Can love span death? This is the big question that Julie Christine Johnson asks us in her debut novel In Another Life. Johnson sets her novel in the Languedoc region of southern France and almost immediately throws the reader back 800 years to one of the darker periods of Christian history, when the Catholic Church led a successful crusade against the native Cathar sect of southern France.
Throughout the adventure, Tinti also plays with the idea of morality — her good thief is a twelve-year-old orphan that is brought into a world of petty criminals, where he finds himself repeatedly tested. As Ren observes the bizarre workings of the adult world around him, he must decide where his own moral compass lies. Is it wrong to steal, if stealing feeds you? It is wrong to lie, if lying can save your life?
Kingsolver sets up her perspective by narrating her story through the eyes of a white American missionary family, who go to the Congo less than a year before the revolution and American-controlled counterrevolution that made Mobutu Sese Seko a dictator for three decades. The bulk of the story is told by the four Price daughters, who range in age from six to sixteen. There is Rachel, who mourns the loss of her comfortable suburban American lifestyle and resents nearly everything about her new life. The twins, Leah and Ada, are sharply intelligent and insightful about the world around them, but tied up in their own drama about the family dynamics. The baby of the family, Ruth May, charms us as she makes friends as the open-hearted way that only young children do.
This was not the first time that I’ve entered the quiet world of Johannes Vermeer at the hands of Tracy Chevalier, but it has been a few years since the last time I read this beautifully paced novel. The subject of the novel is self-evident; Chevalier makes a guess at the events that inspired one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, which is of the same title as the novel. In Chevalier’s version of the painting’s origin, the subject is seventeen-year-old Griet, who has been forced by the loss of her father’s career to work as a maid in the Vermeer household in order to support her parents.
The story is familiar, at least to anyone who paid a bit of attention in grade school history. Henry VIII sits on the throne of England and decides that it is time to cast off Katherine of Aragon, his wife of twenty years, for the English courtier Anne Boleyn. This is a monstrous, momentous decision that will lead many people to their graves as the country divides over its religious allegiance to the Pope in Rome. This is not modern America; Henry is not far removed from being a despot and, despite his Parliament, the people he decides need to go have a tendency to lose their heads. What we learn again and again in Wolf Hall is the dangerous nature of power — Henry burns bright, but getting too close to him is a dangerous game.
One of the inevitable things about reading books about historical figures is that you already know the ending before you begin. Anyone just a little familiar with Ernest Hemingway knows about his famous wife problems; his inability to stay committed to the woman he was already married to. So when we meet Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, we already can see the writing on the wall of their marriage. We see it before she meets him, we see it the first time they dance together and we know that there is heartbreak to come. It’s a foreboding knowledge, which steeps its way into the events of the novel and makes us want to protect the characters from their futures.