Roberta Recommends: Three ( Very Dissimilar) Novels

October 31, 2007 at 2:26 am (Book clubs, Book review, books)

hamilton-case.jpg The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser takes place in the first half of the 20th century in Sri Lanka, then still known as Ceylon. As this small island nation struggles to free itself from colonial rule, first by the Dutch and later by the British, one family’s destiny plays out with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. This novel has a lot going for it: terrific writing, sly wit, riveting characters, a great story, and, of course, an exotic setting rendered in vivid, broad brush strokes by an obviously gifted writer.

de-kretser-michelle.jpg Michelle de Kretser has another novel, The Rose Grower, and a short story collection, both of which were published prior to 2004, the year that The Hamilton Case was published in the U.S. I can find very little information about this author, other than that she was born in Sri Lanka and currently resides in Australia. (De Kretser received an award at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair for the German language edition of The Hamilton Case.)

my-sister.jpg jodipicoult_narrowweb__300x4680.jpg This is the situation at the outset in Jodi Picoult’s novel My Sister’s Keeper: while still a toddler, Kate Fitzgerald was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of leukemia. The only way to increase her odds of survival was to provide a donor who is a perfect genetic match. Tests showed that neither Kate’s older brother nor either of her parents fulfilled this requirement. And so her mother and father, with the help of a geneticist, set about producing another sibling, one guaranteed to be a perfect match. As the novel opens, this third child, Anna, now thirteen years old, is seeking legal representation in order to achieve “medical emancipation” from her parents. She has already donated blood products and bone marrow to Kate; now, she is being asked to donate a kidney. She loves her sister, but she is fed up with the onerous obligation she has lived with her entire life and wants out.

Well, Anna’s petition precipitates a crisis, of course, but it is only one of many. I don’t think I have ever read a novel in which disaster piled upon disaster with such dizzying speed. Every time you think the worst has happened, something worse happens. The unblinking description of Kate’s symptoms and treatments makes for appalling reading. You would have to be very hard hearted not to feel her pain, although she endures it all with admirable courage and stoicism.

My Sister’s Keeper is as much about Kate’s family as it is about her. Kate’s mother spends most of her time being frantic, angry, or both. Her firefighter father is a good enough sort, but he never seemed quite real to me. There is a subplot involving Anna’s lawyer and her legal guardian, or guardian ad litem. I could not have cared less about these two people and their soap opera, on-again off-again romance. In fact, I (somewhat reluctantly) gave myself permission to skim the sections involving these two people. This is a novel of high drama that veers toward melodrama a little too often for my taste. The ending, which has generated plenty of controversy, is shocking, totally unexpected, and also rather contrived. Picoult’s writing is good but not great; ditto for her character creation. But in all fairness, there are times when she really nails it, and there are some powerful scenes of confrontation and of tender love mixed with anguish that are well done and ring absolutely true.

harbor.jpg adams_l.jpg I am also ambivalent about Harbor by Lorraine Adams. This first novel by a Washington Post reporter is about illegal Algerian immigrants living in a small, cramped apartment in Boston and the American girl who lives with them. We are never told exactly how this young woman, whose name is Heather, has come to be part of this highly irregular household. She is already living there when the novel begins.

This is certainly not the Boston I know and love; the Boston of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Symphony Hall, and so forth. These characters are forced to eke out a marginal existence in exceedingly bleak surroundings. The temptation to make a fast buck by illegal means is ever present, and occasionally acted upon. On the other hand, Aziz, a main character who is an illegal immigrant, does get a job in a restaurant, along with one of his roommates. Both youths show themselves to be conscientious, responsible workers. Even so, all except Heather – and later, Aziz’s brother, who comes into the country legally – live in constant fear of discovery and deportation.

The action in Boston alternates with flashbacks of Aziz’s combat experiences in Algeria. These sections of the novel feature explicit scenes of torture and killing. They are the main source of my ambivalence. The reviews of Harbor – at least, the ones that I read, and that caused me to seek the book out – were full of justified praise for the writing and for the realistic depiction of the Algerians’ desperation, but I don’t recall reviewers commenting specifically on the violence. Maybe you’re considered a literary “wuss” if you can’t stomach it. If so, I plead guilty.

Do I recommend Harbor or not? Actually, I do. The writing is meticulous, and I did care about the plight of the immigrants, especially Aziz. As for Heather, at first, I dismissed her as a foul-mouthed brat, but she ended by surprising me with her loyalty and resourcefulness. But as to those flashbacks, be warned; they are hard to take.

All three of these books would be excellent choices for book clubs. ReadingGroupGuides.com has guides for The Hamilton Case and My Sister’s Keeper. Random House, Inc. features a guide for Harbor.

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