When someone call me “anal” I take it as a compliment.
Provided their definition is:
When it comes to reading, I’m precise: If an author has a trilogy of books, I want to read them in order: First book, second and then third.
Abbi Waxman has had three books published:
The Garden of Small Beginnings, May 2017
Other People’s Houses, April 2018
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, July 2019
I recently heard about The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, read it, and enjoyed it very much. So much, that before I’d even finished it, I wanted to read her other two books.
I haven’t felt that way in a long time – as I say in my first review (below).
What I didn’t know was that while these three books aren’t promoted as a trilogy, there’s a definite sequence to them, and lots of character carryover from one book to another.
I realized this as I started reading Waxman’s first book – her second for me: The Garden of Small Beginnings. When I encountered a character named Rachel, I had to pause and think, “Is this the same Rachel from Nina Hill?”
And in Other People’s Houses – “Is this the same Richard and it’s before he…”?
When characters carryover, if you read the books in order, you see those characters evolve. If you read the books out of order, some context and connection is lost.
All this to say, if you’re going to read Waxman’s books, read them in order.
Even if you’re not anal.
You’ll get a lot more pleasure from them – and in two of them, there’s much to be had.
And now, in the order I read them:
Meet Nina, the single; Lili, the widow; and Clare, the wife.
Book Review: The Bookish Life Of Nina Hill
Publication date: July 2019
Review, long version: Three roses out of four.
Review, short version:
In Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, a character says,
“Do you know the best feeling in the world? … It’s reading a book, loving every second of it, then turning to the front and discovering that the writer wrote fourteen zillion others.”
That was on page 329, near the end, and I was enjoying Nina so much that I hoped Waxman had other books as well.
She does – more about them later.
Waxman’s lead character and first-person narrator, Nina, is a complex, almost-thirty woman trying to lead an uncomplex life. She lives alone except for her cat, Phil; she works at a bookstore, which she loves; she’s a voracious reader, and in a book club; she’s in a weekly trivia group that enters competitions.
And she has a daily calendar to help keep organized, and give her some sense of control.
Control – a feeling that was lacking in her growing-up years.
Nina’s mother Candice is a lying, selfish bitch, who travels the world as a news photographer. When Nina asked at a very young age about her lack of a father, she said Nina was the result of a “very brief liaison” with a man but “wasn’t even sure of his name.”
At first Candice took Nina on trips with her, but when Nina turned two, Candice parked her with a nanny and left. Since then, their telephone contact is sporadic, at best.
Though more philosophical than bitter, Nina’s thoughts about her mother are, nonetheless, poignant:
Candice “would show up three or four time a year, bringing gifts and candy and smelling of airports.”
“Nina had smiled to hear her mother’s voice, the part of her she was most familiar with.”
While speaking to her mother, Nina thinks, “Not everyone finds it as easy [to forget a child] as you did.”
Candice had lied about not being sure of the name of Nina’s father, but an attorney has appeared, advising Nina that her father knows Nina’s name.
Or knew – her father is recently deceased, was extremely wealthy, and has a large, extended family, whom Nina will have to meet.
And not just meet, but deal with.
As Nina deals with that newly found family, with a newly found attractive guy on a rival trivia team, and with a life that’s getting increasingly more complex, I smiled, I cringed, I laughed – and I liked.
Here’s an example – perhaps edgier than some, but one of my favorites.
Nina’s meeting with her book club, and as with all good book clubs, the discussion has wandered far from the book.
In this case, the topic was the photos of his penis that a guy had sent to one of the members.
Another member observes, “Let’s be honest. The out-of-context penis is not an attractive item. It’s a naked mole rat wearing a beanie.”
Have you ever seen a mole rat? I hadn’t, so I googled it, and went from smiling to laughing.
Just add a beanie, and voila!
I said I’d get back to Waxman’s other books, and I’m doing so because it’s the first time in a long time that I went out and got another book by the same author before I’d finished the one I was reading.
I finished Nina and went straight to enjoying Waxman’s first, The Garden of Small Beginnings, then on to her second, Other People’s Houses.
So keep reading…
Book Review: The Garden of Small Beginnings
Publication date: 2017
Review, short version: Three roses out of four.
Review, long version:
In Abbi Waxman’s The Garden of Small Beginnings, a garden is pivotal.
But this most emphatically is not a gardening book.
It’s a story about transitions, and what better metaphor than turning barren dirt into thriving, healthy fruits and flowers and vegetables?
Our first-person narrator, Lili Girvan, may not describe her life as “barren,” but she’s far from thriving. Lili was widowed three years earlier when her husband Dan died in a car crash, leaving her with two young daughters to raise.
Lili works as a textbook illustrator, and early on we get a good example of her wry take on life as she ponders the whale penis illustration she’s been asked to change:
“Yes, it was important to be thorough, but how many vets were going to need to operate on a whale penis? It’s not like the last time you took your parakeet to the vet you couldn’t get into the waiting room on account of the impotent whale sitting nervously on several hard chairs.”
The image of the nervous, impotent whale in a doctor’s waiting room?
It’s Lili’s job that leads her to the garden – her manager Roberta has asked her to illustrate a series of books on vegetables for a big seed and flower company. To ensure Lili’s success, Roberta signed her up to take a gardening class and really get a feel for the farm-to-table process.
It’s a garden that leads Lili to a truly endearing and important cast of characters, her classmates.
And it’s the classmates who help Lili begin her transition from grieving widow to someone who can see…
While we can enjoy Lili’s humor, make no mistake – she’s deeply grieving the loss of her husband:
“Every breath I took was an insult, every smile I automatically returned in the drugstore was an affront, every morning I woke up alone was a vicious punch in the throat.”
“I still wish I had died instead of him.”
Lili is also dealing with a mess of a mother – alcoholic, bitter, sarcastic, neglectful, catty, “a professional narcissist,” and this: “As a child, her little daggers had cut deep, but now they just bounced of all my shiny scar tissue. Lucky me.”
And she’s dealing with the kind, tall, handsome class instructor. When Lili realizes she’s attracted to him, “It was horrible”
And she’s dealing with…
Well, there’s plenty more.
And it’s all good reading.
Book Review: Other People’s Houses
Publication date: 2018
Review, short version: One rose out four.
Review, long version:
Bottom line first:
If Other People’s Houses had been my first Abbi Waxman book, it would have been my last.
I didn’t like, or care about, the characters. I didn’t care about what happened to them.
I almost didn’t finish it.
Other People’s Houses is an ensemble book about four couples: Neighbors who are wives and husbands with kids and pets, and are in each other’s business way too much.
And there are so many of them – you know there are too many people in a story when page one lists a cast of 15(!) primary characters, and the next page has a map showing who lives where.
But Waxman had published her first novel, so perhaps it was time for her semi-autobiographical story. According to her website, Waxman is a wife, mother of three, hostage to about 15 assorted animals, and probably someone’s neighbor, so I’m sure many readers can relate.
I’m not one of them.
In the book, the neighbor wives and husbands and kids and pets have their crises large and small, and then the book ends.
My interest ended about half-way through.
OK, there are some funny moments. One of the wives, Frances, has taken on the daily torture of driving her and her neighbor’s kids – seven of the them, ages four to 14 – to three different schools in the morning and picking them up from the three schools in the afternoon. During the drive, says Frances, the kids “got so raucous that a tribe of howler monkeys would have fallen silent in awed appreciation.”
But there are a lot of – for me – boring moments, too. From the overload of the teen’s angst (really boring) to the four-year-old’s decision to grow up to be a toilet, and her temper tantrum when her little friends refuse to “poop in my mouth!”
I did finish Other People’s Houses, but will I read Waxman’s new (June 2020) book?