The Paper Wasp

cover151649-medium

Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with Lauren Acampora’s novel, The Paper Wasp, in exchange for an honest review.

Abby and Elise were childhood best friends raised in a small town in Michigan. They began to grow apart when as a teenager, Elise became involved in acting and her career took off.

Flash-Forward to their late 20’s: Elise is an actress living in Hollywood, while Abby is stuck in their small town, a college dropout. She is working retail and dreaming of a career in the film industry. Abby obsesses over Elise, saving every magazine article that features her former friend. The two women reconnect, when they both attend their high school reunion. Following the reunion, Abby decides to run off to Hollywood, showing up on Elise’s doorstep. Elise, takes Abby in for an extended stay, treating Abby to a taste of her lavish lifestyle. Soon, the boundaries of their relationship are blurred, when Abby accepts a job being Elise’s personal assistant. The situation is further strained by Abby’s growing ambition, a ticking time-bomb that is ready to explode.

I absolutely loved The Paper Wasp. Acampora is a masterful writer, combing gorgeous prose with complex characters. I could not put The Paper Wasp down and plowed through it in a single afternoon.

I’m a Los Angeles native and I found the way that Acampora captured the city to be perfect. There is a wonderful moment where Elise drives Abby through Hollywood for the first time, noting its lackluster, dingy atmosphere, which is a strong contrast both Abby’s perceived image of Hollywood and to Elise’s glamorous lifestyle. Elise takes meditation classes at an exclusive institute and although I’m not sure of a real-life counterpart, it is certainly something that exists in Los Angeles. It has strange, ethereal quality, but is also is a bit of a cult. I could easily imagine the type of fellow Angeleno’s, not only celebrities, who would have a membership to this type of club. One of the more memorable aspects of the institution, is their crazy costume parties, where members come dressed as images from their dreams. It’s strange and magical, with a hint of a nightmarish quality; akin to a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

There is another contrast, when Abby travels back to Michigan to see her sister. Her sister is a drug addict, who has recently had a baby daughter. Abby visits her sister and niece, seeing that they live in a filthy trailer barely able to make ends meet. Abby’s heart tells her to kidnap her niece and save her from the poverty and neglect, but she can’t act on it.

Abby’s obsession with Elise creates a tension throughout the story. In the start, she appears to be a bit of a stalker, but then as we see the dynamic between the two women, it is clearer that Abby is more concerned with the lack of direction that her life has taken. She is envious of Elise, who doesn’t seem to deserve her lucky breaks. Rather than wishing to be Elise, Abby thinks that she is more deserving or at least, if she were to have a good opportunity, she would know how to make the most of it. We learn that Abby has been carrying around a terrible secret that is making her more motivate to take risks in life. Abby becomes emboldened throughout the story, making her actions increasing erratic, creating a sense of danger.

When Abby is confronted with the real Elise, not the Elise from the magazine articles, she realizes that her friend lacks self-confidence. Elise lives a messy life. This sets up a social commentary on how we view celebrity, or even ordinary people, via carefully curated social media accounts. Abby couldn’t imagine the real Elise, because she was so caught-up in the fake, media version. Not only that, Abby spent a decade so hyper-focused on this fake Elise, that when she was confronted with the truth, her world cracked open.

The Paper Wasp is my current favorite read of 2019. I was hooked from the first page and cannot wait to read Acampora’s collection of short stories, The Wonder Garden. She is such a talented writer.

How Not to Die Alone

cover153036-medium

Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam for providing me with a copy of Richard Roper’s novel, How Not to Die Alone, in exchange for an honest review.

Andrew has spent years carrying around a big secret. When he was being interviewed for his current job, he accidentally told his would-be boss, that he was married and rather than correcting the mistake, Andrew went on to fabricate a life that includes a wife and two kids. The lie kept growing and now he feels that he has crossed a point of no return. He works for a government agency who handles funerals for people who have died alone and as he investigates these lives, Andrew realizes that he is in a similar position. His parents are dead and he has a rocky relationship with his sister. A series of events, including a new employee named Peggy, threaten to reveal Andrew’s manufactured life.

How Not to Die Alone is a beautiful story that is both deeply affecting and delightful. Andrew has been hit hard by life and he has reached a state of arrested development, living out a middle-aged existence in a tiny, dilapidated apartment that is filled with model trains. His only friends are those whom he communicates with solely through online message boards for model train enthusiasts. Until her untimely death, he has strained, quarterly calls with his sister, Sally. He doesn’t have a lot in common with his coworkers and is dreading the company bonding dinner parties that his boss has recently cooked up. Andrew’s life is lacking, but his imaginary life is stellar.

Andrew spends so much time crafting his imaginary family, that he almost believes that they are real. No one in his office has any reason to doubt their existence. However, when Andrew meets Peggy, he is instantly attracted to her. She’s funny, attractive, and clearly interested in Andrew. Peggy is in the process of separating from her alcoholic husband and although she may soon be available, everyone knows that Andrew is in a very happy marriage. Andrew fears that by revealing the truth, he will lose trust in his coworkers and possibly his job. Yet, if he wants to have a chance with Peggy, he will have to kill-off his imaginary family. Andrew is used to staying in the safety net of his comfort zone and this situation is forcing him to be uncomfortable. Yet, the more he considers his lie, the more he realizes that his comfort zone isn’t very comfortable. He is ready to reveal the truth, but struggling to work up the courage.

How Not to Die Alone is a story with a lot of compassion. Andrew is a complex character. He constantly lies, yet he has the empathy to attend the funerals of strangers, even when it goes beyond his job description. Roper has structured the story to pack the maximum punch, as we don’t learn the extent of Andrew’s problems until late in the novel. It’s crushing. Roper added a wonderful element of weaving the songs of Ella Fitzgerald into the story. Andrew loves Fitzgerald, but there is one song that he cannot bear to listen to and when we learn the reason why, it is devastating. The musicality works well, adding a theatrical quality to the story. The chapter where Andrew’s big trauma is revealed is very cinematic in the best possible sense.

A major theme is the consequence of dishonesty; how both being dishonest with others and with yourself, can severely impact your life. The way Andrew lies to himself and makes excuses for the life he lives, is almost worse than the lies that he tells others. Andrew is terrified of relationships, yet when he find the courage to reach out to others, they make him realize that his fear was unwarranted. A particularly lovely part of the story occurs when Andrew dares to meet his online friends in real life and to ask them for a major favor. My ultimate takeaway from How Not to Die Alone, is live boldly.

I highly recommend How Not to Die Alone. It just might end up being my favorite book of 2019. Roper is a marvelous writer and I fell in love with Andrew, rooting for him all the way. This novel gave me the warm-fuzzies.

The Dreamers

cover145755-medium

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Karen Thompson Walker’s novel, The Dreamers, in exchange for an honest review.

In California, the small college town of Santa Lora has been struck with an unusual and highly infectious disease. Its citizens are falling into a deep sleep, lasting from weeks to over a year. No one knows why it is happening, how to cure it, or how to stop it from spreading. It afflicts all age groups and strikes so suddenly, that those whose bodies go undiscovered, quickly die of dehydration. Karen Thompson Walker’s novel follows several citizens of Santa Lora, who are desperate to keep from becoming infected, as they are stuck within the city limits during a mandatory town quarantine.

The Dreamers is a force of a novel. I could not put it down. I was most struck by the way in which Walker imagined this catastrophic situation, creating a range of scenarios and human emotions. For example, how would a new father trying to protect his newborn react when the two young girls from next door need his help? How would college students, sensing that their lives might soon end, interact when thrown together in an intimate situation? How do two children survive, when their father falls asleep? One character, a college student who is an early victim, takes ill shortly after becoming pregnant. She doesn’t even realize that she is pregnant, yet her baby grows while she is asleep. Even if she survives the disease, how will it affect her baby?

I loved The Dreamers, but I do have a criticism. The story is too short to contain all of the intriguing scenarios that Walker mentions. It’s as if she had too many great ideas and could not flesh them out in the space. For example, little attention is paid to a storyline in which a nursing home patient with memory loss temporarily regains his memory. This whole scenario could be an entire story. It’s fascinating and made even more compelling when we realize the result of this temporary memory issue. I don’t want to give any spoilers, as it is such a great twist with where this character and his spouse go next. Truly, it could have been the plot for another book and I wish that Walker had explored it more deeply. I felt the ending in general was rushed, when we learn about the dreams that the victims had been experiencing. It was so compelling and unexpected, that I wish Walker had expanded on her ideas.My disappointment all stems from wanting more.

The Dreamers is intense and unlike any book that I have read. Walker is an excellent storyteller. Her novel has quick pacing that kept me glued to the book. I read it in a single sitting. She has created characters and scenarios that will easily allow readers to empathize and imagine themselves in a similar situation. The Dreamers is a wonderful pick for book clubs and discussion groups, bringing up ideas of health, public safety, and morality. With the recent measles outbreak and debates over mandatory vaccinations, this is a timely novel.

The Dreamers is one of the best books that I’ve read in a long time and I can’t recommend it enough. I had not previously heard of Walker, but I can’t wait to read her first novel, The Age of Miracles and I look forward to her future works.