Saturday, April 29


Lying is inevitable in the context of war, poverty, inequality.  The lying continues even when the context changes, wars end and years pass and comfort becomes the norm. 

Dust Child, a novel by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, describes the tough life for an Amerasian child born during the Vietnam War and abandoned by family members. 

The book follows three sets of characters, seemingly unconnected, during the war and its aftermath. The characters generally depend on lies and imagination to live with their choices, managing the shame and guilt and protecting other loved ones. 

Phong is an Amerasian child, born during the war and abandoned at an orphanage and later scorned by society and denied schooling due to his racial background. The taunts are even worse for him because his father was African American. The nun who cares for the boy dies and he lives on the streets, where he is soon caught for stealing and sent to a camp for reeducation. After serving time, a man befriends him, offering to help him apply for immigration to the United States, taking advantage of the Homecoming Act, signed in 1987 by then President Ronald Reagan. The catch: The man expects Phong to lie, claiming that he and his wife are close relatives so that they can join him. Immigration authorities discover the scheme, blocking Phong from reapplication. Years later, another man suggests that Phong and his family try again, and offers to assist in exchange for Phong’s life savings. Once again, the plan fails and Phong is resigned to remaining in Vietnam. 

Far away two sisters toil in their family’s rice fields in 1969, trying to help their parents pay off creditors and prevent loss of the family farm. A friend from school visits the village, wealthy and explaining  that she works for an American corporation with offices in Saigon. Once alone with her friends, she admits that she works in a bar and is paid to drink “tea” with American soldiers. The sisters, Trang and Quỳnh, follow the friend to the city, starting work in the club with good intentions after the manager assures the women that they can set firm ground rules. The sisters lie to their parents – planning to work just long enough to pay of the family debts. But the allure of making extra money is strong, and the job soon entails more than dancing, flirting and drinking.

Trang falls in love with a US soldier who sets her up in an apartment while failing to disclose that he has a fiancé waiting at home. Once she becomes pregnant, he abandons her and leaves the country without a good-bye. The sister, Quỳnh, works longer hours to cover expenses and arrange for the infant’s adoption. 

Dan is a Vietnam veteran who flew helicopter missions during the war and suffers from PTSD. Upon returning home, he convinces his fiancé that he simply evacuated injured soldiers and did not take part in attacks. He also keeps his affair with a Vietnamese woman and a subsequent pregnancy secret.  Linda, with the help of friends in Seattle’s Vietnamese community, arranges a trip to the country in 2016, expecting her husband to confront his fears.

Of course, the three sets were connected in the past, and reconnect again, in some obvious ways and one that is unexpected. Dan does not find his daughter, but he finds family.

The surviving sister reflects on her life along with the lies she still tells. “She had tried to live an honest life, but the war had given her no choice. It had forced her to make up a version of herself that was acceptable to others. In a way, making up stories had been the basis of her survival and her success. Her lies had enabled her parents to go on living, and now her lies would protect her sons, their families, her business, and herself.”  

The biggest lie remains a secret. Still the survivors who created those lies confront the truth on their own and forgive, and that provides a small measure of comfort and peace. 

About 100,000 Amerasian children were born during the war, a result of relationships between US soldiers and Vietnamese women. Many, like Phong, were left at orphanages, and most did not know the identity of their fathers, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Some fathers did not know about their children’s existence and others, like Dan, left the children behind anyway. Worries about a massacre of the children and their mothers went unfounded, but most Amerasians were banned from schools, destined to remain uneducated and unskilled. 

Neither country considered the children a priority, according to Smithsonian Magazine: “'The care and welfare of these unfortunate children...has never been and is not now considered an area of government responsibility,' the U.S. Defense Department said in a 1970 statement. 'Our society does not need these bad elements,' the Vietnamese director of social welfare in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) said a decade later.” 

Vietnam and the United States were enemy countries, preventing travel and relationships. Only a small percentage of Amerasians managed to locate their fathers or other family members despite DNA tests, legal aid groups and ample advertising.

Lying and time can protect old secrets. 

Sunday, April 9



A dreamy, unreal quality pervades Grace Li's Portrait of a Thief – the story of five college students who meet with a Chinese executive who asks them to “take back what the West has stole,” namely team up to target five museums. The goal? Steal five zodiac sculptures that once adorned a fountain at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing and return them to China. In turn, China’s youngest billionaire will pay them $10 million each. 

The planning is absurd – movies for research, bold encounters with museum staff? The students abandon classes at prestigious schools – flying to Europe and staying in the same hotel, breaking into museums in Copenhagen and Paris while ignoring a host of security and technology challenges and regularly congratulating themselves on their brilliance – to break into two museums.  

The book relies on every possible definition of dream for an extended metaphor – odd, vague scenes experienced during sleep; lack of awareness and logic while awake; aspirations and achievements; products of imagination or history that might have been. And of course, opportunities associated with the American Dream. The novel’s writing style plays with meanings of “dream,” mixing precision language to describe mission goals with fast fragments to atmosphere and emotions.    

The children of Chinese immigrants are talented, beautiful – adept at masking feelings and conditioned to believe they are special, risking comfortable lives to break the law in five countries, or as one says, “breaking everything he had been taught not to do.” The students – artist/art history major at Harvard, pre-med student at UCLA, driver and mechanical engineering student at Duke, a public policy student at Duke and a Google software engineer who dropped out of MIT – are also moody, fretful about the trajectory of their lives without the promised $10 million. They fear being mediocre, “anything less than exceptional,” as much as failure. Failure is not an option, not with “so many people who were counting on them to be more than they were.” 

Ready to leave college, the students are conflicted about their place in the world and the appropriate target of their allegiance. All five are fascinated by Chinese culture and morose about family choices that disrupted connections with China. “All parents leave their own scars,” notes Irene. “We’re the ones who have to heal from them.” Nearing the end of college studies, the others remain uncertain about choices and place in society. “Hers was the story of every small town, every immigrant family trying to hold on to the American Dream,” muses Lily. “She had spent her whole life getting asked where she was from and trying to make sense of the answer…. She only knew that, growing up, neither China nor America felt like it was hers.”

Lily describes the struggle that many young adults feel. “It feels like home shouldn’t have to be this complicated. If you were missing something, but you could not even name what it was – did it count? Did it matter?”

The book takes liberties with the background of the zodiac heads. “The fountain heads, designed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) for the Qianlong emperor, have assumed a special, and highly sensitive, place in China’s cultural heritage,” reports Antiques Trade Gazette. “Although they amount to just 12 of the estimated million-plus items that were removed after French and British forces sacked the Yuanmingyuan in the final act of the Second Opium War (October 1860), they have become totemic of China’s century of humiliation at the hands of imperial Western powers.”

Five heads remain missing, whereabouts unknown. 

The students chatter about power, history and righting past wrongs regarding the exchange of art among countries, but they are pawns. Their primary goal is collecting their share of the $50 million, a shortcut to the American Dream and hopes for lives more comfortable and free. 

Wednesday, April 5




Friendships can move from lightness to darkness with age, experiences and the blunt truth, as suggested by a novel of two girls growing up in Karachi – Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie.

The teens relish their friendship, “the certainty that whatever happened in the world you would always have this one person, this North Star, this rock, this alter ego who knew your every flaw down to your atoms and who still, despite it all, chose to stand with you and by you through everything that the world had yet to throw at you, every heartache, every disappointment, every moment of darkness.” 

One family is adept at navigating a corrupt culture and the other yearns for freedom - and years later, a friend can become a source of darkness.

Maryam is wealthy and assertive, confident she will bypass her father to inherit her grandfather’s leather company, a rough business with workers and competitors brutalized into compliance. Zahra and her family are less wealthy though content and intellectual. Zahra grows up respecting her parents’ integrity. Her father hosts a television show about cricket, and much like “journalist friends who had spent years navigating a path between conscience and consequence,” resists a demand from the Zia administration’ to credit the dictator for one victor. Dictatorship and everyday violence “had shrunk all their lives into private spaces,” she muses. Zia dies soon afterward, and the girls celebrate the new government led by Benazir Bhutto. Still, a new government does not eliminate corruption and controls from Pakistan. 

The wealthy are accustomed to using and scapegoating others. Maryam demands that her driver let her operate the vehicle without a license. The grandfather warns Maryam that he wants her to be fearless, but “not like every other soft, silly girl,” “spoiled and reckless.” The grandfather fires the driver and “She recognized, but couldn’t change, the awfulness of being less upset about Abu Bakr’s fate than she was by the tone of disgust in her grandfather’s voice when he told her she had ceased to be exceptional.” 

Not long afterward, the two girls attend a party and Zahra jumps into a car with older boys, including one admired by Maryam. Maryam follows, and a few hours of terror ensue until Maryam commands the boys take them home. The school expels Maryam's friend, and neither girl corrects the parents or schoolmistress about Zahra’s role as instigator.

Once again, the grandfather expresses deep disappointment, asking what kind of person Maryam is. She responds: “The kind of person you’ve taught me to be.” The grandfather dismisses the family. “I thought I could make you want you need to be. But you’re just a girl, aren’t you? You’ll always be a girl. And there’ll always be Jimmys out there who’ll see through everything else and know that. Perhaps I should be grateful to him for making that so clear.” Maryam insists that she has more to learn from her grandfather and he retorts: “You’re learning all the wrong things. Self-absorbed and willful. No moral center. You’ll never be who I need you to be.” Maryam’s parents send her to boarding school in England, and the two women reconnect, attending college in London and launching successful careers.

In forming friendships, children overlook class, race, and sometimes even values. Neither woman remembers what triggered their first connection. “The exact origins of their friendship were lost in a past that stretched back beyond memory.” Shared interests, admiration, convenience connect children. Adults connect via values.

With age comes assumptions and even secrets and lies. “Deep down they both knew that no one had the kind of friendship when they were forty that the two of them had at fourteen.” The two women have contrasting careers and personal lives. Maryam is a venture capitalist and founder of founder of a tech image-sharing firm that involves facial recognition and privacy concerns. Zahra is a civil rights activist who worries about Britain’s complacency over democracy: “things that would set off alarm bells in countries with histories of authoritarian rule are allowed to slide by here.” She is capable of whipping up protests but worries about modern motivation. “The tens of thousands, maybe more, who showed up at rallies had less and less the air of people determined to bend the arc of history toward justice these days, and more and more that of those in need of a support group.” Zahra has little patience with despair, especially after growing up with conflict, viewing the feeling as a luxury and self-indulgence.   

Zahra fights for rights of strangers, yet her personal life is mostly limited to Maryam and her family. Maryam, left-wing when profitable, fiercely protects those close to her and has little sympathy for strangers.  “The world was exactly as her grandfather had always taught her it was,” Maryam reflects. “Terrible and brutal, unforgiving. But she also knew the truth that followed on from that, which he had failed to understand: Hold close the ones you love, protect them. There is no other source of light.”

The two never fully talk about the terrifying night in Karachi, and too many assumptions are made, too many accusations withheld. “The problem with childhood friendship was that you could sometimes fail to see the adult in front of you because you had such a fixed idea of the teenager she once was, and other times you were unable to see the teenager still alive and kicking within the adult.” Zahra comes to realize that “perhaps friendships weren’t all about what you said to each other but also about what you didn’t say.” 

The friendship reaches a breaking point after Maryam uses her software, takes revenge on Jimmy years later, prompting his expulsion from Britain, and Zahra feels compelled to resign from her prestigious position. An ugly rupture might have been avoided had the two women talked more about that night. 

Zahra may need the friendship more. While appreciating her home as a quiet refuge, “she found herself imagining a day – not soon, but eventually – when loneliness would stalk indoors and refuse to be evicted.”

A lifelong friend – a person who understands your background and culture, your dreams and fears and history – is a treasure.  Yet full adult friendships require a secure foundation of values. Friends need not always agree with friends, suggests Nir Eyal in Psychology Today  “Values are not synonymous with viewpoints. You can maintain friendships with people who don’t share your politics, for instance—as long as you both share the values of seeking understanding, keeping an open mind, and arguing constructively.”

Though friendships are essential, many older people struggle starting new ones. Cultivate and invest in relationships, including periodic assessments to avoid treacherous patterns. Friendships fade, suggests Jennifer Senior in a beautiful essay for The Atlantic, concluding that it's actually unusual for such relationships to last.

Friends shape how we live and even think, and deliberate choices are in order.

Image courtesy of "The Rules of Friendship" by Michael Argyle and Monica Henderson. 

Monday, March 20

Less is more


Economics, “the study of how people allocate scarce resources for production, distribution, and consumption, both individually and collectively,” has been described as dry, boring and even dismal. Martin Riker describes one sleepless night for a young economics professor, scheduled to deliver a guest lecture the following day. Mimicking patterns of insomnia, The Guest Lecture describes a mother's angst over partisan politics, climate change, personal identity crises and “how my daughter’s generation will never know the sense of well-being my own took for granted, the limitless security we felt but never realized we were feeling.” Abigail lays awake in her hotel bed, imagining a conversation with the subject of her talk, John Maynard Keynes, and his essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”

Published a year after the start of the Great Depression, in 1930, the essay imagined a better world for children over the next century. Optimistic and pragmatic, Keynes urged understanding the difference between wants and needs as well as absolute needs and relative needs. Prioritizing needs would allow more free time for education, art and other endeavors. “Leisure” may sound “like another word for doom, for failure” and yet “the belief that not working is something everyone should want,” Abigail muses. “Scarcity would be eradicated, rich countries would share with poorer countries, and before you knew it, everyone would be fed, housed, clothed… The whole world would be finished with ‘just a job.’” People would judge their lives, “not in dollars and possessions, but in how our time is spent.” Keynes critiques Abigail’s speech and life, urging conciseness: “You were born into an era of overload. Leaving things out is the great unmastered art form of your age.” 

Keynes had flaws, as conceded by Abigail, including anti-Semitism. But a key failing of his essay might be his failure to recognize our shortcomings – the distractions of television and the internet, the reckless consumerism and endless growth that contribute to environmental degradation, income inequality, erosion of democracy, widespread failure to achieve contentment and a culture that “churns out citizens full of antagonism toward itself.”  She mourns how “the imagination, wellspring of optimism and possibility has turned on itself, and now spends all its time obsessing and making everything worse.” She blames politics for the despair, noting that while the world always had challenges, the US quickly transformed from optimism and hope under Obama to pessimism and anger under Trump. She regards ideology as a set of assumptions that sooth fears. “Ideology isn’t a bad thing… but failure to recognize ideology for what it is, to bear in mind that society and culture are things we made up and can remake and improve, keeps us from changing those aspects of our lives that could be better…. Like the story that we’re all going to get our acts together on climate change before it’s too late. That is one I personally need in order to get through the day…” 

Other people determine our success. After failing to secure tenure, Abigail questions every aspect of her identity and inability to reveal her essential self: “That for too long you’d held in your head many self-romanticizing notions about your position as an outsider, notions that allowed you to feel sure of yourself and important to yourself as long as you were never forced to share them – the notions – with anyone else? That as long as you didn’t share this side of yourself with anyone else, it was all unadulterated potential, never forced to perform, never exposed to judgment.”  The realization comes on the heels of hearing a radio show that posed the question “How many Black friends do you have?” Abigail decides that she has no friends at all. She feels alienated, incapable of starting conversations even when dropping her child off at kindergarten: “The other parents all lined up talking like they already knew each other, like maybe there’d been an orientation or parent party I’d missed.” 

Mistakes made while young, ones that should not have mattered then or years later, haunt her nights. She cringes over her interactions with others: “you are uniquely ill-equipped to convey to the world what you care about or what you want to say. You know these things in your mind, or think you know them, and you are capable of saying these things or writing them, but the moment you do, you immediately doubt them. You are capable of being many selves but the moment you commit to one, it becomes an imposter, a dummy to dress up and roll out into the world in your place." She hates the dummy and wonders how other people learned to be so “public.” She frets about the fear of “not having lived,” which is really “a terrible series of tortures with no redeeming value.” She hides because the “person who puts herself out there is always the accused” and prefers instead “to live in a juvenile state of perpetual expectation.” 

So Abigail is left alone with her imagination, “the place where you ought to feel most safe and free, that you are in fact most weighed down by doubt and fear.” She tries to tame her racing thoughts. Sometimes “ideas spill out and for the most part make sense. A single thought doesn’t stick in the same spot but moves on to make room for a new on.” 

Abigail envies the Bloomsbury group, Keynes’ talented circle of friends including Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and T.S. Eliot. “So many amazing people and the different ways they’ve contributed to humanity and all along all I’ve wanted was to be one of them.” Still, Abigail is grateful for her husband and child. “Having a child doesn’t make you better than other people, but it did make me better than myself,” she notes. “Being absorbed with someone other than yourself must be better than being absorbed with only yourself.” And those experiences can provide training for meeting and understanding others: Step back, learn about yourself by assessing how others speak to you. “From this you can tell not who they are, but who they think you are.” We must remember the same when addressing others. Enjoy the process and do not count on success: “whether or not the world wants what you are good at doing at precisely the moment when you are offering it is anybody’s guess…. If you’re going to bet on yourself, bet irrelevance.” 

The book ends like a dream, vague, unsubstantial, not entirely satisfying, much like society’s general discontent. We fail to wrestle control over our economic system, with inadequate demands and failure of imagination. “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” concludes that the world, each life in it, could be very different – by confronting new ideas with a good attitude, extracting bad habits and refusing to live by rote while applying imagination to envision potential. We are but guests in this world who might do better by imagining conversations with children of the next century.

Monday, February 20


Devil House by John Darnielle is psychological suspense bordering on confusion. The novel begins with strong, precise writing and characters who tease readers’ curiosity. But the book's conclusion will disappoint as an unreliable narrator goes too far – descending into careless deceit, contradictions and possible insanity. 

Lead narrator Gage Chandler writes true crime - “the crimes people tell stories about, and the secret ones our stories seek to conceal.” Public attention helps build the stories, as “People get murdered everywhere, but not every murder blooms into myth.” 

The book analyzes transitions, friendship, inequality, parenting, refuges from abuse. The teen characters in two of Gage's books, one published and filmed, the other in progress, have parents who neglect them. When mothers try to become close, the sons pull back. "Remembering that children are older than you think they are is one of the most reliable errands of parenthood, and one of the hardest."  Teenagers are mysteries whether they come from so-called “good” homes or not, and no good guidance exists for preparing children for every crisis, odd situation or friendship. "But teaching your children to take care of themselves and letting them do it are two different things,” the narrator advises. “The former is a long labor of patience, and focus, and forbearance. The latter requires skills you never have time to learn when you're busy practicing patience, maintaining focus, and picking battles.” 

As a writer, Chandler is obsessed with detail and moments when choices are made. "My mother always taught me to take stock of the moment you're in, to not miss the big transitions. 'If you miss one, you don't get the chance to see it again,' she said." At the same time, Chandler regards forgetfulness as a gift. He claims to take pride in his research methods, but repeatedly deviates from his own rules. One example: He recommends letting interview subjects talk at length to share details, but interrupts during a key moment as a former shelter employee describes the patterns of homeless teens.  

The book details two crimes in California, more than a decade apart –the story of a young caring teacher who kills and dismembers two students who attempt to burglarize her Morro Bay home in 1972 and murders in a defunct Milpitas pornography shop of 1986. Chandler's editor urges him to write another book about the1986 murders – and Chandler buys the building to recreate the scene. Place and belongings intertwine with personalities, even while Chandler points out that most possessions remain with owners for less than a year. "They get donated to church bazaars when you're done with them; you like to imagine the former things of your daily routine going on to new lives about which you'll never know a thing." 

The 1986 case is unresolved with teen suspects but fewer leads and more contradictions. Derrick, described as the quintessential responsible high school senior preparing for college, hangs around the failing porn shop after school to help clean. He retains a key after the owner gives up on the business and invites friends to hang out at the store, including one homeless teen who has returned to the community and needs a place to crash. The e small group employs their art skills to transform the shop into a nightmarish setting that becomes known as the Devil House. 

Each teen's identity varies depending on time of day, location or companions. The group of teens in Milpitas in Milpitas are nostalgic, anxious about passing time. Derrick describes the routines he will miss upon leaving his home town - "bike rides on known streets, people he'd known half his life, the many perks of familiarity that only feel like burdens if you fear never being relieved of them." Another friend comments, "Even when we don't find ourselves doing something wild, we sort out several selves along the line as we're becoming the people we will be.... Most of the time, it's hardly even worth trying to remember how it happened. Most of the time, no one will care." Another character confides during an interview: “Am I the same person I was when I was young? Are my earlier selves still safe somewhere inside me? Is there a thread somewhere that connects the past to the present, or is everything more chaotic than we’d like to think?” The same questions clearly bother Chandler. 

The book is peppered with hints that the crime stories and Chandler’s own story are riddled with untruths. At one point, a character confides that “your mind could be your best friend or your worst enemy.” And a teen girl admits “there’s a gulf between the girl I was then and the person I grew up to be; when people want to talk to me about it, I feel like I’m telling them a tory from somebody else’s life.” Chandler concedes that he does not trust observations: “there’s a considerable distance between the things we’re called to bear witness to and the things we’d prefer to see.” All the characters have secrets that, as Chandler puts it do their work in shadows.  

During the course of writing the second story, Chandler receives a lengthy note from the mother of a teen victim in the 1972 case that shakes his confidence. She expresses dissatisfaction with his book, even rage, trying to convince him that her son's life had good moments and worth, despite lifelong abuse from his father and her own complicity. Jesse was a follower, whose only friend plotted the crime that got them killed. Gene was mean, angry, controlling – a friend tough enough to intimidate the abusive father. The mother tragically concludes about that friendship, “How he must have felt like he had finally gotten lucky in life.” 

The end of the book takes an abrupt turn with a new narrator. A childhood friend learns that Chandler published crime fiction, but delays reading his most successful book. “Such enthusiasms are like the tides; you can’t usually fight them effectively, but you can learn to wait them out.” The two men eventually reconnect and readers can’t help but wonder if one or both men might be connected in some way to crimes mentioned in the book - or at least understand the nature of abuse.  

As children, the men were lived in the same town, San Luis Obispo, not far from the setting of the 1972 crime, for two years, before the friend moved to Milpitas, the setting of the second crime. The two men connect and find “It is disorienting to inhabit, even momentarily, any space that has played host to one or more primitive drafts of the self you’ve now become. There can be pleasure in this, as in a reunion. There might also be fear, dread horror.” The visit focuses attention on Chandler's reliability and the friend finds himself questioning Chandler's success.   

Childhood is a distant, unattainable land – the source of hopes and goals, accomplishments and failures. Parents, teachers, classmates, settings and belongings, shape choices, imaginations and our very beings, limiting or expanding possibilities. “To gaze upon a childhood home through adult eyes to engage in an act of disenchantment. Great doors grow small. Turrets vanish. Emblems fray…. One should revisit such places only after having done some hard calculations. What are we willing to trade for a clear view of things. What are the chances we’ll regret the bargain later on?” He later points out that one’s “earliest friends hold a place of privilege in memory.” 

Abused children tend to trust one person, doing less well woith groups, and therefore their stories and choices are limited.  Chandler suggests to his friend that stories keep people going, the ones we tell about ourselves and others. “You learn to find the stories you need when you’re a kid, right? You learn to find the stories you need.” 

Going back home is not easy. Be wary of reconnecting with childhood friends. 

Tuesday, January 31

Fleeing does not mean escape


In Anywhere You Run, two sisters struggle to survive racism along with the trauma of losing their parents and an older sister. In a diary, oldest sister Rose described their father “just a man who wants all the same things every man is entitled to if this country were free.” Rose wonders “what ‘fair’ would feel like,” conceding “All three of us like little birds, our wings clipped by life in Mississippi.”  Jackson, Mississippi, is a dangerous place in 1964 at the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Fair” is particularly challenging for women in their twenties who must contend with sexism, racism and economic inequality. For both, fleeing town is the natural solution when their problems become insurmountable.

Younger sister Violet, a beautiful free spirit, relishes a good time. After shooting and killing a white man who raped her, she tricks a lover to leave town before she running away a second time and purchasing a bus ticket for Washington, DC. Worried the police might be following, Violet abandons the bus in a small town of Chillicothe, Georgia, first working as a housemaid and then a short-order cook. She concludes, “Killing Huxley gave me some justice, but it took away my freedom.” 

Marigold is ambitious, volunteering for a civil rights group while hoping to attend college and study law. But then she becomes pregnant with an out-of-town lawyer who declines marriage. To salvage her reputation, she instead quickly marries an irresponsible would-be club owner, and the two leave for Cleveland. But a strong home life, reinforced by parents who provide love, encouragement and values, can shield individuals against the external forces of hatred. Author Wanda Morris describes the trap of an abusive marriage as terrible and cruel as systemic racism, and Marigold realizes “it was fear that had landed me in a pregnancy and a marriage I never wanted.” 

Violet’s wealthy lover hires an amateur and uneducated detective with an ill child who tracks Marigold to find Violet. The detective is protective of his own family but shrugs about violent treatment of blacks throughout the South, ignorantly assuming a zero-sum game, “less of them, more for him.” 

The two sisters reunite in Chillicothe, but not before more treacherous encounters with the detective and the Klan. Despite a slow and repetitive start, the book quickly picks up speed with suspense and heart.

Each woman runs to solve her problems, but cannot escape her character, family lessons on justice, or sisterly love. 

Wednesday, January 25


In Lessons, Roland Baines regards an abusive relationship from when he was 11 years old as the source of his many desires and failures. A piano teacher at his private boarding school pinches his inner thigh, hard, after he repeatedly makes a mistake during their music drills. He has fantasies about her, and she invites him to her home for lunch. Months later, Roland shows up at the cottage, and the two have intercourse. Memories of the strange teacher haunt him years later in this novel about parenting, abuse, ambition and lost potential. 

From the start, the novel analyzes how memories repeatedly shape our choices, serving as lessons in guiding one's life.    

As an adult, Roland determines that nobody escapes making their own self-made hell “at least one, in a lifetime.” She controls him: “He never had a choice. He didn’t want a choice.” 

Roland’s grades suffer and he leaves school early, avoiding the piano teacher and her attempts to trap him in marriage. That decision frees him in a way while also eliminating his chance to attend college. He decides he can be self-taught while earning an income by writing, teaching tennis and playing in piano bars. Roland travels and dates freely, and his twenties slip by. “He assured himself that he had his freedom and he was having fun. He could control his occasional anxieties about the aimlessness of his existence. But they swelled and finally broke through and could no longer be resisted. He was twenty-eight and not living a useful life…. Many people wasted their twenties or their whole lives in offices, on factory floors and in pubs…. So it had been worthwhile to be carefree, live hand to mouth and not be like everyone else. The very point of being young. Whenever he caught himself thinking or saying things like that, he knew it was himself he needed to convince.”

In West Germany, he studies German and befriends a family in East Berlin. The mother explains to him how children bind them to the communist system: “A bad step by the parents, a moment of unguarded criticism and the children might find the path to university or a decent career barred.”

Over the course of his life, friendships form and break over politics, whether Nazi cruelties or Brexit falsehoods and foolishness. 

A few years later Roland runs into his German teacher, Alissa, who yearns to be a writer, and they marry impulsively: “They decided they must have fallen in love from the start without recognizing the fact.” 

Both Roland and Alissa have jagged relations with their own parents. Her mother, Jane, traveled to Germany just after World War II, keeping a journal to write about the White Rose resistance. Her article is never published after Jane marries Heinrich, who had only a peripheral role in the movement. The general attitude about German citizens during that period – “Unless they took action no one could be exonerated, because every man is ‘guilty, guilty, guilty.’” Roland thinks of Heinrich having a good heart. “So when Heinrich spoke of national redemption by way of constructing a history of anti-Nazi sabotage, his prospective son-in-law did not say what he thought, nothing, not a score of White Rose movements, a million saboteurs… could redeem the industrialized savagery of the Third Reich and the tens of millions of citizens who knew and looked away.” 

Later, Alissa comments, “It’s so easy to forgive other people’s parents.” Of course, that is because troubling childhood memories do not intrude.

Roland confides in Alissa about the abusive piano teacher: “How driven he was, obsessed, and how it seemed an entire lifetime to him then. It took almost an hour to describe the affair, if that was what it was, and the school, the cottage, the two rivers. How strangely it ended. How it never crossed his mind that her behavior was depraved, despicable. Even for years afterwards. He had nothing to judge her by, no scale of values.” 

The couple has a son, Lawrence. His wife, Alissa, abruptly leaves Roland and her son, writing “I’ve been living the wrong life.” Roland is angry at first, investigated by the police for murder, but his emotions later transform into grieving and admiration. “Goethe, Schiller, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu. She understood how a close acquaintance with writers like these could extend and enrich a love of freedom.” 

Roland, listless and somewhat narcissistic, remains determined to give his child a secure home. He holds and comforts Lawrence after Alissa leaves while confronting their future: “Their pulses fell in and out of phase, but one day they would be always out. They would never be this close. He would know him less well, then even less. Others would know Lawrence better than he did, where he was, what he was doing and saying, growing closer to this friend, then this lover…. From his father, occasional visits, a sincere hug, catch up on work, family, some politics, then goodbye…. The long letting go could be the essence of parenthood and from here was impossible to conceive.”

Recognizing the power of childhood memories, Roland ponders the mysteries passing through the mind of the seven-month-old and experiences that may shape the rest of his life: “A shaded emptiness, a grey winter sky against which impressions – sounds, sights, touch – burst like fireworks in arcs and cones of primary colour, instantly forgotten, instantly replaced and forgotten again. Or a deep pool into which everything fell and disappeared but remained, irretrievably present, dark shapes in deep water, exercising their gravitational pull even eighty years later, on deathbeds, in last confessions, in final cries for lost love.” 

After a few years, Alissa publishes her first novel to great acclaim and Roland “saw the beauty of it. On a windy sunlit midweek morning she cleanly transformed her existence as she packed a small suitcase, and leaving her keys behind, walked out the front door, consumed by an ambition for which she was ready to suffer and make others suffer too.” Despite success or maybe because of it, Alissa refuses to connect with her son.

Meanwhile Roland drifts through what he calls “an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events. He had never made an important decision. Except to leave school. No, that too was a reaction.” He makes friends easily and views the world as “agreeably diffuse” while anticipating that “in the new millennium, only eleven years away, humankind would have reached a new level of maturity and happiness.” Of course, that period of mature happiness is brief because the world does not heed history.  

Father and son live comfortably with Roland’s best friend and her children for many years, and the end is bittersweet as Roland determines that life – or the ability to create enduring and influential memories – was “pouring away from him. Events of three weeks ago were already receding or lost completely in a haze. He had to make himself catch some of it, just a little, or it would have been hardly worth living through.”  He keeps journals, one for each passing year, and sorts through his many photos, selecting 100 that represent his life: “there was that essence everyone forgets when a love recedes into the past – how it was, how it felt and tasted to be together through the seconds, minutes, and days, before everything that was taken for granted was discarded then overwritten by the tale of how it all ended, and then by the shaming inadequacies of memory. Paradise or the inferno, no one remembers anything much. Affairs and marriages ended long ago come to resemble postcards from the past. … First to go… was the elusive self, precisely how you were yourself, how you appeared to others.” 

Consider the patterns of memories. How do memories of the well-adjusted, secure person balance one’s self versus others?  

Lawrence follows some of father’s drifting patterns, also marrying a German woman, albeit enjoying a happier relationship that include grandchildren for Roland. The older man flounders yet does not resent his famous wife, counted among Germany’s greatest living writers. If anything, he pities her. “She had no one, no family, no close friends. Time had degraded him too but by all conventional measures, he was the happier. No books though, no paintings, nothing invented that would survive him. Would he swap his family for her yard of books? He gazed at her now familiar face and shook his head for an answer.”

Publishers Weekly quotes McEwan's agent Georges Borschadt as saying, "Acts of creation are the only things that matter." 

But no, that is not the lesson of this novel. Everyday life, family, love, joys and experiences are all that matter, and old memories need not dictate our future, and new relationships can over-ride the pain. As McEwan concludes, “A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson.” 

Intrusive memories can be tamed.