Tag Archives: Loss

Book Review: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat (3/5)

24 Feb

Book clubs are so good for introducing you to new titles. I’d never heard of this one before but I was intrigued that it was set in Haiti as I’ve never read a book set there before. I liked it, I didn’t love it, but the storytelling was really good.

Cover image via Goodreads.com

Cover image via Goodreads.com

 Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Summary from Goodreads:

Claire Limyè Lanmè—Claire of the Sea Light—is an enchanting child born into love and tragedy in Ville Rose, Haiti. Claire’s mother died in childbirth, and on each of her birthdays Claire is taken by her father, Nozias, to visit her mother’s grave. Nozias wonders if he should give away his young daughter to a local shopkeeper, who lost a child of her own, so that Claire can have a better life.

But on the night of Claire’s seventh birthday, when at last he makes the wrenching decision to do so, she disappears. As Nozias and others look for her, painful secrets, haunting memories, and startling truths are unearthed among the community of men and women whose individual stories connect to Claire, to her parents, and to the town itself.

This book was completely different from what I was expecting.  To be honest, I was anticipating The Light Between Oceans in Haiti in terms of a missing child and someone mourning her. I liked the way Danticat wove the story by telling connected stories across time and space. It was more than the story of Claire and finding her, you had to understand why her father was going away, why Madame Gaelle wanted her, and more that I won’t reveal here. It gave you a background that you didn’t realize was important until the end.

I think that’s the one thing that bothered me. I didn’t realize what I was reading was relevant to the story until the final pages and I was thinking Why are you telling me this? for a lot of the story.

I don’t think I’ve ever met someone from Haiti before. At least not intimately; it’s likely I’ve met someone in passing. Because I don’t know the country or the people very well, it was hard for me to judge if they were portrayed accurately. Seeing as the author was born in Port-au-Prince, I’m assuming the people are accurate. Danticat lives in Miami so I’m guessing that her opinions of ex-pat Haitians might be an evaluation of her opinions on herself. Interesting.

Bernard was my favorite character. I thought he was the most likable of the narrators we were introduced to and the most sympathetic. When we find out his secret at the end of the book, I started to re-question his story and I liked that Danticat made me do that. He was a small part in Claire’s total story, but very key. I wish he’d had a longer part to play.

Nozias’ story spoke to a lot more people than those who had been in his situation. Not everyone has to give up a child, but everyone has had to do something hard that they didn’t want to do. We’ve put these things off and tried to find reasons not to do them, but in the end they always catch up to us. I pitied Nozias but I also related to him.

Because Bernard was my favorite character, his story was my favorite in the book. I thought it had a lot to say about humans and how they treat each other and about life in Haiti. I didn’t think the other sections touched on both of these so well. Bernard was a very driven person and I liked his dedication.

Max Junior’s section was my least favorite while reading it, but after reading the ending, I liked it a lot more. I thought Max was a very selfish and bad person at first. I didn’t want to like him and I wanted his section to be over faster so that I could get on to someone I liked more. After reading the end, I felt bad for him and I wish I’d had a hint of that pity while he was narrating, but I think Danticat made the right choice on pacing by not telling her reader too much.

Edwidge Danticat Image from the ALA website

Edwidge Danticat
Image from the ALA website

Claire’s path was affected by many people she didn’t even know. Our lives are so connected that it’s likely I don’t know or remember the person who had the biggest impact on my life. This is reminding me of Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven now that I think about it. Someone like Louise affected how Claire’s life played out, but she had no idea. I wonder which invisible characters have changed my life.

Writer’s Takeaway: Writing though multiple points of view can be challenging and making each character important and memorable is harder. Danticat does a wonderful job in this book of giving me people with unique personalities that I care about and showing how they’re all important to the overall plot. I’ve very impressed with her writing.

She takes a country I know little about and gives me just enough to give everything context without dumbing the context down for me. I love exploring new places through literature and Danticat made it easy.

Well written and enjoyable. Three out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the 200-Present time period for the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Review: Claire of the Sea Light; Edwidge Danticat | My Good Bookshelf
Claire of the Sea Light | Shelf Love
Edwidge Danticat: Claire of the Sea Light | Sliver of Stone Magazine


Book Club Reflection: Just Kids by Patti Smith

18 Mar

I think discussion a memoir for a book club is the best kind of gossiping there is. We get to talk freely about someone’s life and criticize their memory and I feel privileged to do so. I guess that’s what you get if you ever write about yourself and publish it. I’ll have to take note of this.

My book club met last Monday to discuss our latest selection, Just Kids by Patti Smith. In my review I said that I felt removed from Smith because her fame was before my time. There were a few other people close to my age who felt the same way, but we were fortunate that our membership includes people who were in high school and college during the peak of her fame. Our discussion leader who chose this book is a huge fan of Smith’s and was very engrossed in the subject.

We all agreed that this book wasn’t really about Smith at all; it was about Robert. It was a story of how they lived together and above all it was a tribute to their love and a way for Patti to say that after all that had happened between them, she still loved him. We thought she hurt a lot more than him when they ended their romantic relationship together. She saw herself as Robert’s muse and not an artist in her own right. Robert pushed her to create and she likely would not have achieved her success without that push. He introduce her to the movers and shakers in their industry and got her foot in the door where it needed to go.

We asked ourselves what might have been different if Robert had written the book instead of Patti. I think he would have focused on her instead of himself. Patti glossed over her own fame toward the end of the book and how it took off so quickly. She was convinced to read a few poems and then wanted a guitarist to make her poetry different. From there she started writing songs, formed a band, and became widely successful. Robert’s last boyfriend even financed her first tour. I think Robert would have been fiercely proud of Patti’s success and downplayed his own notoriety. We also suspect that Smith used a lot more drugs than she let on and perhaps Robert would have given some insight into this. Our members felt that because of her family, she was reluctant to admit to her kids that she had been a part of the drug scene. Though, with a son who married Meg White of The White Stripes, I don’t think she’d surprise them. Smith has a new book coming out that we suspect will focus more on herself and her career. Maybe this is the book Robert would have written.

Robert’s relationship with his parents was complicated. We were surprised at how confident he was in his ability to be an artist given the strict religious upbringing he had and how it didn’t incite confidence in artistic ability. We questioned how long he had been in New York before het met Smith and suspected that the time he spent pursuing fame before he was introduced to the reader could have instilled that confidence. One part that was comical to me was when Robert was concerned about Smith moving away because his parents still thought they were married. It made us think that his parents must have not known about his art and we wondered how he planned to keep that secret from them. He seemed more worried about his sham of a marriage.

Of course we had to talk about Smith herself. She seemed very hard on herself and critical of anything she ever created. One of our members recalled her father telling her she wasn’t pretty enough to get married and we suspect that comment came from her early pregnancy. We thought it was so interesting that her look was so androgynous while she was in New York. One of our members couldn’t tell Robert and Patti apart in the pictures. That might even be because Mapplethorpe wanted her to look like him or himself to look like her. Even Alan Ginsberg couldn’t tell her gender just looking at her. I wonder how much of this escape from traditional feminine beauty was because of what her father said.

We wondered about why Smith would have been so successful so quickly after Robert fought an uphill battle for his own notoriety. One suggestion is that her medium was a lot more mainstream at the time, even if her style was different from anyone at the time. I suspect that the publicity of the 1970s would have lent itself more to a performance artist than a print artist.

New York City itself was a large player in Smith’s story. They were both so driven to make it in such a harsh and unforgiving place. The Chelsea Hotel was the point where they started living in an artist’s world and rubbing elbows with the right people. It was a Mecca for starving artist and that glamorous lifestyle. We wondered why the landlord would take art as a security deposit. The book portrayed it as his love for art and his support of starving artists. More likely, he know that the tenants were so attached to their portfolios that they would be sure to make payments to get them back.

The appeal of a memoir over an autobiography is that the writer doesn’t have to research the details of what happened to them and report them with 100% accuracy. They can write from memory, and sometimes memory is fuzzy. And sometimes, memories are altered by what we want them to be. We thought Smith glossed over the drug community that must have existed in the Chelsea Hotel. She claimed to not participate in it, but we were suspicious that she did more than she let on. She has children now and Smith wouldn’t want them knowing all the gritty details of her drug use. Wouldn’t Smith have been a bit of an outcast in the community if she didn’t share in the drug culture?

The member of our group who remember the 1970s emphasized how much this book is a result of the time. Before AIDS, free love had no consequences. There was nothing you could get that couldn’t be cured. (On a side note, Dallas Buyers Club depicts this beautifully as well.) Everyone wanted to rebel against the anger they had surrounding the Vietnam War and drugs were a way to do that. A few of our members recalled that those who they saw in the heavy drug culture and free love tended to be rich kids who felt it was a privileged scene. They were those who had enough money and support from home that they could afford the drugs and have a second chance if they messed up. For Smith, it wasn’t a ‘cool’ place to be; it was her life. She could have gone home so many times, but she didn’t. Did she stay because of Robert?

Smith name-dropped a lot in the book; Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. Do we really believe it all? Or is this a part of the selected memory? Some of the people she would say she met in the Chelsea Hotel were already rich and famous. Why would they be living in what is described as such a run-down and dirty place? I feel that this might be one place where Smith’s memories wouldn’t check out with actual history.

The book was filled with so much loss; suicide, theft, death, and disappointment. It became commonplace, almost predictable, for Smith and Mapplethorpe. It was part of New York City for them. Our members recalled that NYC was a lot more dangerous in the 70s. Robert kept telling Patti he would protect her and he did.

Writer’s Takeaway: The group loved Smith’s writing style. It was clear that she was a poet who has a strong command with words. Her vocabulary was good, something uncommon in celebrity writing, and her style was very engaging. We liked the small vignette style and it reminded us of a diary. One members suspects that much of this book was re-written sections of Smith’s personal diary during the time she was in New York.

We’ll meet next month to talk about Kazo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go. I read this title about a year ago so I won’t re-read it, but I’m so excited to discuss it!

Until next time, write on.