Review// Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

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Author: Elena Ferrante
Series: My Brilliant Friend #3
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: September 2, 2014
Book Length: 418 
Publisher: Europa Editions
Review: 3/5

Goodreads Synopsis:

In this third Neapolitan novel, Elena and Lila, the two girls whom readers first met in My Brilliant Friend, have become women. Lila married at sixteen and has a young son; she has left her abusive husband and now works as a common laborer. Elena has left the neighborhood, earned her college degree, and published a successful novel, all of which have opened the doors to a world of learned interlocutors and richly furnished salons. Both women have pushed against the walls of a prison that would have seen them living a life of misery, ignorance, and submission. They are afloat on the great sea of opportunities that opened up during the nineteen-seventies. Yet they are still very much bound to each other by a strong, unbreakable bond.

My Review:

“A community that finds it natural to suffocate with the care of home and children so many women’s intellectual energies is its own enemy and doesn’t realize it.”

Okay yes, I know the cover to these books are really ugly, but I promise you, what’s inside is golden.

However, for the first time in the series, I’m a bit torn about how I feel about this book, mainly because the one juicy part of the whole thing consists of something that I hate: insta-love / a love subplot that comes randomly out of nowhere. On the one hand, I like that it happened because it gave me something to to keep turning the pages for, but on the other, I hate that it happened because it felt so out of place.

This book takes place in the 60s and 70s, mentioning a lot about the university and worker strikes that happened during that time in Italy, which was really interesting. I love all the historical aspects of the book and how they always tie together so well with the characters’ lives. Not only do I feel like I’ve learned something through the historical events, but it also drives the plot along, which is nice. People’s ideas of the role of women in society also begin to change in this book and I thought it was fascinating to read the progression.

The girls are in their 20s and 30s now, and Lila is as stubborn as ever, but Lenu surprised me. At the end, it felt like she became an entirely different person, and it kind of bothered me because her actions were so out of character. Though they are all grown up, it’s evident that their lives in the neighborhood have shaped – and continue to shape – who they are, even if they’ve both moved away from it.

If I could change one thing about this book, it would be how obsessed everyone is with Nino. There is no one that I know who still fantasizes about their elementary school crush, and honestly, I think Lenu needs to grow up and get over it. It kind of annoyed me that she constantly tried to find ways to bring him up and how she’s still bitter about things that happened in their childhood between him and Lila. These girls are constantly comparing each other and trying to one-up the other, and while it makes for an interesting story, sometimes it just gets so childish.

But anyway, now that I’m down to the last one, I can’t wait to see where the plot takes these characters as Ferrante always ends her books on a cliff-hanger and this one was no different!

– Catherine

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Review// My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Series: Standalone
Genre: Fiction
Release Date: March 10, 2020
Book Length: 373 pages
Publisher: William Morrow
Review: 5/5

Goodreads Synopsis:

Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

My Review:

Someday, when people ask me, “Who was your first lover?” the truth will set me apart. Not some ordinary boy, but an older man: my teacher. He loved me so desperately I had to leave him behind. It was tragic, but I didn’t have a choice. That’s just how the world works.

I’m like a kettle on a stove right now – bubbling, seething, on the brink of overflowing with emotion from all this book has made me feel. I wish I could reach inside myself and pour it all out, find the right words to say what this has done to me, but I’m afraid nothing I say could do it justice.

Vanessa Wye was only 15 when her teacher, Jacob Strane, patted her on the leg – that one act enough to spiral into 17 years worth of physical, mental, emotional turmoil. This book was very difficult to read at times; Vanessa was groomed by Strane from the very beginning, all the while making her believe that she was responsible for their relationship. After all, according to Strane, she’s the one who made him start wanting her; she’s the one who said yes when he asked if she was okay with him touching her; she’s the one who craved his validation – so then that automatically makes her the dark one, right?

It was incredibly mind boggling just how manipulative Strane was the entire time, shifting any culpability from himself over to her in order to be able to live with everything he’d done. It is so scary to think that these people really do exist in the world, and that they prey on young, naïve boys and girls just like Vanessa.

One thing I really liked about the book was how it shifted from the 2000s to 2017 every other chapter; the switch over from one to the other was done perfectly and it made me so interested to see where the events of the past led to in the present. Every relationship Vanessa had after and during Strane was interwoven with theirs, and I think it was really significant for the author to depict this because the affair with him shaped every other relationship after it – including the one she had with her parents. I can’t even describe how upsetting and heartbreaking it was to read about the parts with Vanessa’s mom, both past and present. To read about Vanessa defending Strane both to others and to herself was so hard; she wanted so badly to believe she was his exception, that she wanted everything he did to her because that meant that she wouldn’t have to face the truth.

I held off reading the last chapter because I honestly didn’t want this to end, and when it ended, I cried.

If you are in the right headspace for it, and the events of this book would not be triggering to you, I recommend My Dark Vanessa wholeheartedly. I can’t stop thinking about this book, and I will never stop thinking about this book. One of my favourites of 2020 and all time.

– Catherine

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Review// The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

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Author: Mark Haddon
Series: Standalone
Genre: Fiction
Release Date: July 31, 2003
Book Length: 226 pages 
Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries
Review: 3/5

Goodreads Synopsis:

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, for fifteen-year-old Christopher everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning. He lives on patterns, rules, and a diagram kept in his pocket. Then one day, a neighbor’s dog, Wellington, is killed and his carefully constructive universe is threatened. Christopher sets out to solve the murder in the style of his favourite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. What follows makes for a novel that is funny, poignant and fascinating in its portrayal of a person whose curse and blessing are a mind that perceives the world entirely literally.

My Review:

Christopher Boone is a 15-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome – the story is told from Christopher’s perspective and starts off with him investigating and simultaneously writing a book about the murder of his neighbor’s dog, Wellington. Though the book started off with this plot, I would say that it actually has very little to do with the murder of the dog and more to do with Christopher himself and how he views the world through his autism.

I found this book eye-opening, and after reading it I do feel much more emotionally aware. I can definitely say that it taught me something about people with autism and Asperger in particular; at times, it could get very overwhelming being inside Christopher’s brain – his mind is constantly thinking and racing. I felt for Christopher and all the struggles he faced day-to-day, but he also amazed me in many ways; I found all of his math problems, pattern identifications, and problem solving abilities really interesting. I also liked how it realistically portrayed people who had close, and not so close, relationships with Christopher, how they dealt with his Asperger’s, and how he responded to them.

One of the most amazing things to me about books are their ability to show me things from a different perspective and teach me something new, and with this story, I felt my mind and my heart open to something I’ve not had very much personal experience with, if even at all. I felt so many emotions while reading this and I’m really glad I picked it up; definitely recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

– Catherine

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Review// Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Author: Gail Honeyman
Series: Standalone
Genre: Fiction
Release Date: May 9, 2017
Book Length: 336 pages 
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books/ Viking
Review: 4.5/5

My Review:

After reading the synopsis, I was under the impression that this would be a cute contemporary romance, but it wasn’t, and boy am I happy about that.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely not fine: she’s stuck at a dead end job she’s been working at for years, she doesn’t have any friends, she has a mother who degrades her during every weekly phone call they have – in short, Eleanor is quite lonely. However, she’s lived like that for so long that she’s convinced herself that she is better off this way. Cue Raymond, her co-worker from the IT department, and Sammy, an elderly man they rescue together. Raymond and Sammy, through nothing more than a genuine interest at friendship, invite Eleanor to open herself up again and abandon her life of loneliness.

I really loved Eleanor; a big reason for this is because of the way she narrated the book. Eleanor is a little socially awkward and she says exactly what’s on her mind without realizing if she is offending anyone. Despite this, I found her very endearing and I empathized with her greatly; every time she cried, I just wanted to reach into the book and give her a hug.

There is a quote that goes, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” and I think it’s very relevant here. Oftentimes, Eleanor was misunderstood by her peers because of how enclosed she was in her own little bubble and how socially awkward she could be. This book emphasized how important it is not to pass judgement on someone so easily because you really don’t know what they’ve been through to make them the way that they are.

If there was one thing I didn’t like about the book, it was that something major was revealed right near the end and then it ended so suddenly; I hate when that happens because I felt I needed more time to digest the reveal. Despite that, it was still an amazing book and one I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I wish there was a second book because I need more of Eleanor!

– Catherine

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Review// A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

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Author: Fredrik Backman
Series: Standalone
Genre: Fiction
Release Date: May 5, 2015
Book Length: 339 pages 
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Review: 5/5

Goodreads Synopsis:

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

My Review:

This book!!! It has had me on the verge of tears 98% of the time, my heart was being broken and mended about a thousand times over from beginning to end, and I had to put the book down and gather my thoughts more times than I have with any other book. I loved this – and if there was a word more powerful than love, that would be how I felt about it.

The book is about a grumpy old man, or at least, that’s the impression you get at the beginning. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Ove back then, but slowly he grew on me. Ove had a lot of traumatic things happen to him in his life, and a lot of sad loss, and when I understood his past, I sympathized a lot more with him.

Six months prior to the start of the book, Ove’s wife passed away, and as you go through the story, you realize she is the most important person in the world to him, and the only person he really has a soft spot for. At the beginning of the book, Ove has a plan to kill himself because he wants to be back with his wife, but then he meets his new neighbors – Parvaneh and Patrick, along with their two young daughters – who, day-by-day unbeknownst to them, and among other strangers he befriends, keep giving him reasons to live.

This is about friends turning to family and how to cope with the grief that comes from loss. It is honestly one of the most touching books I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it.

– Catherine

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