Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sex and Stravinsky

Hello Flower.

I'm not generally speaking a big reader of contemporary Women's Fiction. Novels with a modern setting that follow the travails of women looking for love, raising children, saving a marriage, divorcing, caring for elderly parents, dealing with siblings, pursuing a career and learning how to knit. No matter how wonderful the main character is or whatever surprises the plot might hold, I'll take a pass. That's not to say that there are not well written, terrific books out there that I am missing. I'm sure there are. I just don't want to read about the same concerns I face every day. My life is fine but I would rather read about someone else's thank you very much.

There are occasional exceptions. When a friend or colleague whose taste I trust wants to share/force feed me a Women's Fiction novel they loved I'll give it a try. Sometimes it works out (It did quite nicely recently with The Weird Sisters.) but more often than not I find that I can't make it past the next crisis on page 41 and I give up.

There is however a writer I consider to be the antidote to Women's Fiction. It is Barbara Trapido, my friend. Oh Barbara Trapido! ~~sigh~~ Barbara Trapido is my bellwether for novels about modern women. There is nothing out of the ordinary about her storylines. No one is starting a not for proffit to help the urchins of the world, there isn't a killer lurking in the background of the heroine's life and no intrepid reporter eager to tell the world of an upcoming pandemic. Still, she dazzles me. Her plots are what could have happened to you if...or just like what your friend told you about that woman she met on the train. Classic women's fiction stuff but in Trapido's hands there is a left of center reality to the situations that captures me.

Trapido's latest novel is Sex and Stravinsky. This book covers two families and their skeletons over twenty years in Oxford and South Africa. In 1970's Oxford Caroline McCleod is a beautiful, capable, I-can-make-your-mismatched-napkin-rings-into-your-next-kidney force of nature. She is a graduate student, married to Josh, (Oh Josh, Josh, Josh. Josh the little South African---ready?---getting his PhD in mime studies. There's a cross to bare.) mother to Zoe and happy. When cold hearted Mom and mean-spirited younger sister (Mom loves sis best) arrive from Australia demanding to be supported Caroline comes close to abandoning all in favor of doing anything to get her Mother's love and attention.

Josh had a seemingly happier childhood than his wife. He was raised in South Africa by politically active parents whose ideals he replaces with his own vanity. Husband Josh might have married Caroline on the rebound. Back home in South Africa he was in love with ballerina Hattie but she threw him over and Josh scurried off to Oxford. Hattie married successful but emotionally harsh architect Herman. She spends her time squirreled away physically and emotionally from her husband, beefy sons and pouty daughter writing novels about ballet.

Of course the two families will find themselves in the same place at the same time and changes will ensue. There are dramas a plenty in Sex and Stravinsky: misplaced loyalties, hidden paternity, separated twins, career setbacks, unhappy marriages, troubled teenagers, etc. All the staples of Women's Fiction but Trapido handles them with intelligence, candor and unexpected and (actually funny) humor.

No one gets away with anything in a Trapido novel. She makes her characters accountable for their decisions. Caroline has suffered through an unhappy childhood and that's sad but she isn't allowed as an adult to play the blameless victim of a wicked Mother. Caroline's inability to step away from a relationship that will never bring her any satisfaction may cause her and her daughter's downfall. Josh has spent most of his life playing the adolescent and running away when challenged by life. Now as a husband and father he has to grow up or say good-bye to his family.

Trapido moves between her characters skillfully and swiftly. There is an artful precision to the dance (dance is present throughout this novel) of changing partners, identities and misplaced goals that Trapido presents in this book. Caroline, Josh, Hattie and their daughters each discover their purpose but can they stay dedicated to its pursuit? Sex and Stravinsky is a wonderfully enjoyable life lesson in what happens when you let your dreams take a back seat to the desires of others.

There is not another writer of Women's Fiction out there with the vision, style and talent of Barbara Trapido. That's the great news. The really bad news is that none of Barbara Trapido's excellent novels --and I love them all--are in the print in the U.S. I first discovered her years ago when Penguin U.S. did a couple of her novels. This was before I was in a position to handsell the hell out of them and therefore single handsell-ed-ly create a lucrative market for her novels on this side of the Atlantic. I have spent years recommending her to sales reps and other publishing people but to no avail. You may find her in a local library or second hand shop. If you do you are in luck. I don't trust to fate. I buy her books from a U.K. bookshop and gladly pay the shipping. That is real love.

P.S. Have to say it--I love the her covers as well!

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