Trenton Reads

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Archive for “B” Authors

Review: Summer Sisters

Judy Blume’s books have always been synonymous with childhood to me. Peter, Fudge, and Tootsie will always hold a special place in my heart and I still remember lounging in front of a fan with Tiger Eyes and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret on hot summer days. I hadn’t read any of Blume’s adult novels, until Summer Sisters, and am happy to report that, once again, this talented writer does not disappoint.

In Summer Sisters, Blume brings us another unforgettable character, twelve year-old Victoria, known to friends and family as Vix. Vix lives in Santa Fe, the dutiful eldest of four children. Her parents struggle to make ends meet and much of their time and attention goes into caring for Vix’s youngest and most beloved sibling, Nathan, who has muscular dystrophy.

Vix meets beautiful, free-spirited Caitlin at school and is invited to spend the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her. Caitlin, who lives with her mother in Santa Fe, spends every summer on the Vineyard with her brother and father. The girls’ first summer together starts a trend that continues through high school and thus Vix and Caitlin become “summer sisters.” Caitlin’s wealthy father and kind-hearted stepmother adore Vix and offer her a scholarship that enables her to attend Caitlin’s private school in Santa Fe and eventually, Harvard.

Summer Sisters is a novel about friendship. The friendship between Vix and Caitlin is enduring, though the two girls couldn’t be more different. The twelve year-old Vix is respectful, eager to please, and follows the rules while Caitlin is wild and outspoken, heedless of rules and expectations. She never wears shoes, rarely bathes, viciously rejects her kind and loving stepmother Abby, and uses sexually explicit vocabulary.

As the girls grow into young women, the differences intensify. Vix sets about rising above the circumstances she was born into and making something of her life in the traditional sense – a Harvard education, a good job, a nice boyfriend, motivated and equally educated friends. Caitlin travels the world from Italy to Argentina on her trust fund, never sticking to anything – college, relationships, jobs – for very long.

The friendship survives despite their differences, even despite a betrayal, and that is the beauty of this story. I was cheering for Vix all along, wanting so much for her – happiness, an exciting job, a great guy. Caitlin was more difficult, but not impossible to love. She was selfish, spoiled, and shallow on the surface. But underneath the tough exterior, she was essentially insecure and scared – scared of death, and of failing – at love, motherhood, and life in general.

Vix’s was the primary voice, but interspersed throughout the book were short, one page narratives by the other characters in the story – the girls’ parents and siblings, their friends and boyfriends – that left me amazed at how well I felt I knew these supporting characters after reading such short snippets of their thoughts and feelings.

When I turned the last page and closed this book I knew that Vix and Caitlin would live in my mind for a long time. They will remind me that what you see on the outside is not always what is inside. That people can rise above their circumstances or be mired down by them. That poverty can be a blessing and privilege can be a curse – life is what you make of it. And most importantly, that a friendship can be a saving grace, but only if you let it.

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Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman

 

Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Vanora Bennett’s debut novel, is set in England, 1527, in the heat of the Catholic-Protestant struggle. The story is told from the vantage point of Sir Thomas More’s family, specifically his adopted daughter, Meg Gibbs. At first, I thought I was going to have trouble liking her character, but by midway through the book she felt like a friend and by the end, I was sad to say good-bye.

During Meg’s childhood and young adult years, More is a favorite of the English court, as well as a respected intellectualist. Their home is constantly filled with the prominent intellectual and political figures of the day, and clever Meg embraces the urbane, humanist thinking that surrounds her. Meg is sharply intelligent, passionate in her opinions, warm and loving to both her family and friends and the disadvantaged citizens of London.

After her marriage to her childhood tutor and lifelong love, who is now a respected doctor, Meg works as a female healer in the streets of London. She is torn between loyalty to her father who, somewhat uncharacteristically, is fanatically persecuting Protestant “heretics”, and her own more tolerant religious views. Eventually she can remain silent no longer and dares to oppose the torture and killing that her father has sanctioned.

Historical fiction fans will appreciate the glimpse into the infamous reign of King Henry VIII from the perspective of Sir Thomas More, from More’s glory years as Lord Chancellor of England to his downfall as an ardent Catholic when Henry increasingly embraced Protestantism. As a reader, I felt invested in the lives of this cast of characters and held my breath as England became a hotbed of religious fanaticism, wondering how it would affect Meg and her family.

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