The Light Stuff

A Rough Guide to the Flash and Trash of Summer Reading

Living to Tell
By Antonya Nelson
Scribner, 319 pp., $24

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It is a defining quality of all but the rarest of families that what is withheld is often of far greater importance than what is shared. This reticence is at the heart of Living to Tell, Antonya Nelson's third novel, in which three generations of the Mabie family share a rambling, grand old home in Wichita. Mona has attempted suicide and only dates married men. Emily has divorced her philandering husband. Winston has just returned home after five years in prison for a drunk driving accident in which he killed his paternal grandmother. Add to this mix a mother who's losing her sight, a father just retired and hard of hearing, a gregarious teenage cousin, and a menagerie of household pets.

Told from rotating points of view, the novel is largely a series of immensely satisfying studies of characters in motion. Nelson's great gift is her ability to create characters so lovable—even in the face of their many flaws—that we will happily trail each one around for a while, scarcely caring if they are wrestling with a life-threatening crisis or taking the dog for a walk. The novel is also chock-full of dead-on descriptions. "His posture was bad and his nose leaked," begins our introduction to a slovenly uncle. Or of the ruined marriage: "Emily and Barry had crawled out of the car, away from the house, apart from each other and into other lives like those spindly little crabs on the beach, scavenging shell to shell."

Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali
Massimo VitalI, from Beach & Disco, published by Steidl
Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali

Living to Tell engenders the same feelings of frustration as a long-awaited family reunion: Everything is as it should be, yet nothing quite lives up to expectations. Tensions between characters build and build and then are brushed aside with no hint of climax or release. Mr. Mabie, deeply wounded by the death of his mother at the hands of his son, fumes silently about Winston yet never confronts him; Mona finally confesses a guilty secret to her sister, but the scene is conveniently veiled by a drug-induced haze. Nelson's most difficult moments—the ones we as readers ache to see—are noticeably absent. Nonetheless, it's tempting to say that this is exactly what the author intends. Despite the avoidance of family feuding, Living to Tell is full of razor-sharp character portraits and a constant, dizzying forward momentum. —Hillary Rosner

Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses
By Marjorie Garber
Pantheon, 243 pp., $23

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What to make of the fact that the Cottage and the Bungalow are the most popular house names in Britain? That summer homes are routinely referred to as "little" places, no matter what their size? That hotels now aspire to resemble private houses, while hotel furnishings are sought after for our homes? Marjorie Garber has some suggestive answers.

Garber is the Harvard English professor best known for the smart and mildly unreadable Vested Interests, but in Sex and Real Estate she aims for a more popular readership. "Sex and real estate—they are two of the most erotic terms in the language," Garber begins, and continues with the tropes of "house as mother," "house as beloved," "house as body," and so on. Sex and Real Estate offers a broad framework for thinking about the way we inhabit our houses and a deft, often witty survey of relevant literary and nonliterary sources, ranging from Jane Austen to real estate ads to her own experience as a homeowner. Although Garber's prose is far silkier here than in Vested Interests, I would have wished to hear more of Garber's own ideas and less of her interpretations of others'.

One tantalizing quote from anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests where Garber should have dug in more deeply. A hotel, Douglas says, is "where every comfort has to be paid for, the mercenary, cold, luxurious counterpart against which the home is being measured." Home, after all, is where everything is free, where cultural rules dictate that you cannot buy—and your spouse or parents or children cannot sell you—an ice cream or beer or a bed for the night or access to a shower. In an increasingly commercial culture, home is a noncommercial zone. But while we don't pay for what we consume there, we can buy the place, lock, stock, and barrel. Here is the paradox on which Garber might have built a more profound work, and something to think about as you settle into your summer share—that odd, tangential type of home—or head for a sublimely mercenary hotel. —Ann Marlowe

Lethal Seduction
By Jackie Collins
Simon & Schuster, 476 pp., $26

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The beauty of the trashy novel is twofold: It's a lightning-quick read, and you can howl in smug superiority as you turn the pages. Lethal Seduction, the latest from well-appointed and leopard-print-swathed Queen of Trash Jackie Collins, is a prime example of page-turning, literary-hauteur-stoking fun.

Madison Castelli, the glam heroine of the "LA Connections" series, returns as what passes for a moral center and protagonist in this tale of cheating, Mafia hijinks, and cover-ups. The black-haired beauty, who is fabulously employed as a Vanity Fair-type celebrity journo, is drawn into a family ordeal that leaves her questioning her father's profession, her mother's fate, and her own identity. Parallel to Madison's story is the saga of bitchy Rosarita Falcon, an implanted and couture-obsessed brat who wishes to be rid of her foxy, soap star husband, Dexter Falcon, in order to hook up with trust-fund greaseball Joel Blaine. In typical Collins fashion, lives intersect and overlap, and in the end, everyone ends up in Vegas for the Big Fight and, of course, the Big Climax.

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