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May 8, 2012 2:20 PM

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The Passionate Reader: May 8, 2012

Nell Freudenberger's "The Newlyweds" (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf) manages to do the opposite of what many chick-lit books do. Rather than make extraordinary lives seem dull, it makes ordinary ones seem fascinating. It's the story of Amina Azid, who leaves Bangladesh...

Thumbnail image for lorna-scan003.jpgNell Freudenberger's "The Newlyweds" (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf) manages to do the opposite of what many chick-lit books do. Rather than make extraordinary lives seem dull, it makes ordinary ones seem fascinating.

It's the story of Amina Azid, who leaves Bangladesh for Rochester to marry George Stillman.

The way that their lives together unfold is riveting, funny and charming. She wants to bring her parents to live with them before they have a child; he is against it. When he finally agrees, she goes to Bangladesh to get her parents and bring them back and everything goes wrong: Her uncles are trying to extract cash from their siblings, her parents -- believing that she has married a rich man -- while her father, an unsuccessful businessman, has been refused a visa the first time around. She is also still a little bit in love with her cousin Nasir. Her husband has lost his job, but then he gets another, better, one. She works in a yoga center, then a Starbucks. Of such mundane events is an enchanting narrative constructed.

lorna-scan002.jpgIn "The Beginner's Goodbye" (Alfred A. Knopf), Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Tyler's latest book, the writer takes on another in her series of lovable losers. Aaron, who runs a family-owned vanity press, along with his sister, Nandina, has lost his wife, Dorothy, a no-nonsense doctor, in a freak accident in which a tree crashes into their house. The book details his ways of healing from that experience, which at first include seeing apparitions of his wife -- whom he talks to -- in a variety of places, probably because he is unable to say farewell to her. The most successful series his press publishes is one of beginners' guides -- hence, his is a "beginner's goodbye." He begins to realize that, just perhaps, their marriage was less happy than he thought it was, that they were less well-suited than he thought they were, and that he may find another romance. Eventually, he learns to let go. The many eccentric characters and the unexpected twists of their lives give the book considerable appeal.

lorna-scan006.jpgIn "More Than You Know" (Doubleday), New York Times best-selling writer Penny Vincenzi's central character is Eliza Clark, who has a promising career as a fashion editor in Swinging London, but who gives it all up at the insistence of her new husband, entrepreneur Matt Shaw, when they have their daughter, Emmie. Posh girl marries working-class boy, and all is well for a time, but when their marriage begins to deteriorate, he threatens to take their daughter and seize ownership of Summercourt, a country house that has been in Eliza's family for a long time and which he helped rescue financially.

Matt's sister, Scarlett, has a complicated romantic life, too. Then there's Jeremy Northcott, an old flame of Eliza's, and Mariella Crespi, a fashion icon, rounding out the cast of characters. The problem is that the book becomes considerably less exciting -- and at times a bit of a drag -- when we leave the environs of fashion publishing.

lorna-scan001.jpg"The Kissing List" (Hogarth) by Stephanie Reents is a series of interlocking tales about twentysomethings in and out of love. There is a fair amount of kissing, but that is by no means all that goes on. The young people in these stories are intelligent, with presumably bright futures, but they keep getting in their own (and others') way. And their lives are by no means gilded. The brother of one dies in Iraq, while another has recurrent cancer.

There are a number of amusing lists and footnotes. However, the characters are at times less than compelling. Perhaps that is because of their youth; they are a bit unformed.

lorna-scan004.jpg"Little Century" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Anna Keesey tells the story of the settling of Oregon. Eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers goes west after she loses her mother, to find a distant cousin, cattle rancher Ferris Pickett. She becomes a homesteader in a small cabin by a lake called Half-a-Mind. If she can remain there for five years, the property will become part of her cousin's expansive spread. But then she finds herself in the middle of a range war, with her loyalties divided between her allegiance to her own homestead and that to a new friend, a sheepherder, Ben Cruff. Which should she choose? In a move she never would have expected, she evolves into a newspaperwoman.

lorna-scan005.jpgGraham Swift's "Wish You Were Here" (Alfred A. Knopf) is the tale of Jack Luxton, who owns a seaside caravan park, and who was formerly a farmer, who learns that his brother, Tom, has been killed in Iraq. He must accept his brother's remains and come to terms with what went on in their family. His father, for instance, has committed suicide by shooting himself. His wife refuses to go to Tom's funeral, which he must face alone.

However, portentous as these events might seem, the book is actually a little dull, and difficult to engage with.
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