February’s newly released novels bring us some not-very-admirable people.
There are no George Washington’s or Abe Lincoln’s here, just normal, everyday folks who landed in situations which forced them to make difficult decisions for their survival. Sometimes, survival isn’t a matter of life or death – sometimes it’s staying on top of the heap; even when the protagonist’s choices are abhorrent. These novels keep you reading to see how it will all turn out.
In Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd, Adam Kindred is a mild-mannered meteorologist researching storm systems when his world falls apart. After a spontaneous sexual encounter with one of his graduate students, his wife divorces him and his university fires him. Looking for a whole new life, he goes to London for a job interview, after which he randomly encounters a solitary man, a scientist, at dinner. When his new acquaintance leaves a file behind in the restaurant, Adam generously offers to return it to him at his hotel, only to find him dying of a stab wound in his chest. Before he dies, he tells Adam to hold on to the file. Thus, Adam is now a hunted man–not only is the hit man who killed the scientist after him to get the file, but the police suspect him of the murder and are also searching for him. Adam changes his name, begins living on the streets and tries to find out what is in the file that has caused such turmoil. The web of the story eventually encompasses a wealthy businessman, a poor prostitute supporting her young son, a policewoman living with her scofflaw father and a multinational pharmaceutical company. As the books epigraph says: “Ordinary thunderstorms have the capacity to transform themselves into multi-cell storms of ever-growing complexity.” Starting with a simple action, this novel turns into a “multi-cell storm”, leaving the reader dazzled and breathless at its clever conclusion. Fans of Lee Child and Robert Ludlum should love this book.
Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett is set on the other side of the pond, in a wealthy suburb north of Boston. Doug Fanning has achieved what he has striven for all his life–he has finally built himself a mansion in the town in which his mother had been a cleaning lady throughout his childhood. He left home to join the Marines at 18; three weeks before the end of his tour of duty his unit mistakenly shot down a commercial aircraft with 290 passengers aboard. Moving on from this disaster, he gets a job in a bank and moves up the ranks from the inside, using the skills he developed in the military to identify the important players and attach his fortunes to theirs to further his career. Eventually, his loyalty and willingness to operate outside the bounds of the law get him into a senior management position at Union Atlantic bank, from which he achieves his dream mansion. Unfortunately, Charlotte Graves, an elderly scion of one of the town’s founding families, sues the town for selling land her grandfather had donated to them, to Doug. In addition, his outside-the-legal-bounds activities are failing, and Union Atlantic might go down along with him. While Doug Fanning isn’t an admirable character, his desire to better himself through hard work is quintessentially American. This novel won’t make the reader feel better about Wall Street’s chicanery, but it illuminates one man’s reasons for his ruthless behavior. Although the story is primarily Doug’s, it also contrasts the nouveau riche with old New England gentry and the carelessness of the young compared to their duty-bound, responsible elders. Haslett’s writing is concise and razor-sharp; this is an excellent follow-up to his short story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here.
Susan Taylor has been in the book business since 1982.