SHINING SEA deftly explores the life of an American family amid a half-century of social upheaval

Shining Sea  Anne Korkeakivi 2016

Shining Sea

By Anne Korkeakivi

Little, Brown & Company: Aug. 9, 2016

276 pages, $26.00

In only two novels, Anne Korkeakivi has become one of my favorite writers. Her debut, An Unexpected Guest, was an unexpected literary delight in 2013, a novel that managed to combine deep insight into characters and relationships, a surprising level of suspense, and supple, sensual prose into a stunner of a book. Much was made of the book’s re-vision of Virginia Woolf’s day-in-the-life classic, Mrs. Dalloway, butAn Unexpected Guest stood on its own two Ferragamo heels just fine.

Korkeakivi returns in August with a completely different sort of novel, a family saga set in varying locales ranging from California and Arizona to the UK and Africa and spanning the years between World War II and 2015. Across five “books” she immerses us in the life of the Gannon family, starting in 1962, when 43-year-old Michael Gannon, a WWII vet, suffers a fatal heart attack while painting the house. He leaves behind his beloved wife Barbara, four children, and an unborn baby girl. Death is the unexpected guest in Shining Sea, which explores the seemingly endless ripples Michael’s death — and war generally — causes in the following decades.

The story moves in leaps and bounds through the years, using key social events to shade in the context of the family members’ lives and effective flashbacks to fill in key details from the intervening years. Barbara holds both the family and the story together with her unfailingly generous spirit. We learn how she and Michael met in a California military hospital when she nursed him through his recovery from the Bataan death march in the Philippines. Their love undergirds the family and the story even long after Michael has died. Korkeakivi uses his death and that of two other characters in and shortly after the Vietnam War to explore the long-term effects of war and the grief experienced at the loss of loved ones.

Korkeakivi moves the plot across time and space as the story shifts focus from Barbara, who eventually remarries, to middle son Francis, a sensitive soul cast adrift by loss. We follow him to Woodstock, seven years after his father’s death, and later to London’s late 60s “groovy” scene and then to the Inner Hebrides islands off Scotland.

Rebellious older daughter Patty Ann struggles with the consequences of repeated poor judgment but gives her mother a grandson whom she adores and who provides light at the end of this often dark novel. Ultimately, the family is spread across the world, from the California coast to the desert of Phoenix (where Barbara’s life is reborn through her marriage to a good but surprisingly complex man), from Europe and Africa to a secluded farm in rural Massachusetts.

Shining Sea reminded me of a compressed version of Jane Smiley’s recent Hundred Years Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age). While the latter covers twice as much time, concerns many more characters, and is written with far more detail, Shining Sea has a similar impact. In particular, the novel surprised me with its emotional punch. I was skeptical that Korkeakivi could write a family saga with serious issues at its core in less than 300 pages, but to a large degree she has succeeded. I cared about the key characters (and still do, as they wander around in my mind). The plot is compelling, with mysteries at the heart of a few subplots, and her prose is seamless and elegant without calling attention to itself.

The key to the artistic success of Shining Sea is Korkeakivi’s ability to move the plot and develop her characters by implication; she displays a deft hand at knowing when to move quickly and allow the reader’s general knowledge to fill in the background and when to slow down and focus on the moments in the characters’ lives that will define them and affect us.

Shining Sea probes the unpredictable and often inexplicable nature of the lives we lead. Barbara gives voice to the novel’s theme when she says, “The thing about life is that it is so damned confusing. Such a web, each piece of it dependent on something else, something that can be as tiny as a smile from a stranger or as huge as heart disease. The good all tangled up with the bad.”


Author Michelle Brafman on “literary mamas,” writing mentors at the right time and place

Michelle Brafman   washing-the-dead

When my daughter was six years old, she desperately wanted to jump off the diving board at our community pool. All summer, she eyed her friends climbing up the ladder, walking the plank of the board, and flying into the water with glee. I tried everything to help her muster up the courage to take that leap. On one of the last days of the summer, my husband took her to the pool without me. I’d been staying home with the kids full time and had treated myself to a few hours alone in a dark movie theater. When I walked into the house and found a huge smile on my daughter’s face, I knew. “How did it happen?” I asked her. “Mrs. M.,” she said.

I was feeling pretty zen after indulging in a matinee, a bucket of popcorn, and a Diet Coke, but I still I felt a twinge. The big-hearted Mrs. M., now my friend Amy, simply walked next to my girl, held her hand, and offered the right words of encouragement before they jumped into the pool together. Boom. My daughter went off the board again and again. And I wasn’t there.

Sometimes we must rely on other people to mother us. And this is a very good thing.

My novel Washing the Dead is about a woman whose mother has an affair, causes the family to be exiled from their tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community, and then takes off. Half the book tells the story of Barbara Pupnick’s spiral into a dark place, and the other half recounts her journey back to the emotional and spiritual home her mother had burned down. But this is not the story I’m telling today.

Barbara survives her mother’s abandonment, largely because her former preschool teacher steps in to mother her. During her final year of high school, Barbara volunteers in her teacher’s classroom, babysits her son, and on the nights her mother sneaks out with her lover, accepts a warm meal and help with her calculus. Barbara’s mentor even takes her shopping for underwear.

This case of substitute mothering is extreme, but as my daughter’s diving board experience taught me, we find mother figures when and where we need them. My mother is a terrific reader and has dried my tears after some of my toughest rejections, but I find my most productive literary nurturing elsewhere. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits all mother. What a relief for all of us!

My literary mamas are writing instructors, savvy readers, and/or writer-friends (actually male and female) who can read me and for me without any skin in the game. They might wonder while critiquing my fiction if in real life I’ve stolen a family heirloom from a dead aunt or lied to my husband, but they won’t assume it’s because I wasn’t raised well, and they won’t ask. They’ll simply probe, sometimes gently and other times firmly. They’ll hold my hand while I venture into what my friend Dylan Landis calls “the basement,” the deepest and truest parts of ourselves.

And when my literary mamas read my memoir pieces, they’ll shine a light on my blind spots and take a tuning fork to the notes I’m not hitting, and I’ll thank them. We won’t do that messy dance we do with our mothers, where we ask them if they like our new haircut and they tell us, verbally or not, and then we get offended. My tone deafness won’t embarrass or anger them, and they won’t hedge about my bangs.

My literary mamas will listen to my publication woes, but they won’t take my rejection personally and rip apart the character of an agent or an editor they’ve never met. I’ll move on more quickly that way. They’ll wait for me to vent, and then they’ll brainstorm and sometimes make introductions. I’ll seek their guidance in writing query letters or blurb requests (with one literary mama I take straight dictation). They’ll throw gorgeous book parties after readings where they’ve beamed with perhaps not the pride of a real mama, but a joy devoid of the worry that I’ve written about them or that I will somehow humiliate myself.

I learn from my literary mamas, writers whose stories have taught me alternative ways to think about love, grief, redemption, and motherhood: Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Marilynne Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Faye Moskowitz, Amy Bloom, Rebecca Brown, Lidia Yuknavitch.

The common denominator for all literary mamas on and off the page is that in their own way they inspire me to serve in this capacity for someone else, be it a student or a friend. The cycle continues, making me a proud literary grandmama.

Over the years, I’ve periodically thanked my friend Amy for teaching my daughter to jump off that diving board, and she’s looked at me quizzically, perhaps wondering why I’ve held on to this anecdote for so long. My daughter has since found other secondary mamas — teachers, coaches, summer camp counselors, and random adults — who believe in her, who will coax her into taking various leaps. And I will continue to be grateful to them for doing for her what I can’t in that moment, even as a small part of me will be wishing that I could.

Michelle Brafman is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She earned her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Slate, The Washington Post, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, The Minnesota Review, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at JHU’s MA in Writing Program, George Washington University, the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis’ New Directions Program, and workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. area. She is the founder of Yeah Write, a writing coaching business. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and two children.

SOME LUCK captures the essence of American life in the 20th century

Jane Smiley -- Some Luck

Some Luck

By Jane Smiley

Knopf: Oct. 7, 2014

$26.95, 416 pages

Jane Smiley may well have the most diverse body of work of any American author in the past quarter century. I would argue that the consistent excellence of her work, whether in the form of novels, novellas, stories, or nonfiction, makes Smiley an excellent candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature (since that is in the news this week). While she started off with two “Midwestern” novels (Barn Blind in 1980 and At Paradise Gate in 1981), she quickly shifted gears to write Duplicate Keys (1984), a dark suspense novel about friendship and betrayal set in Manhattan. Following the powerful novella and stories in The Age of Grief (1987), Smiley took her readers to 14th century Greenland in her haunting version of a Norse saga, The Greenlanders (1988). (Smiley had been inspired by the year she spent in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar.) Following this dense Scandinavian epic, Smiley returned to domestic fiction with the novellas Ordinary Love & Good Will (1989). In just a decade, she had proved herself to be an expert chronicler of (mostly American) relationships, as well as an impressive prose stylist.

Smiley became a household name with A Thousand Acres, the story of a dysfunctional Iowa farming family based on King Lear. It became a bestseller and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It remains her best-selling and best-loved work, for good reason. It’s brilliant and unforgettable. The follow-up, Moo (1995), was a hilarious and pointed satire of academia set on a land-grant college in Iowa, based no doubt on her own experiences studying at the University of Iowa and then teaching at Iowa State University (where she was on the faculty from the early 80s to the mid-90s).

It was starting to look like Smiley had decided to make Iowa her version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Joyce’s Dublin. But she moved away, literally and figuratively, from 20th century Iowa and environs with her next book, a historical novel with a plucky heroine, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, in 1998. Smiley then explored her passion for all things equine with one of her best novels, Horse Heaven (2000). Good Faith (2003) probed the people and problems of the real estate world with good results. A short biography of one of Smiley’s literary heroes, Charles Dickens, was published the same year. She continued her nonfiction work with the insightful and idiosyncratic Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) before returning to fiction with the “contemporary Hollywood” novel Ten Days in the Hills (2007) and another historical novel, Private Life (2010), an intense character study of one woman’s life from the 1880s to World War II. Most recently, Smiley has published five YA novels (2009-2013).

Which brings us to Smiley’s latest novel, Some Luck. After nearly 20 years of fiction set elsewhere, she has returned to her most fertile ground, the farms and small towns of Iowa. The first in a planned trilogy entitled The Last Hundred Years, Some Luck follows the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa from 1920 to 1953. The novel is organized in 34 chapters, each one covering the key events of one year.

We first meet 25-year-old Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna as they try life on their own farm. In short order, children begin to arrive: the self-possessed and “enterprising” Frankie, sensitive homebody Joey, short-lived Mary Elizabeth, angelic Lillian, bookish Henry, and quiet Claire. In the early going, we are presented with an intimate view of farm life, marriage and family, and the world of the 20s and 30s. Smiley shifts the omniscient point of view among the characters, putting us in their minds and back pockets as they go about the seemingly prosaic business of living.

As a result of the book’s structure and Smiley’s roving perspective, Some Luck gets off to a slow start. Between pages 50 and 100 you’ll wonder if it’s just going to continue at the same leisurely and relatively uneventful pace (though the writing is lovely and filled with insight into a variety of characters, always Smiley’s strengths).

But as the years and “small” experiences accrue, the characters develop into people you feel you know personally, and Some Luck gains a potent cumulative effect. The rest of the book moves at a faster tempo and readers will find themselves immersed in the Langdon family’s lives. A slow opening for what will be a 1,200-page trilogy is a small investment with a satisfying payoff.

Some Luck is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath in the way the narrative alternates between a close-up view of one family’s life and a wide-angle view of the larger world they live in despite their seeming isolation in rural Iowa. Their daily lives are centered on surviving as a working farm family: planting, harvesting, coping with unpredictable crops, equipment, and weather (lightning storms, blizzards, and drought), finding their place in the local community, raising five very different children, and getting along with their English and German in-laws. (Some Luck is also a timely reminder that German and Scandinavian immigrants continued to speak their home languages well into the 20th century, even as they acculturated to the New World and became Americans, and that the various European cultures had a powerful impact on American culture that we take for granted today.)

But the Langdons are affected by events in the outside world like the Depression, World War II (in which Frank serves in Africa, Italy, and France), and the early stages of the Cold War and the communist witch hunts.

The two worlds and narrative strands come together as the children grow up. Some of them leave for big cities with their manifold opportunities, while some choose to remain closer to home. Watching the older children fall in love, choose their spouses, and begin to raise their own families is one of the simple pleasures of Some Luck.

One of the delights of Some Luck is the narrative voice, which seems pleasantly old-fashioned and folksy in its descriptions of characters and events. It is the perfect voice with which to tell this tale. There is some lovely, affecting writing here, particularly when the narrator places us inside one of the children’s minds and in the descriptions of the farm and surrounding country. The osage-orange hedge that Walter plants between the house and working farm provides a powerful symbol for the Langdons and their struggle to survive and thrive in an environment that is hostile in more ways than one.

Despite the many strengths of Some Luck, it is worth noting that the rigid structure of yearly chapters results in a paradox: we establish a close connection with most of the characters, yet at times the narrative keeps us at a distance. Events fly by with only brief notice, or a major event in one chapter is mentioned briefly, if at all, in the following chapter. This can create a temporary emotional disconnect from the narrative. As one reviewer pointed out, Smiley occasionally sacrifices in depth what she gains in breadth.

Additionally, although many pages are devoted to the life of first child Frank, he is essentially self-absorbed and aloof and thus not an especially sympathetic character with whom to travel for 30 years. While his life is indeed interesting at times, he often seems removed from it, and thus the reader is held at arm’s length once again. Other characters are more intriguing: Rosanna’s restless younger sister Eloise, who moves to Chicago and marries a communist; fifth child Henry, who begins to assume a larger role late in the novel when he is sent off to college to become a doctor but finds he prefers literature, languages, and medieval history; and two spouses, Frank’s wife Hildy and Lillian’s husband Arthur. There is reason to believe they will take on larger roles in the next two books.

Ultimately, though, Some Luck possesses a cumulative power that makes the characters and their lives resonate with you after you’ve closed the book for the last time. I suspect that this effect will gain increasing power in the second and third novels. The resulting trilogy may well end up being one of the definitive depictions of American life in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

National Book Awards fiction longlist includes Antopol, St. John Mandel, three more women

The UnAmericans   Molly Antopol

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes   Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage

The National Book Foundation announced the longlist of 10 nominees for the 2014 Fiction award today. Unlike the controversial list of nonfiction nominees released yesterday (nine men and one woman, with no memoirs or essay collections), the fiction list is an impressive group, divided equally between men and women.

Much-admired and often-awarded writers Jane Smiley (Some Luck, due Oct. 7) and Marilynne Robinson (Lila, also due Oct. 7) lead the list, which also includes well-regarded writers Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), Anthony Doerr (All The Light We Cannot See), Elizabeth McCracken (Thunderstruck and Other Stories), Richard Powers (Orfeo), and Rabbih Alameddine (An Unnecessary Woman).

The fiction committee also nominated debut story collections by Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans) and Phil Klay (Deployment), and the first novel by Mountain Goats lead singer John Darnielle (Wolf in White Van).

Read my reviews of The UnAmericans here and Station Eleven here.

Reviews of Some Luck and Lila are forthcoming.