Fabulous Fiction Firsts #477 - Spotlight on Family Sagas
The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing * by Mira Jacob opens with celebrated brain surgeon Thomas Eapen sitting on his porch at his home in New Mexico talking to dead relatives. At least that is the story his wife, Kamala, prone to exaggeration, tells their daughter, Amina, a Seattle area wedding photographer. Knowing that she has been manipulated, Amina nevertheless, arranges for a visit home where she soon realizes that something may actually be wrong with her father. The trouble might be rooted in the family's visit to India some twenty years ago; the tension between her father and Ammachy, her grandmother and family matriarch; and the mystery behind the death of her older brother, the rebellious and brilliant Akhil.
"(L)ight and optimistic, unpretentious and refreshingly witty... Jacob has created characters with evident care and treats them with gentleness even as they fight viciously with each other. Her prose is sharp and true and deeply funny." "(A) winning, irreverent debut novel about a family wrestling with its future and its past."
Smart and ambitious Eileen Tumulty, dutiful daughter born to hard-drinking Irish working-class parents, looks for a better life for herself by training as a nurse. When she marries Ed Leary, a quiet neuroscientist, she is disappointed with his choice teaching at a community college despite more lucrative and prestigious offers. With their Jackson Heights (Queens) neighborhood in decline, Eileen is desperate to move out of the city (and up the social ladder), into a fixer-upper that they could ill afford. Then Ed is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.
"Thomas works on a large canvas to create a memorable depiction of Eileen's vibrant spirit, the intimacy of her love for Ed, and the desperate stoicism she exhibits as reality narrows her dreams. Her life, observed over a span of six decades, comes close to a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century. Thomas's emotional truthfulness combines with the novel's texture and scope to create an unforgettable narrative."
Thirty-five years (and 20-some titles) after her wildly successful generational saga set in Australia - The Thorn Birds (based on her family's history), Colleen McCullough returns to the genre with Bittersweet, an epic romance set in the decades after WWI, about two sets of Latimer twins, all trained as nurses but each with her own ambitions.
"McCullough's background in medicine is apparent as she seamlessly weaves in information about the history of nurse's training in Australia and the development of modern pathology. Bittersweet is both a fascinating exploration of the bonds between sisters and a fine historical novel."
* = starred review
* * = 2 starred reviews