Not your average Cinderella story
By Carolyn Turgeon
Three Rivers, 279 pp.,
ANGELS OF DESTRUCTION
By Keith Donohue
Shaye Areheart, 368 pp., $24
SLEEPWALKING IN DAYLIGHT
By Elizabeth Flock
Mira, 345 pp., $21.95
THE BEACH STREET KNITTING
SOCIETY AND YARN CLUB
By Gil McNeil
Voice, 404 pp., $23.99
Fairies and angels, self-delusion, and starting over figure, separately, in this month's "Pop Lit" choices.
Carolyn Turgeon's "Godmother" could be read as a dark fairy tale or the fantasy of a literate madwoman, or both. Bearing the tagline "The Secret Cinderella Story," this ingenious novel is narrated by Lil, the fairy godmother who was responsible for preparing Cinderella for the ball where she would meet Prince Charming. In "Godmother," the story behind the fairy tale is a gloomy business. We've been led to believe that Cinderella and her prince lived happily ever after, but in this imaginative retelling everything went awry, and the fault was Lil's. For her misdeeds she has been exiled to Manhattan, a far cry indeed from the fairy kingdom. The elderly Lil lives alone in a deteriorating walk-up in the garment district. Every morning she binds her wings with an Ace bandage and goes off to work at Daedalus Books, a used bookstore in the West Village. She loves the bookstore, but it can't compare to her lost life in the enchanted lake. She longs to return home. When she meets Veronica, a beautiful, vivacious young woman with a history of romantic disappointment, Lil imagines that she can redeem herself if she can find Veronica the right man. "Godmother" is steeped in nostalgia for a lost New York, a glamorous place as fictional as the fairy realm. Turgeon writes beautifully. She tells this deliberately ambiguous story with delicacy and wit. This is a magical novel, in many ways.
At the center of Keith Donohue's portentous "Angels of Destruction" is the enigmatic Norah, a skinny 9-year-old who turns up at Margaret Quinn's door one frigid night in 1985, claiming to be an orphan with nowhere to go. Margaret is a widow whose only daughter ran away with her boyfriend 10 years before to join a radical group, the Angels of Destruction, and hasn't been seen since. Margaret unhesitatingly takes in Norah, imagining that the girl will help ease the pain of her daughter's disappearance. Passing off Norah as her granddaughter, Margaret enrolls her in school, where the girl delights her teacher and classmates with her eagerness to learn, her unusual intelligence, her artistic ability. She makes a friend in Sean, a lonely boy whose father has abandoned him. Sean gradually notices some very odd things about Norah. The pupils of her eyes are red. She has stars at the back of her throat. She can stop time. She can summon flocks of birds. Meanwhile, a sinister stranger prowls the small Pennsylvania town, spying on Norah, asking people about her. Who is he? And who, or what, is Norah? Donohue is a fine if somewhat self-conscious stylist, but when the captivating Norah is absent, as she is for about a third of the novel, the narrative falls a little flat. "Angels of Destruction" is replete with ghostly presences, harbingers of doom, angels good and bad. Surveys indicate that more than half of us believe in angels, so this otherworldly novel should find a ready audience.
Samantha Friedman is a frustrated stay-at-home mother of three stuck in a loveless, sexless marriage to her depressed, distant husband, Bob. Their sensitive 17-year old daughter, Cammy, is profoundly unhappy, convinced that because she's adopted, her parents love her less than her 8-year-old twin brothers, Andrew and Jamie, their biological children. Cammy gets herself up in goth makeup and black clothing, pours out her misery in her journals, and indulges in dangerous sex and indiscriminate drug-taking. Elizabeth Flock's "Sleepwalking in Daylight" is a painfully emotional mother-daughter story told in the voices of Samantha and Cammy, in alternating chapters. Samantha is so wrapped up in herself that she can't fathom Cammy's unhappiness. Cammy secretly tries to find her birth mother, certain that her "real" mother will understand her as Samantha does not. As Cammy's self-destructive behavior reaches a dangerous crescendo, Samantha escapes into daydreams about Craig, a married neighbor, her soul mate, with whom she's having an affair. Flock tells a disturbing family story in two authentic voices. This one is not for readers who insist on happy endings.
Non-knitters have no reason to fear Gil McNeil's "The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club," an engaging, amusing, energetic novel about a woman starting over. Jo Mackenzie was stunned when her foreign-correspondent husband Nick confessed he'd been having an affair and wanted a divorce. After some heated words, he stormed out of the house, only to be killed almost immediately in a car crash. Short of money, Jo sells their London home, packs up her two semi-incorrigible young sons, and moves to Broadgate Bay ("Nowhere-by-the Sea," according to her friend Ellen), a small town on the Kent coast where she takes over her grandmother's wool shop. Jo brings the shop up to date, makes new friends, and settles into a very different life than the one she led in London. Knitting is a theme that runs throughout the story, but it's never distracting. There's no real plot, in the traditional sense. "The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club" is all about characters and dialogue, and McNeil is a whiz at both.
Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.