Tag: BallantineBooks

Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall


Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of The Best Kind of People in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to LibraryThing, Ballantine Books, and Zoe Whittall for the advance copy.

The Best Kind of People

When someone is your husband or father, that’s simply who they are. You don’t stop to question too much about them unless you’re given reason to, and they’d never been given reason to.

George Woodbury, beloved teacher and literal school savior after stopping a would-be shooter several years before, has just been accused of sexually assaulting several high school students on a school ski trip. The Best Kind of People follows George’s family—his wife Joan, a local nurse; his son Andrew, who escaped the small town several years before; and his daughter Sadie, still a student at the high school. While delving into the victim-blaming and misogyny inherent in these cases, The Best Kind of People largely focuses on George’s family and the choices they make to survive.

One of Those Books
While it’s not the kind of thing anyone in their right mind daydreams about, having a close friend or spouse accused of this kind of crime is the kind of thing I think most people assume they know how they’d react to. I’d go so far as to say the comment threads on online news articles are proof of this—everyone has an opinion and everyone knows which side they’d be on if this were their life. In The Best Kind of People, Whittall takes that sense of reader righteousness and crumbles it all to pieces. There are no easy answers, characters waffle (understandably) on whether they should stand by their husband/father or not and make some bad choices. If the comment threads in news articles are black and white, The Best Kind of People is the spectrum of real-life grey in the middle.

Character Development
While his choices start the book, overall George is a minor character—Whittall makes it clear that he’s charming but doesn’t spend enough time on him to charm the reader. The main characters in the book are Joan and Sadie, with Andrew as a supporting character. With that said, though Whittall doesn’t come out and say one way or the other and the evidence is relatively sparse in the early chapters, my bent was to assume George did it. There are several girls who have nothing to gain from this kind of attention, combined with little things that Whittall includes that just feel…off. Whittall deliberately sets this up as the starting point—the reader is primed to assume George did, in fact, attempt to assault these girls. It is with this foundation that Whittall slowly reveals Joan and Sadie to us.

The easy way to go would be to encourage pity for Joan, to act like her sister Clara and tell her to leave George immediately. Yet, Joan struggles with leaving George. There are financial considerations on top of their twenty-plus years of life together. She has literally slept next to this man for more than twenty years and woke up to discover he was apparently never who she thought he was. The cheap score here would be for Joan to be simply two-dimensional—poor Joan still standing by her man or fiery Joan leaving scorched earth behind her in her attempt to leave. Instead, Whittall shows her struggle—she is alternately weak and strong, making choices that I don’t think I would make but that make sense in the moment (and maybe I would if I ever found myself in that horrifying place). The audience connects with Joan—cheers with Joan, cries with Joan. I would go so far as to say she has nearly universal appeal—the reader is invited to identify with Joan.

I couldn’t decide whether to hug or strangle Sadie at times, which probably means that Whittall did a fairly accurate job in rendering an American teenager. Sadie seems to have it all together, yet there are little indications, even before the accusations against her father, that Sadie isn’t entirely alright beneath the surface. While I identified more with Joan, I wanted the best for Sadie—she tugged at my heart. I knew Joan would be ok, but I was never sure about Sadie and held my breath for her until the end.

The oldest child, Andrew, is featured far less than Joan and Sadie but his inclusion adds more layers to the crimes committed by his father. The reader discovers early that Andrew himself was in an inappropriate relationship at 17 with his 25 year old coach. It’s clear that George’s crimes are not even the slightest morally ambiguous…but what about Andrew’s relationship with his coach? I have my opinion, but here too, is another question Whittall builds into her book. George is clearly on the wrong side of the line…but where is the line?

“Liberal Bias”
Besides the subject matter—which might generally be too triggering for some—the only “turn off” I could identify in the book was a bit of bias. The Woodbury family from the beginning is fairly liberal—the family would seem to universally identify as feminist (though George’s membership card is being revoked immediately) and Andrew is gay, with no real issue with his parents on that point. The family fits the stereotype of moneyed New Englanders. This isn’t terribly obnoxious in and of itself—it adds a layer of conflict for this to be a family that would otherwise believe the victim in this scenario and I appreciated the nuance this choice gave to the book.

The only place this “bias” feels like more than simply a character-development choice is with the inclusion of the “Mens’ Rights” group and the talk about them. When the Woodbury case gains attention, the Mens’ Rights vermin come crawling from their little holes and basements to support George—a development Joan can’t stand. In discussing their ridiculous propaganda in favor of her husband (even as she stands by his side), Joan makes a comment about people in the ring wing having “low IQs.” The comment is in line with Joan’s character and it’s a comment made in the privacy of her home to her teenage daughter; however, I can see it being a touch too far for some readers since it is the only thing that feels like a personal attack on a belief a reader might identify with….Though conservative readers may not make it deep enough into the book to find this comment since the feminism and homosexuality might have turned them off well before this point.

The book does go through the result of the trial of the criminal charges as well as provide a resolution for Andrew, Sadie, and Joan. Each of the endings feels true—while this is not the only way for the book to have ended, these are realistic choices these characters would have made when faced with the totality of the circumstances.

Because of the moral ambiguity in some of the character’s choices (not George’s—that’s not morally ambiguous) and the quietly decisive but arguably controversial way the book ends, this book would make an excellent book club selection—I suspect people will have some opinions about the last few chapters. I also think it’s the kind of book that is going to be somewhat polarizing, giving the group a good mix of opinions on the family member’s choices—everything from Joan’s standing by/not standing by George, to Joan’s parenting choices, to Sadie’s lifestyle choices (literally—not using that as a euphemism), to Andrew’s youthful romance.

Overall, this was the kind of book I love—tightly written, politically/socially relevant, character-driven, complicated families, and morally ambiguous at times. I highly recommend for anyone who can handle these topics without being triggered.

Published September 19, 2017 by Ballantine Books
Author: Zoe Whittall (@zoe_whittall)
Date read: September 27, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Review: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly


“You know lily of the valley is poisonous, right?”
“So don’t eat it. At least not until you’ve finished speaking. Or if the crowd turns on you.”
Set on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, Lilac Girls tells the little-known story of the Rabbits of Ravensbruk–women who were the subject of cruel Nazi medical experiments.  Told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of a Nazi doctor, a Polish teenager involved in the underground, and an American socialite dedicated to helping those less fortunate, Lilac Girls spans twenty years, exploring the long-lasting effects of both cruelty and hope on the human spirit.

Writing Style and Scope
I usually love WWII literature.  I studied history in undergrad and took every course I could on WWII and the immediate post-war years in Eastern Europe.  I adore All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale.  I read Mischling earlier this year and thought it was fantastic.  I came to Lilac Girls with high expectations, and that may have been part of the problem.

Overall, Kelly’s writing style completely missed the mark for me. There are witty moments (like the quote above); however, the entire book isn’t quite so snappily written. On the whole, Kelly’s word choice and writing style is pedestrian. There isn’t anything particularly unique or beautiful about the way that Kelly writes.

I do say this with the caveat that Kelly has accomplished something most people haven’t—she’s published an actual book. I have friends who are authors and I have seen the grueling work that goes into writing a book so I do not say this as if just anyone could write a book. It is an accomplishment that Kelly wrote a book like Lilac Girls and it was a worthy effort of her time to tell this particular story. There are many women in my online book club who read and enjoyed it and many people on Goodreads have rated it highly. My enjoyment of a book, however, is very tied to the language and so, for me, Lilac Girls fell flat.

I actually struggled a bit to find the selection I wanted to use as the quote for the book above in keeping with my usual format. There were a few witticisms here and there and there was an extended passage when one of the Rabbits goes to her death that was the only truly beautiful passage that made me pause—but it was far too long to quote.

In scope, Kelly was ambitious—the novel covers something like twenty years in under 500 pages. This passage of time does odd things to the pace and the narrative skips ahead several months at a time consistently. I do not think the book needed to be any longer by any means; however, the passage of time was not always clear (time was marked with years alone) so it was sometimes strange to see how much a character, place, or season had changed since the last chapter. I was constantly flipping back and forth, trying to determine where the character had left off last in time and approximately how much time it seemed had passed since then. Passing time this way made the book read unevenly.

Related to the swift and somewhat uneven passage of time, there were also a handful of asides when Kelly seemed to think she needed to throw in a bit of background note that read oddly, as if the characters were suddenly hitting pause and turning to the reader to explain some bit of history. Because Kelly didn’t have time or space to flesh the events out more evenly or naturally, she has to stop here and there and stage whisper to the reader the background of some event that happened in the intervening time between chapters. If this writing choice were more consistently used throughout the book, it might be one thing, but it seemed to be a device Kelly used infrequently and jarringly when she couldn’t think of another way to convey a piece of information.

Rabbits of Ravensbruk & Narrator Development
I commented on Instagram when I finished that I probably should have quit reading the book when I was 100 pages in and was feeling like the book was becoming a bit of a slog. The only thing that actually kept me reading was the Author’s Note. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the Rabbits themselves were real, though I hadn’t heard of this particular atrocity at Ravensbruk before, but was fascinated to hear that Herta Oberheuser and Caroline Ferriday were both real characters. (Well…that and book-quitter-guilt. But I’m working on overcoming that!) The pull to find out whether or not Herta would get her just desserts and what happened to Caroline were the only things that kept me reading. I didn’t particularly care about them as fictional characters but knowing they were real gave me enough motivation to keep going.

I searched Amazon after finishing and was a tad disappointed to see that there doesn’t appear to be a biography of Caroline Ferriday—I’d like to know her real story, and not just this fictionalized one. She was a fascinating woman—a former Broadway actress and socialite who used her connections, money, and social capital to enormously charitable ends, working to bring the Rabbits to the US for medical treatment for their lasting injuries after Ravensbruk and working to get them reparations from the German government.

I did find Kelly’s choice of character viewpoints to tell the story of the Rabbits interesting. Caroline and Kasia are whom you would expect for narrators in this kind of story.  I did, however, struggle a bit with Kasia’s voice. Kasia ages from sixteen when the book starts to forty. I would expect her voice to mature but there were moments—like when Kasia describes the medical “examination”/violation when she arrived at Ravensbruk—when Kasia’s teenager voice sounded way too old if it was supposed to be contemporary, teen Kasia talking and not adult Kasia looking back.

For the third narrator—Herta Oberheuser—to be a villain gave it a slightly unexpected twist. It always felt icky (as it absolutely should!) to read her section. She was an unrepentant Aryan-supremacist and her chapters read like it. I don’t say this to complain—Kelly gave Herta a few moments where we could see some internal struggle but didn’t apologize or temper her anti-Semitism. You do not like Herta and you aren’t supposed to. There is no apologist writing here.

American Evils
Kelly also deserves kudos for presenting the United States accurately, rather than sugar-coating our own misdoings. When I learned about WWII in school (which, admittedly, is becoming longer and longer ago), the United States was pretty consistently always presented as the White Knight. I applaud Kelly for using her characters to challenge this perception. In particular regarding immigration caps during the war, Kelly indicts Roosevelt and others for having knowledge of Hitler’s Final Solution including knowledge of the death camps, yet still turning away hundreds of thousands of refugees, essentially condemning them to certain death. In particular, she mentions the MS St. Louis—a ship of 900 German Jews turned away from our border in 1939. Over a quarter of them wound up dying in death camps after being forced to return to Europe.

Kelly also makes a point during a scene of the Nuremberg trials to mention American experiments on unwilling participants as well. Indeed, American doctors throughout history have also wrongfully tested various medications and treatments on prisoners and people of color without their informed consent, the most recent and well known being the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies which only ended in 1972.

Kelly could easily have left out these details as they had no bearing on the overall plot of the book. Many readers would have been none the wiser. It is to her credit that she did make a point several times to raise American complicity in medical testing on involuntary subjects and our government’s turning its back on refugees during the war. We may have won the war, but there were certainly moments where we could have acted more honorably to save many more lives.

While I would probably never personally recommend this book to anyone, I do see its general appeal. To the extent that a novel about atrocities committed in Hitler’s death camps can ever be considered “beachy reading,” that’s what it seems to me. It’s a book you buy in paperback, dog-ear the corners, splash some pool water on by accident, and then throw on a shelf when you’re done. The language is easy to digest and no one is tripping over three-dollar words.

The thing is, I like my three-dollar words. If the writing style and word choice aren’t important to you, the underlying story here and the character of Caroline Ferriday are compelling enough for the book to be enjoyable. For me, I found myself wishing the same story had been told by a more skilled hand.

Published: Ballantine Books
Author: Martha Hall Kelly (Instagram: @marthahallkelly)
Date Read: July 28, 2017
Rating: 2 stars