Florence Adler Swims Forever

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for providing me with a copy of Rachel Beanland’s Novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever, in exchange for an honest review.

Nineteen-year-old Florence Adler dreams of being among a handful of women to successfully swim the English Channel. It is 1934 and she is spending the summer practicing in the oceans of Atlantic City, coached by Stuart, a handsome life guard and son of a wealthier hotelier.

Tragedy strikes when during an afternoon swim, without Stuart’s watchful eye, Florence drowns. Her grief stricken parents, Joseph and Esther, make the choice to hide Florence’s death from their older daughter, Fannie, who is on bedrest in a local hospital during a high-risk pregnancy. Previously, Fannie lost a child after a premature delivery, and her family is fearful that the news of Florence’s death could lead to another loss. They cannot bear another loss. They keep the news quiet and even ask Fannie’s doctors and nurses to hide the information from her, removing the radio from her room and keeping her away from newspapers. Can they keep this charade for two months and how will the lie impact the people Florence loved?

Florence Adler Swims Forever has been one of my favorite reads of 2020. It’s emotional, surprising, and inspirational. I absolutely fell in love with the characters, in particular, Florence’s niece, Gussie, who is seven. The story alternates between different perspectives and when we get to Gussie’s chapters, we really see through the eyes of a child who is trying to understand complex adult decisions. Gussie is staying with her grandparents, while her mother is in the hospital. Her father, Issac, is a peripheral figure, visiting his in-laws for the occasional dinner and seeing his wife a few times a week. We quickly learn that although Issac loves his daughter, he is a man with goals that do not align with having a family.

Gussie spends most of her time with Anna, a young woman from Germany who is spending the summer with the Adler family. Gussie doesn’t know exactly what to make of Anna, who isn’t a relative. Prior to immigrating to the United States, Joseph was engaged to Anna’s mother, and even though Anna is not his child, he felt the need to help her escape from the increasingly dangerous Nazi Germany. Joseph also hopes to help Anna’s parent’s immigrate, something that he can’t quite articulate to his wife, who does not realize that he was more than childhood friends with Anna’s mother. She doesn’t understand why her husband is drawn to helping this foreign family, when their own family is struggling.

While I was reading, I did not realize that Florence Adler Swims Forever is based on the true story of Beanland’s great aunts. It is fictionalized, but just knowing that Florence Adler existed made me connect with the story even more. Also the idea that a family kept their grief hidden to protect their other daughter’s pregnancy is heartbreaking. I had chills when I read that it is based on a true story.

Beanland is a fabulous writer. Florence Adler Swims Forever has a satisfying ending with all of the loose-ends tied, however, this is my plea to Beanland to continue with the Adler family in another novel. I need to know what happens to Fannie, and if Anna’s family escapes Germany. I want to see Gussie grow up and meet Ruby. I love these characters and I want more!!! Please Beanland!!!

Also, I wouldn’t mind a movie or mini-series. Imagine the fabulous costumes and sets! It’s all so wonderful.

I cannot say enough lovely things about Florence Adler Swims Forever. Read it now and have the Kleenex handy.

Florida Man

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Tom Cooper’s novel Florida Man, in exchange for an honest review.

Spanning several decades, Florida Man is the story Reed Crowe and Henry Yahchilane, who form an unlikely friendship while living on a small island. Struggling from the loss of his child, affectionately nicknamed Otter, Crowe finds himself divorced and the proprietor of a struggling roadside attraction. Yahchilane, a Seminole native, and the older of the two men is a mystery. He is quiet with a tough exterior and rumors fly regarding his criminal inclinations. A skeleton and a sink hole bring Crowe and Yahchilane together, sealing their connection and changing the course of their lives.

Florida Man is a quirky and delightful ride. I read it over two separate trips to central Florida during the summer of 2020, which included an airboat swamp tour, putting me in the mood. The twists in Florida Man are impossible to anticipate, but even more impossible to predict was the emotional impact of the story. I was sobbing while reading the last chapters. I was caught off-guard by how much I grew to care about both Crowe and Yahchilane and even more, how much I related to them. On the surface, it would seem that I shouldn’t be able to relate to these men; I am a forty-three year old white woman living in the suburbs, yet I definitely connected with Crowe and Yahchilane’s lone-wolf, living their lives by their own terms attitude.

I understood how they felt connected to their island, Crowe even refusing to leave it to be with his ex-wife Heidi. Crowe has relationships with other women, but he will always love Heidi. When their daughter dies, Crowe becomes planted on the island, as Heidi leaves to travel the world, dealing with their grief in separate ways.

The first two-thirds of the story are primarily a tension-filled, roller coaster ride. When Crowe becomes involved with helping a Cuban refugee family, he discovers that his childhood friend is a pedophile, putting a young girl from the family he is helping, in danger. Crowe struggles with figuring out the best way to deal with his former friend, a man who shows no signs of remorse.

Crowe’s life is in danger, when an old enemy comes back to haunt him. Hector Morales, nicknamed “Catface” for his disfiguring scars, was left in the swamp when many years earlier, Crowe found his body near a plane crash. Crowe thought he was dead and left Morales, but not before taking a fortune’s worth of marijuana from the downed plane. Morales survived and never forgot Crowe’s face, vowing to track him down.

Morales is a first-rate villain, reminding me of the character Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men. Similar to Chigurh, Morales is terrifying due to his calm demeanor and unpredictable violence. We stay with Morales as he is on the hunt for Crowe and watch as he interacts with many side characters while on his mission. The reader never knows if Morales will brutally kill someone that crosses his path or simply wish him a good day. The tension is high.

Florida, with its sandy beaches, muggy weather, and thick swamps is a character in Florida Man. Beyond Cooper’s novel, the term “Florida Man” is often used to describe dumb criminals and drug addicts who make the news in the sunshine state for a variety of outrageous antics. Florida is often mocked and taken less seriously than other states. I’m a Los Angeles native, and we are also often dismissed as “La La Land” or a place where “Fake” people live. In some ways, Crowe and Yahchilane embrace their “Florida Man” reputations, but in just as many ways, they defy it. They are simply ordinary men who love their land. I relate. I often bristle when I hear Los Angeles stereotypes. I can see the nuggets of truth in the stereotypes, but I also see so much more that only someone who loves their city, loves their state, can truly understand. Yahchilane and Crowe are insiders and their Florida is different from the Florida people mock. Their version of a “Florida Man” has much more depth than haters could ever realize.

Cooper’s Florida Man is a wild ride and some of the most beautiful, affecting writing that I have ever read. It’s truly a unique literary experience that I highly recommend.

The Kids are Gonna Ask

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Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing for providing me with a copy of Gretchen Anthony’s novel, The Kids are Gonna Ask, in exchange for an honest review.

Seventeen-year-old twins, Thomas and Savannah McClair, have been raised by their grandmother, Maggie, after their mom was killed in a tragic accident. Their mom, Bess never told them who their father was, a secret that she kept from everyone.

The twins have started a podcast where they invite dinner guests into their home, and interview them over a meal. Their podcast has a small following, until one episode goes viral, an episode when they mention the desire to know about their father. They are contacted by a high-profile producer to create a new show that follows the search to discover the identity of their birth father. The twins are thrust into the spotlight, which includes being placed in the middle of the controversy over privacy rights.

I enjoyed Anthony’s debut novel, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, and I was excited to read her follow-up. The Kids are Gonna Ask didn’t disappoint. Anthony has a wonderful strength in writing endearing characters, and her stories have a lot of heart. It was the perfect type of read for these pessimistic Covid-times. This isn’t to say that her stories are trite or that her characters are perfect. For example, Maggie has to deal with some lingering anger she has towards her dead daughter, which is difficult as she is also grieving for and has a tremendous amount of love for Bess. The emotions are complex.

Although I know who my birth father was, he died when I was four. I could easily relate to the twins feelings of not knowing their parent, and have a whole missing piece of themselves. I can count the things I know about my dad on one hand. More to that, there is a chapter when Savannah is relating to Nadine, the daughter of the McClair’s personal chef. Both girls have lost their mother, and they mention how difficult it is, because it always creates an awkward situation. No one knows how to act or speak around children who have lost their parents. I have felt this the most. The twins lost their mother to a front-page new accident, where as Nadine lost her mom to a drug overdose, she only needs to share this info with the people she trusts. I lost my father more in the way of the twins, but just because everyone at school knew, didn’t make it easier. Divorce is fairly common, but I didn’t know anyone who had a dead parent.

The Kids are Gonna Ask dives into the idea of paternity secrets and privacy rights. Do the twins have the right to publicly air their search? What will they discover? They have to contend with criticism leveled towards their mother ignoring the paternal rights of their father. To add fuel to the fire, their producer seems to only care about controversy and ratings. It’s hard enough being a teenager, let alone being forced into the public eye.

Part of the story is set in Breckenridge, Colorado. I moved to Colorado in late 2019, and I have recently visited Breckenridge for the first time. It’s a beautiful area and I got a kick out of having a new connection to this place, and then having it appear in The Kids are Gonna Ask. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect! I love when a novel includes places that are familiar to me.

One of the pleasure of the story is the discovery that the reader has along with the McClair family. Anthony unfolds the secrets in a way that keeps the intrigue constant. I don’t want to give anything away, so I will stop here. The Kids are Gonna Ask is a thought-provoking story and the McClair family will steal your heart

 

The Lies that Bind

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Emily Giffin’s latest novel, The Lies that Bind, in exchange for an honest review.

Twenty-eight-year-old Cecily Gardner is a mid-west transplant trying to create a life as a journalist in New York City. Ready to take the next step with her long-time boyfriend Matthew, she break-ups with him, when he doesn’t want a bigger commitment.

Distraught, she heads to a bar to drink, and consider if she has made a grave mistake. At the bar, she is about to call Matthew and ask him to take her back, when Grant steps into her life. Grant is charming and Cecily feels an instant attract to him. She quickly forgets Matthew and begins a whirlwind romance with Grant, including flying to London with her best friend Scottie, to see Grant, who has taken his twin brother to London for ALS treatment.

A few months into their romance, September 11th happens and Grant, who works for a financial firm in the World Trade Center, is presumed dead. Cecily realizes that she didn’t know very much about Grant, including his last name. While reporting on the terrorist attacks, Cecily encounters a sign with Grant’s picture as a missing person. She calls the number and speaks with Amy, Grant’s wife. Shocked by this discovery, Cecily becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of Grant’s life, and in the process, becomes friends with Amy, who doesn’t know about her husband’s infidelity.

I’m a fan of Giffin, and I was very excited to read her latest novel. It has been nearly twenty years since the September 11th terrorist attacks and I remember the day clearly. I was just a few years younger than Cecily, and although I was living in California, I had many friends in NYC. I can’t recall reading another novel that uses 9/11 as a central aspect of the plot. It was strange to realize, with the technology and cultural references, how much time has passed, but to still have this day so etched in my memory. Giffin does a great job writing the uncertainty and fear surrounding that day and its impact. It’s unsettling to read and dredged up memories.

As a contrast, I experienced joy reading the chapters detailing Cecily and Scottie’s trip to London. London and NYC are two of my favorite place. Cecily and Scottie have a wonderful friendship, the kind of support and love that everyone should have in their lives.

The Lies that Bind becomes increasingly more complicated from the lies that are created after Cecily learns of Grant’s infidelity. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but quite a web of deceit is woven, and even though the lies are due to generally good intentions, they quickly spiral out of control. Coming clean becomes increasingly difficult.

I didn’t feel Cecily’s attraction to Grant, especially when he seemed to be giving her mixed messages. It was the same with her relationship with Matthew. Cecily is a doormat for a majority of the story. I believe this is to set her up for making the transition towards realizing her own strength and independence later in the story, but this revelation happens really late. For a majority of The Lies that Bind, Cecily is a weak character, and it made it difficult for me to connect with her. I felt sad for Cecily.

The Lies That Bind has an intriguing premise and it’s a fast read. I don’t think it’s Giffin’s best novel, but if you’re a fan of her writing, you should absolutely add this to your bookshelf.

 

Big Summer

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, Big Summer, in exchange for an honest review.

Drue Cavanaugh appears to have it all. She’s rich, beautiful, and successful. However, looks can be deceiving, and happiness is something that has always eluded Drue. Drue is magnetic and charming, which draws people to her, but she also has a ruthless, mean streak, which destroys her friendships.

Drue’s childhood friend, Daphne Berg, was a target of Drue’s cruelty, and after a particularly painful incident, they haven’t spoken in six years. Daphne is surprised when Drue contacts her, begging Daphne to be her maid of honor for her upcoming lavish Cape Cod wedding. Drue seems sincere in her desire to fix their friendship, but there is another piece of the puzzle. Daphne is a rising social media star and Drue pitches that Daphne can use the wedding to promote herself. Many aspects of the wedding are being promoted on social media and companies have donated products for the bride and groom to showcase.

Daphne agrees, and she is swept back into Drue’s glamorous world. On the night of the rehearsal dinner, Daphne meets a handsome man and has a steamy one-night stand. The next morning, the man is gone, and Drue is found dead in a nearby hot tub. Daphne is a suspect, and she works to solve the mystery of both Drue’s murder and the identity of her mystery man.

I’ve read many of Weiner’s previous novels, and I’m a fan. I was excited to read Big Summer, but I must confess that this was a miss for me. The first third of the story is strong; setting up the history and dynamic between Drue and Daphne. Daphne is a charming character, especially as we meet her after she has made a big transformation in her life. She is happy and on the path to success when Drue’s reappearance threatens her. Drue’s sway over people is captivating. I found my interest crumbling after Drue died and the story shifts to a mystery.

I didn’t anticipate the reveal of the murderer, yet it wasn’t a satisfying twist. Weiner sets Drue up as someone who has wronged many people and therefore, her murderer could be anyone. Daphne, and her roommate Darshi, set-off to solve the various mysteries. The mystery aspect of the novel has a lot of convenient situations and tenuous links. I didn’t find it plausible and my interest waned. Mysteries are a departure for Weiner, and I applaud her for trying something new, but it didn’t gel.

A lovely aspect of the story was the relationship between Daphne and her parents, especially her father. Daphne and her father have a Sunday tradition of trying different restaurants and cuisines. In a flashback scene, Drue joins them one Sunday. Drue’s parents have held her at a distance, and being included on this Sunday outing was an emotional experience for Drue. Daphne is made aware that the love from her parents and their support is something that money can’t buy.

Big Summer has beautiful themes of the ability to change and not being defined by your past. Daphne has insecurities due to her weight, but when she allows herself to let go of her worries, she finds acceptance, including a new boyfriend, Nick. Speaking of Nick, their romance is passionate and sexy. I may have been blushing!

Big Summer reminds us that not everything on social media is how it appears, both what is shared and what is kept private. People have the ability to change, even if we are not noticing their changes. I’m a fan of Weiner and will certainly read her future novels, but Big Summer was enough of a miss for me, that I can’t recommend it. The strengths in Big Summer are the characters and themes, but the overarching plot is messy.

 

The Companions

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Thank You to Gallery/Scout Press for providing me with a copy of Katie M. Flynn’s novel, The Companions, in exchange for an honest review.

In the near-future the world has suffered a deadly pandemic that has resulted in years of quarantine. Scientist have developed a way to transfer human souls into robots, allowing humans a way to become immortal, but the catch is they are property of the Metis Corporation. The Metis Corporation leases the robots, referred to as “Companions” to other humans. Sometimes those who take on the lease are the family members of the companion and sometimes, when a family member is unwilling or cannot afford the lease, the companions are sent out to be workers. The companions not only provide companionship to the lonely who are quarantined, but they can perform tasks without fear of catching the virus.

Lilac has been leased by a family to provide companionship to their young daughter. Although Lilac only has vague memories of her human life, she begins to recall certain events and with some internet sleuthing, she learns that she had been murdered as a teenager. It is now decades later and she wants to find her murderer to seek revenge, before that person dies.

The Companions offers an intriguing premise and brings up plenty of ethical issues. Would you be willing to lease your soul to a corporation in exchange for a longer life? What obligations does that company have to provide for your care? What happens when you out live those you knew in real life? Is a robot with a semi-human soul still human? The idea for The Companions caught my attention immediately. It reminded me of the series Black Mirror.

Unfortunately, the actual plot failed to hold my interest. It had strong moments, but I never felt connected to the characters. There are many characters and plots, so many that they become muddled. The plots do intersect, but I wasn’t satisfied. I think it would have worked better as a series of short stories based in the post-pandemic story world, each dealing with the various implications of having companions.

The Companions will benefit from buzz due to its eerie timing. It was published the first week in March, right as much of the world was about to be locked down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Obviously, there is no way that Flynn could have realized this when she wrote The Companions, but many of her ideas about how a lock down would feel and heaviness of it all, are spot on. Our current world situation added to my discomfort and sense of unease, that I likely would not have felt if I had read The Companions at any other time.

 

All That’s Bright and Gone

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Thank you to Crooked Lane Books for providing me with a copy of Eliza Nellums’ novel, All That’s Bright and Gone, in exchange for an honest review.

Six-year old Aoife has recently witnessed her mother have a mental break-down at a shopping mall and is currently being cared for by her Uncle Donny, while her mother is recovering in a hospital. While living with her uncle, she tries to search for clues regarding the mystery surrounding her older brother, Theo. Her mother talks about Theo as though he is still alive, but Aoife is sure that he has been murdered. To add to Aoife’s confusion, her mother’s boyfriend has started coming around and he claims to be Aoife’s real father. Aoife attempts to navigate her muddled world with the help of her imaginary friend, Teddy, and her eight-year-old neighbor who is an amateur sleuth.

Nellums has created a vibrant and winning protagonist in Aoife. I think it is hard to craft a believable young child protagonist, but Nellum has nailed it, balancing Aoife’s precociousness with her innocence. Also balanced is the amount of truth that we know from the adults in Aoife’s world, allowing the reader insight to her reality vs. her assumptions. It is a compelling look at a child caught in the middle of adult issues.

Teddy makes the reader wonder if Aoife is headed down the same path toward mental illness as her mother or if an imaginary friend is simply a childhood rite of passage. Teddy resembles a teddy bear and he urges Aoife to act in ways that direct her toward danger. The inclusion of Teddy worked well to make me think that Aoife could be an unreliable narrator, but the uncertainty of it kept me on fence, adding to the mystery of the story.

I throughly enjoyed All That’s Bright and Gone. I truly had no idea where the story was headed, but was gripped from the start. I was hooked by the feeling of uncertainty and that Aoife might always be in danger. There is a great scene with a elderly neighbor that had me really worried for Aoife. Nellums never allows the tension to drop, which keeps the pacing tight and makes All That’s Bright and Gone a quick read.

Nellums is a gift writer with regard to both prose and plot. All That’s Bright and Gone is her debut novel and I’m looking forward to reading her future works.

 

Nothing to See Here

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Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers for providing me with a copy of Kevin Wilson’s novel, Nothing to See Here, in exchange for an honest review.

Madison Roberts seems to have it all. She’s gorgeous, wealthy, and has a perfect family: an adorable son and a handsome husband who is on track to become the next Secretary of State. Her situation changes, when she must take on her step-children, whose mother has recently died. It would be difficult enough to have twin ten-year olds brought into her family, but the twins have a special ability: They spontaneously combust.

The fire doesn’t hurt the twins, but it terrifies everyone else. Madison and her husband are fearful of the twins, worried for their property, and most important, they can’t let this secret destroy their political ambitions.

Madison hatches a plan to contact Lillian, her friend from boarding school. Madison and Lillian were former roomies and unlikely friends. Madison was from a rich family and Lillian was a scholarship kid, but the girls bonded over a shared love of basketball. Lillian’s time at the boarding school came to an abrupt end, when Madison got caught with cocaine and Madison’s father paid-off Lillian’s family, to have Lillian take the fall. Lillian’s life continued on a downhill trajectory, including dropping out of college, working low-level jobs, and living in her mother’s attic.

Although her life was destroyed due to Madison’s actions, Lillian still cares for her. She still has a teenage crush on the charismatic Madison and Madison knows it. Madison uses this leverage to ask Lillian to move into her guest house and become a short-term governess to the twins, Bessie and Roland. Lillian has zero experience with children and doesn’t even like them very much, but she accepts the job, as it puts her in proximity to Madison and provides an escape from her dismal life.

Taking care of Bessie and Roland isn’t easy, but Lillian quickly realizes that she can help these children. It changes not only the way she views herself, but also how she sees Madison.

I loved Nothing to See Here. It’s a quirky, quick read. The best parts were Lillian with the twins. The twins are initially distrustful of everyone, with good reason as they have just experienced a huge trauma ( no spoilers!), but Lillian manages to get them to drop their defenses. Lillian is not someone who is a natural choice to care for children. She has no training and can barely take care of herself, but in a delightful turn, taking care of the twins ultimately helps Lillian the most. It gives her purpose and direction. It pulls her out of her funk.

Lillian feels bonded to the twins, because she is similar to them. The twins are not asked how they feel and are kept as a secret obligation, rather than members of their own family. When Lillian’s mother accepted the bribe from Madison’s father, she didn’t consider how it would affect her daughter. Lillian and the twins have both experienced deep betrayal by their blood relatives.

Nothing to See Here is delightful, unexpected, and full of heart. I highly recommend it.

 

The Family Upstairs

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest novel, The Family Upstairs, in exchange for an honest review.

Libby Jones is living an ordinary life in London: she has a small flat, is looking for love, and works as a high-end kitchen designer. Everything is life as normal, until a bombshell is dropped on Libby twenty-fifth birthday. She is contacted by a solicitor, who informs her that her birth parents, whom she knows nothing about, set her up with a trust fund. The contents of the trust is a multi-million pound home in the posh Chelsea neighborhood. This home has been locked up for decades, ever since Libby’s parents were discovered dead with a third mystery man. Libby’s older brother and sister were never found, yet Libby was discovered in the mansion with the bodies, safe in her crib.

In trying to understand what happened to her biological family, Libby falls down a rabbit hole, eventually leading her to a news article written by Miller Roe. Miller spent years trying to uncover the truth and his obsession with the case cost him his marriage. His curiosity is rekindled when Libby contacts him and he agrees to work with her. The plot thickens when they realized that someone has been breaking into the Chelsea mansion.

The Family Upstairs is told from three alternating perspectives: Libby, Henry (Libby’s older brother), and Lucy, a single-mom who is desperately trying to make a life for her kids, while working as a street performer in France. In Henry’s narrative, we learn of life in the Chelsea house prior to Libby’s birth and how their parents transitioned from rich socialites to recluses who died next to a strange man, with most of their possessions missing.

As this is a mystery, I don’t want to give away any of the plot twists. The Family Upstairs is addictive and if I didn’t have other responsibilities, I easily would have read it in a single day, but as it was, it stretched into two. I’ve read several of Jewell’s books and she is brilliant at crafting quick-paced mysteries with unexpected twists. She writes characters that I care about and puts them in dangerous situations. I was especially worried for Lucy, who needs the help of her abusive ex-husband and is forced to be alone with him in his house. It is a tense situation!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mansion. The Chelsea mansion is just as big of a character, as any of the humans in the story. Not only was it the site of multiple deaths, unsolved deaths, but it has sat abandoned for twenty-five years, leaving it dusty and in disrepair. Most of the belongings are long-gone, but Libby discovers small objects that remain, like bottles or old food. She also finds a boy’s name, Phin, carved into cabinets and drawers. The house creaks and moans when it moves. It’s is the quintessential haunted-house and a place that feels uncomfortable every time Libby enters it. Jewell teases out the truth of the house and the conclusion is shocking.

Go read The Family Upstairs. I finished it last night and I have already texted many friends to recommend it. Especially as we are all stuck indoors due to Coronavirus, this is a much needed escapist read. Jewell is a fabulous writer and I recommend all of her books.

 

The Expectations

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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a copy of Alexander Tilney’s novel, The Expectations, in exchange for an honest review.

Fourteen-year-old Ben Weeks is a new student at St. James, an exclusive boarding school that has been attended by generations of men in his family. He is ecstatic to continue the family tradition, especially entering the school on the heels of his recently graduated and very popular older brother. Ben is ready to take his rightful place at St. James and fully anticipates that he continue the family legacy.

Ben’s roommate is Ahmed Al-Khaled, the son of a very wealthy Emirati sheik. Ahmed is wealthier than any of the other kids at St. James, but immediately, he is an outsider. Ahmed doesn’t act or dress like the other students, but more than that, he is legitimately self-confident, a rarity among teenagers. Ben is conflicted. He wants to help Ahmed fit-in with American culture, but he is doing it for his own benefit, as he doesn’t want to be looped with the “weird kid.” He also witnesses other students harassing Ahmed and Ben is conflicted as to whether or not he should intercede.

Ben doesn’t lack empathy, but his drive to be accepted overrides almost everything. The importance of being accept was a fundamental lesson from his upbringing and a core value that is reinforced at St. James through hazing.

The biggest issues that Ben faces are a direct result of his upbringing. He comes from an upper-class family that places a high value on money, social class, and tradition. This brings immense pressure and a sense of responsibility to uphold the family name, but a conflict arises when it is revealed that the Weeks’ family has lost their wealth.

Shortly into his first semester at St. James, Ben learns that his family is in a dire financial crisis and his father is involved in a tentative business deal. His father’s desperate business deal involves land for strip malls. Ben is mortified that his father would be in a deal with such a scummy, lowly enterprise as strip malls. This is the heart of the problem: Ben has been raised to be snobby. His parents are desperate to keep up their image of wealth, including hiding their problems, as much as possible, from their son. When Ben learns that there is trouble, his first instinct is to hide it from his fellow students. He doesn’t want to be perceived as different from them and must keep up the image of his family. The idea that he might need to go on financial aid is incredibly devastating and he is desperate to figure out an alternative. When a solution to his problem presents itself, he jumps on it, even though it involves a secret with Ahmed.

The Expectations is an apt title, as the novel deals with a variety of expectations: The expectation that Ahmed will learn to fit in at St. James. The expectation that Ben’s family will seamlessly maintain their wealth and status. The expectation that Ben’s life will continue on the trajectory that Is expected for men of his station.

On a smaller level, Ben is learning to handle these expectations vs the reality of being a teenager. He is a talented squash player and he fully expects to be a top athlete at St. James. His father has even donated money towards a fancy new squash court. The news of their financial situation derails Ben, as he cannot play on this new court knowing that they are no longer rich. Quitting squash is a way that he can directly go against the expectations of his father.

Tilney does a great job at writing teenage anxiety. The Expectations isn’t a story with dramatic plot twists, it is far more subtle and affecting. It is easy to remember being a teenager and struggling to fit in, trying to combine the expectations of your parents with those of your peers. I didn’t come from a wealthy family and I can appreciate that Ben’s expectations were different from my own, yet I feel that any reader will be able to relate to Ben’s conflicts, which include things like stressing over having the right clothes and talking to a girl that he is crushing on.

Ahmed, with his lack of awareness, is a refreshing contrast to Ben. It’s not that Ahmed doesn’t care about fitting in, as he does want to mesh with American society, but he also does not fear being himself. Although extremely wealthy, he doesn’t carry with him the same social status hang-ups that Ben and many of the other student’s carry.

Ahmed’s family has different expectations. The whole reason that Ahmed is studying at St. James is because of an old family friend, who helped Ahmed’s family grow their wealth and status. This friend was an American who studied at St. James and who told them that the private school fundamentally altered his life. Ahmed’s father is hoping that the same will happen for his son and there is a strong expectation that Ahmed will soak in this magic from his St. James experience.

At its core, The Expectations is about two teenagers from different worlds, who are both trying to navigate adolescence, but from under the weight of their parent’s enormous expectations. The pacing is a little slow and it took me over a week to read The Expectations, however the beauty in the book is it has so many layers. It’s a great novel for book groups and classroom discussions. Tilney has crafted a strong social commentary, with memorable and relatable characters.