THE LAST SUPPER
A Summer in Italy
By Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $25
Oppressed by a vague malaise - the sense, perhaps, of being fitted too soon for the shroud of suburban routine - British novelist Rachel Cusk swept her husband and their two small daughters off to adventure in Italy. Here, she thought she might learn to be someone who was not entirely herself.
Up to a point, we can understand why she chose Tuscany for much of their stay - glorious Tuscany, where saints crossed paths with Renaissance painters. Nevertheless, the destination known jokingly as “Chiantishire’’ for its vineyard vistas studded with expatriate Brits seems doomed to stretch an Englishwoman’s experiential envelope rather less than planned.
Unlike day-tripping tourists, the thoughtful visitor doesn’t know in advance what will seize her attention. A basket of bread and tomatoes, a Raphael Madonna, a storm that breaks with terrible beauty over the Ligurian coast, the progressively gothic hostelries through which the travelers wend their way home: All are fleetingly illumined by Cusk’s exquisite prose, though none more hauntingly than the predawn English countryside, “like a sleeping baby . . . somehow new and unmarked,’’ from which they set off for their summer abroad.
THE YEAR THAT FOLLOWS
By Scott Lasser
Knopf, 256 pp., $23.95
On Sept. 10, 2001, Cat Miller gets some unexpected good news: Her brother Kyle’s former girlfriend has had a baby, and Kyle thinks he may be the father. The next day brings tragedy: Kyle has vanished in the ruins of the World Trade Center, and so has the baby’s mother.
Nuclear family, nuclear fission. Entropy is the common condition in this novel by Scott Lasser. Grieving Cat resists the fragmentation. From her home in Detroit, she decides to track down and adopt the unknown orphaned child. At the same time, Cat, a divorced mother, is gingerly finding her way in a new relationship with an old boyfriend, himself a divorced father. And out in California, where he has retired, widowed Sam Miller, badly in need of heart surgery, wants to see Cat before he goes under the knife so he can confess what, ironically, she already knows: that he raised her, and loves her, but is not her biological father.
Things break apart, we ache to repair them, whether structures of steel and concrete or flesh and blood, flawed though the result may be. It is a hopeful message, given a gripping, if morally compromised, dramatization in the command economy of Lasser’s novel.
MY JUDY GARLAND LIFE
By Susie Boyt
Bloomsbury, 320 pp., $25
Forty years after her death - essentially author Susie Boyt’s entire lifetime - Judy Garland retains celebrity status of the most extreme and irrational kind, a vessel into which fans pour their neuroses. In this vivid and eccentric memoir, the British author depicts her lifelong obsession with the image, the voice, the legend of the troubled star.
What unassuageable hunger does hero worship feed? We leave the heavy lifting on that to Boyt’s great-grandfather, Sigmund Freud (Boyt is one of the numerous children of artist Lucian Freud, an unorthodox heritage she reveals only obliquely), and to Thomas Carlyle, whom Boyt quotes on the subject, mischievously substituting “Judy’’ for the eminent Victorian’s relevant nouns and pronouns.
Boyt corrals Mickey Rooney and Liza Minnelli for star-struck interviews. She leaves no Judy relic unfondled, no pilgrimage site unvisited, from Garland’s birthplace, which is a museum, to her mausoleum, which might as well be. In artfully chosen words and photos, she reveals scenes from her own history alongside her idol’s. Boyt’s schoolgirl song and dance skills shrink into insignificance next to Judy’s. But so do her humiliations, her failures, her outward displays of emotional neediness, which is, as her great-grandpa might have observed, precisely the point.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.