Chris and I don't always have the same taste in books (how boring would that be?), and we don't always agree on the books we read to discuss. Many a time either she has passed a book along to me to see if I could get any enjoyment out of it (The Dante Club and Rule of Four come to mind) when she couldn't or I've passed back a book that she's included in her bag o' books for me with a "Uh-uh. I tried, but can't get through it".
Why mention all of this here and now? Well, Chris and I had exactly the same reactions to Beth Gutcheon's Leeway Cottage and Good-Bye and Amen. What were they? In a nutshell, we lovedlovedloved Leeway Cottage and that is what saved us from thoroughly disliking Good-Bye and Amen. If we had read Good-Bye and Amen on its own, we would not have liked it or understood it.
Let me back up a bit. The story of Leeway Cottage is essentially the story of Sydney Brant. The book spans her lifetime, but we are introduced to so many family members from different generations to cast this as a multigenerational novel. The family summers in Maine provide a constant in the quickly changing world--the events of World War II have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on Sydney's family. Gutcheon weaves true elements, such as the heroic efforts of the Danes to save the Jews in their country and the role British intelligence played in those efforts, with the fictitious, such as Sydney's husband's family, which would never be the same after what they endured at the hands of the Nazis. Those events colored Sydney's relationships with her husband, her in-laws, and even her children in ways in which Sydney was never even aware. But we were.
Chris and I talked a great deal about what an interesting, and not always likable, character Sydney was. She had a horrible relationship with her own mother, which affected her relationships with her own children. I liked that she wasn't always likable--it made her more real. To hear her grown grandchildren talk about how awful she was to them, though, made me wince.
We both liked Gutcheon's writing style in Leeway Cottage and eagerly devoured it and moved on to its sequel, Good-Bye and Amen. What a puzzle to learn that it is written in a completely different style from the first book. Rather than a narrative, it is written as a series of journal entries by many, many characters, most of them familiar from the first book.
We were baffled as to why Gutcheon chose to do this. What was the motivation to switch styles? Chris thinks that the author became so attached to her characters that she felt she had to write this to stay connected to them. When I was reading it and discovering that one of the characters we heard from periodically was actually dead, I thought that we were actually going to get a glimpse into a continuation of Sydney's life from someone who knew her then and now. But that didn't actually happen in the book, so I'm not sure why we were given that information.
An extensive biography of each character ever mentioned is provided in the back of the book, along with photos tagged with the characters' names. Huh? Is this fiction or a true story? I still don't know. If it's true, then whose story is it really? If it's fiction, did the author just use some old photos and say these are her characters? If so, why? We couldn't come to any real conclusions. Their inclusion raised more questions than they answered.
Chris and I enjoyed reading both books, and Leeway Cottage stands alone beautifully. We agreed that if we had come upon Good-Bye and Amen and read it first, we would have been bewildered. The deftness with which she wove the original story, however, will keep Gutcheon on our list of authors to watch.