Tag Archives: unrequited love

Cutting For Stone : a Novel by Abraham Verghese

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I started this book…last summer?…because the work book club was reading it. I really enjoyed it at first, but for some reason I bogged down in the middle because a) it was due back at the library and b) I was really frustrated with Marion, the protagonist, and some members of his family that annoyed me. Then I had to wait forever for it to come around on the holds list again, and stop being mad at Marion (because as my father always says, you can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family, so poor Marion is stuck), and finally finish it off.

Basically, this is a love story about a man who is madly in love with both his profession and his country, while also thinking he is in love with a woman, but he’s really in love with his idea of a relationship with that woman, so that doesn’t work out. If you can get past being embarrassed for Marion over his one-sided, nearly imaginary relationship with a girl he grows up with, it’s actually a great coming-of-age story. We begin in Ethiopia at a hospital called Missing (Mission Hospital, actually, but no one calls it that). Marion is the son of an English surgeon and an Indian nun who work there. He and his twin were born unexpectedly – the nun never told anyone that she was pregnant, and their father was a blackout drinker and had no idea they’d ever consummated their relationship. There are complications, she dies, their father leaves Ethiopia in shock and grief, and the boys are taken in by another doctor at the hospital. Once the boys have a family, the story takes flight.

When the boys are about to finish high school – Marion plans to go to medical school and Shiva just wants to be done – there is a pivotal event that changes the life of Genet, the girl Marion loves. Shiva does something that hurts Marion deeply, and sets a whole sequence of events into motion that I can’t describe without ruining the story. Suffice it to say, Marion leaves Shiva by stages – first moving out of their shared bedroom, then out of the country to finish medical training in the United States. How they reconnect, what happens to Genet, what happens to their adopted parents and what happened to their missing father – it’s all out in the open by the end. I still am not quite sure I forgive Marion for being quite so stupid about Genet, but it was definitely worth reading the book despite his romantic ineptitude.

After I finished the book, I looked on Amazon and saw that it is reviewed there by John Irving. I found this funny, because throughout the book I kept comparing it in style to a John Irving novel. (Something about the grand scope of following someone from early childhood on, and feeling like you’ve become part of their life by the end. Plus all of the medical parts.) If you’ve read A Prayer for Owen Meany, or The Cider House Rules, Marion is very like both John Wheelwright and Homer Wells (and if I think about it too much, Shiva is rather like Owen Meany in the sense that he holds so much sway over Marion even when he isn’t present, and because he is odd and no one but Marion truly “gets” him). So if you like Irving, or Charles Dickens, or Thomas Hardy or any of those long rambling life story writers, you’ll probably like it.

Oh – and don’t be fooled by the history of the Ethiopian revolution while reading this. The events of the story follow the spirit but not the letter of the actual historic events. So you’ll get an idea of what life was like in Ethiopia at the time, but don’t take the story’s events as fact.

 

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Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

chop chop

I worked in a hotel kitchen once. It was every bit as awful as Simon Wroe depicts in this novel, even though the head chef in my kitchen was not even one tenth the sadist this one was. But it was also kind of wonderful, working at a very unforgiving job where any mistake you make could mean disaster and you never get to stop and think even for a minute and you never get a break or any credit but somehow this bonds you with your coworkers in a way that you can’t explain. (Sort of like working in the theatre…but don’t get me started on my history of thankless jobs that nearly kill you and pay crap.) So that’s why I started this book – nostalgia. Why I finished it, however, had nothing to do with the kitchen parts and all to do with the parts where the protagonist worked through the problems of his past.

Our protagonist, called “Monocle” by his coworkers because of his (so far) useless degree in English Literature, takes a job as commis in a gastro pub called the Swan. He’s been without a job long enough to be desperate, and sticks with the job mainly to avoid having to go home to live with his parents – even though the job starts out badly enough and then evolves into completely horrifying. The head chef, Bob, is a horrible person who enjoys treating his workers with such vile cruelty that I cannot imagine lasting in that kitchen for longer than 15 minutes. He locks one chef in the walk-in cooler regularly (causing work in the kitchen to back up so that everyone suffers), repeatedly sets up the pastry chef to fail because he likes to watch and heckle, and at one point deliberately drops molten caramel onto our protagonist’s hand. All of this is bad enough, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg – we discover that Bob is in thrall somehow to a shadowy crime boss called the Fat Man, and when one of his mutinous chefs sets him up to fail at one of the Fat Man’s dinner parties, the Fat Man expands his campaign of terror to blackmail each of them in turn – and we learn that Bob’s sadism was mere child’s play. The Fat Man is a professional.

But none of this was why I finished the book. I finished the book to see how things would work out with Monocle’s family. Throughout the novel, Monocle struggles with his feelings about his older brother’s death when they were children, and how it affected him and his parents. He has always felt like the wrong brother survived, and actually seems to believe that his father’s grief and subsequent neglect are his own fault. His parents are both wrecks – his mother works a menial, difficult job to support his father, who cannot hold a job and gambles away whatever money he can finagle. When she finally has had enough and tosses out her deadbeat husband, he turns up at Monocle’s doorstep…and Monocle is forced to watch his two worlds collide. And collide they do – by the end, the Fat Man even has enough dirt on Monocle’s father to add him in to the circle of blackmail hell. As ugly as the story was already, it gets uglier – the terror spreads from the kitchen of the Swan to the Fat Man’s private home to the street outside Monocle’s boarding house. People get stabbed, people go to jail, parents are reunited, many scores are settled and Monocle finally gets to talk to the girl. It’s not a happy ending exactly, but it is satisfying. It made me very, very happy that I no longer work in a kitchen. And that my father earned his own living and will probably never turn up destitute on my doorstep.

Fair warning – foul language, sexism, racism, and every other possible form of offensiveness happens in this restaurant’s kitchen (one chef is actually nicknamed Racist Dave, and there are regular conversations amongst the characters about who has or has not performed colorfully descibed acts of sodomy on whom). You’ll need a strong stomach for this book. Oh, and did I mention the drugs? They do some drugs. And there is a great deal of cruelty to animals, though thankfully one character finally refuses the worst of it. I have seen this book described as “funny” and “hilarious” but I wouldn’t go that far – all of its wit is the painfully funny kind, where you have to laugh or fall apart. Kind of like kitchen work itself.

I cannot even begin to think of a read-alike for this book.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Front Cover

Don’t read this book on a plane, or in any public place. I was embarrassed several times as I cried copious tears and my seat-mate wondered if I was some sort of crazy person.

Ed is a 20-year-old cab driver in some depressed town in Australia which is never named. He does not have much ambition and his life revolves around a circle of similarly unmotivated friends, with whom he plays cards, drinks, and shares very superficial interests. He is madly in love with one of these friends, but she has been hurt in the past and adamantly refuses to have any relationship where she might like or love her partner, so their relationship remains platonic. All lumbers along uneventfully for Ed, until one day the bank he and his friends are waiting in is robbed. Without knowing why exactly he does so, Ed helps to apprehend the bank robber and enjoys his 15 minutes of fame.

This fame attracts attention from someone and Ed receives a playing card in the mail with three addresses written on it. He assumes that he is supposed to go to these addresses, so he does – and in the process finds 3 people who need his help in some way. Without knowing why he has been asked to do so, Ed sets out to do the right thing. More cards with other clues follow, and the book becomes beautiful, brutal, wrenching, and satisfying by turns. By the end, Ed has learned more about himself and his friends and family than he ever suspected, and the reader learns to love them right along with him.

I read this book because I loved another book by this author called The Book Thief, which my book club read (and most of them enjoyed). This book is not like The Book Thief in content, but so like it in emotional tone. It made me cry not because it is sad, but because it is so poignant. Everything that happens to Ed and his friends and the people that they help is so touching that I couldn’t help wishing that more people would undertake a quest like Ed’s. I challenge you to read the parts where he reads out loud to an old lady without bawling like a baby. And when he discovers his friend Marvin’s secret, have a hanky. Seriously.

A lot of readers online have complained about the ending. I admit, it isn’t the best ending an author has ever dreamed up, but after the superb crafting of the story and characters I’m willing to give him a pass on the deus ex machina.

Read-alikes: Hmmm, this is tricky. It’s a lot like The Book Thief in that ordinary people are called upon to do extraordinary deeds for love. It’s kind of like John Green’s books where the boy longs for the impossible girl (Looking for Alaska, maybe). It’s also vaguely like Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, though the characters in that one never grow like Ed does. I guess the story it reminds me the most of is the Shirley Jackson short story One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts.