Friday, June 20, 2008

Two delicious tales of marriage. . .

One of my favourite small presses is Other Press which has a great eye for spotting and publishing really good contemporary international writers and spending the time and money to translate them. We just became their new Canadian distributor this spring and I've really been impressed with the range and talent of their authors. I've been reading many of the new books that I have to sell, but a lot of their backlist is so tempting that I've been steadily making my way through it as well. Here are two wonderful summer reads - one old, one new - that make a really nice pairing as they both tackle the secrets, lies and betrayals within a marriage, although in very different ways.

I knew I would enjoy Fran├žoise Dorner's The Woman in the Row Behind , translated by Adriana Hunter, when one of the quotes on the cover described the book as feeling, "like a riff on an early '60s film starring Catherine Deneuve". The book also won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman - one of France's prestigious literary awards. But accolades aside, this is just a charming, comical read - even though it traces the destruction of a marriage. Nina helps run a newspaper kiosk with her humdrum husband Roger on the shady side of a Parisian street. She can't help but be intrigued as she watches her male customers furtively reading x-rated magazines, wondering what the appeal is . One day she buys a wig, a black trench coat and douses herself with an exotic perfume. She follows her husband into a movie theatre, sits behind him and, pretending to be a mysterious stranger, flirts with him provocatively. The trouble starts when Roger begins to fall in love with Nina's alter ego and as her jealousy (in essence of herself), grows, she procrastinates on telling him the truth. Nina's predicament is only enhanced by a neurotic mother, a self-obsessed friend going through a divorce with Nina's brother-in-law (who Roger suspects her of having an affair with), and an aching need to connect with the father she has never known. The novel is also very much about coping with death - but honestly, it's extremely funny.

Elizabeth Subercaseaux is a bestselling Chilean writer. Her first novel to be published in English is A Week in October, translated by Marina Harss, and coming out in early August. The novel is narrated in alternating chapters between the thoughts of Clara, a woman dying of cancer, who is reflecting on her life in a notebook, and the reactions to those journal entries by her husband who finds it tucked in a kitchen drawer and can't stop reading it. Among the surprises, he discovers that Clara has been having an affair with one of his colleagues and even more disconcerting - she knows all about the long-term affair he has been having. And then certain details in the journal pop up that he knows can't be true. So what is Clara up to? Is she playing mind games with him? Is this her form of revenge for his affair? And why is she leaving her journal in a kitchen drawer anyways? This compelling mystery drives the plot as the novel calls into question how little we know about the people closest to us and poignantly examines the nature of marriage and what really remains after so many years.

Read the first novel for a private chuckle and perhaps as a warning against taking personal fantasies too far; the second novel would make a fabulous bookclub choice.

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