Posts Tagged ‘The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus by Sonya Sones’

In college we read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.  I haven’t read many novels in verse since.

But last summer I discovered a book I love dearly, Sonya Sones’s The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus.  This witty, poignant novel in verse is not quite a classic, but it is beautifully-crafted and entertaining, inhabiting the realm between chick lit and poetry.  Middle-aged readers will identify readily with the narrator, Holly, who humorously faces menopause, is saddened by her daughter’s move to college, worries that her husband may be having an affair, and is shocked when her mother across the country suddenly has a health crisis.

This novel is very original but was not widely reviewed, as far as I can see.  Sones has written several Y.A. novels in verse and this is her first adult novel.

There is so much good in this novel that it’s too bad that the ending shifts to safe terrain, and in a way betrays the novel’s beauty and Holly’s voice. I imagine it’s hard to get away from that Y.A. formula.  I very much look forward to her next adult book.

So I’ve looked for other new women’s novels in verse since then and found:

Jane Rawlings’s The Penelopeia:  A Novel in Verse Published in 2003, Jane Rawlings’s The Penelopeia is new to me.  I found it in a random internet search.  I love reading novels about mythic characters and admire much of this.

It is a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, written from Penelope’s point of view.  In case your Homer is rusty, let me remind you that Penelope is the wife of Odysseus and remained faithful to him for 20 years while he first fought at Troy for 10 years and then struggled to come home to Ithaka for the next 10, delayed by Poseidon.

In Rawlings’s poem, Penelope reveals to Odysseus that she gave birth to twin daughters after his departure.  She hid them at her father-in-law’s to keep them safe from the enemies and suitors who invaded Odysseus’s palace.  Their son Telemachus, as well as Odysseus, was kept ignorant of the twins.  Both men feel betrayed.

To complicate things further, she and her daughters must take a journey to consult the Pythia, the oracle priestess at Pythos.

The Penelopeia is ambitious, but it is a hard act to follow Homer.  Parts of Rawlings’s verse are excellent, parts awkward.  There are beautiful passages, and then clumsy similes.

Rawlings tells us in her acknowledgements that she has written in the style of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The Odyssey.  I guess that is safer than saying that it is in the style of Homer.  Lattimore’s translation is most similar to the Greek, I would say:  concise and an almost literal translation.

The Penelopeia is very enjoyable, but then I’m an Odyssey freak.  It would be unreadable without knowledge of Homer.  But Rawlings also does some quirky modern things:  this poem is narrated by the heroine, and first-person narration is not done in Greek epic.  She is giving voice to mythic women in a contemporary way.

Ellen Hopkins’s Triangles Does the cover look a little trashy?

Yes, it does, doesn’t it?

Watch out, girls.  This is not just a novel in verse.  It’s a romantic novel in verse.

Is the novel in verse a trend in women’s novels?

Hopkins, like Sones, is a Y.A. writer and this is her first adult book.

This enjoyable if shallow novel is the story of three women:  Holly, a desperate housewife married to a successful lawyer and a mother of three who has lost 60 pounds so she can attract men (yes, that’s her main ambition); Andrea, a single mother who works at the DMV and wishes she had a husband like Holly’s; and Marissa, Andrea’s sister, the mother of a gay son and a daughter with SMA (spinal muscular atrophy, a terminal disease)  and the wife of an alcoholic husband who has pretty much opted out.

Marissa is the most authentic and interesting character, but as the novel continues Andrea has more opportunities for good relationships and even the superficial Holly grows.  Holly begins to write erotica and attends a writers’ group.  (The writing is secondary to romance, though, and she’s attracted to a guy in her writer’s group.)

I would not be reading it if it were not in verse.  This is not to say it’s a bad book.  It’s just not my kind of book.  Some of the poetry is surprisingly good (and some bad), but I’m not really a Desperate Housewives kind of person.

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If I were a bookstore, I would be a Victorian house crammed with books arranged by century:  Greek and Roman classics in the atrium, Golden Age Detective Stories in the conservatory (along with a Clue game),  Victorians in the parlor (and free copies of Dickens’s books for customers), romances in the bedroom, and novels in translation in the tower.

And the house would be haunted.  See over there?  The ghosts of Shirley Jackson, Henry James, M. R. James, and E. Nesbit (yes, Nesbit wrote ghost stories in addition to children’s classics).  There might also be a few materializations of characters from favorite books:   Jane Austen’s Emma, Frances Wingate from Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold, and Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey.

And I’m afraid that I would have to be a used bookstore.

I don’t read a lot of new books.  It’s not that I don’t have good intentions.  It’s very difficult to find good NEW books I really admire.  Almost ALL the reviews make me want to rush out and buy them, but my tastes seldom coincide with the reviewers’.

This summer I read mostly classics and old books.  I only read nine new books and loved only four of them–and two of them were novels about H. G. Wells.

So here are four new books that I very much admired, with  links to my blog reviews (written in June and July my old blog at Blogger, before I moved back to WordPress in August):

1.  A Man of Parts by David Lodge.  I wrote in June (here): ” In Lodge’s entertaining new novel, he vividly records the highs and lows of H. G. Wells’s career and personal life.  Wells, who started life as a draper’s assistant, like the heroes of his comic novels, The History of Mr. Polly and Kipps, rose from housekeeper’s son to science teacher to writer of articles and reviews.  When The Time Machine was published in 1895, he became a best-selling novelist.”

2.  The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma.  I wrote in July (here):   One of my favorite books of the summer is Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, a historical fantasy that mixes elements of literary and pop. [It revolves around H. G. Wells and his novel, The Time Machine.]  Palma’s astonishingly well-written novel, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, deals with time travel, romance, and H. G. Wells. Palma fashions a fairly accurate biography of Wells.”

3.  The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus by Sonya Sones.  I wrote in July (here);  “In Sonya Sones’s lovely new novel in verse, the narrator is a woman in midlife.  Sones’s light verse is both poignant and powerful.  The witty narrator, Holly, who is just entering her fifties, confronts hot flashes, empty nest syndrome, and her aged mother’s need for a long-distance caregiver.   I am not only charmed by Holly’s quirky outlook, but empathize with her sense of loss:  no more babies, not that she’d wanted any more; the sense that she and her husband have remained together because of their daughter; and her shock when her mother calls to say she has fallen out of bed and cannot get up.”

4.  The Good Caregiver:  A One-of-a-Kind Compassionate Resource for Anyone Caring for an Aging Loved One by Robert L. Kane, M.D, Director of the Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota.  I wrote in July here:  “This short accessible handbook can help anyone struggling to make good decisions about long-term care for aged relatives. Kane writes about family self-assessment, dementia, home health care, visiting nurses and aides, case managers, common illnesses, money and the law, and the differences between assisted living facilities and nursing homes.  He provides excellent checklists and interview questions, and the appendix has a helpful list of websites and resources.”

So I hope some of you will enjoy or appreciate these books.

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