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A modern gentleman buys his monocles fair-trade, extends his habits of refined discourse to the Internet and understands that literature sometimes pulls the curtain back on acts of marital intimacy that are often neither preceded nor followed by nuptials. Even so, I was unable to prevent the frequent dropping of my monocles during the course of reading Bill Cotter’s “The Parallel Apartments.” But not all droppings were related to the artfully depicted acts of often artless intimacy. Indeed, the monocle carnage extended past the reading of the novel and to the reading of reactions to it. I ruined one when I read a review focusing on the ribald aspects rather than the myriad less scandalous reasons to recommend the book. As Cotter alludes to in this charming interview, the Puritanism regarding a few scenes of bodily congress is surprising given erotica’s stranglehold on bestseller lists.
But now I’m guilty of focusing on the tawdry when I should be trying to convince fans of tragicomedy and exquisite writing to check out this book. “The Parallel Apartments” aims most of its focus on three generations of mothers and most of the remaining on assorted inhabitants of the titular complex. One character has $400,000 of credit card debt, and when she inherits enough to pay it off, she instead decides to invest in a robot gigolo and start a brothel in her home, which is both a good business plan and an aid in avoiding her greatest fear: becoming pregnant. Another’s desire to become pregnant is intense enough to require the reader have several backup monocles at the ready. Another character yearns to be a serial killer but thwarts himself, among other ways, by tipping his darts with harmless frog juice rather than deadly frog poison. A retired prostitute hopes to defeat AIDS by having a guru and his unfortunate raccoon clean her blood. She’s accompanied back to Austin by a man that fled it for reasons, revealed brilliantly and late in the novel, that will again have your monocle in shocked descent. Eventually the characters converge to form an ending I’d love to prattle on endlessly about.
The author says his focus was on the sentence level, and the attention to pretty and amusing sentences shows. Cotter’s plot is also worthy of praise, though. The story’s timeline weaves back and forth through decades in a way orchestrated to maximize the impact of various alarming bits of back story and have your eyewear flying off your face. “The Parallel Apartments” is a unique novel, and it gave me a unique feeling (that has nothing to do with the aforementioned scenes of fleshy goings-on). I was heartbroken, delighted, awed and some other stuff there’s probably words for in German. This emotional cocktail caused both a special breed of the weird melancholic elation that often accompanies the finishing of great books and also the need to replace several shattered and/or irreparably moistened monocles.
I hate to tell Charles Dickens, but one of his contemporaries is a rival for my literary heart. “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins has been collecting dust on my “to read” list for years. When I discovered the book is one of J.K. Rowling’s favorites, it moved up the list, but didn’t make it to the top until a few weeks ago. Then, wowza! I stayed up late several nights in a row, reading “just a few more pages.”
“The Woman in White” is a story of mysterious characters and devious plots, assumed identities and international intrigue, family scandals and thwarted love. We see the full range of human character – greed, devotion, manipulation, love, hate, duty, evasion of duty, cheating, honesty – as different parts of the story are related by various characters involved.
Walter Hartright has no idea the turns his life will take after he accepts a position as drawing teacher for the Fairlie family. He has two pupils, Marian and Laura, who are half-sisters. The head of the estate is Laura’s uncle, who provides much of the humor in the book. He suffers from nerves, poor thing, and can’t tolerate sunlight, conversation, decision-making or servants who fail to mind-read. Before Hartright reaches the Fairlie home, he encounters and assists a strange young woman in white during a late-night walk. As it turns out, she has some connection to the family who has employed him. And some mysterious, less-than-desirable connection to Laura’s fiancé, Sir Percival Glyde. (Even his name sounds oily and corrupt.) Assisted by his friend Count Fosco, who is Laura’s uncle by marriage, it’s obvious early on that Glyde is up to something nefarious. But what could it be?
I feel it is my duty, dear reader, to warn you that there is a fainting couch and it is swooned upon. You will also encounter some gender stereotyping typical of the mid-19th century. However, the plot and strong characterizations (Marian, in particular, is an intelligent and active female character) make these deficiencies forgivable. A bonus for me, as a Harry Potter fan, was discovering where J.K. Rowling found inspiration for a certain trademark of a cohort of villains.
Are you intrigued enough to want your very own copy of “The Woman in White?” Fill out the following form, including the answer to this trivia question for a chance to win:
Wilkie Collins’ book “The Moonstone” involves the theft of a jewel. What type of jewel is it?
One winner will be selected at random from among correct entries.
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