Who doesn’t need people — companionship, friendship, love? In these books about people in unusual situations with unique relationships, we find those people in transition who depend on others to understand something of themselves.
In A House Among the Trees, Julia Glass paints a detailed and pleasingly elaborate web of portraiture, centered around children’s book author and illustrator Mort Lear, who is loosely based on Maurice Sendak. Although Mort is at the heart of the novel, it’s more about those pulled into the orbit of his creativity, both during his life and after his death.
Tommy Daulair has been Mort’s live-in assistant all of her adult life, arguably the closest person to him, and she enjoys an existence of relative solitude in his secluded Connecticut home with Mort and his lover, who later dies of AIDS. Joining Tommy in Mort’s gravitational pull are Nick Greene, the British actor who will portray Mort in a biopic; Meredith Galarza, curator of the Contemporary Book Museum, who learns that Mort reneged on his pledge to bequeath his work to the museum; and Tommy’s brother, Danilo.
This rich cast of characters dance around — and collide with — one another throughout the book. Tommy knows Mort well, but she learns much more about his secrets after he dies and leaves her as the executer (and inheritor) of his estate.
Djelloul Marbrook’s Making Room: Baltimore Stories may appear to be a thin book, but the prose is dense and worth its weight in words. The eight stories and novella that fill out this book are steeped in emotion, and set in humanity itself as much as it’s set in Baltimore.
“Socialization walls us off from one another,” a character muses in the novella that makes up half of the volume. In it, three very different characters come together to create a magical room for a little boy. As they get lost in their mission, they discover themselves in one another. “What we don’t know about each other is almost always what would benefit us most to know,” one of the trio observes, “and how rarely we choose what would benefit us.”
The characters and relationships in “Making Room” are complex. People find things to do (building a room, fixing a bicycle, improving a neighborhood) as a way to connect with others — and to keep their own private demons at bay.
Marbrook, a prolific poet, spins unique phrases and metaphors as his characters discover themselves and one another. Give this book an attentive read and you’re likely to discover a new word or bit of information. You’re sure to come away with a rewarding experience.
Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour may be populated with nuns, but it’s about the unique experiences of Annie, a widow, and her child, Sally — as told through the filter of Sally’s adult children. Beautifully unfolded in layers, the novel reveals itself in not-always-connected scenes.
When Annie’s husband, a trainman in his early 30s, commits suicide, an order of nursing nuns in Brooklyn take control. They take in Annie and her baby girl, Sally.
Sally grows up in the nunnery’s laundry, where Annie works. As Sister Illuminata put it, they did their best to take the “ugly, soiled, stained” and “send it back into the world like a resurrected soul.”
Colorful characters like Sister Illuminata, Sister St. Savior and Sisters Lucy and Jeanne shape Sally and motivate her to become a nun herself; as a young adult, Sally takes the train from New York to Chicago to serve there. It only takes the train ride — and the people of “the world” she encounters on the train — to make her realize her “calling” was more “telling.” She returns to join the world instead of an order.
Women dominate the novel, but men have their memorable moments as well. There’s a tension between the story and storyteller, adding another layer to the family history. “The Ninth Hour” is a novel of morality and transgression — of choices — in which faith and uncertainty meet.