Posts Tagged book reviews

book review: With or Without You


With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin| August 4, 2020| 288 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 9781616207793

RATING: ****/5*

The way you expect your life to be isn’t often the way it ends up being. Societal pressures and outside influences affect decision-making. People change over time and sometimes love relationships don’t work anymore or just don’t fit. Why do some people languish in relationships that aren’t particularly satisfying anymore? When do you just let go of a relationship, even if you’ve been in it for a substantial amount of time?

Stella and Simon, both 42, live in New York, have been together for 20 years and don’t have any children. An RN, Stella wants a stability and a family. Simon, a musician, still dreams of success and fame in the music industry. Stella and Simon have different personalities and demeanors. Stella is strong, independent, organized, goal-oriented. Simon is laid back and not super responsible. He lives the musician lifestyle— he’s laid back and frequently takes drugs.

“She had given up things for him before. After their first year together, she’d left her job as an RN because it was so exciting to travel with him. And then being on the road got old, or maybe just she did. But by the end of her second year touring with him, she began to feel the need to be a nurse again. It was like a physical pull. She missed having a community of doctors, nurses, and staff that she saw every day.”

It had almost been out of character for Stella to fall in love with Simon— “He came over to see her the next night, and the next, and suddenly there she was, responsible Stella with both feet firmly planted, Stella who never missed a shift, who read books and adored classical music, falling heedlessly for a rocker with an impulsive lifestyle and a way with words, simply because he cared so much about her, Iike no one ever had before.”

As someone who has tried to make relationships work with people who don’t have the same values as me or who don’t have a compatible personality or aren’t going to learn and grow over the years, I found myself deeply connected with this novel. As a music journalist I’ve had many encounters with musicians. I understand the charisma and the draw involved. Someone you might not look at on the street becomes 10x more attractive on stage playing an instrument and/or singing. As a middle-aged woman, I completely comprehend wondering how time flew by and why aren’t I more fulfilled in my life?

On the eve of the start a tour that he hopes will catapult his stagnant music career, Simon convinces Stella to take drugs with him and she falls into a coma for two months. Simon can’t make it out on tour and his band mates find a replacement. He doesn’t know what to do with himself now that he’s no longer in a band. The coma completely transforms Stella. She’s now an artist with a remarkable ability to draw portraits in which she’s able to capture a person’s innermost desires and feelings. While Stella was in the coma, Simon got close to Stella’s best friend. Do Stella and Simon choose loyalty or independence? 

At turns melancholy, amusing, relatable and infuriating, With or Without You is a thoughtful novel about choices, identity, self-worth in relationships and careers and remaining true to yourself. It’s about questioning everything that makes you happy and what you should do vs. what truly fulfills you. It’s a complex and unique read.

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review: two novels that explore mother/daughter relationships


Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Bloomsbury| July 2016| 224 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-1-62040-669-4

RATING: ****/5*

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Bloomsbury.


The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood. W.W. Norton| August 2016| 241 pages | $25.95| ISBN: 978-0-393-24165-5

RATING: ****/5*

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.

–review by Amy Steele

Both Hot Milk [long-listed for the Man Booker Prize] and The Book That Matters Most center on mother-daughter relationships. Both novels feature two mothers seeking answers and two wayward twenty-something daughters. Both novels explore both the connection between mothers and daughters as well as a daughter’s efforts to forge her own path in the world. Both novels explore setting and sense of place. Both novels burgeon with vivid characterizations and stories. The Book that Matters Most sparkles in its focus on reading, the power of books and those that love books and reading.

Hot Milk takes place in southern Spain where Sofia, a budding anthropologist, takes her ailing mother, Rose, to meet with a world-renowned yet unusual specialist in somewhat of a last attempt to reduce her mother’s pain. The Book That Matters Most traverses between New England and Paris. In Rhode Island, Ava joins a book club to meet new friends when her husband abandons her after decades of marriage.  Points to Ann Hood for gathering an eclectic group of readers to this library book club. She expounds on quite a few of the members as they relate to Ava’s journey and each month’s book selection–particularly her friend Cate—librarian and book club leader. While Ava’s acclimating to the new group and becoming engulfed in novels, her daughter Maggie—who had been studying abroad in Italy– goes missing in Paris.

Both Sofia and Maggie enjoy themselves as any women [particularly young ones] should, exploring and pushing one’s comfort levels—Sofia takes two lovers in Spain, a young local man she meets on the beach and another vacationer named Ingrid. Author Deborah Levy writes: “We have become lovers. Ingrid is naked. Her blond hair is heavy. There is a fine mist of sweat on her face. Two gold bracelets circle her wrists. The blades of the fan spin and rattle above our heads.” Maggie jumps from guy to guy until she meets an older French man who offers her his lovely apartment to crash in as well as an unlimited drug supply—“He brought her such good-quality drugs that sometimes they knocked her flat for days. When that happened, everything turned soft and gauzy.” It’s the drugs that cause most problems for Maggie as she overdoses and hangs by a thread until her next fix.

Ava remains rather serious in her endeavors. Her younger sister died in a tragic accident and her mother committed suicide a year afterwards. Author Ann Hood writes: “But Ava, with her unruly brown hair and blue spectacles, her tendency toward pouting and sarcasm and a generally sour personality, only pleased her mother by being a voracious reader.” In the book club, each member chooses a book that holds special meaning. Ava chooses a book called From Clare to Here. It turns out this book proves difficult to find as its out-of-print. Ava also promised to invite the author to that month’s book club. As she searches for the novel and her daughter the two mysteries become entangled in quite an intriguing and formidable manner.

During her mother’s treatment, Sofia becomes increasingly detached—“Rose’s lips are moving and Julietta is listening but I’m not listening. I have been asked to be present but I am not present. I’m watching Bowie concert from 1972 on YouTube and it is buffering while he sings.” She’s soon needed less often and finds herself contemplating several issues, as one might do. Sofia learns she thrives outside her stifled London environment. She’s able to be the free spirited soul that enables her to embrace her unique qualities.

As an outsider with a smudgy circuitous route rather than a neat, linear route, I could relate to both Sofia and Maggie– not the drug usage but the not knowing exactly what to do with one’s life professionally or personally. Both young women are resilient and determined.  These characters bounce off the pages. Following their journeys through lovely writing proves fulfilling and resonant.


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book review: Tightrope


Tightrope by Simon Mawer. Other Press| November 2015| 512 pages | $15.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-723-9

RATING: 4.5/5*

In Tightrope, author Simon Mawer focuses once again on Marian Sutro, the central figure in 2011’s Trapeze which details Marian’s experiences during WWII. It’s a novel I recall fondly—a magnificent story that tracks Marian’s training and challenges working in espionage during the war.

Bilingual [French mother and English father] and well-educated Marian Sutro worked in Special Operations for Britain in WWII. After her release she returns to her parents’ home in Great Britain and begins to forge a post-war existence for herself. As many returning from a war, she finds herself distant from her family and unsure about her place in the world. She wants independence but isn’t sure about her identity at times. Is she a war hero—she has the awards to prove it—or is she just another woman chasing contentment? She finds work for a peace-keeping organization.

While I adored Trapeze it came out three years ago and I don’t remember minute details so I’m not sure how this can qualify. Is it a sequel? The novel stands alone so I’m not sure I’d call it that. However, it’s the second novel about the same character so by definition, it’s a sequel. When I tweeted about this I got a response from the author himself so it should be considered sequel. I got slightly confused by the narrator at times, a man who knew Marian when she was a teenager. He’d always had a crush on her. I’m not sure why the novel needed this narrator. At one point I forgot who he was and had to turn back to the novel’s beginning for a reminder. But then I decided I’d not let it bother me and just appreciate Marian Sutro and this novel. Mawer writes exquisitely and Tightrope draws you in to Marian’s life, the consequences of her actions during WWII and how she copes in the present.

Why is Marian Sutro a superb literary character worth revisiting? Mawer writes: “Try to see yourself as this lot see you. A stunning woman, dressed like a film star, who has done things no one here would dream of. Parachuted into occupied territory, lived a secret life, been captured and I don’t know, tortured probably.” She’s an independent spirit. She’s a feminist. She has lavish style and intensity. You want to be her or be friends with her. She exudes a magnetic charm and fierceness. Her military experience forces her into a gray zone. Whose side is she on? She was a spy and POW in WWII. She has sex with whomever she wants. She married a man who intensely pursued her, not particularly for love but perhaps for companionship. It doesn’t keep her from affairs with other men during her travels. On the cover, Marian looks like she’s in a Tamara de Lempicka painting. She’d be an ideal subject for the bold artist.

Mawer includes cold war fears, atomic bombs, a gay scientist (Marian’s brother) as well as Marian’s love affair with a Russian Jew. On this relationship, Mawer writes: “In Absolon’s presence she no longer thought of Benoit, or Clement, or Veronique or Alan. They all seemed irrelevant. And she no longer contemplated death and betrayal but speculated instead on the possibility of staying with this man, Absolon, for the rest of her life, in Canada maybe, under an assumed name. Absurd, of course, but she had these thoughts.” Marian’s brother is one of the scientists working on weapons and, more importantly, bombs. He’s gay during a particularly dangerous time to be gay in England. Marian scoffs at his choice of lover: “Her brother queer, the lover of some skinny, common youth.”

Plenty of elements keep you intrigued. It’s not the confusing John Le Carre-type espionage plot which I could never follow. This novel remains character-driven with lovely descriptive passages and a riveting narrative.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.


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