I’ve decided that really good books are those that stick with you. Long after the book ends, you’re still thinking about them. That’s what I’ve found out with the last four books on my reading list.
“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” was a book club selection, and although I didn’t get to book club that particular month, I’m glad I read the book. It was so refreshingly different from everything else. That’s what sets literary fiction apart from genre fiction.
Harold Fry is a normal British fellow who gets a letter from an old co-worker who tells him that she’s dying and just wants to say thank you for his kindness. Harold writes back to her, telling her he’s coming to visit her; the only catch is that he’s walking across England to get there.
Woefully unprepared, Harold goes on a journey that’s both literal and figurative. He meets other characters along the way who help and sometimes hinder him. He thinks that if he makes Queenie Hennessy wait for him, she won’t die.
“The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy” is the companion book, which I couldn’t resist buying once I finished “Harold Fry.” Told from the co-worker’s point of view, some of the gaps from Harold’s story are filled in with grace and serendipity. Harold loves his wife, but since they’ve become empty-nesters, their relationship has suffered.
Queenie, on the other hand, is in love with Harold. She does a good job of hiding it, but it isn’t hard, because Harold can be a bit dense. Queenie’s life takes some strange turns after she’s fired from her job at the brewery. She’s sacrificed her job and covered up for Harold, but her job is no great loss. The boss at the brewery comes close to being criminally rude.
In the end, Harold does reach Queenie at the hospice, but she’s already comatose. Harold rediscovers his humanity and recovers his love for his wife. She’s a secondary character, along with their son, but they both have major roles in the story. Queenie’s story is perhaps a little more tragic, but the reader is certain of her impending death.
I can’t say I enjoyed the ending of “Bel Canto,” an award-winning novel by Ann Patchett. It’s another strange story that makes sense in its own way. A Central American president hosts a birthday party for a Japanese dignitary, because he wants the Japanese to invest in the country’s business. He invites an American opera star to sing at the event, along with an international cast of secondary characters.
And then a bunch of would-be terrorists storm the palace and take every hostage. Alas, the president isn’t there — he’s at home watching his favorite soap opera. So the vice president has to make do, and try to reason with the kidnappers. Meanwhile the Japanese diplomat and the American soprano fall in love, as well as the diplomat’s translator and a female terrorist.
The hostage crisis drags on for weeks. And then when apparently the author couldn’t think of anything else to say, the palace is stormed and among those killed are the diplomat and the female terrorist. So the translator and the soprano get married. Huh?
Wait a minute. I did not see that coming. And I’m pretty good about reading the subtle messages in books. I knew that Harold’s son was actually dead long before he actually came out and said it. So when did the translator and the soprano decide to marry? I thought about re-reading the last chapters, but I didn’t want to waste any more time on it.
“Escape” is the true story of a woman born into a polygamist cult, who is forced to marry one of the rising stars in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Carolyn Jessop bears eight children in 15 years before she finally escapes from the abusive lifestyle of Merril Jessop’s family.
I kept thinking, “How could she let this go on?” and then realized that she was a victim from birth — her parents were part of the community, and she was raised as a true believer. Lessons learned from the cradle aren’t discarded without a lot of soul-searching. She had a few things on her side that helped her along the way: she had a college education and she learned how to read people and not be drawn into their drama.
I couldn’t put this book down. Once I got to a certain point, I had to keep reading. Carolyn Jessop has also written a follow-up book. I may have to get that one to find out what happened next. I guess my big question: Will her sons turn into abusive husbands? Certainly they saw enough abuse to think it’s normal. Maybe that’s what the therapists explored with those children.
I googled Carolyn’s name, and found an article about her daughter Betty who returned to the cult after turning 18. Betty says she was writing a book from her point of view, defending the FLDS and their practices, but I don’t see any titles. She’s perhaps the biggest victim. Her mother was trying to protect her, and Betty wasn’t seeing it that way. Maybe time and experience will give her clearer vision.