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I read a pre-publication review of this debut novel by Swan Huntley and thought it sounded different. It is. It’s the story of Catherine West, a wealthy, bored forty-three year old woman from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She’s been engaged twice, and wants desperately to be married. Her sister Caroline is married to a pediatrician and has three kids. Their mother, Elizabeth, a somewhat stereotypical cold rich woman with strong opinions, has Alzheimer’s and lives in a swanky assisted living facility. Catherine lives on her trust fund, although she owns a small store selling expensive art greeting cards. Her best friend, Susan, is also wealthy and owns a small bonsai store.

If this all sounds boring, it seemed that way to me too at first. But in the opening pages, Katherine meets William Stockton, and her life seems to finally head in the direction she’s always wanted. He’s marriage material, she can tell, and before long they’re engaged. She seems to notice that she has deeper conversations with her masseuse and her wedding planner than with William, but she’s willing to deal with it.

But her mother has an immediate reaction to the news that she is dating William. He tells Catherine he broke an expensive, irreplaceable vase once, as a child, when he was at their apartment with his parents. But Catherine suspects there is more to the story. As the novel unfolds, she tries to understand why her mother can’t stand the idea of William being her son-in-law, and readers learn the secret her parents kept for decades.

That part is interesting, and I enjoyed the mystery of it, even though the secret turns out to be pretty awful. But I also really liked watching Catherine begin to grow up, finally, as she goes through the discovery and eventual emotional fallout. She is trying to be as good a person as she can be, even if her way of being that isn’t terribly well informed. She tells herself she’s not an awful rich person because she provides her housekeeper health insurance, for example, and works in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. Most of the time she is still completely out of touch with reality, but by the end of the book she’s working on being vulnerable emotionally with someone instead of awkwardly aware of how her wealth separates her from others. I also really enjoyed the way Huntley writes about Catherine’s relationship with Caroline, and the way the sisters interact with their mother, who has never shown either of them much love.

The story isn’t new — money can’t buy happiness, you have to make your own way in the world, even if your family gives you every advantage, etc. Catherine thinks to herself, towards the end of the novel, “I had thought that beauty was in the flashy, pretty things you acquired to prove that you were happy.” But she has figured out, “Our lives could be beautiful in the quietest ways, and already were.” In some ways it’s hard to understand why she didn’t know that all along, but when you consider her family life, maybe it’s not. We Could Be Beautiful is a fun, entertaining read, but not weightless — I’m still thinking a couple of days later about the characters and their lives.

 

 

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The digital world is smaller than the physical. Annika Milisic-Stanley contacted me via Twitter in December, to let me know about her new novel The Disobedient Wife. I don’t usually pursue unsolicited author enquiries, but it turned out we had Cinnamon Press in common. I’ve long admired the work of Jan Fortune and her family, who run this very fine small press in Wales and bring interesting books to the world, and my poetry has appeared in Envoi a few times. So when Jan got in touch with a review copy, I trusted this was going to be a good read.

And it was. I’ve never read a book set in Tajikistan and I’ll bet most of you haven’t either. Milisic-Stanley is a terrific writer, and she brings the beautiful and the bleak alive in equal measure, as in the opening line of the novel, “In the early hours snow fell, covering grey high rises, broken pavements and potholed roads, transforming the city into a winter fairyland.”

More importantly, she vividly portrays the lives of Nargis, a widow and mother of three working as a nanny, and Harriet, her expat employer. Harriet is a young Englishwoman and mother of two, married to a wealthy Belgian diplomat, Henri. Through her journal entries we learn that she feels useless and lonely in Dushanbe. Henri is never around, he expects her to entertain when groceries are scarce and power cuts are frequent, and he berates her for showing any interest in Nargis’s life.

Nargis, meanwhile, appears to be the disobedient one. She was married at sixteen to a man who loved her and treated her well, bore him two children, and watched him die of a cancerous throat tumor when only in his twenties. Her parents made her remarry and her second husband beat her son, ordered his mother to feed the children only bread, and eventually attacked Nargis. She left, but he took their infant son. She visits the child at her in-laws apartment, and mostly doesn’t have to see her husband, because he works in Russia a good part of the year like many other young Tajiks.

When the book opens we learn that Nargis is the only adult working in her household for the time being, and is supporting herself, her parents, her brother, and her children. Stretched thin, she wants to buy a small shop to increase her income. Just reading about her life was painful. Her family and neighbors consider her to be in the wrong for leaving her husband because most Tajiks seem to think that an abused wife deserves it. So she’s scorned both in her neighborhood and in Harriet’s world, where locals are seen as potential servants or criminals.

But Nargis is not the only disobedient wife. Harriet begin to sense that her life isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. In fact, even though she’s not physically abused and she’s wealthy, there is an imbalance in Harriet’s marriage that is odious in its own way. The more she gets to know Nargis and to empathize with her, the more she considers what she really wants for herself and her children. Harriet also wants to help, and that’s another interesting part of the book — Nargis doesn’t want to have to humble herself or be indebted but she desperately wants a better life, and Milisic-Stanley makes that easy to understand.

The book doesn’t paint the expat, missionary, and NGO communities in the best light, although again, Milisic-Stanley doesn’t make anything too cut and dry — there are some people who are better than others. There’s a definite ugly American, which was a little painful to read, but there are ugly Europeans too. The same goes for Tajiks — some are good people, some are not. Milisic-Stanley lived in Tajikistan and several other placed after graduating from SOAS in London, so she probably based her characters on people she’d met. There are definitely a lot of socio-political aspects to the story as well as economic, so it’s both an entertaining novel and a book that will make you think.

I won’t tell you what happens to either woman, but to Milisic-Stanley’s credit, there isn’t a pat ending for Harriet or Nargis — we get an idea of what direction things are going, but she doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow. The Disobedient Wife is a thought provoking, mind-expanding book that offers views of lives so fundamentally different and yet at heart, exactly like ours; people everywhere just want to be safe, have enough food and health care and education for their kids, and security for their families. How we can get there is such a mess, and this book really shows how complicated and precarious it is, especially when the balance of power and wealth in the world is so lopsided.

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