Downtown View:Summer Reading

By Karen Cord Taylor

Have you kept up with contemporary authors? They get praise from reviewers, but some are challenging. Their books are admired for convoluted structure and no plot line. You search for the good writing the reviewers say they demonstrate, but you find it hard to determine what certain sentences mean. The authors can seem self-absorbed, forgetting they have readers. (I’ll not name those books. If you come upon them, you’ll know.)

I’m here to save summer reading. You can depend on the following books, written by Boston-area authors, for good story-telling. One is about a well-to-do Jewish-Yankee-ish family in Rhode Island, another written from the point of view of a child of Italian immigrants in the North End. The third is about a Jewish family in Boston’s suburbs. I guess that almost covers New England’s waterfront.

Let’s start with Eden, written by Beacon Hill resident Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg.

The action centers around Becca, now 72, who expects to lose the coastal summer house her father built in the 1920s because her late husband, a doctor, left her with debt. But debt is only part of the story, which involves four generations of family members, a local ice-cream seller, an institution in Kansas City and the after-effects of decisions made long ago.

There are many stories about New Englanders’ summer houses in jeopardy. But this story engages the reader through events in the year 2000 explained by events in the first half of the 20th century. The story is satisfyingly long, while broken up into digestible segments. Becca’s character is gratifyingly complex. Themes deal with efforts to gain control over events and other people, tradition played out against new attitudes and progress, tribalism and its breakdown, class, status and wealth.

A few characters are left by the wayside. I wanted to know more about the doctor who caused the debt. That’s hard to do with a high income and a modicum of attention. Did he have a gambling addiction? Something else?

But this complaint is small. The tale is original and well told.

The Saturday Evening Girls Club by Jane Healey takes place in Boston’s North End in the early 1900s. The club actually existed, but the characters are Healey’s creation. While the story of women trying to escape from conventional expectations is familiar, this book has a richer take on that theme. Not only must these women deal with the general society’s expectations, but they have the added burden of the “old” country’s culture that their immigrant parents can’t discard.

The story is told by Caprice, a member of a Sicilian family. She is a talented hat designer and dreams of opening a millinery shop. The decisions she and her friends make as they navigate jobs, boyfriends and their own friendship show the contradictions they struggle with and the slim perch on which their prospects rest. They help out in the club’s pottery studio and retail shop, named the Paul Revere Pottery, whose output is collectable today. There’s a cameo appearance by Isabella Stewart Gardner and a more sustained role for Helen Storrow, who financed club activities, and the North End librarian, Edith Guerrier, who started the book club out of which the more comprehensive group grew.

This is a sweet story of friendship and change. It reminds us that America’s history is and has always been filled with adult immigrants who can’t let go of old ways even as their children assimilate into the American mainstream.

Stuart Nadler’s third novel, The Inseparables, must have been called that because the story follows members of a Jewish family who have a hard time getting rid of something. Oona, a hard-hitting orthopedic surgeon, wants to get rid of her husband, Spencer, who suffers from an addiction to weed and a lack of ambition. Spencer doesn’t want to get rid of either of these afflictions.

Their high school daughter, Lydia, wants to get rid of the Internet photos of her naked body posted by a predatory boy whom she naively trusted. Oona’s mother, Henrietta, wants to get rid of the slutty reputation she acquired from a book she wrote long ago as well as the grief caused by the death of her beloved, but imprudent husband, a chef.

The men don’t come off well in this novel. In addition to the stoned Spencer, there is the scumbag boy and Henrietta’s husband, who turns out to have spent all their money in a futile, foolish attempt to save his dying restaurant.

Downtown Boston readers may have the same reaction I did in reading this book about a suburban family—they spend so much time driving.

Read all three of these books this summer. Novels usually tell you more about a culture than non-fiction does. Each of these books gives bits of insight into New England and its people.

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