Thursday, May 4, 2017

Lilli de Jong: A Novel, by Janet Benton

Author Janet Benton writes that "in the long days and nights of nursing and nurturing" her own baby, as she held her in her "arms and listened to the ticking of a clock, a voice came now and then" into her mind. "It was the voice of an unwed mother from long ago." The voice clearly inspired this novel about an unwed mother and the hypocrisy and corruption of late Victorian, Philadelphia society that preferred the death of illegitimate children over exercising a duty of care for them and their mothers.

Protagonist, Lilli de Jong, is a teacher at a Quaker school. Her family has deep roots and is well respected in her community. Like other members of her religion, they have eschewed luxury and live plainly without the modern comforts of gas lighting or water pipes. Lilli's mother has recently died, and Lilli, her brother, and her father have become rudderless. After her father has an adulterous affair with a mean-spirited "spinster cousin," the family is exiled from their Quaker Friends community. Her brother and her suitor leave their jobs in the family's furniture business to seek their fortunes in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Isolated, and pregnant by her suitor, Lilli is ordered out of her home by her father's lover-turned wife. Forced to give birth in a charitable institution, Lilli defies convention and refuses to abandon her child to abusive adopters or foundling homes.

Her journey, as an unwed mother, is told through her diary entries. Through her eyes, we see the horrors that society of that time heaped on the most vulnerable: the poor, the elderly, the disabled Civil War veterans, orphans, and, at the bottom of the unwanted pile, unwed mothers and their babies. Benton writes of one scene these unwanted people faced living on the streets: "Early-rising laborers pass, mostly hidden by umbrellas, and sodden rats and dogs run along the bricks, sniffing for tidbits dropped by the street cleaners."

Benton's intelligent prose and meticulous, extensive research sets this novel apart from popular, romantic versions of similar stories. The people, the streets and the buildings of 1883, Philadelphia are described in such detail, reading about them is akin to time travel. This book definitely is a must-read.

(In return for an honest review, I received an advance copy from the publisher via NetGalley.)
Print Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Nan A. Talese (May 16, 2017)
Publication Date: May 16, 2017
Sold by: Random House LLC

Papaya Sunset, by Robert E. Schiller

Robert E. Schiller knows basketball, and in "Papaya Sunset," he manages to draw the reader into the excitement of a close game, a last minute basket, and the intricate moves of the players. As skillfully and colorfully as he describes a basketball game, he tells the story of Stewart Anderson (Sam) Mackenzie, an extremely successful Chicago lawyer who married into a wealthy society family in his early 20s, became a partner in his father-in-law's law firm, and whose life goes bottom up after his extra-marital affair is discovered.

On a "sabbatical," a euphemism for being tossed out of his family and his law firm, Sam lands in Key West, aboard his sail boat, the "Jump Shot." The crisis of his forced sabbatical coincides with his middle aged crisis. Together they are a five alarm fire. We learn that Sam was a star, All American, basketball player who destroyed his leg while making a game winning shot. With pro-basketball an impossibility, he allowed his girlfriend's well-connected family to take control of his life: marriage, law school, partnership, and summers on Mackinaw Island.

After sleepwalking through his life, Sam lands in Key West (the "Conch Republic"), apparently as far from a button down, white shoe law firm as he could get. If you have visited Key West, you will appreciate Schiller's wonderful description of its people, its food, its bars and restaurants, and the beauty of its sunsets. Schiller also skillfully introduces us to the colorful people who befriend Sam, including Freddy, the extroverted Cuban fishing boat captain who loves women from the cruise ships because they get back on the ship and leave after a passionate night. They also include Moira and Felicia, a beautiful Cuban refugee and her small daughter. Schiller clearly has a talent for bringing his characters to life. Although a tad didactic, each character has a chance to tell his/her story and each has a different, recognizable voice. This is the hallmark of a good writer.

Papaya Sunset is a good read. I know little about basketball, but Schiller kept me involved in the game. Similarly, Schiller skillfully framed Sam's middle aged crisis without resorting to tired cliches. This is definitely a five star book.

* Print Length: 409 pages
* Publisher: Robert E. Schiller (January 27, 2016)
* Publication Date: January 27, 2016
* Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC