Reviewletts: Contemporary Fiction, Magical and Not

by Kim on September 21, 2012 · 17 comments

In an effort to get caught up on all the books I read but haven’t reviewed, I’ve started doing doing mini-reviews every couple of weeks for books that I read but didn’t have much to say about. If you have more specific questions about any of this week’s titles, leave them in the comments!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

the night circusThe circus arrives without warning. No announcements preceed it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Umbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Amidst the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangrous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance. (Source)

I really loved The Night Circus. Really, really loved it. I loved the idea of the magician’s duel. I loved Celia and Marco and their story. I loved reading about the circus, which is as much of a character in this story as any of the performers or magicians. I thought Morgenstern beautifully mixed the fantastical elements with realistic characters and very real emotions. I read this one on the beach so I don’t have much more specific to say than that… just that I adored it.

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

seating arrangementsWinn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff.  Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne’s sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father’s oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson’s best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life. (Source)

I had a really hard time with characters in Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements. They’re all very, very WASP-y (to the point of being a bit satirical, I know), but I am so unfamiliar with the idea of a WASP lifestyle that everything they did just made no sense to me… the things they were upset about were so trivial it was hard to care much. So, I guess I understood what Shipstead was trying to do, but my own experience got in the way of really going with the story.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

laura lamont's life in picturesIn 1920, Elsa Emerson, the youngest and blondest of three sisters, is born in idyllic Door County, Wisconsin. Her family owns the Cherry County Playhouse, and more than anything, Elsa relishes appearing onstage, where she soaks up the approval of her father and the embrace of the audience. But when tragedy strikes her family, her acting becomes more than a child¹s game of pretend.

While still in her teens, Elsa marries and flees to Los Angeles. There she is discovered by Irving Green, one of the most powerful executives in Hollywood, who refashions her as a serious, exotic brunette and renames her Laura Lamont. Irving becomes Laura’s great love; she becomes an Academy Award­-winning actress—and a genuine movie star. Laura experiences all the glamour and extravagance of the heady pinnacle of stardom in the studio-system era, but ultimately her story is a timeless one of a woman trying to balance career, family, and personal happiness, all while remaining true to herself. (Source)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t thrilled with Emma Straub’s debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. This is, perhaps, going to sound snobby, but I just felt like the book was too simple. Lately, I’ve been drawn to narratives that stretch me in some way — a unique or challenging premise, or a complicated narrative style — and this book just didn’t have either of those things. Laura’s story and her struggle to do what she loves while maintaining her sense of self is timeless, as the cover copy suggests, but it’s also not entirely special. It’s clear Straub did a lot of research into Hollywood at the time she set the book, but the characters and plot just didn’t engage me. However, if you’re a reader that enjoys the Grand Story of a Life books or the setting of Depression-era Hollywood, then I imagine this book would work a lot better.

Disclosure: I bought my copy of The Night Circus. I checked out Seating Arrangements from the library. I received a copy of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures from the publisher for review consideration. 

Photo Credit: albertogp123 via Flickr

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