Of Women and Salt

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Gabriela Garcia
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021)

I have read some really good books this month and Of Women and Salt is definitely one of them. I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz about it over the past few months but I couldn’t quite pin down what the plot was. I gathered it was a multi-generational immigrant story and honestly, I didn’t need to hear any more, I was sold. 

We put this on our book club voting list and it lost to The Lost Apothecary, which is really too bad because I think my book club would have enjoyed this a lot more than they enjoyed The Lost Apothecary. This book is centered around women, primarily the relationships between mothers and daughters. It’s another story that is told non-linearly (seriously, I’ve read so many of these this year), but this is one of the books where I didn’t mind the non-linear telling. Overall the plot is pretty simple, so I didn’t find it difficult to jump around as the novel focuses more on the character relationships than anything else. 

The novel kicks off in 19th century Cuba and then jumps around from there. Though someone from almost every generation of this Cuban immigrant family are featured throughout the novel, most of our time is spent close to present day with the youngest woman in the family, Jeanette. When she witnesses her neighbour being taken away by ICE in the middle of the night, she inadvertently becomes guardian to her neighbour’s daughter for a short period of time. Though they only know each other for a few days, the experience has a profound impact on both Jeanette and the young girl, Ana. 

I’m glad the novel focused on these two individuals because I did find their stories to be some of the most memorable and meaningful of the book. Though I did love the development of both Jeanette’s relationship with her mom (Carmen), and her Mom’s relationship with Jeanette’s grandmother (Delores). Beyond Delores, I don’t think going further back in the family tree really added that much to the story. The inclusion of the family tree at the start was definitely a good idea, I could see this being really confusing otherwise.

Some might question how much Ana and her mother’s story really belonged in this book, but I loved the comparison of two different immigration stories and though they are only loosely linked to one another, I thought the inclusion of both really made this a more well rounded story. 

Honestly, my only complaint about this book is that it could have been longer. It’s only about 200 pages and I really would have loved to spend more time with each of the women in this family, particularly Carmen. I felt like I had good insight into Dolores’ perspective, but I would have loved to hear more about Carmen’s experience immigrating to America and what it was like growing up under the shadow of her childhood trauma. Abuse was passed down from generation to generation in this family and I think that Garcia could have really developed this theme more to make her narrative even more impactful. I just wanted a little bit more from each of the characters, but the writing was so beautiful I’m definitely excited to see what the author will write next. An excellent debut!

The Lost Apothecary

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Sarah Penner
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021)

Sadly, this was one of my most disappointing reads so far this year. Not that it was a particularly bad book or anything, I just thought the plot held so much promise and it was one of most anticipated books. So when it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was definitely disappointing. 

The Lost Apothecary is set in the late 1700’s and tells the story of an apothecary, Nella, who dispenses both remedies and poisons to her solely female clientele. The goal of her apothecary has always been to help women, but after the death of her mother, Nella decides to branch out to offer women a different kind of help, that of murder. Her one rule is that her poisons are never to be used against women, only against men. 

At the same time, we have a modern day story of Caroline Parcewell, a young housewife who has just discovered an upsetting secret about her husband and decides to travel to London on their 10 year anniversary, alone. While there, she discovers about the existence of the old apothecary and sets out to learn more about it.

The plot sounds intriguing right? So why didn’t I like it? Honestly… I didn’t see the point. I thought I was going to get a nuanced story about women in tight places who seek help to improve their difficult situations. I wanted a morally ambiguous story about women and sisterhood, but instead I got a lightweight drama about a blackmail scenario that I struggled to believe wouldn’t have already happened to Nella at some point during her career as a dispenser of poisons.

There is one interesting story in the beginning when we are introduced to Eliza, but after that, I felt the author didn’t do anything new or interesting with the plot. I struggled to relate with any of the characters because I don’t think any of them were given the depth they deserved. We’re given a surface level story about Nella that I think is intended to be shocking and sad, but Penner never manages to quite connect you with her characters in a meaningful way. It’s a debut novel and she falls into the classic trap of “show don’t tell”.

I feel like I make this complaint about a lot of books, yet authors keep making the same mistake. Penner had a great idea for the book, but the execution and character development just weren’t enough to really give this story wings. It’s a great idea, but I don’t really know what Penner was trying to say, what was the point? I felt like I was getting so many conflicting messages. One of Nella’s key motivations is that she wants to keep her register alive to give voices to women instead of silencing them, but if that puts the women at risk of DEATH, then that is the strongest way of ensuring you do actually silence them. Then Caroline further silences women by keeping what she discovers about Eliza at the end a secret as well. The messages were contradictory and it really made me question what point the author was trying to make.

So let’s talk about Caroline. Why do so many historical fiction books insist on having the modern day timeline. No one cares about it! People are almost always more interested in the historical timeline as learning about the past is generally what inspires someone to pick up historical fiction in the first place, so why do so many books have modern day timelines. I was initially intrigued with how the apothecary was going to link to Caroline, but it ended up just being a fluke and I thought the scenario of events that occurred in her timeline were so outlandish and unlikely that it was hard to take her story seriously at all. 

Anyways, at the end of the day, it wasn’t a totally bad book, but it also wasn’t a great book. I’m somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. I read it with my book club and we were all disappointed, so despite the intriguing-sounding plot, I wouldn’t recommend this one.    

Swimming Back to Trout River

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Linda Rui Feng
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read May 2021)

I haven’t been seeing that much buzz about this book, so I have no idea how it got on my radar, but I found the name super compelling. Then when I read the plot and saw it was blurbed by Jean Kwok, I was super interested in reading it. 

What an understated book. It’s a simple plot with simple storytelling, but I really enjoyed it. I really like Linda Rui Feng’s style of writing and thought it was really lyrical storytelling about a family that becomes separated by time and circumstance. From the synopsis, this is the story of two parents who immigrate to America and leave their daughter with their parents in law, promising to come back for her on her 12th birthday. But the daughter, Junie, loves her life in Trout River and doesn’t know that her parents have become estranged in their new country.

The story delivered on this plot, but it’s really only a small part of what this book covers. I expected the book to mostly be about Junie, but it’s actually primarily about her parents and their connections to music. It’s not so much a multi generational story as a story of her parents growing up, their journey together, and then their journey apart. Her father, Momo, grows up in Trout River and is one of the first people to succeed and get out of the village, leaving to get a university education. There he meets Dawn, a budding violinist who teaches him to play ahead of China’s cultural revolution. Finally, he eventually meets his wife, Cassia, a nurse who has experienced her own loss through the revolution. 

Like I said, it’s an understated novel about growing up and subtly addresses the impact the cultural revolution had on many of its citizens, without being a heavy novel solely about the revolution. It’s about family, the ones we make and the ones we choose, and who we might be if events in our lives had gone differently. It’s not a long book and made for a really enjoyable read. 

The only part I didn’t really like was the ending. I found it very abrupt and would have preferred to spend a bit more time getting to know Junie rather than just her parents. That said, I loved Dawn’s character and even though she wasn’t a part of the main family, she was my favourite part of the book! Check it out if you’re looking for something a little different.

What’s Mine and Yours

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Naima Coster
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021 on Audible)

This was an impulse buy because I liked the audiobook narrator. I always have such a hard time finding audiobooks because I own so many hard copies of the books on my TBR and I don’t want to pay for them twice. I’ve seen a bit of buzz about What’s Mine and Yours, but I wish I was seeing more because this book was excellent! Honestly, I don’t know why this is only rated 3.67 on goodreads, I feel like it must be misunderstood because so many of the characters are unlikeable, but definitely a 4.5 star read for me.

Unfortunately the synopsis of the book is a bit misleading. The book is pitched as being about the lives of two students from North Carolina whose school is being forced to integrate. This is a small part of the story, but really this is a multi-generational saga about the families of those two students – the impact of their childhoods and their parents’ influence on who they become and how their lives continue to intersect throughout the years. It reminded me a little bit of Ask Again, Maybe because of the ripple effect that single circumstances can have on a person and on a family. In this case there’s not necessarily one catalyst so much as a series of events, but it still makes for a really interesting character study.

This novel touches on so many themes: grief, growing up, race, class, abuse, family, love. Gee grows up with his headstrong mother Jade, who wants the best for her son, but struggles to be there for him in the way he needs after a tragic incident. Noelle grows up under the shadow of her mother, a white woman who has been dealt her own difficult hand in life, but fails to recognize how her white privilege blinds her and creates a wedge between her and her half-Latina daughters.

With so much going on in the book, I did find it a little hard to follow by audiobook in the beginning. The author doesn’t use a linear timeline to tell the story, for a good reason understanding the surprising ending, but it did make it hard to follow at times. I think the strongest themes of the book are those of race and class, but Costa accomplishes a lot in under 350 pages. I didn’t love the ending, but I loved how this book is a character examination of these two families. The narrative isn’t proportionally split between all the characters, but by looking at each of the family members, we get to recognize the larger scope of the story. 

Lacey May was the most interesting character for me. I struggled with her character because she really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. She’s blind to how her children perceive her and she’s not ashamed of her blatant racism. Despite her strong character, she fails to be able to stand on her own two feet, always relying on the men around her, and even as an old woman, she still uses the same old antics to manipulate her daughters. But she makes for an interesting character study because you know there are tons more women out there just like her. 

Unfortunately the plot is already getting hazy in my memory, but definitely recommend this if you’re looking for a nuanced and engaging story!

Brooklyn

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Colm Toibin
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2009 (read Apr. 2021)

I have so many thoughts on this book. I’m not a big movie goer, but I saw Brooklyn in theatres when it came out at the recommendation of a friend and fell in love with the movie. I didn’t even realize it was a book until several years later – but it didn’t have the best reviews on Goodreads, so I decided to give it a pass. About a month ago I stumbled across a copy in a second hand bookstore and decided to revisit the story and give the book a try.

The movie stays very close to the book, so it’s hard to separate one from the other. As reviews suggest, the writing is good, but not great. The author has a very ‘matter of fact’ way of telling the story that can seem a little bland next to some other books. That said, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I thought I would – Toibin is still a good writer, it’s just not the kind of moving writing that you give 5 stars too. Even so, I found the story just as compelling as the movie and flew through it in just 2 days.

In some ways I preferred the book and enjoyed getting Eilis’ internal monologue, but in other ways I thought the movie was stronger. Eilis has an indifference to Tony in the book that doesn’t quite sell this as a love story as strongly as the movie does. The most notable difference for me was the last part of the book when Eilis returns to Ireland. The first three quarters of the movie follow the book almost verbatim, but the story diverges slightly in the last quarter. The ending of the book is almost jarring in its suddenness, but that may be because I was expecting it to continue based on the movie. 

But before I get into the spoiler part of the review, I just want to talk about why I love this story. It may not be 5 star writing, but in my opinion, it’s definitely a 5 star story. Brooklyn is set following WWII, we’re not told the exact year, but based on the setting, others have dated it to the early 1950’s. Eilis grew up in a small town outside Dublin and has spent her whole life in Ireland. She studies book keeping, but as a young adult, she struggles to find meaningful work. Her sister, Rose, makes contact with an Irish priest in New York who offers to sponsor Eilis to America. He arranges her papers and finds her work in a department store and accommodations in a boarding house.

Eilis is overwhelmed with the pace at which the decision is made for her to go to New York and feels she has no other choice. She’s not looking forward to leaving Rose and her mother, but she acknowledges there’s very little for her in Ireland. So she boards a boat to America and settles in an Irish community in Brooklyn. It’s very difficult for her at first and she becomes homesick, but eventually she settles in and starts to build a life for herself. She attends Brooklyn College for book keeping and meets an Italian named Tony who starts to make her feel at home.

I love this story because it is such an accurate portrayal of how it feels to leave home and make your life elsewhere. Even though the story is set in the 1950’s, its a story so many can relate to. I grew up in a small city that has also been heavily influenced by Irish culture and while I wasn’t personally forced to leave to find work, many of my family members and to an extent, my husband, were forced to seek opportunity elsewhere. While my motivation for leaving was different from Eilis, I could relate with so much of what she went through. Toibin captures so well the heartbreak of leaving your home behind and the challenge of feeling you can longer share a part of yourself with anyone. Eilis goes through many struggles, but she doesn’t want to burden her mother and sister with her pain, so she keeps it to herself. She feels she has no one that she can share her true self with until she meets Tony.

I don’t want to go too much further and potentially spoil the story for someone, so I’ll just say that I think this a story anyone can enjoy and would highly recommend to anyone who has left one home behind for another. It’s definitely a white immigration story – the struggles Eilis faces are almost laughable to what today’s immigrants experience, so definitely read those immigration stories too.

But now let’s get into more of the SPOILER part of the review.
.
.
.
Like I said above, the book doesn’t sell this as a love story quite as strongly as the movie does. That’s fine because I think the love story is secondary to Eilis’ personal experience, but it is a little disappointing to read. Eilis is lukewarm to Tony throughout most of the book, but slowly grows to love him. I definitely love Tony, but he is somewhat problematic and I wasn’t totally sold on how Toibin portrays Eilis’ feelings towards Tony. Eilis really did need Tony – she needed someone to share herself with. She keeps to herself a lot and struggles to fit in with the women she boards with, so when she connects with Tony, he is very much a lifeline to her. She’s reluctant in love, but I think it’s more a part of her character than her feelings about Tony. It just takes her a while to really warm up to him. Overall I was impressed with how Toibin communicates Eilis’ story, but there were definitely a few instances where Eilis’ internal thoughts didn’t jive with me. It was only a handful of times, but I did find myself thinking, “this is a man writing how HE thinks a young woman would think, rather than how I think Eilis would actually think” (if that makes sense).

Tony pressures Eilis into marrying him because he’s afraid she won’t come back from Ireland otherwise. It’s definitely a legitimate fear, but sad for both of them that they don’t trust their love enough to really test it. More disappointing of course is Eilis’ relationship with Jim when she returns to Ireland. This relationship is absolutely essential to the story, but Eilis’ indifference to Tony in the book as compared to the movie was a little upsetting to me. I didn’t remember her actually kissing Jim in the movie (or at least not more than once), whereas in the book she pretty much has a full on relationship with him and reflects that she regrets marrying Tony. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love how this dilemma is presented to Eilis. Suddenly everything she ever wanted is available to her in Ireland. She reflects on why life couldn’t have been like this for her 2 years ago before she was forced to go to America, but she also has to acknowledge that America helped her to grow in so many ways and is largely responsible for the success she’s now able to have in Ireland. But in my opinion the movie better presents the dilemma in having to choose between these two lives. Because in the book Eilis openly regrets her marriage to Tony, it’s a little disappointing to then see her return to that life anyways. With both the book and the movie ultimately having the same ending, I definitely prefer the movie. One of my favourite scenes from the movie is when Eilis boards the boat back to America and mentors the new Irish girl about her lived experience. It’s so moving and more cathartic than how Toibin opts to end the book. Maybe the book is more accurate in the heartbreak of her decision, but the movie definitely provides the catharsis.

I did still like Eilis’ reflections on her life in Brooklyn in the book though. She describes how it seems like a hazy dream to her now that’s returned to Ireland. I thought it was so accurate how when surrounded by people you used to know, the experiences you lived without them almost seem to disappear. Her mother and friends thought she was glamorous upon her return, but they had little interest in what actually happened to her in Brooklyn. This is accurate to my own experiences.

I’ve been away from home for a lot longer than Eilis, but aside from my parents, I generally find my friends don’t have a whole lot of interest in my life in BC. It’s not that they don’t care, I think it’s just that it’s no longer a shared experience between us, so it’s easier for them to talk about their own lives because those lives exist in a setting we can at least both relate to. It’s also a struggle because despite how much you grow, you often remain in stasis for those friends (as they do for you as well). Because of the distance it’s hard for you to grow together now and so you become stuck as former versions of yourself.

As much as I love the movie ending over the book ending. I did love the last thought that Eilis has on her way back to America. How the fact that “she has gone back to Brooklyn” is something that Jim will be upset about for awhile, but how over time it will become something that means less and less to him, while it will become everything to her. The movie ends with the line “and you realize, that this is where your life is”, which is also accurate. Despite the heartbreak of repeatedly saying goodbye to your friends and family every time you see them, the truth is that you have built a life somewhere else, and that’s okay.