Wednesday, June 12, 2019

What did the In-Store Book Club think of Amy Jones's We're All in This Together?

A family, a barrel, a shark, Finnish pancakes, Canada - I know of no better formula for a novel. One never knows what the In-Store Lit Group will think of a book beforehand. While several folks ahead of time told me they liked June's selection, Amy Jones's We're All in This Together a lot, and a good-sized majority were very positive, our discussion was thrown off a bit because two of the early folks to comment on the book were, well, not positive.

I think my method for conducting the book club talk is a little unusual. I hate when discussions leave out the quieter participants, so we start out each getting two minutes to offer our opening statement. This offers me the advantage of knowing what folks are thinking, and really, nobody should feel left out, except for the occasional latecomer. But there is a disadvantage too. At our Books and Beer Book Club, Jen cautions everyone to talk about the book, but not to put their cards on the table until the end, when everyone rates the book. Yes, with numbers! That's a lot of pressure to me, which is why every book I like on the Edelweiss website gets an eight (the number rating is required), and every book I don't like - doesn't go on the Edelweiss website.

A little backtracking is needed here to discuss Amy Jones's novel. This is her first, following a book of short stories. It was published in 2016, and since McClelland and Stewart is now a part of Penguin Random House Canada, the American sales force brought it over for distribution in early 2019. It was a favorite of our sales rep Jason Gobble (you've got to see him when he does a book club talk on August 6 at Boswell with author Claire Lombardo on Tuesday, August 6 for The Most Fun We Ever Had.* Mr. Gobble is a consummate sales rep in that he has that bookseller knack for matching people with books, only he does wholesale matching or books with booksellers. Jason convinced me to read a number of books that went on to be my favorites - Homegoing, Saints for All Occasions, and The Improbability of Love come to mind. He also put There There on our radar. He knows what he's doing!

So Jason didn't get me to bite, but he did get our marketing/second hand bookseller Chris to read it and his enthusiasm was nothing short of contagious. My reading pile was full of upcoming event books (and the occasional one-off on Charleston or semicolons) but by scheduling it as our reading group selection, I had to read it. I usually like at least one lighter book in the summer - sometimes it's a mystery, but a comic novel will work just fine.

We're All in This Together is a fine specimen of what I call dysfunctional family comedies. Sometimes these turn out to be big hits, like Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's The Nest and other times they don't do as well as one hopes, like Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps. They might be structured like short stories, as in the case of Allegra Goodman's The Family Markowitz. And if you're going highbrow, I guess you gun for The Corrections. To fit in this genre of my making, they do have to have multiple perspectives. Neither Chris nor I are above comparing books to projects in the wider world of entertainment, and he struck upon the perfect comparison for this book, Arrested Development. 

At the heart of the story is a mother and two daughters, to paraphrase from a Gail Godwin novel I remember with fondness.** Twins, no less. Finn is the daughter who left the family home in Thunder Bay, Ontario for more glamorous prospects in Toronto. Nicki is the sister who stayed behind to take care of the family. I think that's giving both of them too much agency. Finn lives in a boring suburb and made nothing of her life. Nicki didn't exactly have high-minded reasons for staying behind - she has four kids with three guys and I'm not giving much away to say that the father of one of the kids is Finn's one-time boyfriend.

And their mom? The story opens with Mother Kate having gone over the Falls in a barrel. No, not Niagara Falls, but glorious Kakabeka Falls, just 30 minutes west of town. What was she thinking? It will take about the whole book to find out, because firstly, she's in a coma, and secondly, she's not been thinking that well for a while.

And there's another sibling too, Shawn, who works in a restaurant in what is known as Little Finland. Not that he's Finnish or anything - he just fell into it. In fact, he's not even a sibling. When he was young, he just sort of got adopted into the family by Kate. It was actually originally going to be a grift, but well, here he still is.

The story's other characters include Walter, Kate's husband, who spends more time on his boats, the Serafina and the Veronica (those are the birth names for Finn and Nicki, and unlike the sisters, they still hang out together at the dock) and London, Nicki's oldest daughter, who is obsessed with sharks and particularly obsessed with a shark that might have been spotted in Lake Superior and the glamorous television scientist, Adam Pelley, who is on a mission to rescue it. The story jumps around from character to character, but there's a shorthand to help you keep track - road signs - and I don't know whether this was the idea of the author or designer, but I found it pretty amusing.

As I mentioned, the group was split on the book, but more liked it than not, and a sizable number loved it as much as I did. I really loved this theme of the pull and push of home and family. It's certainly something that authors enjoy meditating on ; I can think of several Anne Tyler novels that have explored this. Jones is like Anne Tyler on a 5-Hour Energy caffeinated high, by the way. Ooh, that's a good shelf talker. I think the book I'm thinking of mostly is Ladder of Years.

There are a lot of messy loose ends, a whole lot of coincidences, and some suspension of disbelief too, but I almost expect that from a comic novel. But there's a lot of poignancy too. As we learn more about Kate, and her developing, we delve into her backstory. Her brain has her memories, but they've become a bit of a swirl, a bit confused. Who is Walter, the man she's known since childhood, the man she made a life with. Is he the love of her life, or is there a secret? And why does she keep running away? And is this how she's tied to both her daughter Finn and Nicki's daughter London?

I should note that our two former social workers really liked the novel, but our nurse did not. I don't think it was because of the hospital scenes. Pretty much everyone agreed that Kate was their favorite character, and I can't argue with that. But I was kind of in love with all of them, except maybe for London's friend Anastasia. She's a snake.

Do you like a good twin novel? I do. I just finished Cathleen Schine's The Grammarians, coming out in September, and I have a whole lot to say about that. They are like sibling novels to the next degree. Do you like Canadian novels? I do. I used to go to Toronto and just stock up on Canadian novelists who weren't published in the United States. And now I just recommend ones who are, like the South-African-turned Canadian novelist Bianca Marais, who is coming back to Milwaukee for her second novel, If You Want to Make God Laugh, on July 19. Register here.

I also haven't read a good fictional book set in a North American Finnish community since Sharon Dilworth's The Long White back in 1988. Yes, 1988 and I still remember it. I had no idea they did a paperback edition of the book in 2009 or that Dilworth had a book come out called My Riviera. This is what happens when you are not the buyer. Not that I'm saying I would have time to read it, but I certainly would have thought about it.

Now I desperately want to go back and read more Jones. She has a collection of short stories from Biblioasis called What Boys Like and Other Stories, but more than that, the second novel, Every Little Piece of Me, just came out in Canada this month. Quill and Quire called the book "Hugely entertaining," going on to say "Every Little Piece of Me makes you think and makes you laugh. Which is sometimes exactly what you need." The Globe and Mail (subscribers only reviewer called it "addictive." In other words, it does not veer too far from the first novel, which to me, is very exciting. Two friends and an intrusive reality show - how's that for a setup? More here. Hoping that PRH imports this one soon. And if Amy Jones visits, I'll make Nanaimo Bars. Seems unlikely but you never know.

Up next for the In-Store Lit Group, we're getting prize-y:

--We discuss Milkman, by Anna Burns, on Monday, July 1. It won the Man Booker and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It's dense and Irish.

--It's a return to Canada - Our August 5 book is Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan. Named a New York Times ten-best book of 2018, it also received the Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize (as did a previous novel from Edugyan.

--For September, we have our annual Labor-Day dilemma. We're going to meet a week early, on Monday, August 26 for Call Me Zebra. Azreen Van der Vliet Oloomi won the PEN Faulkner Prize for this novel

Our October book is going to be the Pulitzer winner The Overstory. I usually pick one book per year that I've already read. Date is to be determined - I think we have a ticketed event in our normal slot. All of these meetings are at Boswell.

*It might well be the most fun you've ever had.

**called A Mother and Two Daughters

Photo credit of Amy Jones by Ali Eisner.

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