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REVIEW:  Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

REVIEW: Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

This is a second in a series of books reviewed by authors.  This is an open invitation for any author to submit reviews of books that get very little attention but that he or she liked very much. In issuing the invitation, I’ve asked the authors to review books authored by people they have no real contact with – they aren’t in the same RWA chapter or they aren’t critique partners. I hope that this is one way we can bring an authorial reviewer voice to Dear Author without the conflicts. So if you are an author, editor, publicist, etc. and there is a book you think deserves more attention, send me a review!

A lot of bad things happened to Beverly last year. Now she’s living a life without friends. It’s a lot easier that way.

Then Derek comes into her life, just by chance. Bit by bit, Beverly opens up to Derek and begins to trust him. She can tell him anything. Or almost anything.

There’s just last year standing between Beverly and Derek – the one thing he said he couldn’t forgive. Maybe it will ruin everything if she talks about it.

And maybe it will ruin everything if she doesn’t.

Every time I try to write about Ellen Emerson White’s Live Without Friends, I feel as if I’m drifting between an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet and one of my daughter’s old bedtime stories (Rossetti-Shustak’s I Love You Through and Through). Derek, how do I love thee, let me count the ways. I love your  jeans jacket and your Red Sox cap, I love your gentle side, your cocky side, I love your nerves when you’re trying to be James Dean cool. I love your jokes about ducks and the crick in your neck from falling asleep on the steps, and your happy smile, and the way your run gets a little clumsy when your “girl”  comes to watch your baseball game. I love your patience, and the way you pet puppies, and the flex in your muscles when you’re trying to get that cute, nerdy girl on the bench to notice you. I admit it, I have it bad: I think I even love the way you say “yo” and “like”. Yes, Derek, I love you through and through.

Life Without Friends, by Ellen Emerson WhiteIt is, in fact, perhaps, just a tad excessive that as a grown woman in Boston for a major academic conference, I ducked out of sessions so that I could go see where Derek and Beverly met in the Public Gardens and find the paddle boats for myself. Heartbreak Hill, Old North Church, the Granary Burying Ground . . . and Derek and Bev.

Because I love Beverly, too. She’s the smart, uptight, alienated teenage girl whose difficult past helps serve as a catharsis for our own sense of not-belonging as a teenager, our own sense of not being good enough or being judged, an embodiment of our classic rite of passage struggles to find our way into society. In YA, of course, these struggles almost always seem to need an event, a past, that dramatizes them, just because literature sometimes needs crutches and excuses to reach at that fragile teenage spot inside of us. As if, without the excuses, everyone will just shrug and say, “Well, get over yourself. I had to.” But while the YA heroine who struggles with issues may represent some of us who really had those issues, for most of us her excuses simply allow our empathy—for her, and through her for ourselves and other people. We may not have had a mother who committed suicide or a boyfriend who murdered two people and beat the crap out of us in the meantime, we may not be internalizing guilt about those things, but her shame and self-loathing and struggles to regain a right to live in her society are ones with which we can identify nevertheless. That’s why rites of passage stories are so powerful.

She’s the us who gets to have Derek, the cute, adorable guy who puts his jeans jacket around us when we’re cold and keeps getting us milkshakes because we’re not eating enough. (Ellen Emerson White’s heroines have chronic intense stomach/eating issues. An ulcer in this case. This and uptight, repressed families with high IQs and almost non-existent EQs—incapable of expressing emotion without significant therapy—are her thing. What I would call her story. It works particularly well in this book when the hero is so patiently and adorably reaching through those barriers of the heroine’s and thus, on both a symbolic and real level, integrating her into life, love, and society.)

A serendipitous conjunction of Jane’s request about doing a guest author review, Kati’s post on comfort reading, and some Twitter conversations with Angie who, it turns out, loves Derek as much as I do, got me re-reading Life Without Friends again for the first time in a few years. And as soon as I was done with the first read, I thought: Ha, I’m reviewing this book, so I get to re-read it right over again. And then, after the second time, well, let’s be thorough and go back through the favorite parts one more time. But there are so many favorite parts that I basically had to re-read the whole book yet again—three times in a weekend.

To me, it is a quintessential comfort read, not only for Derek, but for Beverly, who, for all her sarcasm and hang-ups (or, really, because of them), is an utterly relatable and likeable heroine. I said to Angie on Twitter that this book is the standard, to me, of what YA/NA books could be. It is definitely Ellen Emerson White’s best work. Scenes between Beverly and her family, Beverly and her psychiatrist, and Beverly and Derek are interwoven with such a perfect balance as she comes to terms with what has happened and opens up again, thanks primarily to three people: her stepmother, her psychiatrist, and, of course, Derek. The dialogue is sarcastic, funny, insightful. And I’m always intrigued by a certain spare quality to Ellen Emerson White’s writing. In other books, she often has characters read Hemingway as a shorthand for their intelligence. Despite my impatience with this literary self-consciousness*, I do think we can see her own liking of Hemingway in what can often be the simplicity of her writing. A marshmallow doesn’t swell up in Bev’s throat (as I might say); no, her throat just tightens, or closes. And that’s enough. Reading Ellen Emerson White is a reminder to me of the power of simplicity.

It is, in its way, a very simple story. One I finish every time with a happy smile.

And a sigh because it’s over, wishing for a bit more Derek.

You might say I had to start writing books in the first place because I wanted more Derek.

[*I am impatient because I’ve personally not only read but studied at a graduate level a very broad spectrum of literary classics in four major languages. A colleague here has an international reputation for her work with neuroscience and story, so I’ve gleaned a thing or two from those “neuroscience and the humanities” talks, and I would love to see an MRI throwdown on reading Hemingway versus, say, Laura Kinsale. Without in the least trying to dismiss Hemingway’s quality, my bet for brain activity is on Laura Kinsale. This is not me being flippantly, knee-jerk defensive of romance. Brain activity seems to be based on factors such as reader engagement with/enjoyment of the story as well as coming across new ways of evoking things—an unexpected turn of phrase that captures an emotional reaction or makes us think, for example. So imagining the MRI match-up between Old Man and the Sea and For My Lady’s Heart makes me grin every time.]

 

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 Laura Florand compilation


Laura Florand 
is the award-winning author of the Amour et Chocolat series (The Chocolate Thief, The Chocolate Kiss…), where sexy Parisian chocolatiers woo the women they love with what they love best – romance you can taste. Her books have been translated into seven languages, received the RT Seal of Excellence and starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, and been recommended by USA Today, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and Dear Author, among others, and twice been selected as Sizzling Book Club Picks by Smart B*, Trashy Books. They’ve even been selected for the infamous (legendary? notorious?) DABWAHA! She was born in Georgia, but the travel bug bit her early. After a Fulbright year in Tahiti, a semester in Spain, and backpacking everywhere from New Zealand to Greece, she ended up living in Paris, where she met and married her own handsome Frenchman, a story told in her first book Blame It on Paris.  Now a lecturer at Duke University, she is very dedicated to her research into French chocolate. For a glimpse behind the scenes of some of that research as well as recommendations for US chocolate, make sure to check out her website: www.lauraflorand.com.

 

REVIEW: Aftertaste {a novel in five courses} by Meredith Mileti

REVIEW: Aftertaste {a novel in five courses} by Meredith Mileti

Dear Ms. Mileti

What got me interested in trying your first book is the excerpt you sent us and the opening scene in it. Here is a woman wronged who apparently didn’t take her husband’s betrayal of their marriage vows lightly but who, in this modern age, found herself treated as the villain of the piece whereas in ages past she probably would have been lauded for what she did. Instead, after attacking the woman she caught in flagrante delicto with Jake on the sofa in the office of their restaurant Grappa, it’s Mira who ends up being carted away in handcuffs. At least Mira managed to tear out some of the cagna’s hair before the police arrived and she got slapped with a restraining order.

aftertaste-a-novel-in-five-coursesMari has managed to – pretty much – control herself through 7 months of working the lunch shift at Grappa while Jake is the dinner chef. Her court appointed anger management classes aren’t going so well since she thinks the therapist is full of it but except for one session where she lost control and described what landed her there – with far too much relish in the therapist’s opinion – Mira has even kept a lid on her simmering anger there as well. It’s when she discovers during their final divorce proceedings that Jake and his slut are expecting a baby – when she couldn’t get Jake interested in their own infant daughter – and that he’s going to manage to get Grappa as well, that Mira loses it again and this time has to take Chloe and leave the city.

At first, Mira has no intention of staying in her hometown of Pittsburgh longer than the court order for her to stay out of NYC lasts. Despite the fact that her widowed father lives there as well as a older friend from her childhood, Mira sees nothing for herself there. Yet as she begins to settle and, without quite realizing it, inadvertently start growing roots there again, she starts to heal and slowly to discover who and what is important in her life. Could what she’s always been looking for have been there all along?

I wouldn’t call this Chick Lit by any means despite the first person POV tale of a woman’s journey of self discovery. Mira is older, a divorced mother and can pack a mean wallop when she gets pissed off. I see this more as women’s fiction with a dollop of romance sprinkled on at the very end. Kind of like the finishing touch that a chef adds the moment before the plated dinner heads out of the kitchen and to the diner. Yes, the food references are deliberate as food is such an integral part of who Mira is. She lives to cook and can “foodie” with the best of them. If faced with a medley of foodstuffs, her mind is immediately spinning and whirling as she pairs them and dresses them and invents new recipes on the spot. Discovering the secret yet essential ingredient in a dish she’s trying to reproduce is like a delicious game to her. It’s amazing I didn’t end up eating the entire contents of my kitchen after reading about so much wonderful food.

Mira did need to get away from the source of her anger and betrayal but it still takes her a long time to get over what Jake did to her. As indeed I think it would take anyone. The ache is there yet Mira also has to face the reality behind her marriage and come to finally accept it for what it was. Watching her pull herself out of the funk she was in and start to rebuild her confidence isn’t easy but seeing the finished Mira – who is so much stronger a woman than she was before – is worth the effort.

It’s not just herself she needs to rethink though as Mira is, let’s be honest, a bit of a snob, and not only where food is concerned. The relationships of those around her also challenge her to be more understanding but that doesn’t come easily either. Her professor father’s romance with a secretary, who Mira sees as beneath him, ruffles her feathers and her long sober alcoholic friend’s fall from sobriety wrenches Mira’s heart but in the end, it all helps mature her.

The romance ends on a HFN note as Mira is now finally ready to take a chance on her heart and on a man she wouldn’t have been ready for a year ago. And she’ll be back to doing what she loves, cooking in her own restaurant, but a better, more … seasoned if you will… woman who finally knows herself better and is ready to confidently move forward with her life. B-

~Jayne

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