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Sunday Books & Culture for June 2

- June 1, 2024

This week’s reviews include Ben Raterman’s local historical mystery “Speak to Me” and the complex dynamic of sisters in Virginie Grimaldi’s “A Good Life.”

The Books and Culture page is edited each week by Vanessa Sekinger.

SPEAK TO ME 

by Ben Raterman

Published by April Gloaming Publishing (March 26, 2024)
Paperback $18.99

Reviewed by Penny A Parrish  

I am occasionally asked to read or review books for friends or local authors. My experience overall has not been very positive. I often find good story lines but ineffective writing. Or some great sentences but the plot never thickens. When writer Ben Raterman asked me to read his book, I told him I’d give it a try, but if it wasn’t a good fit, I’d quit after the first 30 pages. This book is 264 pages, and I read it to the very end. 

The book features two realistic and likable kids, eight-year-old Justine and her brother Joseph, age six. They live in a broken-down trailer in Fredericksburg with a neglectful mother who barely provides enough food and clothing for them. Making matters worse, mom has a nasty, manipulative boyfriend who drops in all the time.

So, these kids rely on their grandmother Etta for love and comfort. It’s Etta who spins stories about her great-great grandmother Jannie and the missing jewels.  

The precocious children wander to the library, where they meet Katy, a research librarian in the Virginiana Room. They ask her about a house where Jannie worked for a rich woman named Anna Fitzhugh on Main Street.

She was married only a short time when she disappeared, and her collection of jewels was never found. Katy is able to track down the address of the house through maps and old newspaper clippings. With that information in hand, the children go on a mission to find the missing jewels they believe were given to Jannie by her rich employer.

The cast of characters is reasonably small, and each is fleshed out nicely. Katy is a workaholic with little joy in her life. She sees this quest by the children as a personal mission, helping them whenever she can. To her, people are kept alive by bringing the past forward.

Two of my favorite characters are the wonderful old couple Douglas and Helen Freeman. Douglas is a gardener on Main Street, now known as Caroline. He tends plants for the rich families with love and watches the kids as they look for answers at the old house.

Local readers will be able to picture the locations in their mind as they read, which makes this book even more interesting. For example, a dinner one night takes place at a restaurant where Katy and her friends sit in a vault.

He also does not give the exact address of the house where Jannie worked, but he gives us the block on Caroline Street, letting us exercise our imagination as we drive past.

My only quibble with the book is when the author goes into detail about the Civil War battles in Fredericksburg. It just seems out of place.  

The author did his research, even going into the old house years ago. He spent years trying to find a publisher. Writing a book is one thing – getting it published is another. But he persisted and the end result will appeal not only to locals, but to anyone who finds the past and present intertwined.

Penny A Parrish is a long-time book reviewer and artist. Learn more about her by visiting her page at Brush Strokes Gallery, which is in downtown Fredericksburg.

A GOOD LIFE

By Virginie Grimaldi

Published by Europa Editions (May 28, 2024)
Hardcover $28.00
Audiobook $17.50

By Ashley Riggleson 

People often worry when reading translated literature that something will get lost in the switch between languages. But there is no need to worry about that with Virginie Grimaldi’s American debut, A Good Life. Beautifully translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle, this novel about the complex relationship between two sisters is guaranteed to resonate with readers across borders. 

Readers follow Agathe and Emma, two sisters who meet at their grandmother’s house after her death to spend one last vacation there before the house is sold. Although they love each other, readers can tell that there is tension between them, and we learn that they have not had any contact with each other for five years.

As the novel progresses, Grimaldi tells their story from both perspectives. There are also two timelines (labeled “today” and “yesterday,” respectively), in which Agathe and Emma tell stories from their shared past and reflect on the present.

As time passes, readers get a good sense of who the sisters are, and we learn why their relationship has deteriorated. We hope that they can heal the rift between them.

I thought I was in for a beach read when I picked this book up, but Grimaldi’s novel is quite dark. Emma suffers from the aftermath of growing up with their abusive mother (abuse from which she often tried to protect her younger sister), while Agathe attempts to manage her chronic mental illness.

The past that each must cope with only adds to the grief they share for their beloved grandmother, who loved each woman during the times of their lives when they needed it most. And so, of course, readers should be aware of several triggers before going into A Good Life. These include but are not limited to the death of a parent, child abuse, mental and physical illness, suicidal ideation, attempted suicide, and grief. 

Despite the many dark themes explored in this novel, A Good Life is ultimately quite joyous. Grimaldi shows that, while Emma and Agathe have been estranged for some time, they have continued to love each other from afar.

What’s more, both wish to heal the rift between them. Their once tender and tenuous relationship begins to find solid ground. And yet the progression of this novel is not as sweet as these words might suggest, as Grimaldi’s work avoids sentimentality.

Instead, she strikes a perfect balance between happy (sometimes funny) and sad elements that will leave the reader perfectly satisfied.

It is, in the end, a novel in which its universally relatable plot and vibrant characters are perfectly rendered in deceptively simple prose, and I am sure that readers will love every single word.  

Ashley Riggleson is a free-lance book reviewer from Rappahannock County. When she is not reading or writing book reviews, she can usually be found playing with her pets, listening to podcasts, or watching television with friends and family. 

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