Tag Archives: suicide

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

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I’ve always liked Julian Barnes’ writing but I’ve read only a few of his books.  The Sense of an Ending reminded me of how skillfully he strings together ideas in the guise of a narrative. The book is an examination of life and of several particular lives through the prism of one character’s point of view. The title refers to a philosphical question, the experience of aging, and the factual end of a life inexplicably cut short. It could have been deadly dull inhabiting the mind of a late middle-aged, middle-class British guy but Barnes is too good for that. The book was almost a page-turner. 

Tony Webster recalls his high school friendships and the Big Questions of adolescence with extraordinary clarity. The rest of his life has played out with amicable events–a career, a marriage, a child and household, a divorce–nothing too angsty or uncivilized. He thinks he is at peace with his world although niggling doubts about the meaning of it all sneak in around the edges. And then a missive from the blue drops him back into the relationships and confusion of his first love and most fascinating friend, opens the subject of suicide and the subjective or objective nature of it, and teases him with a truth that remains elusive but tantalizing.

Barnes creates compelling characters from what could be standard-issue sixties, middle-class Brits. The students don’t dare too much in the physical world–they live half in the mindset of the fifties and are definitely not rockers or hippies or even remotely trendy. They do test ideas relentlessly, wonder about the reliability of memory and history, and are incredibly snobby about intellectualism. As young people, Tony and his friends are self-absorbed and a little clueless. Well, one of them isn’t all that clueless but his glittering aura goes somewhat tarnished over time.  A first love is suitably nerve-wracking but oddly off-balance. Two tragic deaths seem unrelated but have more in common than first revealed. What Tony discovers holds no satisfaction and no solace but he is an earnest guy who tries to do the right thing and it’s easy to forgive his stumbling around and wish him well.

The Big Answer in The Sense of an Ending flattens the exalted worship of theory and makes sense of the anguished reactions to both random damage and logical consequences. Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize for this novel and  it is so accomplished and polished a story that it is easy to understand why.

The Sense of an Ending [Deckle Edge] (Vintage International)   Julian Barnes | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

Swan – Frances Mayes

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Swan was a much-needed break from murder and mayhem, although a tragic death is the catalyst for much of the action in the book. Frances Mayes has written a smart story full of smart, literate, thoughtful people who happen to be as eccentric as any true southerners.

Ginger Mason and her brother J.J. were devastated when 11-year old Ginger discovered the bloody corpse of her mother on the kitchen floor of their house in Swan, Georgia. Swan is one of those places that exists, lush and ancient, in a pocket of the deep South, clinging to its old ways, kindnesses and cruelties. Ginger fled, eventually, to Italy to work on an Etruscan archaeological dig. Marco is the archaeologist who wins her heart but even he can’t compete with disturbing news from Swan that sends Ginger back across the Atlantic to her family and its ghosts.

J.J., once considered to be headed to medical school to follow in his father’s footsteps, spends his time hunting and fishing in the swamps and bayou, collecting old arrowheads and carved fishing spears from the Creek Indians who once inhabited the area. He disappears for days and weeks at a time, as he has since the day their mother was declared a suicide and their father began the two years of steady drinking that would lead to a stroke and life in a nursing home.

The story tracks what happens when their mother’s grave is vandalized, dumping her mostly preserved body out in the mud of the graveyard. The crime opens all the old wounds and exacerbates the losses. The aunt who raised the two children is one of the women who discovers her sister-in-law’s body and is thoroughly unnerved. But her agitation has as much to do with a sense of guilt as it does with shock.

Past secrets can’t remain buried once the corpse is exposed and a routine inspection of the body reveals another shocking truth. Ginger and J.J. try to cope with the onslaught of new knowledge and old pain. They use the haunts of their childhood to soothe the damage and the strain of dealing with their quirky family, longtime help and the citizenry of tiny Swan, Georgia in which privacy is a foreign concept and memories are long.

Swan is beautifully written—a real pleasure to read. The characters are intelligent, not oafish or superficial. I’ve never read Mayes’ well-known Tuscany books but I might check out one or two for the pure enjoyment of reading such fluent and rewarding writing.

Swan   Frances Mayes | Broadway Books   2002

The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont

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Jason Prosper is a rich kid in boarding school, a new one for his senior year as he has been invited to leave his legacy boarding school after his roommate commits suicide in their dorm room. The Starboard Sea is a beautifully written and sensitive account of Jason’s struggle to deal with the suicide—the roommate was his lifelong best friend and sailing partner—as well as his attempt to remake his life in the Bellingham Academy, a New England prep on the ocean with a fiercely competitive sailing team of its own.

Amber Dermont knows her way around the politics of prep school and invests her book with a bounty of authentic details to bring that rarified world to life. The students are a slightly more polished Lord of the Flies crew. Lots of drinking, boasting, venomous bullying, casual sex, rule-breaking and exam-sweating happens in-between people climbing up and down fire escapes and in and out of dorm windows of the opposite gender. But that’s all backdrop for the serious heart of the story. The kids are privileged, obnoxious, eccentric and casually vicious. Jason is actually a likeable kid who connects with an odd girl who doesn’t know if her real father is Robert Mitchum and keeps Fred Astaire’s tap shoes hanging in her room.

Parents pull out fat wallets to buy advantage and amnesty from consequences, seniors apply to the family ivy league college with every assurance of acceptance, weekends in Cambridge and elsewhere involve penthouses, mansions, fabulous art collections, European sports cars, vintage motorboats, name brand liquor and limitless drugs. Personal relationships need plenty of strategic management and there are long memories for perceived betrayals and transgressions. Jason is an exceptional sailor, generous friend, guilt-ridden survivor and spoiled second son with parents who are divorcing. Aidan, the girl who begins to redeem him from the nightmare of his relationship with his suicidal roommate, suffers her own demons as she tests, and then trusts, Jason.  

A hurricane and a horrible accident blow Jason’s fragile world apart again and he blames himself for a second tragedy. When a slip in conversation clues him to a darker secret behind a death in the school, he turns his tactical brilliance to getting at the truth. The Starboard Sea is filled with sailing lore, rounded characters, suspense and emotion. The language is striking, the imagery is cinematic, the intelligence is visible and the story is both moving and memorable.  I couldn’t put it down–stayed up past 4 a.m. to finish it 

The Starboard Sea: A Novel   Amber Dermont  | St. Martin’s Press  2012

Clover Adams – Natalie Dykstra

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Clover Adams, born Marian Hooper in 1843, came from a relatively prominent and well-to-do Boston family beset by an operatic excess of tragedy. She was the baby of the family and her mother’s pet—her mother gave her the nickname Clover. But even the charms of a bright and beloved child were no match for the tuberculosis that claimed her life when Clover was only five. That was the first of the child’s major losses—throughout her life, a number of parental figures and family members died unexpectedly or committed suicide. When she was nine, her aunt, who had become a mother-figure to Clover after her mother’s death, separated from her husband and killed herself by drinking arsenic. Each loss stripped away more of Clover’s sanity and security. Natalie Dykstra examines those losses and Clover’s “gilded” life in her wonderfully researched biography Clover Adams.

Robert Hooper was devoted to his motherless children and focused all of his energy on their wellbeing and education. Clover went to the finest schools and received an education as good as or better than most young men of her station. She moved in a privileged world of social events, horseback rides, summers in grand houses on the New England shore, dinners with the best and the brightest artists and public figures at her table. Clover was plain, unlike her beautiful mother and sisters, and never was comfortable being painted or photographed. Despite her intelligence, lively curiosity and aptitude for engaging conversation, she married much later than her peers—at twenty-eight, to Henry Adams who fell hard for her despite his illustrious family’s disapproval.

Clover and Henry took the traditional grand tour of Europe during the year after their marriage and she suffered an alarming depression while they cruised the Nile for three months. But, by the time they returned to Europe, she had recovered and the couple socialized with American friends abroad and luminaries in the worlds of the arts, letters and politics. They spent several years in Boston on their return, living near Clover’s doting father while Henry taught at Harvard. Clover was uncommonly talented at setting up a gracious home and establishing a sought-after salon, skills she took to Washington when they moved to the capital so Henry could research his ambitious American histories, the books that would make his reputation.

By all accounts, Henry and Clover Adams lived a charmed life at the center of the social whirl that was Washington. All credit for this goes to Clover who was adept at managing invitations and who consistently maintained the most popular evenings of conversation. But she was searching. She stayed very close to her father, writing him copious letters every Sunday with remarkably gifted recountings of the world around her. Clover Adams was herself a talented writer but Henry, even as he supported and relied on her, made no move to share the literary glory in the family. Clover helped with his research and created a protected space for him to write in—and kept seeking some meaningful occupation of her own.

Eventually she discovered photography and set out to teach herself how to take pictures according to the same artistic standards of the paintings and drawings she and Henry collected. When her talent became obvious and she was asked to contribute a photograph for the cover of a prestigious magazine, Henry objected and she didn’t oppose him. The couple had thoroughbred dogs and horses but no children and Clover’s very full life began to seem empty to her. She and Henry grew apart and his affections shifted to a beautiful married younger mutual friend, although he made no move to act on the attraction and sought ways to protect Clover from another bout of depression.

The death of her father, coming after suicides and deaths in her immediate family, unhinged her and she was inconsolable, gradually slipping into isolation and hopeless melancholy. In December 1845 when she was 42 years old, she drank the potassium cyanide she used to develop her photographs and killed herself. Natalie Dykstra interprets the tragedy of Clover Adams as a mix of artistic and intellectual frustration, irreparable emotional loss at a young age and the possibility of genetic mental instability in her family. It’s hard to assign meaning to her brief life and death. All motives for the suicide could be true. Clover was clearly intelligent, charismatic and talented. She moved in a dazzling world at the top tier of society. She had her share of grief and found it insupportable. What is left is a modest legacy of epistolary and photographic accomplishment. Her husband was famous in his lifetime and remains a prominent historical literary figure. Clover Adams is a nearly forgotten story, brought to life in the pages of Dykstra’s book.

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life   Natalie Dykstra | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

Unfinished Portrait – Anthea Fraser

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Unfinished Portrait by Anthea Fraser isn’t so much a who-dunnit? as a where-is-she? Writer Rona Parish is commissioned to produce a biography of Elspeth Wilding, a celebrated painter who disappeared more than a year before, leaving her studio, unfinished work and family behind. Rona hesitates—she is a series amateur sleuth who gets dragged into more mayhem than she can handle–afraid that this story could be more than a simple book. But she succumbs and, naturally, the baffling disappearance takes center stage. Elspeth’s trail lures Rona outside her picturesque village of Marsborough to towns in the surrounding countryside, to London and even to the Scottish coast.

Elspeth Wilding is, or was,  a reclusive, egocentric, wild talent and everyone has a tale to tell about her, many of them unflattering. Rona struggles to maintain her comfortable, event-free life, lunching and dining nearly every day with friends, her twin sister, and her artist husband who lives at home part time and in his studio across town, where he teaches art students several days a week. Rona’s dog needs constant walking. Her sister collects a difficult but attractive boyfriend with a connection to Wilding. Wilding’s family members do and don’t know what happened to her. And all is not as it seems in the art world or in Wilding’s world.

An old friend, a dramatic suicide, a greedy possibly-corrupt celebrity, a loyal housekeeper, divorced parents with new partners, a Scottish hideaway and some old masterpieces complicate the plot. The book is a UK print and is written in British vernacular, which makes it more interesting. Rona’s life of pubs, wine bars, interior design and fashion shows is upscale and moderately privileged—she seems to have a readymade journalism job for the times when she doesn’t feel up to the work of biographies so the story bears a tinge of fairytale. She doesn’t work especially hard nor ask very penetrating questions of her sources.

A murder that seems, and is, senseless lends sudden urgency to solving the mystery but the resolution comes pretty much out of nowhere and doesn’t feel organic to the plot. The concerns of the characters don’t come across as terribly urgent, the evil is grafted on, and the end is not entirely satisfying. Fraser creates a world of fortunate people who are more or less unmindful of their advantages and so it’s hard to get too worked up about their problems. Unfinished Portrait is an undemanding read with lovely Britishisms and an okay but uncompelling mystery that you cannot solve but that is ultimately revealed in detail. Could have been stronger. I’m going to reserve judgment until I plow through one more of her mysteries with a different protagonist, to see whether she dashes off finales as casually in all of her novels.

Unfinished Portrait (Rona Parish Mysteries)   Anthea Fraser | Severn House  2010