In the Land of the Living, Austin Ratner’s second novel, is a multigenerational story told by the men of the Auberon family. It starts out with Isidore and his brothers, who all suffer the cruelties of their abusive father, Ezer. Their mother dies suddenly when they’re all still very young, and as per his history of coldness and abuse, Ezer ships the boys off for a while. Holding everything together is Isidore Auberon, who in many regards becomes mother and father to his siblings. He’s filled with hatred for his father and pushes himself hard to make something of his life.
Isidore works as a garbage man through high school, putting up with the smell and the sacrifices the whole time with the goal of getting into Harvard. He’s a brilliant young man and succeeds, then sets his eyes on medical school. For a while, he’ll have it all: the beautiful young woman who will become his wife is the daughter of his mentor, a well-regarded (and well-connected) doctor who can smooth Isidore’s way through medical school. The good fortune doesn’t last, however, and as Isidore’s part in the story starts to fade out, we’re introduced to his son Leo, who becomes the star of the book.
Like Isidore, Leo will also grow up having his share of daddy issues, albeit for different reasons. He’s like his father in a lot of ways, and he too will grow up wanting to go to medical school at either Harvard or Yale. But as for his personal life, he always seems to put up a wall. He’s not really close with anyone — least of all his brother, with whom he’s always had a strained relationship — and he’s frequently on the verge of angry melancholy. When his brother invites him to take a cross-country road trip, Leo sees it as a chance to reconnect and come to an understanding of what their family went through.
Georgia moves back to her hometown of Miami, FL with her family in tow after her husband is involved in a scandal of sorts in Illinois. The trio moves in with Georgia’s father and stepmother, then decide to move into a rundown houseboat on a whim. They’re trying to put the pieces of their life back together, but they carry a lot of baggage with them: both Georgia and her husband Graham have severe sleep disorders resulting in insomnia (though Graham’s sleep disorder is significantly worse and cost him his job back in Illinois), and their three-year-old son Frankie refuses to speak even though nothing is physically wrong with him.
The family has moved to Miami because Graham has been offered a job at a marine research facility, and considering the scandal and his subsequent firing in Illinois, the family can’t afford to turn down the job offer. The only problem is that his work — tracking hurricane patterns aboard a research vessel — will take him away from his family for weeks at a time. Georgia and Frankie have nothing but time on their hands while Graham is away, and Georgia finds work as a part-time personal assistant for a loner who lives in Stiltsville.
Charlie is a grouchy, successful artist who prefers to live in seclusion. He and Georgia slowly come to an understanding and form a friendship, but the real transformation occurs between Charlie and three-year-old Frankie: Frankie immediately brings out the best in Charlie, and little by little, Frankie starts to speak. It’s only then that Georgia starts figuring out why Frankie stopped speaking in the first place. Georgia’s still trying to come to terms with that as all hell breaks loose and Hurricane Andrew descends upon Florida.
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Just shy of sixteen years old, the only life Anais Hendricks has ever known is the unstable world of the foster care system. She doesn’t know much about her mother or the circumstances that caused her to give Anais up at birth, but her whole life has been a series of hardships and horrors — she’s been placed in over fifty foster homes so far, and even her “good” placement ended in heartbreak.
We meet her in the midst of her latest dilemma: she’s on her way to the Panopticon, a Scottish facility for young offenders (somewhat like the US equivalent of juvenile detention), which was designed so that every move its residents make can be seen from the ominous watchtower. Anais already has a record, and her latest offense might keep her locked up for good: a female officer is in a coma and Anais is brought in with blood on her clothes. She has no recollection of what happened but insists she had nothing to do with it.
During her stay at the Panopticon, readers get to learn about some of her troubling history. She must fight to survive and, like all of the other youths at the Panopticon, must appear hardened and street wise, but she wistfully imagines settling down in Paris and saves her allowance for vintage fashion finds. She’s experienced the world of drugs and prostitution, and she’s generally been written off by the system as a lost cause, but anyone who took the time to truly know her would realize that she’s a vulnerable person with a strong sense of ethics:
What happened to Estrella? Why won’t eleven-year-old Luz speak? From the beginning, Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería is shrouded in this mystery. Luz’s older sister lies in intensive care and her father sits in jail. Her aunt is not a U.S. citizen and cannot take custody of her, so Luz is now a ward of the state, traumatized into silence by whatever happened. At her social worker’s urging, Luz’s only confidant becomes her journal. Using a deck of lotería (Mexican bingo) cards as her inspiration — each chapter is inspired by one card from the deck — Luz’s story slowly starts coming together.
The book’s exposition kind of reminded me of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Both feature a young Mexican American girl whose life unfolds through a series of vignettes. But where Mango Street follows its protagonist as she comes of age, Lotería is limited to a handful of years of Luz’s young life; Zambrano’s book is certainly the darker of the two.
In her eleven years, Luz has had to deal with domestic violence; she and her sister have witnessed her father beating their mother and have occasionally been the target of his abuse as well. Though Luz was born in the United States, her sister and parents came from Mexico; it’s especially awkward for Luz, who doesn’t speak Spanish very well, whenever they go visit family in Reynosa, Mexico. The sisters have a love-hate relationship that’s common with siblings their age, but they always turn to each other whenever things get rough inside their household. No matter their disagreements, whatever put Estrella in ICU has obviously taken its toll on Luz.
Pamela Moore was only 18 years old when Chocolates for Breakfast was published. Released in 1956, the book scandalized its audience with its frank (for that time) discussions of sex and illicit love affairs.
The book’s heroine is Courtney Farrell, an unhappy and depressed fifteen-year-old girl who keeps trying to speed through adolescence in her quest to grow up. Her mother is a failed actress living in Los Angeles, and her father works in publishing in Manhattan; he’s present but emotionally distant. Meanwhile, Courtney is flailing her way through boarding school, where her only real friend is Janet, a wealthy and rebellious young girl with emotional troubles of her own. Seeing their daughter struggling, her parents offer to let her quit boarding school and move to Los Angeles with her mother.
Courtney was already hanging by a thread at boarding school, but once she moves in with her permissive mother, things really start falling apart. She begins drinking and smoking; men, assuming she’s more sexually experienced than she actually is (even though she’s never so much as kissed anyone), also begin coming on to her. Her life in LA becomes the classic tale of the screwed up, innocent young girl who becomes drawn to a man who is bad for her. Her only real adult supervision is a mother who, in stark contrast to Courtney, refuses to grow up.