The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

mountain lion

“Ralph was ten and Molly was eight when they had scarlet fever.”

When I got home from Colorado I was seized with the desire to read about the American West. Traveling through that dramatic landscape just demanded it. As much as I love reading books set in England or among the privileged in the eastern U.S. I often feel guilty that I don’t read more books set in my own neck of the woods. I’ve never been a fan of westerns (books or films) so I didn’t want to read anything too traditional (although I did start reading my first Louis L’Amour novel – and I like it) so I picked up The Mountain Lion which partly takes place on a ranch in Colorado.

Set in the 1920’s this novel is an unsentimental and brutal coming-of-age story. Ralph and Molly, siblings who have always been strange and independent, struggle for understanding among their family and peers. While Ralph takes a more conventional route to acceptance, Molly maintains her unique and dark take on life and has a harder time especially as Ralph increasingly distances himself from his odd sister. When the pair moves to Colorado to live on a cattle ranch with their Uncle Claude the isolated and rough landscape only intensifies their mutual animosity. As they separately try to understand what it means to be grown up and how they can make the transition without becoming one of the adults they despise, Uncle Claude becomes obsessed with killing a mountain lion that they briefly glimpse in the mountains above the ranch. An astonishing ending to the hunt is also an end to Ralph and Molly’s childhood.

Jean Stafford is a vivid storyteller who shows an utter lack of sympathy for her characters that I found disconcerting, but refreshing. Their weakness and folly is harshly paraded before us yet I understood and liked them the better for it. The confusion, bitterness and yearning of adolescence is painfully depicted so that we can identify with Ralph and Molly though we may not want to be in the same room with them. The darkness of the narrative never lets us grow too fond of these doomed teens.

I really enjoyed this book and I marveled that I know people exactly like Uncle Claude and the hands who work his ranch. I guess ranching people haven’t changed much in 80 years (and neither have teens). It was all very familiar to me while at the same time it felt so far away. I believe that it is a timeless American classic and that Jean Stafford is a remarkable writer. I will seek out more of her work in the future.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

bernadette

“The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.”

This very charming novel was short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It didn’t win (the prize was awarded to A.M. Homes last week) and I don’t think it should have, but it is entertaining, quirky and wonderfully funny.

Using an epistolary format, Where’d You Go, Bernadette tells the story of the crack-up and disappearance of Bernadette Fox. She’s a middle-aged former architect who lives in a dilapidated Victorian in Seattle with her husband and teenage daughter, Bee. Bernadette is prickly, opinionated, anti-social and sarcastically funny about her neighbors and the denizens of Seattle. When a series of missteps and really bad decisions threaten her marriage and her very sanity she leaves without a trace. The documents that make up the novel – letters, emails, official school and FBI correspondence – are assembled by her daughter, Bee, to help her understand why her mom left and maybe how she can be found.

I raced through this novel in a couple of days (something I rarely do) because it is compelling and humorous. Reading about the events that lead up to Bernadette’s disappearance had me laughing and snickering with every page. Bernadette says the things we all think and doesn’t give a hoot what anyone thinks about her. She adores her family, but her stifled creativity drives her to frustration with the world and her community. She is a great character and the best drawn of anyone in the book so when she disappears it’s a bit of a let down. I wanted more Bernadette!

Filled with a satirical edge and a tone that mocks hipster culture, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a great contemporary novel about creativity, forgiveness and authenticity. If you are looking for a quick, funny summer read I sincerely recommend it.

Do you like epistolary novels?