Twenty years after a terrifying childhood prank taken too far, cousins Danny and Howie meet again in Eastern Europe to renovate a crumbling medieval castle. The tables are now turned: the once-scrawny, awkward Howie — a childhood victim of his cousins’ bullying — is now a handsome millionaire, while Danny is thirty-something NYC hipster with a questionable past. Howie is now intent on turning the castle into a high-end, technology-free, spiritual retreat; he reaches out to his wayward cousin in part to patch up the rift stemming from that childhood event that changed both their lives.
Danny immediately hates it there, especially since there’s no cell phone reception. Everything is old and unsettling, and being around Howie so much dredges up old memories of what Danny did to him when they were younger. Howie, however, doesn’t even bring up the past; he’s freakishly positive about everything in life and insists that Danny has a special something, a magical intuition that will lead this fledgling business venture in the right direction. And he’s right. Skeptical though Danny may be, he knows that for everything to succeed, the need to get into the highest, most secure part of the castle: the keep. The problem is that the ancient matriarch of the family who owned the castle still lives there and has no intention of ever leaving; her family had owned the castle for centuries.
And here, unfortunately, is where the novel begins to unravel in a way that it never fully recovers from.
After being blown away early last year by Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Good Squad, I decided on the spot that I’d read every book she’s ever written. It took me a while to get to my second Egan read, but I finally picked up another book by her this year, Emerald City: Stories.
This book features Egan’s some earlier work; some of the eleven stories were written in the late 1980s and 1990s. Most of them feature what I see appears to be a recurring theme in Egan’s work: lost people who appear to be successful yet struggle with discontentment and unfulfilled lives. In this case, the people in the stories either wealthy enough to travel around the world or have jobs that take them to exotic locations around the world. The settings transport readers everywhere, such as the pristine beach resorts of Bora Bora, the sand dunes in the deserts of Africa, the tourist hot spots in China, and the high-fashion photo shoots in Manhattan.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “One Piece,” about a young girl (the narrator) and her slightly older brother, Brad, who struggle to cope with a tragic event from their childhood: Brad, while playing around in their idling parked car, shifted the gears and fatally injured their mother. Ever since, their father has treated him differently, as if he were a danger to others. Their father eventually remarries, and their new stepmother is even more obvious about her discomfort around him, especially when he’s near her two daughters. Meanwhile, the narrator examines how the accidents and the ensuing years have eaten at Brad. Her desire to alleviate his feelings of guilt is palpable throughout the story.
I tried really hard to narrow this list down a tiny bit more, but it ain’t happening! These are my favorite fiction reads of 2010, starting with my top three favorites, then continuing in alphabetical order by title.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This is not only my favorite read of the year, it’s now one of my favorite books ever. I picked it up at the library on a whim after Christmas and promptly devoured it. I’ll post up a full review soon; in the meantime, these are some of my favorite passages from the book.
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
This book is not for everyone; there are a lot of disturbing scenes related to sex and sadomasochism, all tied into the book’s larger themes of desire and conformity. I was totally blown away by the intensity of the writing, and this is another book that I now also consider one of my all-time favorites. These are some of my favorite passages.
The Crime of Father Amaro by José Maria Eça de Queirós
If you’ve seen the movie (starring an insanely hot Gael Garcia Bernal), you know the plot: a handsome young priest gets a girl of good standing pregnant. Whereas the film focuses on darker aspects, the book is delightfully satirical and over-the-top.