The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

Sometimes the worst thing to have happen to you isn’t your mother coercing you into attending your father’s wedding to a woman you (and she) have never met.

As the book begins, Our Protagonist Hadley is rushing through JFK to catch a plane to London to be a bridesmaid in her father’s1 wedding to a woman2 Hadley’s never met, for whom her father left her mother after a semester’s sabbatical in Oxford. She misses the plane’s boarding window by four minutes; while the airline can at least get her on the next flight out to London, at ten o’clock that night, the delay means she’ll arrive in London a mere two hours before the wedding is to take place.

She ends up meeting The Love Interest3 in the gate area’s waiting zone, when she decides to go for something to eat but the woman sitting next to her refuses to look after Hadley’s carryon luggage while she’s in the food court. Oliver, being a reasonably gentlemanly sort, comes with her to assist with her baggage, and divert himself. As luck, or rather an author with an eye to foreshadowing, would have it, the two sit next to one another on the flight, and alternate between falling asleep on one another’s shoulders and sharing secrets and pretzels.

Well, she does. He’s a bit cagy, and clearly there’s something about his father that’s not quite right; he looks at her oddly and changes the subject whenever she presses him for details. It isn’t until the marriage ceremony is over—Hadley makes it in the squeak of time and even serves as bridesmaid with a bid of emergency touching up from the bride’s family—and someone mentions needing to leave to attend a funeral for a friend, another Oxford don, in Paddington at two pm that Hadley realizes that it is Oliver’s father4.

She rushes away from her father, attempting to assemble everyone for the post-ceremony photo shoot, and rushes off through a strange city to seek Oliver. Ordinarily, she’d have no chance…but hey, this is a ‘love at first sight’ book. She finds him, and in enough time to have a word of apology before he has to go into his church session. She thinks that’s the end of it; they’ve known each other for less than twenty-four hours, right? No, he gate-crashes her father’s reception, having had little more idea of where she’ll be than she did him.

Now before anyone starts getting dizzy from rolling their eyes, it’s not quite as ghastly as I’ve made it out to be; certainly, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is no less implausible than a lot of the YA, new adult and full-on adult chicklit I’ve read. It’s decently written. It’s decently edited. The characterization’s reasonable for such a short book. Smith didn’t attempt to squeeze more of a plot into the book than would fit; we’re talking a timespan of twenty-four hours with just enough backstory to fill in the details.

There are a few hiccups, other than the basic one of whether you really can fall in love at first sight. Airlines are pissy enough when you miss a connection for reasons that aren’t their fault—blizzards in Denver, say—but missing a flight for any personal reason whatsoever means you’re out of luck. There are a couple of hackneyed plot devices, for which see the footnote. However, and this is a huge caveat, I appreciate the fact that Andrew and Hadley begin to make up, after two years of minimal interaction after he left her mother. Also, that Charlotte is being friendly without any intimation of “becoming Hadley’s mother”, or even suggesting that Hadley will have a life with them rather than with her biological mother. Hadley’s there for the wedding and she’s going back to the States afterward; if they’re on speaking terms, that’s as good as could be hoped right then.

Oh, and Hadley has a nice time dancing with Oliver.

4yes, I know, I know: London’s a huge city and there will inevitably be a number of funerals going on at any given time, just as there are at least several weddings. This, however, isn’t quite as implausible a plot device as it sounds, though, if you think about it. Trust me; there won’t be many Oxford professors getting buried in a specific neighborhood at the time when Our Boi had to attend a mandatory family gathering

The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

Lynnie, the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, is developmentally disabled; her parents institutionalized her when she was a young child at the State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. Although she remembers a fair bit about her home life with her biological family, her mental limitations prevent her from truly understanding the concepts of “forever” and “since I was a little child”; there is really only now, today and the nebulous passage of the seasons.

Homan, Lynnie’s friend and supporter, is not only profoundly deaf but….drumroll, please…black. In 1968, that last alone would suffice to keep the two apart to the best of society’s capabilities. The fact that the institution in which they’re both “living” strongly discourages contact between “residents” of opposite genders doesn’t help. (Contact between the residents and the staff, well, that’s another matter.)

Martha is a retired schoolteacher, now widowed after a marriage of decades and an equally long career. She and her husband Earl had one child, which died, though Martha found some solace and fulfillment in the children who came and went through her classroom over all those years. Fortunately, she has remained in contact with many of her previous students…

…which stands her in good stead when Homan and Lynnie’s flight land them, and Lynnie’s baby, on her doorstep one dark and stormy night. Officials from the school show up close on the trio’s heels, but reclaim only Lynnie; Homan has already fled, and they do not know that Lynnie’s given birth. Martha is left with a newborn infant, knowing nothing of its parents or the circumstances under which they fled; being a good and honorable (and lonely) woman, she acknowledges Lynnie’s unspoken request and cares for the child as if it were genuinely her own flesh and blood. She calls upon her old students for assistance. One has become a hotelkeeper and allows Martha to stay with his family as they fix their newly purchased facility. Another is an artist with a summer home on Cape Cod, in which Martha stays one winter. And so on.

I’ll leave out the intervening thirty years except to mention that yes: it does have a more or less happy ending—I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to read The Story of Beautiful Girl for themselves—I’ll just add that I’m glad there were exposes of the institutions in which these people lived, not to mention legislation that encouraged communities to incorporate the people in them out into the community. Not only is it the more humane thing to do—who doesn’t want to be a self-supporting, independent person to the best of their abilities?—but it’s also cheaper. Tax-paying citizens rather than a tax burden is the way to go.

Keep in mind that the novel is as much about the daughter, left with the retired schoolteacher, as it is about the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, Lynnie, and her best friend, Homan. The author’s choice to skip between the three primary characters’ viewpoints fragmented the story a bit, and her additional decision to skip several years between chapters left gaps in the sequence of events. Overall, though, it’s a powerful argument for mainstreaming people such as Lynnie to the best of their abilities, rather than warehousing them or more life-threatening forms of abandonment.

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson

Taylor Edwards is a fairly typical high-ambition seventeen-year-old, despite being the ‘talentless’ middle child; her older brother is determined to be a lawyer like their father while her younger sister is similarly determined to be a ballet dancer, while she spends her summers in language immersion courses and oceanography internships.

Or at least she has for the past five years, since she did A Terrible Thing to her BFF, Lucy, and the boy they both had a crush on, the summer that they were all twelve. Tragically, her father has been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer on the day of Taylor’s birthday in May; the family decides that they will spend one last summer together in their summer home in the Poconos.

…which means that Taylor must confront both Lucy and Henry, in addition to being tossed into the deep end of her first summer job, all in addition to spending as much time with her father as she can in his last few weeks of life. (This is the ‘second chance’ of the title: making up with her friends, whom she dissed five years previously when they were all twelve: she fell in crush with the cute boy with whom her BFF had already decided she was going to fall in love that summer…but didn’t tell either of them about BFF’s feelings for Cute Boy.) Oh, and take in the dog left behind by the long-term renters who’d departed only a week or so before the family arrives.

The novel ends, as it inevitably must, with the death of the father, but the children have grown and developed personally; Taylor has made up with Lucy and Henry, Warren has branched out from his studies to court a girl who is herself studying to be a veterinarian and Gelsey learns how to make friends and have sleepovers.

Overall, it’s a good straightforward ‘teen angst’ book for kids who’ve outgrown Judy Blume; it has no fantasy elements, no supernatural characters, no magic. Just a family facing the death of the father/husband, told from the perspective of the middle girl. It does have a certain degree of “rich white girl” problems, set as it is in a town of largely summer residents escaping the heat of The Big City, but dealing with the death of a parent is fairly universal. In that regard, it’s appropriate for a range of readers. In some ways, I wish Matson had chosen to concentrate on either the father’s illness or the children’s maturation during the summer, as she has to split the book between the two processes, and I’m left feeling a bit like she gave them both short shrift. That said, they would not have had the opportunity had their father NOT had pancreatic cancer, as that’s why they’ve all come together back to the Poconos. Otherwise, they would have just continued on their paths of separation.

What to read next? If it’s the “death of a parent” aspect, I’d suggest Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, for kids who liked the straightforwardness of this book plus elements of friendship/boys, or Patrick Ness/Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls, for kids who prefer books with a supernatural element.

The Grey Horse by R.A. MacAvoy

It’s a typical day in Carraroe: grey, soggy, and windy…but green. Anrai O Reachtaire1 is walking back from delivering back to its owner a horse he’s trained. A bit out of puff—he’s no spring chicken—he pauses to investigate an unfamiliar grey horse, standing loose up atop a rocky outcrop. Despite the horse’s lack of any tack or gear, Anrai ends up attempting to ride the creature, though it turns out that the horse is in fact the one with an agenda.

He’s a puca, in this case one which takes the form of a grey horse, and he’s fallen in love with the daughter of the local shipping magnate, herself no kin to the magnate but rather half fay as a result of her mother’s misguided love affair. In proper mythological style, Ruari give Anrai the ride of his life, tricky but without real malice, and delivers him safely to the doorstep where Anrai’s wife, Aine, has been keeping the pig’s trotters and mash warm on the back of the stove. Here, Ruari explains that he needs, not money or a job as such but rather the umbrella of Anrai’s respectability in order to persuade the object of his desire that he is a worthy husband of her.

This first thread of the book follows this puca as he establishes himself in the human society and woos his Lady Love, but given the time and place, it should come as no surprise to readers that there’s a considerable political (for the sake of brevity) subcurrent. Ireland at the time was a land of absentee English landlords, many of whom rarely if ever set foot on their estates; the local laird, however, is one Blondell who pays at least lip service to the lands which produce his income, and indeed genuinely believes that he does have an affection for his tenants which is reciprocated3.

The primary story arc culminates with the steeplechase between the English rider and English Thoroughbred stallion, and the Irish rider and “of unspecified ancestry” stallion; at the race’s end, Anrai and the foolish English stallion have both killed themselves with the effort of the race. After tying up the threads more or less as one would expect (Maire and Ruari marry, Seosamh and Eibhlin get what they deserve…) we get an epilogue, set fifty-odd years later during World War II, with an agent of the Inland Revenue Service coming to track down the MacEibhir family as they have not paid their taxes for several years running. The investigation comes to naught, as so far as the agent can tell, the family (father, mother and three sons) have vanished without a trace; it is no fault of his own that perhaps “into thin air” might have been a better description…

If you prefer modern writing styles, or fantasies that involve medieval settings and lots of swords, this is not for you. If you like horses but think that a pleasant afternoon involves climbing aboard a pre-groomed pony for a pleasant trot around a pre-groomed trail, this is not for you. If you like gentle romance, but think that love is only for the young, and beautiful and fortunate…also not for you. (The English, human or equine, don’t come off terribly well either; they’re pretty much across the board foolish at best and at worst, neurasthenic, nervy, over-bred, and tending to bad habits thereby, such as cribbing and attempting to be friendly with the people whom they subjugated a generation or so before.)

If, however, you think that love ought to be for a lifetime, and that a proper afternoon with horses involves getting sodden, bog-spattered and coated with hair and sweat..definitely for you2. Keep in mind, however, that despite being a romance and a fairy story, this isn’t entirely a romantic tale. Set in the late nineteenth century, “decimated” is still a fairly accurate way to describe the land when the book is set. As with Tea With the Black Dragon, there is an elderly couple, for whom love still blooms despite their hardships, but here there is considerably more political subtext here than in MacAvoy’s previous books. The population is still noticeably reduced from the starvation and emigration resulting from the potato blight, and anti-English feeling is running high, to say the least, among the locals. There’s a fair bit of sub-plot involving the political machinations of the local populace.

Ultimately, I suspect that this will be no more than mildly entertaining “beach and bathtub” reading for a good many people, but it may prompt a few readers to delve deeper into Irish mythology than Riverdance or deeper into its history than “The Troubles”. If you liked MacAvoy’s writing style, start with Tea With the Black Dragon or her Damiano trilogy.

1I apologize: I’m going to butcher the spelling…
2Certainly I appreciate horses that are allowed to behave like horses. None of this “Noble Beast” stuff. They sweat. They snort. They have neuroses. And so on.
3Stop laughing. I’m sure the white landlords thought the same of their sharecroppers in the United States.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Every weekend, Evelyn Couch and her husband go to visit his mother in the nursing home; Evelyn and Mrs. Couch dislike one another, so Evelyn is almost relieved one day when she falls into the clasp of an eager storyteller, lonely for an audience. Ninny Threadgoode, having outlived all those who knew her to visit her now, is glad to have someone to chat with, and the two women grow closer over the next few months. Ninny (short for Virginia) tells Evelyn stories of the town of Whistle Stop, Georgia, where she grew up with the Threadgoode family after they took her in1, and Evelyn brings in food for Ninny, at first only store-bought sweets but as the relationship and her own self-confidence strengthen, she moves on to home-made barbecue and at last the eponymous ‘fried green tomatoes’.

Ninny’s tales of “then” center on the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama, and the Threadgoode family which took her in when young and needing a home, and more specifically their wayward daughter, Idgie. Idgie was always tempestuous and wild, but after her beloved brother, Buddy, was killed by a train, she (forgive the pun) went completely off the rails. It wasn’t until the demurely lady-like church school teacher Ruth came to town for the summer that Idgie proved willing to return to a more domesticated life. Despite Idgie’s pleading, Ruth fled home to her home and fiance as she wanted only to be ‘normal’. In the end, the husband proves no better than an abuser, and upon Ruth’s mother’s death, Ruth herself determines to flee if her friends in Whistle Stop will help her…and they do.

I’ll stop here, just in case anyone hasn’t read the book yet; I will add that both the “then” and the “now” stories have bittersweet middles and ends…and add that the “now” endings in the book and the movie diverge considerably.

Having slept on it, I confess that I now rather appreciate the fact that Flagg never says, in as many words, that Idgie and Ruth are a lesbian couple, though the relationship is quite clear to anyone capable of reading between the lines. When I first read the book, I was more than slightly disappointed: Idgie is described merely as “an irrepressible tomboy”, and Ruth the demurely docile, obediently religious girl who flees this person so desperately and wholeheartedly in love with her because she cannot face the fact that she reciprocates that love. I’d guess that’s due to a couple of issues. Not least, I’d bet that when Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was written, it wasn’t quite so acceptable to come out (figuratively speaking) in mainstream literature. Secondly, I’d ask readers to consider the audience that I think Flagg was aiming at: the chick-lit readers. This is no edgy Rita Mae Brown novel or Florence King memoir; I doubt it was a cutting-edge sexual orientation novel at the time, and it’s less so now.

I don’t think that’s really the point of the book, however; I’d say rather that the novel is about love and acceptance, overcoming prejudice and recognizing one another as worthy of love. Idgie’s father gives her seed money to start a restaurant when Ruth returns and proves to be pregnant, so that she may help support her growing family. No recrimination. No analysis. No cross-examination. This is a comfort read (at least if you’re a white female of the late twentieth century.)

Not surprisingly, given the book’s setting, place and time, racial relations are a part of the book, though I’d suggest that this is more for the melanin-challenged potential readers than otherwise. The KKK makes an appearance, when Idgie attracts attention for feeding African-americans out the back door of the restaurant. (No mention that she also feeds the hoboes.)

The structure of the novel is a bit skittery, alternating between Evelyn’s ‘now’ and Ninny’s ‘then’ fairly evenly, but the ‘then’ components jump around a bit. Readers do need to keep an at least moderately sharp eye on the times of the past anecdotes, though Flagg has them fairly clearly labeled.

What to read next? If you didn’t care for the race issues in Flagg’s book, but did like the relationships between women, try The Color Purple. If you liked the general tone and setting of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, but don’t want anything terribly avant-garde, try Cold Sassy Tree, as they were written and popular about the same time as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, and touch on some of the same themes. Just brace yourself if you’ve seen the movie versions of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe or The Color Purple; the books are considerably different from the movies (and vice versa, of course). The Lemon Jelly Cake might be another option; though the writing style’s changed a bit in the decades intervening between the books, the two strike me as similar.

1Ninny married one of the Threadgoode boys later; she was not formally adopted, just as Ruth was not

Every Day by David Levithan

Imagine waking up every day in a new body, needing to figure out who you are before your friends and family figure out that you are not who you should be. No past. No future. No continuity.

….and then one day, you meet the love of your life…and how to explain to her, a heterosexual engendered person, that not only do you love her, but you will be a different person each and every day.

“A”, the narrator, has lived zir1 life quite literally one day at a time. Zie lives 24 hours in a particular body, then (PAFF!) at midnight transfers into a new body. Male. Female. Rich. Poor. Gay. Straight. Drug addicted. Depressed. White, black, Hispanic, zie never knows until zie opens zir eyes what the new day will be like. Until now, zie’s simply accepted this is what zir life will be like…until zie meets the love of zir life, Rhiannon, when zie inhabits the body of Rhiannon’s boyfriend, Justin.

Suddenly A has a reason to desire continuity but no power to enable this…but zie tries. Whenever zie can, zie sneaks away from zir daily duties to meet with Rhiannon; if this means cutting school, or making excuses to a middle to upper class family, no problems, at least aside from the question of which gender A will be on any consecutive day. A has no problem with this, as this is how zie’s lived for all zir life. Rhiannon, not so much; as A notices, she is more affectionate when zie is a male. It helps that A’s jumps from person to person are limited to a limited geographic region, though this is not clear whether the region is limited to zir original area or to a limited range from where zir body is when the transfer takes place at midnight2.

As A and Rhiannon attempt to become closer, A realizes how much of a burden this shifting from body to body could be, something zie’s always accepted until now, and Rhiannon begins to realize how much she does not love her ostensible boyfriend, Justin. Unfortunately, things don’t work out between the two, and for more or less the reasons one might expect.

A complication is that one of the recent people whom A has inhabited remembers what has happened, or rather wonders what has happened inasmuch as he woke up, shortly after A’s transition out of his body, being awoken by police officers wondering why this stone cold sober young man has fallen asleep in his car on the verge of the highway. Nathan has gone public with this issue, with some support from a pastor who believes in demonic possession. A is simultaneously trying to reassure and put off Nathan while trying to reconcile zir relationship with Rhiannon, only to find out from the pastor that there may not only be other people like zirself but a way to stop the cycle of transferring from body to body.

And yet A chooses to remain in the cycle which zie’s known all zir life, despite the possibility that zie might choose to remain in a body which Rhiannon found acceptable.

Something to keep in mind for those considering reading this: it’s a romance novel, not science fiction. Strip away all the tropes, and you have the basic question of “Do I love the body or the soul? The physical outward presentation or the inward being?” I’m not going to pick apart the science fiction elements, though I would like to go on record as saying that they’re annoying. For example: A does not become the person but rather inhabits that stranger’s body for a day; zie can access basic information about the person, such as family members’ names and school, but not all the skills that person has, such as the ability to downhill ski or speak languages unknown to A.

From a continuity standpoint, this makes perfect sense; otherwise, how would A remember from day to day that zie loves Rhiannon? As a science fiction device, however, this inability to use all the skills the body’s owner has at his/her fingertips is problematic. One might reasonably assume that all the kids in a given geographic area will have the same basic skills but adults’ abilities diverge a great deal more. What if A wakes up in the body of an auto mechanic or an elite athlete in the middle of a competition or an interpreter for the U.N. or…Zie’d end up calling in sick to work an awful lot! Indeed, this already has posed problems–twice during the book, A transfers into someone whose home language is not English, and Levithan fudges awfully kludgily when trying to work around this.

I’ll accept that Levithan does not explain why A is the way zie is, because this is told from A’s perspective entirely. Zie doesn’t know, therefore zie cannot explain. I’ll accept that while there may be others like A, and that there is at least one person who knows how to control the process by which zie switches from body to body, A may not either understand how that’s possible or want to stop in one body…because that’s not the point of the book. I think the point of the book is: if you could, would you? If you could stop the world the way it was at any given moment, if you could control the emotions and decisions of the one true love of your life, would you? Or would that be wresting free choice from that other person? Shouldn’t you accept that you must allow that person to choose for herself?

I wouldn’t want the control; that’s not love but manipulation and control. You?

1Readers, forgive me. This is one of the few instances where I think that the constructed gender-neutral pronouns are necessary. Bear with me.
2i.e. if the person in whose body A is that day flies to Hawaii…does A then become limited to Hawaii?

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

Mr. Hyder Ali, recently retired clerk, has decided to open a marriage bureau to keep himself occupied and out of his wife’s hair. He and Mrs. Ali clean off their front porch–they are fortunate to have a house of their own with a bit of land around it–uncommon in many Indian inner cities.

While this may sound odd to acculturated Americans, for whom the dating service is the norm, and participants in same are looking for partners on their own behalf, a matchmaking service isn’t so far-fetched in India. Arranged marriages are serious business in India, where it’s still accepted that the parents will select a spouse for their children, dowries are still crucial to a girl’s marriageability and caste is still a dividing separation between groups on a par with religion. Standard procedure for marriage brokers at the time is to accept payment upon completion of a successful union, but Mr. Ali decides to reverse that business practice. He charges a much smaller up front fee and provides a list of possible matches from his files of potential candidates, from whom his customers may select possible candidates. After that, they’re on their own; he makes no guarantees other than that they will find someone. Well, the lists he hopes to have soon…and to his surprise, he does well.

Well enough that he soon has more business than he can handle, and must start looking for an assistant. Several applicants respond to his ad, but in the end it is his wife who strikes up a casual conversation with the young woman who proves right for the job…not to mention right for one of Mr. Ali’s clients, though inadvertently, by Mr. Ali’s own marriage bureau. As the story progresses, Aruna takes an increasingly central position in the book, at least equal to that of the Alis–her family, her concerns, and in the end, her love.

There are a few serious notes. The Alis’ servant confesses that her grandson has a brain tumor and the family is scrabbling to pay the hospital fees; in a land without health insurance as Americans understand it, this is a serious matter even if the family may take their child to a government hospital. The Alis’ son, Rehman, is arrested and imprisoned as the result of his political activism on the part of poor farmers whose land is being purchased at below market rate by a rapacious corporation; without other resources, these ill-educated farmers will have no other recourse or income once their farms are sold.

A very pleasant book to read; it is perhaps predictable–I guessed who was going to marry or reconcile with whom easily enough–but an interesting glimpse into a society strange to me by someone who is a member of that society. (not that people who aren’t part of what they’re writing about CAN’T create good accurate tales, mind. Indeed, sometimes gifted writers who are outsiders have the distance to better describe the alien society.) In many ways, it reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe series or perhaps more accurately Nicholas Drayson’s A Guide to the Birds of East Africa; there’s no mystery, but rather a romance at the center of this book. It’s a world in which the predominant cultures are very different from that of many (though not all) residents of the United States: clothing, cuisine, religions, marriage traditions, family structure.

While I would not compare it to Jane Austen, but rather Smith and Drayson, that should not be construed as dismissive! As with those two books, it’s as much an interesting peep into a strange place and culture for most Anglos in the United States as it is a sweet romance. Lightweight and uncomplicated, this is several steps above your average beach reading or chicklit. And he’s written sequels!