Category Archives: Women’s Fiction

Understated and Elegant: A Review of Water’s Edge by Jane Riddell

Family life is not for the fainthearted. Just ask siblings Portia, Vienne, Annie and Lawrence, all of whom have returned to Brunnen, Switzerland to help their widowed mother Madalena celebrate the fortieth anniversary of her lakeside hotel. These adult children, all within waving distance of middle age, share a lifetime of love, rivalry, attachment and betrayal. Add the complications of their individual situations–failed or troubled marriages, resentful children, career confusion–and the reunion is fraught with tension before it even begins.

Water's Edge

Water’s Edge

Author Jane Riddell’s prose is precise and beautiful. She creates complex, flawed characters who believe they know themselves and those around them better than they actually do. Nowhere is this lack of knowledge more apparent than in the children’s view of Madalena. They see their mother as a confident, self-sufficient woman who was strong enough to take the helm of the hotel after her husband’s early death. They have no idea of the debilitating grief she suffered and still suffers to some degree. Madelena’s regret and self-doubt provides the bass note against which all the other characters play.

While all of Riddell’s characters fascinate, they are not equally likable. There’s a grating, selfish quality about Portia in particular. She’s behaved badly towards Vienne and goes to great lengths during the course of the story to keep her secret from being revealed. Despite all of her angst and plotting, I never got the sense that she actually regrets what she’s done. Quite the opposite. It’s almost as if she blames Vienne and believes her sister is the one complicating HER life. Michael, Vienne’s husband, is even worse. In the end, he reveals something of the truth behind his cold, almost cruel behavior towards his wife, whom he professes to actually love, but it’s difficult to accept given what we’ve seen of him. I think my biggest criticism of Riddell is that she does not play fair with Vienne. All of the characters learn something about themselves over the course of their stay in Brunnen. These revelations lead them to make conscious choices about the paths they’ll take. This isn’t true for Vienne. She never really “knows” the truth, and so true choice is denied her. She’s living in hope, which is okay, I suppose. But it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

On the other hand, I have rarely read a book where the setting is so well done it becomes almost a character in its own right. Riddell does a fabulous job transporting her readers to Switzerland. We get to experience its amazing physical beauty and its unexpectedly gritty underside. Also, there’s wonderful insight into Swiss culture. Switzerland was never a country I particularly yearned to visit, now it’s near the top of my must-see list.

I enjoyed WATER’S EDGE and would recommend it to anyone interested in thoughtful, character-driven women’s fiction.

Sensitive and Full of Heart: A Review of TWELVE HOUSES by Olga Soaje

Amelia Weiss is in her late fifties when she loses her husband of many years to an unexpected heart attack. Her grief is profound, and she’s unsure how to move forward–or even if it is possible to do so. She has support from friends and from her two children, though they live in different cities. But Amelia’s grief gets in the way of her creativity–she’s a famous sculptor. This is a problem because her agent, a difficult and complicated woman, has arranged a show in a renown NY venue. Amelia has no idea how she’ll keep this commitment. Adding to sadness is her troubled relationship with her daughter. Her husband, while he was alive, used to act as a buffer between the two. With him gone, Amelia feels her fragile boned with Chloe will deteriorate even more.

Twelve Houses

Twelve Houses

I enjoyed the book a great deal. Amelia is a well-drawn, realistic character. I like how imperfect she is. Her stubbornness in her grief adds a lot of tension to a plot which could have easily become too sentimental. The integration of Astrology–as a means for Amelia to connect with her pre-married self and gain a little perspective on her current situation–was well done and believable. It made me want to have my own Natal chart done. The various settings–Seattle, San Francisco, Napa–were realistic and enhanced the larger narrative.

If there was one aspect of the book that distracted me a bit, it was the across-the-board upper class economic situations of ALL of the characters. On one hand it added a fairy tale quality to the book which was pleasant to dally in for a while. Also, it highlighted the fact that, for all the material riches at Amelia’s fingertips, her heart and soul were as vulnerable to suffering as anyone else’s.┬áBut it did get to be a tad too much. The zipping around the country. The buying of wineries and penthouses. Out-of-state interior designers for a baby’s nursery. Toning it down a little would have emphasized the genuine emotion which makes the book such a pleasure.

Overall, I loved the book. The writing is thoughtful and accomplished. The plot touches the heart yet avoids melodrama. Also, in a literary landscape populated with heroines of eighteen-to-thirty, it’s refreshing to explore the hopes and desires of a woman in late middle age.