007) – Discussion begins April 30, 2018

#BestsellerCode100: Number 62. Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

Time to start the discussion of our next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 listMe Before You by JoJo Moyes

This post does not contain spoilers.

Me Before You* by JoJo Moyes

 


(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:   When Louisa Clark takes a job as a companion for Will Traynor, she learns he had an accident that left him in wheelchair. Can she convince him that life is still worth living?

 

Have you read Me Before You by JoJo Moyes? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

Do you have suggestions for ways to improve this reading challenge? We’d love to hear them.

Have you written about Me Before You by JoJo Moyes ? Feel free to add a link to your review in the comments.
__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 61.  The Choice by Nicholas Sparks (2007) – Discussion begins April 30, 2018

#BestsellerCode100: Combined Review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending

Rather than writing separate reviews of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes this week, Karen and Roberta have decided to write a combined review.

This post contains spoilers, because in this novel the ending is everything.

The Sense of an Ending* by Julian Barnes

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary: Tony Webster has been through a divorce and retired from his job. He is looking forward to a quiet existence when some old school friends come back into his life. Are events from the past as he remembers them?

The Sense of an Ending is literary fiction and won the Man Booker prize in 2011.

Does the title follow the best practices laid out by The Bestseller Code?

Karen:  The title, The Sense of an Ending, refers to two suicides, or endings, that are central to this novel.  In the beginning of the book, Tony reveals that an older student at his school died by suicide and there is great speculation among the students as to the reason.  No official reason is given to the students, which makes them even more curious and leaves them to rely upon rumors for answers.

Near the end of Chapter One (there are only two chapters in the whole book), Tony learns that Adrian, one of his schoolmates, has also died by suicide.  Adrian left a note for the coroner stating a lofty, philosophical reason for ending his life, but as we find out at the end of the Chapter Two, his reasons were anything but philosophical.

The Bestseller Code tells us that book titles can be names in several ways:

  • Refer to physical settings
  • Capture an event
  • Point to things, typically common nouns
  • Point to a character (usually the protagonist)

Here, The Sense of an Ending obviously refers to the ending of a life (or two lives).  But can there really be any sense in ending a life in such a manner?  Just as in real life, the family and friends Adrian left behind struggle to come to terms with his suicide and the reasons for it.  The reasons author Barnes gives us for both suicides are no easier to accept.  So, while The Sense of an Ending is an appropriate title for this novel, I felt it was misleading to the reader.  I had no sense, no final understanding, when I finished the book; instead, I was confused as to the character’s reasoning and the author’s meaning.

Roberta:  Yes. I found the reasoning for Adrian’s suicide particularly flimsy.

Did you notice anything in particular about the characters?

Karen:  Most of the previous books we’ve read have had multiple narrators, allowing us to come to a more complete understanding of all of the character’s motives and memories.  In The Sense of an Ending we only have Tony’s viewpoint, and by the end of the story we can see that Tony is a very unreliable narrator, with faulty and selective memories.  The only other characters that could provide us a clearer picture of Tony’s story  are his ex-girlfriend Veronica and his ex-wife Margaret, and yet they are both frustratingly cryptic.

Roberta:   I agree. Up to now it has seemed that the computer algorithm has been picking novels that contain alternating or a variety of narrators/voices, which makes this one an unusual choice.  Having a single, unreliable narrator, plus a limited cast of characters, tended to be both frustrating and claustrophobic.

Is Julian Barnes breaking the fourth wall?

Roberta:  Was there any change in voice that the computer could have detected? The only difference I noticed in narration is that Julian Barnes seems to be speaking directly to the reader at times. For example, on page 113 he writes,

“Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does:  otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later:  between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got.”

Changes in character is something that writers ponder, because we are taught we should develop a “character arc” when writing fiction. That is, our characters should experience growth or decline over time for the story to be compelling. Character development probably isn’t something a non-writer like Tony Webster would spend much time contemplating, so the discussion seemed out of place.

On the other hand, it may speak to the author’s theme of our memories being of our own creation. Perhaps our perception of our own character is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves through selected and manipulated memories? Was Tony self aware enough to think about this? I doubt it.

The setting was minimal. Why?

Roberta:  Tony Webster lives in England. Apparently his environment is not important to him, however, because  the setting is barely mentioned. When it is described, it is in an offhand, causal way.

Only two locations stand out, both of which are referenced obliquely in the opening paragraph. The first location that Tony describes in any detail is Kent, where he goes to meet his girlfriend Veronica’s family at their home. Her dad points out a few landmarks that he realizes later are false. Tony clearest memory is of  a basin in his room in the attic, which he uses as a urinal.

The second memorable setting is a trip to see the Severn Bore. The Severn Bore is a tidal surge that causes a large wave to travel inland through the Severn Estuary near Gloucestershire. Tony is quite taken with how the water changes direction.

The lack of setting gives the novel a dreamlike quality.

Karen:  Instead of dreamlike, I thought it felt vague, just as Tony seemed vague about so many details of his life.   Nothing was sharp or crisp about the setting, nor the story.

 

Public domain photo from Wikimedia

Discussion

Karen:  If Julian Barnes’s intent was to write a head-scratching novel, he did just that.  I suspect, though, that his intention was to provide his readers with a thought-provoking novel on the unreliability of personal memories and the “story” we tell ourselves about the life we lead.  Unfortunately, for me, I’m still just scratching my head, trying to decide if it would be worthwhile to read this book again in the hopes of elucidation.

Roberta:  I suspect re-reading would not help much. I think he was intentionally vague. More about that in a minute.

Julian Barnes is interested in memory. In his memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, he wrote:

“Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.”

I was disappointed, however, in his treatment of memory in The Sense of an Ending. At the center of it all, Tony selectively forgot that he had sent  a cruel letter to his friend Adrian. By forgetting, he avoided the trauma of perhaps being complicit in his friend’s death. There was nothing unusual or unexpected in this scenario. It was pretty standard based on what is known about the science of memory. I guess I was hoping for more profound revelations.

But in another way, maybe the author’s intent was less straightforward. As Karen pointed out, Julian Barnes left a lot of gaps in the story. If his aim was to allow each reader to create his or her own “memories” of what they read based on incomplete data, then it might have been a clever way to help the reader experience things the way Tony did. Not a pleasant experience, but a lifelike one?

 

Join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 62. Me Before You by JoJo Moyes ( 2012) – Discussion begins April 16, 2018
Romance

#BestsellerCode100: Number 63. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Time to start the discussion of our next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 list, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This post does not contain spoilers.

The Sense of an Ending* by Julian Barnes

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary: Tony Webster has been through a divorce and retired from his job. He is looking forward to a quiet existence when some old school friends come back into his life. Are events from the past as he remembers them?

The Sense of an Ending is literary fiction and won the Man Booker prize in 2011.

The Sense of an Ending

Have you read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. We did a combined review for this novel

You can also join us on social media:

Do you have suggestions for ways to improve this reading challenge? We’d love to hear them.

Have you written about The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes? Feel free to add a link to your review in the comments.
__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 62. Me Before You by JoJo Moyes ( 2012) – Discussion begins April 16, 2018
Romance

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  This was author Jess Walter’s sixth novel and it received much critical acclaim.  NPR’s Fresh Air podcast named it the best book of 2012.  Readers on Amazon and Goodreads almost universally love it.  And yet, five days after I finished reading it, I remain ambivalent. There was a lot to like with this book, but equally as much not to like.

This post does not contain spoilers.

 

Beautiful Ruins* by Jess Walker

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Historical Romance or Literary Fiction

Beautiful Ruins is labeled Historical Romance and also Literary Fiction, but it’s definitely not your typical bodice ripping, hero saves the day historical romance.  In fact, so very little romance actually occurs that it’s difficult to see why it would be labeled as such.  The only truly romantic character was Pasquale, whom we meet in the opening scene:

She smiles at him and Pasquale falls in love, and “would remain in love for the rest of his life — not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.”

While Pasquale remains in love his whole life with the memory of Dee Moray, the movie star who appears in his small village in Italy,  he goes on to experience love and a full life with another woman.  The memory of Dee Moray haunts him, though, and at the end of his life he endeavors to find her and to learn what happened to her and her child.

For all of Pasquale’s romanticism, Beautiful Ruins is a study of relationships and the never-ending quest and need for love, whether from a parent/child, a lover/spouse, or friends.

Beautiful Mess

Beautiful Ruins took 15 years to write and, at 372 pages, it felt like it took that long to read.  The story jumps back and forth between different time periods and locations — Italy in the 1960s, America, England and Scotland in the 1980s, present day in Hollywood and Idaho — so that you almost needed a calendar and globe to keep track.

The writing was a hodge-podge of different styles; in addition to the normal chapters, also included was the script of a play, the complete first chapter of a never-to-be-finished novel, and a screenplay pitch on the infamous Donner party, among other oddities.  It reminded me of one of my attempts at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where I needed to achieve 50,000 words by the end of the month and had run out of things to write, so I included grocery lists and Christmas letters to achieve my word count.

Surprises

 There are several strong female characters in Beautiful Ruins and perhaps that is why I believed the author, Jess Walter, to be female.  Or maybe it’s because historical romance authors are predominantly female.  In any case, when I finished the book and began to read the “P.S. Insights, Interviews & More…” section at the end of the Kindle version of Beautiful Ruins, I was shocked to discover that “Jess” was male!  I’m not sure it makes any difference, but I was truly surprised.  Actually, I think it was the only surprising thing about the whole novel.  The book itself seemed predictable – chaotic but unsurprising.

I was glad for the “Insights, Interviews & More…” section at the end of the book, as that led to more understanding about the Walter’s intent when writing Beautiful Ruins.  For example:

I wondered if the truth we know from physics—that an object has the most stored energy in the moment right before it acts (think of a drawn bow)— was true of romance, too, if potential wasn’t, in some way, love’s most powerful form.

Jess Walter also shared:

I was reading The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera and I came across this: “There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact.” This, I saw, could be the ending of the book, a way of acknowledging the power of certain moments in our lives. These are the ruins of our memories, which loom in our minds like the Parthenon, even as they are decayed and weathered by time and regret. I hoped to convey the significance of such isolated moments in our lives, to show that Pasquale and Dee’s first meeting—which had kicked around in my own head since 1997— might indeed be powerful enough to drive him to find her almost fifty years later.

 As grateful as I was for that section of the book, I shouldn’t have needed it.  I should have gleaned at least some of his intentions from simply reading the book.  The fact that I didn’t frustrates me, and I don’t think good literature should leave the reader feeling frustrated.

 

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

____________________________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 63. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) – Discussion begins April 2, 2018
Literary fiction, won the Man Booker prize

#BestsellerCode100: Writer’s Review of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker

Writers can learn a lot from reading Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker. In addition to containing a treasure trove of writing techniques to study, it also discusses the process — from writing a novel to pitching to agents — in a wryly humorous way.

This post does not contain spoilers.

 

Beautiful Ruins* by Jess Walker

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary of main plot:  Touted both as literary fiction and a historical romance, Beautiful Ruins follows the lives of five people, including Pasquale Tursi and a young movie star named Dee Moray, who meet by chance in an Italian village. Years later Pasquale comes to Hollywood to find her.

Genre:

The novel has been called historical romance, but it isn’t like most romance novels. It is more about multiple facets of relationships of several characters through a lifetime than a single romance as a major plot line. In the video below, Jess Walter says the novel is a collection of “celebrations of moments,” which seems more appropriate.

Although it does have elements of literary fiction, the novel doesn’t check all those boxes either. It could be labeled as epistolary novel, because it contains excerpts of letters, novels, and screenplays, but only here and there. So, perhaps it should be called a partially epistolary novel with literary elements.

Characters:

Story lines diverge and converge through place and time throughout the book, so it is hard to define one main character. Instead there are several characters who play important roles:  Italian Pasquale Tursi, American actress Dee Moray, a fictionalized version of actor Richard Burton, film producer Michael Deane, his assistant Claire Silver, and writer Shane Wheeler.

Dialogue:

If you want examples of how to write dialogue, this is a perfect novel to study.  Walter gives each character a unique voice, plus he is a master at creating the dynamic tension that drives a great interchange. The conversation between Pasquale and and his friend since childhood, Orenzio, (when actress Dee Moray reveals she loves Pasquale’s eyes) says it all:

“No, she did. She is in love with my eyes”
“You are a liar, Pasqo, and an admirer of boys’ noodles.”
“It is true.”
“That you love boys’ noodles?”
“No. She said that about my eyes.”

Orenzio continues on with a series of inventive and warmly affectionate slurs against his friend as serious Pasquale interrogates him about the actress. It is a joy to read.

Setting of Beautiful Ruins

The characters travel throughout the world, but the two main settings are a small coastal village in Italy and Hollywood, California. Other locations in the novel include Edinburgh, Scotland; Seattle, Washington; Florence, Italy; Portland, Oregon; Truckee, California; and Sandpoint, Idaho.

The descriptions of Italy are particularly luscious. In the video below, Jess Walter explains his wife is of Italian descent, and how the visceral reactions he had when she took him to visit Italy were incorporated into the book.

 

Jess Walter’s responses in this video are full of insights for writers. It is worth the time to watch if you’ve ever thought of becoming a novelist. 

 

About Writing

Floating just under the surface for the most part, but popping up here and there are gems of information about writing. Some of it is in the words themselves. In addition to the pitch-perfect dialogue, Walter mixes things up with style and tone. He writes in present tense in some places and past tense in others. Most of the narrative is in third person point of view, but the first person point of view is included, too. Beginning writers could almost use the novel as a textbook to investigate different elements of writing.

Jess Walter also dabbles in metafiction. Screenwriter Shane Wheeler’s experiences with pitching a movie in many ways mirror pitching a novel to a literary agent. Alvis, a novelist who keeps re-writing the same chapter, may reflect some of the author’s personal struggles. As Jess Walter reveals in the video, it took him 15 years to write and publish Beautiful Ruins. He “hit a stone wall,” put it aside, and then picked it up again later when he had matured as a writer, or had ideas for revising and moving past the problems. Having hit a few walls myself, it was helpful to realize that bestselling authors have overcome the same hurtles.

All in all, Beautiful Ruins has much to offer to readers and writers, alike. If nothing else, it is likely to inspire people to take a trip to Italy.

 

 

Join us on social media:

____________________________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 63. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) – Discussion begins April 2, 2018
Literary fiction, won the Man Booker prize

#BestsellerCode100: Number 64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker

Time to start the discussion of our next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 list, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker

This post does not contain spoilers.

 

Beautiful Ruins* by Jess Walker

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  Touted both as literary and a historical romance, Beautiful Ruins follows the lives of five people, including Pasquale Tursi and a young movie star named Dee Moray, who meet by chance in an Italian village. Years later Pasquale comes to Hollywood to find her.

 

beautiful ruins

Have you read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

Do you have suggestions for ways to improve this reading challenge? We’d love to hear them.

Have you written about Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker? Feel free to add a link to your review in the comments.
__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 63. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) – Discussion begins April 2, 2018
Literary fiction, won the Man Booker prize

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Orphan Train tells the stories of two young “orphan” girls, Vivian and Molly.  Vivian’s story begins in New York City in 1929, months before the Black Friday stock market crash.  We learn of her voyage from Ireland with her family, the tragedy that leaves her essentially orphaned, and then follow her journey when she is placed on a train to the Midwest by the Children’s Aid Society in the hopes of finding a placement family.  Molly’s story of her early years with her parents and her subsequent journey through the foster care system in the present day intertwines with Vivian’s throughout the book.  As unlikely as it might seem, their stories are remarkably similar and creates an unexpected bond of friendship.

This post does not contain spoilers.

 

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Historical Fiction

 As Roberta mentioned in her Writer’s Review, Orphan Train is categorized as Historical Fiction.  Unlike Roberta, though, I am a huge fan of historical fiction and I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time.  One of the reasons I love historical fiction is that I often learn some previously unknown-to-me historical information, and Orphan Train certainly provided me with that.  I was unfamiliar with the Children’s Aid Society, a non-profit organization formed by Charles Loring Brace in 1853 to ensure the physical well-being of homeless children in New York City (not always orphans) and to provide them with the support and training needed to become successful adults.  Brace felt that placement with a family that could provide work, schooling, and a home situation would be more beneficial to the children than an institutional setting.  He came up with the idea of “orphan trains” – children were placed on a train with Children Aid Society chaperones and taken out of the city to various destinations across the country.  Notices were posted in the destination towns and when the trains arrived, the children were inspected and selected by the prospective foster families – often for the amount of work the child looked capable of handling or a specific talent, such as sewing, rather than for any altruistic desire to provide a loving home.  Baker’s descriptions of Vivian’s early placements with families exposed just how brutal and traumatic those placements could be.

The orphan trains sound like something out of dystopian novel, yet they really did happen.  Over the course of 76 years (the last train run was in 1929), more than 200,000 children rode the trains and began new lives.  Since they were required to leave any and all personal possessions behind, and many were given new first names by their foster or adoptive families, they truly were new lives, for better or worse.

The Children’s Aid Society (now called simply Children’s Aid) is still in existence, providing various support programs (medical, educational, legal, mental health, etc.) to NYC families and children, along with fostering and adoption options. Many of its child welfare programs were considered ground-breaking when begun but commonplace today.  The “fresh air” program is one that I was familiar with while growing up in upstate New York during the 1970s.  Several families I knew would have “fresh air” children from NYC staying with them during the summer.

Unlikely Friends

When we are first introduced to Vivian and Molly, they appear to have nothing in common.  Vivian inherited a business from her parents and she and her now-deceased husband were able to retire to a life of comfort and ease.  At the age of 90, she’s outlived her family and friends and is content to live an isolated life with a housekeeper to cook her meals and maintain the household.  Molly, on the other hand, has bounced around a few foster homes and feels that her current foster situation is tenuous, at best. She’d like to stay where she is currently placed until she “ages out” of the system in another few months, but her present foster mother isn’t really on board with her husband’s desire to foster.  More than once Molly pulls out her duffel bags and begins to pack her belongings while listening to her foster parents argue over whether to keep her.  Life is uncertain at best for Molly.

Molly and Vivian are brought together in a joint effort to clean out Vivian’s cluttered attic, and as Vivian reveals her life’s story bit by bit, Molly’s efforts to maintain an emotional distance from everyone in her life begin to fail.  Christina Baker Kline does a wonderful job of revealing the true essence of these two strong and capable women.

Take Away

Life is not always pleasant and rarely easy if you are an immigrant and/or an orphan child, no matter what time period you live in.  Both Vivian’s and Molly’s stories highlight that, as a child, you have no control and usually very little say over what the adults in your life decide for you.  Yet both of these young girls rise above the trials and traumas of childhood to become strong individuals.  I was struck by their resilience and tenacity.  Orphan Train also illustrates that even the smallest acts of kindness – providing a place to sleep for a few nights, a temporary job, or even just the gift of a book – can give hope and effect real change in the life of an individual, a message we should all take to heart.

 

Have you read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

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What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker (2012) – Discussion begins March 19, 2018

Genre:  Historical romance

#BestsellerCode100: Writer’s Review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Time to discuss the next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 list, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, from a writer’s perspective.

This post contains spoilers.

 

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

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Summary:  Niamh/Vivian moved with her parents from Ireland to New York City right before the Great Depression. When she loses her parents, she is put on an orphan train to the Midwest with the hope she will be taken in by a family along the way. A couple does take her in, but her journey is a rocky one. Much later in life she meets foster kid Molly Ayer. Although they are different in age, the two might have some common ground.

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Characters

There are two main characters in this novel.

Niamh/Vivian is primary main character and she narrates the historical timeline. Over the course of the novel she has different names, which reflect changes in her circumstances. As a child in Ireland, she is named Niamh Power. When she first arrives in Minnesota and she’s taken in by a couple, the woman of the house decides to call her Dorothy Nielsen. Later when another couple adopts her, she takes the name of the couple’s deceased child, Vivian Daly. Each time her name changes, it reveals how the process strips away her identity. When she gets on the train, she leaves behind not only a place, but also who she was.

Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer narrates the modern day timeline (2011). This works well because if Vivian narrated, the reader would learn about things that happened in the past out of order. By having Molly narrate, we discover events as Molly hears about them.

Molly’s father died and her mother spends most of her time in jail or prison, so Molly has been in a series of foster homes. She acts out at times. In fact, she meets Vivian because she needs to do community service for stealing a library book. Her teen character adds just the right touch of modern to the 2011 timeline.

 

Christina Baker Kline orphan Train

Public domain train image from Wikimedia

Setting

The novel begins in Spruce Harbor, Maine in 2011. It then travels back to New York City in 1929, where Niamh/Vivian’s family has arrived from Ireland. Before too long, tragedy strikes, and she finds herself on an orphan train headed to the Midwest.

The rest of the story alternates between Maine in 2011 and several locations in Minnesota.

Symbolism

Niamh’s grandmother gave her a claddagh cross necklace before she left Ireland. What happens to the necklace provides important symbolism in the story. Intertwined with the necklace is Niamh’s perception of her Irish grandmother, which changes as Niamh matures and understands adult relationships in a clearer way. I liked how that growing maturity reflected Niamh’s character arc.

Discussion

Christina Baker Kline has taken on a number of challenges with Orphan Train. She has two main characters, two distinct timelines, and multiple settings to integrate into a single story. It’s a difficult juggling act, but the good news is that she has done an excellent job.

I’m not the biggest fan of historical fiction, but this one was engaging. The piece of history Christina Baker Kline chose to reveal was a heartrending one. I admire the author’s ability to immerse the reader in another time, without unintentionally allowing things from the present day to crop in. The contrast between the two timelines was further enhanced by Molly’s narration.

Orphan Train moves forward in a smooth, consistent way, rather like a real train. It knows it’s destination and moves towards it without wandering off the track, taking the reader on an enjoyable and enlightening ride along the way.

 

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What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker(2012) – Discussion begins March 19, 2018

Genre:  Historical romance

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