(a cross-post from my book blog)
A somewhat embarrassingly long while back, I received an email from someone at a marketing firm, asking if I'd like a copy of Beth Gutcheon's Good-bye and Amen to review on the oft-neglected badgerbooks. She assured me that I had no obligation to write anything specific, or even to only say positive things, so I happily agreed. I must admit that upon first opening it, I was a little concerned. Good-bye and Amen is written as a series of short passages in the voices of a cast of nearly four dozen characters, as if an unseen interviewer has asked them questions. I decided to give it my best try, and before long I was completely wrapped up in the story of Eleanor, Monica, and Jimmy, the grown and recently-orphaned children of a brilliant, quiet father and a brash, domineering mother.
The secondary characters -- a majority of the cast -- faded into the background a bit, and helped to flesh out the town of Dundee, Maine, site of the family's beloved summer home, Leeway Cottage. Through the course of the book, the three main characters examine their childhoods and growing-up years, their relationship with their parents, and their parents' relationship to each other. The framework of the story is a last summer at Leeway, where the three siblings and their spouses struggle to divide up their parents' possessions while remaining civil with each other. Old hurts are laid bare, new wounds are laid open, but ultimately all the characters discover they still have some growing up to do and that they love each other in spite of the emotional hardships of their upbringing.
The plot device of interview and remembrance was so well done that at least a half-dozen times I found myself flipping to the front cover, just to make sure it really said, "A Novel" under the title. The illusion was furthered with the clever inclusion of a section of "family photographs" in the middle of the book, complete with captions. (Incidentally, I am dying to know who all the people in the photos are, and whether the photos inspired the story or if the author just put them in later to shore up the believability.) Even without that, this would've been a deeply engaging book, sweetly told and rather beautifully rendered.
I only had two small issues with the story. First, there are passages in italics that seem to be written in the voices of people watching the action unfold from their afterlife in Heaven. For the most part, I was not sure who these people were supposed to be, or how their observations really fit into the larger story. They did provide a way to offer a bit of exposition here and there, but overall I didn't feel like they totally fit into the larger tale. Secondly, I didn't realize it until I'd started the book, but Good-bye and Amen is a sequel. Since I hadn't read the first book, there were a few things that took me longer to work out than they probably should've. That said, I really enjoyed Good-bye and Amen, and would definitely recommend it.
Once I'd finished it, I was quite curious about the first book, Leeway Cottage. I really liked the characters (well, except for Norman, but I won't give anything away), and was curious to see where they'd come from. I also wondered if reading the first book would give me any insight into the characters who seemed to be watching from the great beyond. Deciding to go out on a limb, I emailed the person who had contacted me, and asked if there was any way I could get a copy of Leeway Cottage to review here as well. She agreed, and the book landed on my doorstep days later.
Leeway Cottage is written in a more traditional style. It begins during the childhood of Sydney Brant -- mother of Eleanor, Monica and Jimmy -- and more or less tells the story of her entire life, all the way up until her death, which sets in motion the events of Good-bye and Amen. A reader approaching these books in the proper order would no doubt go into the second one with an understanding of where the characters have come from, and with sympathies firmly in place for some of them. I had a bit of the opposite experience. I read first about the cold side of Sydney, and about her husband Laurus as a quiet and almost meek man, and only later got to see the pair fleshed out and living their own lives. Sydney's treatment of her children is no less regrettable after knowing about her own awful mother, but it at least is a bit more understandable.
My favorite aspect of Leeway Cottage was getting to meet Laurus Moss, the young virtuoso pianist who weds Sydney and then leaves her to birth and raise their oldest daughter alone while he works for the Danish resistance during World War II. I'm not much for period dramas for the most part, but the tales of Laurus's war years -- and the story of what happened to his sister Nina to turn her into the frail shadow of a woman she is in Good-bye and Amen -- were captivating. Leeway Cottage is engaging and well-written, with a scope that has to be respected -- almost an entire life laid out with both sympathy and unflinching honesty. The reader can see Sydney for the flawed woman she grows up to be, but is never prodded to despise her, or even really to pity her. The characters are not neat, pat creations. They are rounded and rough-edged, imperfect and typical, and I think that's why they came across to me as such realistic, believable people.
I liked these two books so much that I hate to give them away. I'm pretty sure I'll want to pick these up and read them again before long (especially since I'm still working out the observers-from-beyond angle). But when I asked for a copy of the second (or first, really) book, I promised I'd do a giveaway when I was done to drum up interest in the reviews.
If you're interested in winning my copies of Leeway Cottage and Good-bye and Amen, click over to the book blog and leave a comment on this post about your favorite summer vacation memory. Don't forget to include your email address so I can get in touch with you if you win. The giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada, and ends at midnight on December 5th.