Isabelle in the Afternoon by Douglas Kennedy

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Douglas Kennedy – Isabelle in the Afternoon

Published by Hutchinson Books on 9th January

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Before Isabelle I knew nothing of sex.
Before Isabelle I knew nothing of freedom.
Before Isabelle I knew nothing of life.

Paris in the early Seventies. Sam, an American student, meets a woman in a bookshop. Isabelle is enigmatic, beautiful, older and, unlike Sam, experienced in love’s many contradictions. Sam is instantly smitten – but wary of the wedding ring on her finger.

What begins as a regular arrangement in Isabelle’s tiny Parisian apartment transforms into a true affair of the heart, and one which lasts for decades to come.

Isabelle in the Afternoon is a novel that questions what we seek, what we find, what we settle for – and shows how love, when not lived day in, day out, can become the passion of a lifetime.

What I Say:

“Love when declared after a desperate misstep – it’s the hardest love to embrace”.

I think it is always important to be honest about the books I choose to review on Years of Reading. First of all, this is the first Douglas Kennedy novel I have read (don’t @ me!), and I wanted to read it because I thought the cover looked beautiful. I mean, that is not really the way a book blogger should choose their next novel is it?

Anyway, Isabelle at ed.pr contacted me to ask if I would like a copy, and I can tell you what is inside the novel is just as wonderful as the outside.

Isabelle in the Afternoon is a novel about love, expectation and societal expectations, and I could not put it down.

Sam is an American student who finds himself in Paris before he starts the next chapter of his life at Harvard University.  His mother has passed away, and his father is emotionally distant, who seems almost relieved at the fact that he won’t have to deal with his son over the summer. As Sam navigates Paris alone, he starts to tire of the endless days he has to fill, and finds himself at a Bookshop where he meets Isabelle.

The attraction is instant, and Sam seems slightly overwhelmed at the thought that this elegant woman could possibly find him of any interest.  What is so refreshing about this novel is that right from the start, it is Isabelle that sets the parameters of the relationship.

Isabelle tells Sam that they will only meet at her apartment in Paris between the hours of five and seven in the afternoon.  They will never be seen out in public, and this is all that Isabelle will give to Sam. If he cannot comply with the rules of their relationship, it is over.  The arrangement is complicated by the fact that Isabelle is married, and she will not leave her husband Charles. She is absolutely aware of what is expected of her in Parisian society, and that to veer from that in any way would be catastrophic to the reputation of her husband and herself.

Sam at first accepts this arrangement, and is in the thrall of his older and more experienced lover.  As he settles into the affair, and is seemingly happy with their relationship, he also realises he is falling in love with her, and naively cannot understand why she cannot be with him and leave her husband.  It is interesting to see how Isabelle is unwavering in the rules she has created for their affair, in spite of her passionate relationship with Sam, she refuses to give in to his increasingly desperate demands.

To say that Isabelle is an unfeeling and stoic character, incapable of compassion, would be misleading.  She is in a claustrophobic and cloying marriage, where she has to appear to be the collected and contented wife, in order to comply with what is expected of her in the world she inhabits. Isabelle is very aware that her husband is also far from faithful, and it emerges that both partners seem to be resigned to keeping the marriage intact. It  is only when she is with Sam, that she can be free to express her feelings, desire and sexuality.

Unfortunately, the summer has to come to an end, and Sam has to return to the United States, and Isabelle has to seamlessly move back into her role of wife.  What I loved about this novel, is the way in which the two central characters have to continue the route their lives are expected to follow, whilst at the same time they are suppressing what they really want and feel.

For Sam, he studies, becomes a successful laywer, and meets Rebecca, a woman who in love with him, but you always get the sense that Sam is not absolutely in love with her.  Rebecca, to everyone else is perfect for him, but as the reader you see that she will never emotionally fulfill him.  In Paris, Isabelle is a devoted wife and mother, but similarly, you feel that her heart is always with Sam in America. Both Sam and Isabelle attempt to forget about each other, by conforming to what they are supposed to do, but you know that their lives are only being half lived, and this is what makes their stories so absorbing.

They cannot break the bond, and as their lives go on, the connection between them is constantly tested but never fades.  Sam and Isabelle are characters you feel empathic towards, because they have faults and foibles.  They are not always likeable, in fact at times you feel increasingly frustrated with both of them. However, the skill that Douglas Kennedy has as a writer means that you really do engage with them and want to find out what happens.

The plot moves along at the perfect pace, I always felt that the story was natural and spent enough time engaging with both characters.  The whole premise of the novel, that these two people who are meant to be together, but can’t be, is absorbing and believable.  The novel also addresses many different themes sensitively and effectively, I found the portrayal of Sam’s son’s issues were realistic and affecting, and Rebecca’s mental health  was handled by Douglas in such a way that you really felt for what Rebecca was going through, and the effect that this has on her relationship with Sam and everyone around her.

The twist and turns of Sam and Isabelle’s relationship is played across the decades, and the notion that these two people so obviously in love with each other but cannot completely be together is a delicious one for me.  They spend time together in Paris and America over the years, but the reality is that they are always playing at being a couple, they cannot absolutely commit to each other. The lives of Isabelle and Sam play out, and neither of them can let go of the other, however hard they try.  Do they finally reconcile? You are just going to have to read it to find out.

Isabelle in the Afternoon is a thoughtful and passionate novel, epic in its scope and ambition, and it is a bold move to ask readers to engage with two characters for such a long period of time – especially when they are seemingly thwarted at every turn.  The reason it works so well for me, is that Douglas Kennedy has created a novel where you are absorbed by the characters, their world, and the choices they make.  They matter to you, and as you see how passionate and complete their relationship is, I really wanted Sam and Isabelle to have the life they both desperately wanted. That for me is the sign of an amazing novel, and the mark of a novelist who understands the importance of the reader connecting with their characters.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Isabelle at ed.pr for my gifted copy, and I decided to write a review simply because I loved it so much! 

 

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

 

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Steph Cha – Your House Will Pay 

Published By Faber and Faber on 16th January

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Grace Park and Shawn Mathews share a city – Los Angeles – but seemingly little else. Coming from different generations and very different communities, their paths wouldn’t normally cross at all. As Grace battles confusion over her elder sister’s estrangement from their Korean-immigrant parents, Shawn tries to help his cousin Ray readjust to city life after years spent in prison.

But something in their past links these two families. As the city around them threatens to erupt into violence, echoing the worst days of the early 1990s, the lives of Grace and Shawn are set to collide in ways which will change them all forever.

Beautifully written, and marked by its aching humanity as much as its growing sense of dread, Your House Will Pay is a powerful and urgent novel for today.

What I Say:

“Yet it came with a heightened awareness of all that had brought them here, the past clinging to them in thin, sticky layers”.

To try and review Your House Will Pay is a difficult task, not because of the novel itself, which is filled with the tension and pain that permeated 1990’s Los Angeles and its aftermath, but because it is impossible to adequately convey the passion and emotion that Steph Cha has poured into her work.  It examines hugely emotive issues such as race, violence, family and retribution, but does so in a way that never feels didactic.

On the surface, this story of two families in Los Angeles seems at the start to be disconnected.  Why are we learning about what Shawn Matthews and Grace Park are going through, what could possibly link these two seemingly incredibly disparate families? What happened in the 1990’s that could possibly bring them together? The timeline runs between 2019 and the 1990’s and by moving back and forth, we start to understand the realities for Korean and black families living in Los Angeles at that time. It was also an education for me, and I spent some time reading about what happened to try and appreciate more what life at that time was like.

Grace’s Korean family now run a pharmacy, and are apparently settled in their ways and lifestyle, while Shawn who comes from a black family have a chaotic and chequered past which has resulted in him and his cousin Ray spending a lot of time in prison, and his sister has passed away.

Although these two families seemingly have nothing in common, as a reader, you initially feel that slightly disorientated by the switch in focus and storyline.  The absolute skill that Steph has, is that she takes away any pre-conceptions or stereotypes you may expect, and brings the families down to the most basic level. They are simply people who are there for us to see with all their flaws and faults. The issues that the families are going through are set against the backdrop of a world where there are constant tensions between different cultures, and the Korean and black communities are at odds with each other.

In both worlds there is prejudice and inequality – there is a sense that the tensions that are always present in the everyday world are ready to explode at any moment, and you feel it in every page you read. You know that events of the 1990’s Los Angeles has had wide ranging and life changing effects for these families, but you don’t know what they were.  The ever present and all consuming city of Los Angeles is the one constant in this mesmerising and absorbing novel. As the narrative switches between Shawn and Grace, you not only feel that you are slowly starting to understand the very different families, but that there is a constant sense of something seismic about to happen.

Grace is an educated and intelligent woman, who lives at home with her parents, seemingly stuck between trying to please them and be a good daughter, whilst at the same time being aware that there is so much more to the world if she would only have the courage to embrace it.  Her sister Mariam, has been estranged from her parents for a while and lives with her elder boyfriend free from their expectations.

Shawn on the other hand, has become almost a surrogate father to his cousin’s children, and looks after Ray’s family as almost a penance for the life he lived before.  He had a troubled childhood as he attempted to fit in with a world of gangs and crime, and his loyalty to his friends and their beliefs meant that he ended up in prison.  Since his release, he has been determined to ensure he doesn’t make the same mistakes, and is trying to educate Ray’s children so they too can make the correct choices.

For me, what I really enjoyed about Your House Will Pay was the immersive way you are drawn into Grace and Shawn’s world. It addresses the realities of being a young person in a world where you don’t quite fit, and that others expectations mean the choices you make can have a huge impact on not only your world, but those who live in it with you too.  They are people you really believe in, and the way in which we follow their lives serves to underline not only the huge differences between them, but also how similar their beliefs and concerns are.

To try and review this novel is a complicated task, because it is so many things in one book.  When the devastating connection between the family is revealed, trust me, it is one of those jaw-dropping chapters you dream of as a reader! It is thrilling, unexpected and almost like a crime novel as you try and work out who could have done what and when.  However, for me, always at the heart of this book is the notion of family, of belonging.  The secrets they hide in order to protect others, the unspoken bonds that mean it comes before everything, and how your world can be turned upside down by the people you thought you knew the best.

From the moment where we find out how the two families are known to each other, it is a compelling novel that has you turning the pages trying to decide what possible resolution there could be.  I loved the balance between the 1990’s and the modern day, the fact that as a reader you are looking for clues, any little thing you can ascertain that will bring you closer to understanding what has happened and why.

The characterisations are always well rounded and serve to bring you closer to the novel because you really feel invested in what happens to all of them, irrespective of what they have done. There are so many touching familial scenes, acutely and perfectly observed, cut through with reality and humour, with nuances and in jokes that every family has.  This is also what helps to drive the story forward, as you really care what has happened and will happen to the Matthews and Parks.

Your House Will Pay is a timely and devastating novel, that works so well because Steph Cha has created a world where your connection to the characters and the plot mean you only want the best outcome for the Parks and Matthews family.  Who are we to judge the mistakes made by those closest to us when we are far from innocent ourselves? Surely, in times of crisis, the true notion of family and belonging is knowing that by forgiving and protecting those closest to us, we can truly be free. Your House Will Pay makes you stop and think, and want to understand why and what happened to these families. For me, that is truly a sign of a novel that has made a profound impact and changes and educates you as to your view of a world you naively thought you understood.

 

Many Thanks to Lauren Nicoll from Faber and Faber for a gifted copy of this book and for inviting me to take part in this Blog Tour in exchange for an honest review.

Have a look at what my fellow bloggers below are saying about Your House Will Pay..

your-house-blog-tour

Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman

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Catherine Steadman: Mr Nobody

Published By: Simon and Schuster UK

Available online and from all good bookshops

What They Say:

When a man is found on a Norfolk beach, drifting in and out of consciousness, with no identification and unable to speak, interest in him is sparked immediately. From the hospital staff who find themselves inexplicably drawn to him; to international medical experts who are baffled by him; to the national press who call him Mr Nobody; everyone wants answers. Who is this man? And what happened to him?

Neuropsychiatrist Dr Emma Lewis is asked to assess the patient. This is her field of expertise, this is the chance she’s been waiting for and this case could make her name known across the world. But therein lies the danger. Emma left this same small town in Norfolk fourteen years ago and has taken great pains to cover all traces of her past since then.

But now something – or someone – is calling her back. And the more time she spends with her patient, the more alarmed she becomes.

Has she walked into danger?

What I Say:

When I read and reviewed Catherine’s previous novel, Something In the Water , I realised I had found that rare thing, an author who had written a novel where I could not guess one of the twists!

I love the fact that sometimes as a reader, you are as much in the dark as the protagonist, and that the discoveries they make along the way are just as fresh for you as for them. When I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Catherine’s latest novel Mr.Nobody from the wonderful LoveReading I have to admit I was a little concerned that it wouldn’t be able to live up to the brilliance of her first novel.

I think it’s even better.

A man, bruised, battered and absolutely bewildered is found wandering on a beach in Norfolk. He is unable to speak, has no memory of who he is or how he got there.  Added to this, he has no identification on him and no one has reported him missing. He is taken to a local hospital where no one is able to reach him, until the renowned Dr Emma Lewis is hand picked to work on his case.  Her curiosity is piqued as she has to go through various faceless bureaucratic hoops to gain access to Mr. Nobody, and none of her contacts will truly tell her what is happening, or why they are so evasive.

So far so straightforward. However, Emma was not always called Emma Lewis.  It transpires she has a very chequered past with the same small town in Norfolk, after a family tragedy (of course I am not going to tell you what that is – you need to read it!) which meant that she and her family had to move far away and assume new identities.

You can imagine the jaw dropping moment for Emma – and for us as a reader, When she meets Mr Nobody, he calls her by her previous name as soon as he sets eyes on her! He also knew very private information about the Nurse called Rhonda who he has formed a bond with, which he could not have possibly known. Already there is a huge sense of unease in the novel, a delicious sense of anticipation as to what is come, and for me, that is what elevates a story from readable to unmissable, and Mr. Nobody has that in spades.

As this case is so high profile, and potentially dangerous for Emma, she is given police protection.  One of the police officers assigned to the case is her old friend Chris who knew her when she lived here before, and recognises her immediately – he is now married to a story hungry and not particularly likeable journalist called Zara who will stop at nothing to get to the heart of Mr. Nobody, and will use anyone, even her husband to get to the story before everyone else.  As appalling as Zara’s ethics were, it was interesting to see how someone so driven was so willing to put the story above everything else.

Told in alternating viewpoints from The Man and Emma – this device works well and switches easily and also keeps us on our toes.  Mr. Nobody starts to remember things and flashes of memory come back, and we follow him as he attempts to try and piece together what is happening to him now, and what has brought him to this specific beach in Norfolk.

The brilliance of the novel is compounded by the fact that the style is pacy, the narrative believable, and it also brings up many issues of how we as a society cope with people who do not function in the way we do. We get a real sense of the frustration Mr Nobody feels and his bewilderment as to his mental state. Also the book is very frank in its treatment of people who are guilty by association and when Emma’s identity is revealed, we see the way in which the press move and how ruthless Zara is to be the first person with the story.

I also thought that it was interesting to see how both Emma and Mr. Nobody have to deal with the themes of identity and belonging.  Even though Emma grew up there, she no longer really belongs, and has had to create a whole new identity to survive.  Similarly, Mr. Nobody has no idea where he is from or where he has been, and he survives by trying to remember anything to give him that sense of place or time.  The brief flashes of recollection are peppered with a sense of fear and pain, as he cannot put them into any tangible order and this adds to his sense of dislocation even further.

As the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, Emma unravels Mr.Nobody’s true identity and reason for appearing on that particular beach at that particular time. It is an intricate and detailed plot, which means that you are fully engaged with it, but also that you turn the pages faster as you want to see who Mr. Nobody truly is! It was for me, one of those novels where it is so tightly plotted and executed that you absolutely understand every character’s motivation and actions – although you might not always like them, they are real and fallible, and that is what makes the story work so well.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Mr. Nobody could have been a novel that seemed too bizarre and ambitious to work effectively.  However, Catherine Steadman not only engaged me from the outset of the novel, but her clever and intelligent story had me absolutely hooked and the fact that I could not guess where the narrative was going next, only added to my enjoyment of it.

I loved it.

Thank you as always to LoveReadingUK and SimonSchusterUK for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

that Emma and Matthew are both having to deal with the notion of identity and belonging, of celebrity and loss.

I loved it.

Thank you as always to LoveReadingUK for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.