Book Review: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

The details:

Title: Offshore
Author: Penelope Fitzgerald
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1979)
Pages: 181

I’ve tried several times to read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which is widely considered her best work, but haven’t been able to get into it. Instead, I set it aside and picked up her novel Offshore, the winner of the 1979 Booker Prize. Set on a London houseboat docked on the Thames, the book is about Nenna James and her neighbors. Nenna lives on the Grace (throughout the novel, the occupants are sometimes called by their houseboat’s name) with her two daughters. Nenna is uncertain, disorganized, and in just as transitional a stage as her houseboat moored on the tidal Thames, caught between land and water.

For such a short novel, Offshore contains a complexity of ideas and characters. Fitzgerald has a lot to say about life and decisions without offering concrete answers. She portrays characters who don’t quite fit in, misfits who lack something that their more successful peers have. Nenna has been living apart from her husband, who refuses to join her on the Grace. The Dreadnought is slowly sinking. Maurice, which has the same name as the boat’s occupant, houses one of Nenna’s closest friends. The most capable person is Richard, occupant of the Lord Jim, who tries to organize a fundraiser for the Dreadnought and whose wife dislikes living on a houseboat.

There’s a certain feeling of mismatching at play here. The characters have married the wrong people, have ended up in the wrong place, have held on for too long to a leaking houseboat. These are all people who have moved onto the Thames in order to escape something on land, but none of them have quite managed to get their lives stabilized to living on water. The main conflict of the novel centers around Nenna and her attempts to organize her life. She finds it difficult to make plans for the future and would prefer to have someone else make the decisions for her. Although her children seem wise beyond their years, her husband is just as uncertain as she is, and it seems that she has no one to help her adjust to solid ground.

I read, I think it was in the introduction, that Fitzgerald once lived on a houseboat on the Thames. Another author who hadn’t experienced it might have glamorized such a life, but Fitzgerald presents it in all its dreary, leaky reality. For a novel that is so much about uncertainty, it seems fitting that it ends in an uncertain way. Without giving anything away, Fitzgerald chose to leave her characters in a place where everything is truly still in flux. Nothing is really decided. Fitzgerald seems to be telling the reader that much of life exists in that space, neither onshore yet not at sea, where it can be difficult to decide with any realistic idea of the eventual consequences. This novel was one of the most unique I’ve read recently, and I’m excited to find more of Fitzgerald’s work.

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Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The details:

Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1937)
Pages: 264

In 1936, Zora Neale Hurston received a Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct anthropological research in Haiti. She went to escape from a tempestuous love affair and later said that she tried to channel her feelings into her work. In the course of seven weeks, Hurston wrote her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published the next year. In it, she uses dialect to give her characters a unique voice.

Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.

Janie Crawford, our heroine, was raised by her grandmother in the southern United States. As her grandmother grows older, knowing that she won’t be around much longer, she thinks about what to do with Janie. In an effort to ensure a safe future for her granddaughter, she makes a match between Janie and an older man. With romantic notions filling her head, Janie agrees to the marriage, knowing that she doesn’t love her future husband, yet hoping that love will come with time. She dreams of a love that resembles the feeling she has when sitting under a tree on a warm summer’s day.

Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!

It doesn’t take Janie long to realize that love doesn’t always follow marriage. After her grandmother’s death, she meets a well-dressed man, named Jody Starks, walking along the road and follows him, hoping that perhaps he’ll be the key to the sort of freedom she craves.

But life with Jody is in some ways more confining than anything Janie has known thus far. They move to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all African American self-governing municipalities in the US. Jody arrives with a large amount of money and uses it to gain influence in the town, eventually becoming the mayor. He buys Janie fine clothes and builds a house for them, and they run the town store. As she sits at the front counter, Janie feels distant from the other townsfolk, who see her as Mrs. Mayor and not as an equal. Although she has everything she needs in terms of clothes and food and shelter, she finds that her emotional needs aren’t being met. Jody wants to control her, wants to dictate how she should act and who she should talk to.

Above all, this is a novel about trying to find a sense of freedom in a world where women still didn’t have much power. When Janie finally meets Tea Cake, the wonderfully named man who will become the love of her life, life begins to alter for her. The tree she had always dreamed of begins to grow and branch out. The most charming part of the book is Hurston’s use of language. There were phrases that hit me as being beautiful, such as “she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see.” This is one of those books that has the power to transform a vision of life. It is about becoming yourself, finally, through all of the joys and sorrows of experience.

Book Review: Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

The details:

Title: Nine Coaches Waiting
Author: Mary Stewart
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1958)
Pages: 352

Nine Coaches Waiting offers a plot that feels familiar. A lonely, orphaned woman hired to be a governess arrives at a rural estate and falls in love. At one point, the main character thinks about Jane Eyre. But Mary Stewart saves this book from being too derivative by peppering the writing with literary references, beginning each chapter with an appropriate quote, and by giving her heroine, Linda Martin, a unique, clever voice.

The book begins with Linda telling the reader, “I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.” When she was offered a job as a governess for a family in France, she quit her job at a school in London without hesitation. She knows very little about her employers, Leon and Heloise de Valmy. There is a brief mention, early, of Linda remembering her parents speaking of Leon and the accident that left him paralyzed, but the connection between the two is frustratingly never explained. How did Linda’s parents know Leon? Why were they speaking of him at the breakfast table? In a book that relies on suspense, I was expecting there to be a connection, some plot of revenge against the daughter of a hated rival, but it is never spoken of again.

Instead, Linda falls into a routine caring for young Philippe, the Comte de Valmy, who is under his uncle and aunt’s care while his usual guardian, Leon’s brother, is off working on an archaeological site. Philippe is lonely and obviously frightened of Leon, and Heloise mentions more than once how sickly and delicate Philippe is. Linda nicknames Leon the Demon King and thinks he looks like a fallen angel. Since Philippe’s parents’ preferred Paris to the countryside, Leon has managed the estate for years and plans to do so until Philippe becomes of age. He takes great pride in the great house, diverting money from his own estate for Valmy’s upkeep. Anvil-sized hints abound, making the mystery rather less thrilling than it could have been.

When Philippe falls victim to two accidents, Linda isn’t that suspicious. She’s too distracted by Leon’s handsome son, Raoul, from his first marriage. Again, readers will know immediately where this is going, but the journey to get there is delightful with Linda narrating. She saves Philippe from certain death. However, she doesn’t want to think the accidents are anything more than that. I have mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed the characterization and the style of writing, but the plot didn’t offer many surprises. Overall, I would recommend it. It’s perfect for summer reading, the sort of book that doesn’t require too much effort, yet is still very entertaining.

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

The details:

Title: Stoner
Author: John Williams
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1965)
Pages: 288
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

The introduction to Stoner lauded it to me as a defense of the humanities, of studying a topic for passion rather than the utility of the thing, something I’m all for and which seems to have been abandoned in our modern society. It says of an interview the author John Williams gave:

he complains about the change away from pure study within the universities, the results of which cannot be predicted, towards a purely utilitarian, problem-solving way of doing things more efficiently, both in the arts and sciences, all of which can be predicated and measured. Then, more specifically, Williams complains about the changes in the teaching of literature and the attitude to the text “as if a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced.”

Our hero, William Stoner, was born on a farm in rural Missouri. He doesn’t have any thoughts beyond working on his family farm until someone speaks to his father about the possibility of him going to university in Columbia, Missouri. Stoner, as he is called throughout the book, spends his first year dutifully studying agriculture, vaguely feeling that the information he learns will eventually be useful when he returns to the farm, but feeling no real interest in the topic. During his second year, he takes a mandatory course on English Literature and decides to change his entire program. He doesn’t tell his parents about this change and doesn’t have any idea what to do with this new course of study until one of his professors tells him that he’s going to be a teacher.

Stoner seems so powerless. He falls into his profession by chance. He never once asks himself how he can become like his favorite teacher and only considers the path after it’s suggested to him. The author tells us how passionate he is about literature, but we don’t really get to feel that at all. We find out his dissertation topic, but not why he chose it. It’s a book about being passionate about a subject, about feeling so strongly about it that you abandon everything you know to follow it to see where this new knowledge leads, and yet it lacked passion. Williams is very matter-of-fact as he tells the reader about each stage of Stoner’s development.

It is a dry book, and the contrast between Stoner’s supposed love of literature and the plain, detached narration style was interesting but sometimes worked against the novel. I am not by any means advocating for a pre-broken heart Marianne Dashwood intensity of life, but the level of stoicism displayed by Stoner was off-putting to me. One of his friends describes him as Quixotic, but there was no tilting at windmills and an unfortunate lack of imagination displayed at various points. I never felt like Stoner really wanted anything. We are told he falls in love, we are told he loves literature and loves teaching, but I saw little evidence to prove that. The women in the novel are also rather stereotypical and undeveloped, which detracted from my ability to really like this book as much as others do.

Although Stoner was originally published in 1965, it didn’t sell well in its original printing. Recently, it was translated into other languages and became a huge hit in Europe and eventually found its way back in print in the US thanks to New York Review Books. Although I have mixed feelings about this book, I think perhaps the point is the contrast between how we perceive ourselves and how we appear to the world. To himself, Stoner felt like a Don Quixote, a dreamer in a confusing world, but to outsiders it just appears that he’s caught in the stream, carried along in the choices that seem inevitable. He has an overwhelming passion for literature, is sometimes caught up in the feeling as he leads lectures and seminars. Like his author, as quoted in the introduction, when asked if literature is written to be entertaining, I think he would agree:

“Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.”

Book Review: Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan

The details:

Title: Based on a True Story
Author: Delphine de Vigan
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 384
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

The narrator of Based on a True Story is named Delphine, just like the book’s author. Like the author, she has published a partially biographical novel about her mother and herself. When she attends book signings,  she is asked what she will write after this highly successful novel, and she isn’t sure what the answer to that is yet. At a party, she meets someone whom she simply calls L. L. is elegant, the sort of effortless, put-together woman Delphine admires and envies. The relationship that quickly develops between the two reminds the narrator of spontaneous adolescent friendships that haven’t carried over to adulthood. L. will call from just around the corner when she’s available and ask the narrator to join her. They rarely plan in advance, and L. evades meeting the narrator’s children and boyfriend.

One night, they have dinner together. L. asks, out of nowhere, what Delphine is writing now. But the narrator doesn’t have a good answer to that, at least not one that satisfies L. She had been planning to write a novel about a reality show star, one who is simultaneously created and exploited because of the exposure of her life to the public. L. doesn’t think that’s good enough. She says that she saw, from the moment that she met Delphine, that there was another, even more personal novel lurking behind her last one. L. insists that there has to be a literal truth that the author is exposing in writing. Delphine thinks that, no matter what story one tells, it can’t be the literal truth; the author has to cut parts that add nothing to the story and fill in the holes to make an engaging narrative. They have the following exchange:

[L.:] “It’s important that it’s true.”

[Delphine:] “But who claims to know? People, as you say, maybe only need it to ring true. Like a musical note. Anyway, maybe that’s the mystery of writing: it’s true or it isn’t.”

And that is the question that the reader is asking from the beginning. The very title of the book suggests to the reader that this is at least partially based on a true story. How much is true, and how much has been invented?

As her relationship with L. intensifies, other parts of Delphine’s life begin to fall apart. Her children move off to further their education, creating a void in her life. She cannot write even a simple sentence or go near her computer without being physically ill. She receives letters from someone very close to her, either family or a longtime friend, with vague threats and expressing anger over her last book. She loses notebooks full of plans for a new novel, one that L. disapproves of, while travelling with her on crowded public transportation. Throughout, Delphine gives the reader some foreshadowing of where her relationship with L. is heading.

I went into this book knowing nothing about the plot. Someone recommended Nothing Holds Back the Night to me, and, when I put a hold on it at my local library, I discovered this book was available and checked it out. In some ways, it is about female friendship and truth in writing: just how much the reader needs to know about what is truth and what is fiction, and whether that matters at all. It takes a conventional thriller plot and twists it into something more literary. I found certain aspects of the plot to be pretty obvious and some readers might be frustrated by how long it takes for the plot to develop, but I enjoyed this book immensely because of the larger issues discussed by the characters. Delphine de Vigan poses questions about literature and truth that will leave readers thinking about the book long after finishing.

Book Review: The Actor’s Life by Jenna Fischer

The details:

Title: The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide
Author: Jenna Fischer
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 252
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

I am a very big fan of the U.S. version of the TV show The Office, so when I saw that Jenna Fischer, who plays my favorite character Pam Beesly, had written a book. I immediately got it from the library. Unlike many recent books by celebrities, this isn’t a memoir. Fischer provides very few details about her personal life, only sharing as far as her experience might help others who aspire to a creative life. It is a well-written and extremely useful book about a way-of-life most people glamorize.

Fischer offers practical advice about getting headshots, finding an agent and manager, and auditioning. She’s realistic yet supportive, writing as a mentor to any new actors arriving in Hollywood. Even if you’re really good, she says, you still might not make it, but you have a better chance by doing as much as you can to build your own community of fellow actors. She says that when she arrived in Hollywood, her first instinct was just to send out copies of her resume and headshots and study the craft alone while waiting for the phone to ring. But she began to realize that she needed to become further involved. She volunteered and joined groups and worked behind the scenes when needed and took additional classes so that she could surround herself with those who were passionate about acting. Although a little luck is needed to be successful, she found that she had a better chance at getting that luck when she was more involved.

It took Fischer eight years to get her first big break: a regular role on a TV series, The Office. During the time between her arrival and that role, she recalls that she sometimes wanted to quit. It was difficult to live in debt, in bad apartments, auditioning for roles, getting close, and not being chosen, or getting chosen and having the show be cancelled. However, she surrounded herself with supportive people who wanted to help her succeed and wouldn’t listen when she told them that she wanted quit. She recalls the advice of one of her teachers: if you can imagine doing anything else, do that instead. Fischer couldn’t think of anything else, so she knew she had to try to be an actor.

She also mentions some friends who are also actors. One was very talented, but could never quit his job as a full-time waiter. Another could support himself through very small roles and never became very famous. More quit and went home. She also includes interviews with other actors who each had very different paths to achieving their ideal acting life. The point is that a successful life as an actor, or as any other type of artist, doesn’t look the same for every person. The common thread is how much work is necessary to get to that ideal place career-wise. Fischer is honest about the struggles she went through early in her career. It’s not as easy as showing up and having managers and agents recognize your talent. And it doesn’t end once you get a regular role on a very successful TV show. She writes about being fired recently from a job because focus groups noted her lack of on-screen chemistry with the male lead.

This is a funny, reaffirming, and kindly written book, filled with practical advice and a supportive attitude. Fischer covers everything from eating during a scene (the food will be served cold so it doesn’t go bad, order something light if possible since you’ll need to eat during all of the scene takes, and take small bites, as she learned during a scene involving ice cream cake during The Office’s first season). She outlines the steps for joining the SAG-AFTRA union. She offers great advice for being a professional on set and avoiding gossip. Sometimes the lifestyle is not glamorous (she recalls a horrible time filming a commercial for a new ride at an amusement park), but it’s all worth it to be doing something she loves doing. She talks about her mistakes so new actors don’t duplicate them. Although this is a book about how to become an actor, Fischer provides advice and supportive stories that would be useful in any creative pursuit.

Book Review: The Lighthearted Quest

The details:

Title: The Lighthearted Quest (Julia Probyn #1)
Author: Ann Bridge
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1956)
Pages: 356
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

Is it possible to like a book even while you see a multitude of problems in it? I kept asking myself that as I read The Lighthearted Quest by Ann Bridge. I was attracted to it because it was on sale and had a beautiful cover and the description on the back looked interesting. While this was a well-written and intriguing mystery, it sometimes made me cringe.

Julia Probyn, our heroine, goes to Morocco to try to track down her missing cousin, Colin. Julia is a snob, but an absolute genius, though her”dumb-blonde” looks deceive other people. She is charming and witty and makes instant friends everywhere. She was described as perfect beyond belief. Characters like this usually bother me to no end, and such was the case with Julia. She was a competent and determined investigator and was able to use connections to her advantage to get information relating to Colin’s disappearance.

The book went off track for me in the places it diverted from the focus on finding Colin. While waiting at a dock for her cargo boat to Morocco, Julia bemoans the fact that the dock workers have enough money to charter a flight to see a boxing match. Later, she contrasts their surplus of cash to spend on frivolous things to her titled friend of good family who is penniless and struggling. She regrets the fact that the world is changing and judges the way others choose to spend their money. When she meets an American while travelling between cities, she rolls her eyes over his anti-Imperialist attitudes. After all, Julia thinks, look at all the good the French are doing in Morocco, all the while dismissing opposing points-of-view as horribly uninformed. Julia is condescending at times to the people of Morocco, viewing herself as someone to be deferred to because she is English. All of this is very in tune with the time it was written, but it felt like needless filler. This book would have been much stronger if it had been more focused on the adventure aspects of the plot.

Although this was a well-written and mostly entertaining novel, it felt very dated. Bridge was obviously well-travelled. Her descriptions of Morocco and Julia’s travels were gripping. And, yet, there’s something I can’t quite explain that I didn’t like about this book. Most of the time, I love reading books published years ago and don’t mind that their opinions and actions aren’t quite in step with today. It’s interesting to immerse myself in other times, to learn how people thought then, and to reflect on the way things have evolved in modern society, how far things have changed and how far yet we have to go. I found Julia’s snobbery very off-putting, so I don’t think I’ll be reading any more books in this series.

Book Review: The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1

The details:

Title: The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956
Author: Sylvia Plath (Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil)
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 1,424
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

I read this very slowly, beginning when it was first released in October. It took me over four months to finish. At over 1,000 pages, this is just the first volume of Plath’s letters, with the second slated for release later this year.

The letters begin during Plath’s adolescence, primarily letters written to her mother during summer camps, moving on to her Smith College years, and finally during her Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge. If I am being completely honest, the earlier letters were sometimes tedious, interesting only from a biographical standpoint, but they helped to trace Plath’s growth as a writer. When she is finally at Cambridge and describing her new surroundings to her mother, her writing starts to gain the gripping nature of a novel.

The editorial contribution to this volume is bare and understated. In a footnote, the editors note that the person Plath is referring to, in one of her letters, is one Edward James Hughes, better known as Ted, Plath’s future husband. But, at the time of their meeting, Plath was still obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, Richard Sassoon. Although her letters to Sassoon are currently lost, Plath saved excerpts, which are included in this collection, of wonderfully experimental and poetic letters to him in her journals.

As I read, I tried to compare the letters to what I knew from biographies. For instance, in early 1956, a few biographies I looked at said that Plath was very depressed. But in her letters to her mother, she tried to stay upbeat, covering up most of what she was feeling. She was very honest with her mother about her experiences, but not so much about her emotions. After their marriage, when she writes to her dearest Teddy-ponk while she was in student housing away from him, I was fascinated by the criticism and suggestions for his poems in her letters to him. Plath was eager for his opinion of her writings, respecting his opinion, and continuing to grow through revisions, while offering criticism of his poems and prose in return. There were some points where the writing process clearly came through, and one could note how hard Plath worked to promote his work along with her own, typing pages upon pages of manuscripts and sending them off hopefully for publication.

With a writer as confessional as Plath, her letters feel like a necessary part of her literary canon. I was surprised by just how much of The Bell Jar plot could be found in her letters. There’s even a note about a boy she dated, his name, the exact story, duplicated from letter to book. These letters provide a further window into the life of a brilliant writer who continues to captivate readers to this day. The work the editors did to transcribe and organize each letter must have been tremendous. I am extremely grateful for the time they spent to make more Plath writings available to the public and looking forward to volume 2 later this year.

Book Review: The Ha-Ha

The details:

Title: The Ha-Ha
Author: Jennifer Dawson
Pages: 154
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1961)
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

What is a brilliant young woman who lacks the knack of existing to do with her life? That is the question this powerful, short book by Jennifer Dawson poses to the reader. The title, The Ha-Ha, refers to a wall and the surrounding small patch of grass that acts as a point of separation between a mental hospital and the world outside. Josephine, our heroine, spends much of her time there, avoiding the issues of her life. Lacking an identity, she feels no more affinity to her name than to the clothes she wears. She was a student at Oxford before she had a mental breakdown.

In the course of Josephine’s recovery, a nun in charge of her ward takes a special interest in her, stopping in for chats and leaving small gifts of sweets when she leaves. The nun gets Josephine a job in the nearby town cataloging books for an elderly couple. The reader feels the irony of the situation: Josephine neatly organizing books when she can’t find her own place in society. The story is interspersed with Josephine’s reminisces about her difficult mother who died in a tragic fire.

After running into an old schoolmate, she attends an engagement party and has a difficult time assimilating herself to those around her. The schoolmate knows how to navigate society, telling everyone that she was leaving her so-called management course (in reality, a job putting candy bars into boxes) to get married. But Josephine doesn’t know how to tell little social lies to fit in. She can’t hide who she is, and so she seems to fail.

She meets Alasdair, a resident of the neighboring men’s ward of the mental hospital, in the ha-ha. Alasdair appreciates her inability to fit into a neat place in society. They lounge together after hours in the board room (where the board meets to re-grade individuals, determining whether they are fit for reentry to society) and sneak out some evenings. Josephine is obsessed with the idea of what lies beyond the hill she can see from the window in her room. Alasdair brings her for a trip to the other side of the hill, one that seems to alter her view of the world and things around her. She thinks that she loves Alasdair, but will she spend the rest of her life with him? Or will Josephine succumb to the coddling kindness of the nun who is trying to fit her back in a comfortable box in society?

This book was the winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1961, and yet it seems that no other book by Jennifer Dawson is currently in print. This is such a shame since I enjoyed this book so much. It reminded me in some ways of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, another story of a brilliant student who had a breakdown. I’m eager to find other books by Dawson if possible to get better acquainted with her writing. My edition of this book had a brilliant afterword by Dawson, explaining some of her reasoning behind the book, its autobiographical features, and the ways that the treatment of the mentally ill has changed over time.

Book Review: Paladin of Souls

The details:

Title: Paladin of Souls
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 496
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

To slightly misquote Wuthering Heights, whatever our souls are made of, this book’s and mine are, unfortunately, not the same. I chose to read Paladin of Souls because of the unique premise: a quest novel featuring a middle-aged heroine named Ista. I don’t usually read fantasy novels, so, rather than being interested in the plot, I had to lean rather heavily on characterization to make it through. If I hadn’t cared at all about the characters, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to finish.

First, the positives. Bujold is an excellent writer. The characters were mostly complex and interesting. The story begins with Ista contemplating her future. Her daughter is married, her husband is dead, and now she is alone in her castle. She longs to have an adventure. For many years, she had been suffering from what was thought to be madness and was locked in a room. As the book opens, she has recovered but is still treated as a liability by those around her. She tries to run away only to realize that she doesn’t know how to do anything and feels as if she is too old to learn. Deciding to set off on a pilgrimage to various shrines around her country, she chooses her own companions rather than those who already know her and have preconceived ideas of how she should act.

In theory, this has potential. However, the change comes too easily. The heroine goes from lamenting her inability to cope with life to somehow being a leader, someone whom other characters turn to in a crisis, without much effort on her part. Perhaps it was buried deep inside her all along, but it seemed as if there was very little growth in between. One moment, Ista is panicking and wondering how she can change. The next, she is competently organizing a pilgrimage on her own terms and calmly sorting out other people’s problems. She rarely struggles, and, in a coming-of-age story (even if it is about a middle-aged woman), that is a problem. I like it when characters figure out how to manage their lives, but it doesn’t make for a good story if they don’t have to work that hard to figure it out.

I’ve read a lot of good things about Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, so I was disappointed with this novel. Perhaps I started at the wrong place or in the wrong series. This one didn’t grip me, and I probably won’t give her writing another chance until my current reading list is much, much shorter.