Each of these novels considers a shattered state of being, whether the devastation plays out through the cycle of addiction or societal breakdown or international conflicts. The characters employ a variety of coping mechanisms and the authors’ styles are diverse; Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story, Edan Lepucki’s California and Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking make for a fascinating trio.
Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story (House of Anansi, 2014)
Augusta Price’s career is no longer thriving. She was recently invited to the panel discussion “Type-A Personalities: The Evolution of the Vampire Medical Drama”, based on her “iconic role” as Dr. Helen Mount in “The Blood Bank”. Augusta once volleyed this offer into the trash. But freshly returned from rehab, with her options dwindling, she digs through the bin and reconsiders.
“The blanket of tequila had slipped away, and she felt as naked and miserable as she ever had. How in God’s name did people cope with these emotions all the time.”
Most immediately disturbing is that she has heard that Kenneth Deller is publishing a book. The most recent article written about Augusta was titled “Washed-Up Tales from a Soap Flake”, penned (but not titled) by Frances, whose work as a journalist claims a share of the narrative in Based on a True Story. What Augusta shared with Frances was one version of the truth, but Augusta is concerned that Kenneth’s printed version of the truth might hit the press before she is prepared to deal with the fallout.
“Eventually everything comes back to bite you in the arse,” she said. “Even the things that used to kiss it.”
The bulk of Based on a True Story is devoted to considering the unraveling and reweaving of the stories people tell, to each other and to themselves. Frances, too, is reconsidering her perspective on her own career and romance, and perhaps recognizes a kindred spirit in Augusta, who is at another stage in life, seemingly years apart from either romance or motherhood, but still trying to make sense of both.
“Why on earth do people write them [books]? I’ll tell you why. […] To win. So your side of the story can win. Because they last forever, those fuckers. Longer than movies. Longer than music. Much, much longer than love.”
Elizabeth Renzetti’s novel is rooted in Augusta’s voice, flamboyant and bold. Because she feels the threat of being exposed so acutely, she remains a character to whom readers can relate. She might have crossed the line into caricature if she did not acknowledge the cracks in the veneer of her carefully constructed “true” story. But, as it is, readers will accompany her, just as Frances does, on her quest to rewrite the truth.
* Companion Reads: Louisa McCormack’s Six Weeks to Toxic, Edward Riche’s Easy to Like
Edan Lepucki’s California (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)
Cal and Frida are living off the grid when readers meet them. The world as it exists today is broken and Cal and Frida live in relative isolation, so there is little for the readers to glean about explanations or conditions elsewhere. The novel is preoccupied with the young couple’s experiences, so the idea that there are other living conditions is irrelevant, at least as the novel begins.
“Frida had always been fascinated by the Communities, the secret life behind their walls, their riches and beauty all conjecture. In the first couple of years after they opened, Frida had conjectured a lot. L.A. was a festering wound, but just a few miles away men and women slept peacefully on canopied beds in large rooms in large houses.”
California is structured initially with a loose flow between the two narrative voices and their tendency to wander in time. There is a lot of time to simply ruminate and remember, and readers come to understand more about both characters as they contemplate their pasts, with a sense of formlessness both to their lives and futures. But this is considerable potential for plot, not only because of the unanswered questions which remain (for characters and readers alike) but also because a pattern of secrecy takes root.
“Frida hadn’t told Cal about the coyote, and she wasn’t planning to. She deserved another secret from him. It evened the score.”
Soon the structure shifts from seemingly casual forays into the past to a more linear focus on the future. Readers are swept up in a cascade of events which unfold as Cal and Frida attempt to negotiate possible connections with other individuals who are also living outside the Communities; California becomes less about character and more about action and the element of secrecy which develops between Cal and Frida is mesmerizing in the context of a plot-soaked tale.
Nonetheless, Edan Lepucki’s narrative remains loosely constructed. Readers are likely to expect a taut narrative style after key plot developments are revealed, but inconsistencies disrupt the page-turning potential. On one page, a bra is stuffed into a duffel bag; a few pages later, it is hanging over a carriage rail. On one page, a woman is described as being eight months pregnant and too uncomfortable to sleep well; a couple of pages later, she is described as being in her third trimester with the baby’s acrobatics keeping her awake nights. (Repetition and contradiction can be used to reveal character and emphasize significant details, but that does not appear to be the case here.)
California falls somewhere between a highly (and imperfectly) detailed, character-soaked novel and a compelling plot-driven drama. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One might be more likely to appeal to readers looking for the former whereas Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest, could satisfy readers seeking the latter. And, yet, there is an element of enchantment about California, perhaps rooted in the love story between Cal and Frida which first draws readers’ attention in the novel’s opening pages. Even readers who would rather have had the novel settle more solidly into one style or the other are likely to find it entertaining and engaging.
Companion Reads: Steven King’s Under the Dome, Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers
Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking (HarperCollins, 2014)
Katharina and Peter do not have a typical courtship. It is, indeed, an undertaking to arrange their official union; they marry during WWII in a sort of proxy service, before they have even met, but wartime requires creative problem-solving.
The process, however, places curious demands not only on the couple but on the family members watching the drama unfold. Both Katharina and Peter struggle to convey their commitment to those who expect the process of getting married to take a different shape.
“She closed her bedroom door and pushed against it, locking out her parents. She was twenty-two years of age. A married woman. When would they accept that and stop calling her girl? He had to come back to take her away from them, because she couldn’t bear it any longer. Being their daughter. The good girl.”
Audrey Magee’s language is simple and her style uncluttered. This is wartime and neither the grim scenes which Peter inhabits nor the fraught emotions which Katharina experiences on the homefront are belaboured. The pacing of the story is remarkably quick, urged onwards with scenic writing and adept use of dialogue. Readers who might habitually avoid wartime novels would likely find this one exceptional for its accessibility.
Readers who require their characters be likeable, however, might face more of a challenge. One reason is demonstrated in this brief quote from a letter Katharina has sent to Peter:
“PPS I hope that you are not having an affair with some Russian woman. Natasha here is a little dull to look at, but I am sure there are others who are prettier. You wouldn’t, would you? ”
Peter is much more accepting than some readers, for given what he has recently endured (and readers are aware as it has been presented in his alternating portions of the narrative), it is at least laughable, if not insulting, that he be accused of a dalliance while he is struggling to survive. (To be fair, Peter has not shared any of his experiences with Katharina, seemingly to protect her, so perhaps she could not be expected to reprioritize her concerns.)
The Undertaking does consider war on the front and on the homefront. Like Marghanita Laski’s To Bed with Grand Music, some of Katharina’s experiences are less commonly shared on the page than the battle scenes one associates with wartime fiction; but though it carries a weight, the homefront is not at the heart of the novel, as it is in Laski’s or in Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers.
“The sky was a chalky orange, a mixture of fire and dust. She could see the planes, little black dots waltzing over houses and shops, over people; swirling and twisting around each other in a dance of incongruous beauty. She closed the window, shutters and curtains, sat down on the chair beside Johannes’ bed and pulled the blanket over her shoulders and chest, her feet against her brother’s hand, her hands over her womb.”
Katharina’s concerns are those which unfold within four walls and Peter’s are those which unfold without; the novel’s ultimate concern is the collision between those realities and how that affects their relationship. It is, unequivocally, an undertaking.
Companion Reads: Lilian Nattal’s The River Midnight, Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women
Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR stack/list?