DECEMBER READING - The Tiger's Wife; State of Wonder; The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; The Villa Girls

THE VILLA GIRLS by Nicky Pellegrino

What more can one ask for over the summer/Christmas holiday period than lying down with a bit of chick-lit. How blissful and escapist! I had forgotten how intensely enjoyable a bit of relaxing, romantic and light reading can be. And you can read extraordinarily quickly which enables you to move onto the next one...

And, to take the bliss one step further, how about a setting of southern Italy, to an olive estate, owned and operated by the one family for some generations - oh the history, the family intrigues, the wine, the food, the olives!!!! The bliss goes on and on.

Rosie is a school girl in London when the story begins. She has recently lost her parents in a horrific road accident and is living unhappily and aimlessly with her aunt and uncle. She still goes to school and quite by accident strikes up a friendship with an Italian girl from school, Addolorata who takes her under her wing slowly introduces her to life. The first step in this process is a holiday at a villa in Spain with two other girls from school. Surprisingly this goes extremely well, and Rosie gradually begins to find her feet, ably assisted by Addolorato and her Italian family who own and run, none other than an Italian restaurant! Quelle surprise!

At the same time as Rosie is coping with the curve balls of life, in Italy Enzo is being groomed to take over the management of the olive estate from his father at some time in the future. Despite the estate being run by the men in the family, it is Enzo's fiery and strong grandmother who really runs the show and is determined that the estate will retain its prestigious international reputation. There is pressure on Enzo to find a young local woman to marry, but he continually resists.

Inevitably of course, as in all good chick lit, Rosie and Enzo are destined to meet, and this is on a second villa holiday that the girls decide to take two years after the first. And as in all good romances there are complications and difficulties until, naturally the inevitable happens and the two are reunited.

Oh yes it is all so predictable, and delicious and gorgeous, but who cares! The writing is delightful - the gloom and oppression of London vs the sunshine and brilliance of the Italian country side. And the food - Mamma Mia! I don't know if the writer has a background in food, but she writes about Italian food with love, joy and passion. Although from Liverpool and now living in New Zealand, her father is Italian and surely this must have something to do with it!

So to take you away from your ordinary life, a little bit of Italy and romance and food combined could be the perfect recipe.


How many times do we wish that we could read someone's mind, to understand exactly what is going on in there? I expect men and women say it to themselves about each other all the time! Imagine then how weird it would be to be able to taste the emotions of the person who has prepared food for you!

Rose is nine years old. She lives in the middle of Los Angeles - between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose. She lives in a house with her lawyer father, her homemaker mother and older brother, goes to school, has friends, arguments with her brother. All very ordinary and unremarkable. Until the day of her ninth birthday when she bites into a piece of lemon-chocolate cake that her mother has just made. Wham, instantly Rose can taste her mother's emotions and her life is changed forever. She sees that her mother is very unhappy and as her mother is the only one in the house who prepares the meals, Rose is confronted all the time with her mother's turmoil; all the food tastes bad. This is just the beginning, and Rose finds her life dominated with finding food that has as little human involvement in it as possible because it seems to her that everyone has a level of unhappiness, despair, anger, boredom in them that she is forced to experience every time she eats. Her obsession with eating only processed food would seem to most people like a case of child neglect, but of course to Rose, as she grows older and tries to come to terms with this affliction, it is a matter of simply surviving.

Her heightened sensitivity, however, leads her to finding things out about people, especially in her family, and unsurprisingly affects her relationships with them and others in her life. Her brother Joseph, in particular, whom she has always adored and looked up to, is a particularly troubled boy. But no-one, not even Rose can figure out what is going on with him. As Rose gets older however she does eventually come to terms with and accept 'gift', but not without considerable trauma. Perhaps the most beautiful part is her finding a restaurant where she can taste the love and happiness of the chef in the food and ends up finding a life for herself in this particular small suburban LA restaurant - the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

And yet it is a very disturbing story. It starts out so promisingly with a child in possession of an unusual ability, trying to make sense of other people's lives, and then very suddenly becomes just plain weird. At that point, for me, all the carefully crafted credibility came crashing down. Fortunately the 'weird' happens about 3/4 of the way through, so I did finish reading to the end, really to find out where it all came from. Still don't know.

It seems to be quite in-vogue at the present time for authors to put a certain amount of magical realism in their stories, just enough fantasy and magic to tip us a little over the edge of the story we are reading about - The Twilight series, The Tiger's Wife, books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende. It seems that the magic in these stories is based on already known myths and legends that the authors cleverly weave into their plots, thus perhaps making it easier for the reader to accept the magic stuff that does happen. But in this story I am not aware of any precedent anywhere for someone to be able to taste the emotions of someone through food. Then how on earth that is connected to the very strange happening that I cannot tell you about I really do not know. It really is just too weird. I think what makes it all so disturbing, is that unlike the books and authors previously mentioned, this author is simply unable to tie it all together and make sense of it. She doesn't even seem to be able to make sense of it herself. Mind you, her setting being a stone's throw from Sunset Boulevard, is probably fairly appropriate.

However, before it all went pear shaped for me, I did enjoy the writing. It is such an odd thing to write about and because we have all been children, and I am sure believed in magic in some form or other, reading about the world through a child's eyes is always fascinating. Wouldn't it be great to know if Mum was in a good mood while preparing dinner so you would know the right time to ask to borrow the car or stay out late! Poor wee Rose however spends all her time trying to make child sense of all that adult stuff she is tasting. Worth reading, but borrow it rather than buy it. This might be good for a book group too, as I am sure it will provoke plenty of discussion.

STATE OF WONDER by Anne Patchett

It must now be about 10 years ago that I read 'Bel Canto' by this author. I can still remember reading that book, the story as it unfolded, her outstanding writing, all in a book that is not very big at all. So when 'Run' was published some 4 years or so ago, I thought another winner. But no, it left no impression on me at all. So little impression that I have had to Google it to be reminded of the plot line - too complicated and too many characters. When 'State of Wonder' was introduced into book club, I was a bit sceptical, bit wary, bit sitting-on-the-fence. The plot synopsis was certainly intriguing - Amazon setting, cutting edge scientific research, people disappearing - plenty of mystery and curiosity to lure the cautious reader.

And what a book it is, really quite outstanding - the unfolding of the story, full of surprises and twists, the depth and complexity of the characters, the alienation of being alone in a foreign city, the beautiful and frightening descriptions of the Amazon and the rainforests, the range of emotions expressed.

Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher working for a large pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. She started off as a medical student under the tutelage of Dr Annick Swenson. Dr Swenson is a brilliant, enigmatic and totally fearless doctor who is now deep in the Brazilian Rio Negro developing a wonder drug that, if successful, will change how women manage their fertility. Dr Swenson, however, is not very good at keeping her employers up to date with her progress. So Marina's lab partner, the mild-mannered family man Anders Eckman is sent off to Brazil to find out how things are going. Unfortunately, as it very succinctly states in the first six words of the book - "The news of Anders Eckman's death...", things don't turn out too well and the upshot is that Marina finds she is the one sent to Brazil to find out what happened to Anders and more importantly to find Dr Swenson.

The search is far from easy, with Marina having to deal with difficult people, language problems, coping with the climate, illness, and then when she finally gets to the doctor's camp the natural environment - the dirt, the heat, the insects, spiders, snakes, undergrowth, the food, her lack of clothing, the oppressiveness, the native people. The challenges are huge, especially for a woman in her early 40s, who has lived virtually her entire life on the open plains of Minnesota. It is not only the physical challenges that Marina faces. What she finds deep in the Rio Negro change her forever and leave her questioning what sort of life she really wants.

I have no idea if the author has ever been to the Amazon rainforest area. However the magic of her writing is such that you can feel that you are there - the heat, the isolation, the expanse of the water and the rivers, the inaccessibility, the bugs and forestation. It is scary. Her characters are very human, and as in 'Bel Canto' she makes the reader sympathetic to the characters we aren't even supposed to really like. And how amazing it is that your impression of someone changes as you get to know them, just like in life. This is an incredible book, and a great holiday read for the beach. You'll be glad you are there and not floating lost on a river in the Amazon.

THE TIGER'S WIFE by Tea Obreht

A second book about tigers! And even more amazing I started reading this on holiday in Thailand where there are...tigers! Not that we saw any unless you count three white tigers caged in a hideous indoor cage in a ghastly cultural theme park, all white, no foliage, just a few logs, and thousands of gawping tourists. At the same place you could also have your photo taken for an obscene amount of baht with a very small baby tiger being bottle fed, again in front of hundreds and hundreds of tourists in a hot humid room. This particular experience made me feel ashamed to be a tourist at this establishment and lent greater depth to my reading of this book.

The author was born in the former Yugoslavia in 1985. She grew up a child of the war that ripped apart this region, pitting the peoples of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and others with all their various ethnicity and religions against each other. Her story is set in a fictional region in the Balkans just like Yugoslavia after such a devastating civil war.

Natalia is a doctor. The war is officially over and major adjustments are still going on. With her friend Zora, also a doctor, they are on a charitable trip to an orphanage in what is now on the other side of the new border with a truck load of vaccinations. Natalia has always had a very close relationship with her grandfather, also a doctor. Natalia is the only one he has told about his terminal cancer. But she is very surprised when she gets a phone call from her distraught grandmother advising the sudden and mysterious death of her grandfather in an unknown town, that Natalia realizes is surprisingly close to the town where the orphanage is. She takes it upon herself to arrange for her grandfather's body to go back home, and to take care of his personal effects. In particular she wants to recover a tattered and battered copy of Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Book' that has been an inseparable part of her grandfather as far back as she can remember.

Over these few days, Natalia, in her grief and sadness, reflects back on her relationship with her grandfather and the extraordinary man he was. From a very young age she knew of his deep love and respect for the tiger. But there was much more to this love than just regular visits to the zoo with him, and his love for 'The Jungle Book'. She grows up with the most marvellous stories told by her grandfather and there are two stories in particular, which as Natalia tells it, are integral to the understanding of the type of man her grandfather was. One is the story of the tiger's wife and the other is the story of the deathless man. These stories are a masterful blend of regional myth and folklore, plus actual events that shaped the man he became, and stayed with him till his own death.

The back story to all this, of course, is war and its devastation of this region over the decades. Specifically World War II when grandfather was a child and first met the tiger's wife, and the more recent war which started when Natalia was a student. Even in the modern day, folklore and superstition still dominates much of the way of life, and in her search to uncover her grandfather's mysterious death so far from home, Natalia also finds herself getting caught up in the stories from her grandfather's life. The tiger becomes a symbol for all that has been lost through the conflicts that blight this part of the world, and by the end of the story there was a tear or two in my eye.

The story moves easily from present day to various times in the past. At times it is almost like reading a fairy tale and reminded me very much of the magical realism of the one or two books I have read by Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The author is only her twenties, and yet her writing is so rich and sumptuous, especially in her telling of the stories of the past. I loved, just loved, the section when a young boy finds himself exploring the Pasha's Hall of Mirrors - beautifully visual writing.

This is a wonderful story, perhaps a trifle too long, but so much to escape into and go back to read and enjoy again.