This book is fantastic. It is historical fiction that is also literary and it contains so much fodder for great discussions. I hope you and some friends will read it and discuss it. It will be featured in an upcoming episode of the Read Like a Writer Book Club podcast, so stay tuned!
The structure is challenging, but stick with it. The novel is written in four sections, of which the first one is a novel within a novel. Even this novel within doesn’t follow the “rules” of genre fiction. There is no inciting incident, no escalation, etc. There is a plot, but it is an interior plot with exterior consequences. The second section is a partially completed memoir by the supposedly real person that the novel was about. The third section is the story of a woman who, as it turns out, knows the whole truth, or as near to it as anyone in this book can. The fourth section is the missing journal of the wife of the person whose memoir is in section 2. Don’t worry, it all makes sense when you read it.
Trust has been on tons of best of lists and it totally deserves it. The writing is beautiful, but the message is also clear and vital and relevant. Just to give you an idea, here is a quotation. This comes from the third section, when Ida becomes the secretary for Andrew Bevel, the ostensible main character, though I would argue Ida is the main character of the novel. She is taking dictation from him as he wants to write a memoir about his life to rebut what he thinks is a slanderous novel written about him and his wife (the first part of the novel). She is reading over the pages and editing them.
“But reading these pages, it seems that more than vindicating Mildred [his wife] he wanted to turn her into a completely unremarkable, safe character—just like the wives in the autobiographies of the Great Men I read during that time to come up with Bevel’s voice. Put her in her place.” page 300.
Isn’t this what has happened to women, and others, all throughout history? The men, usually men, usually white, usually rich, get to decide what gets told. Wait until you read the last section of this book, you will love it as much as I did.
Here are some discussion questions for your book club:
- What did you think about the structure of this novel? Do you think it would have been as effective written another way? Why or why not?
- Who do you think the main character is? What evidence would you use to make your case?
- What similarities and differences do you see between Helen and Mildred? Between Rask and Bevel? Why do we feel compelled to name the men by their surnames and the women by their first names?
- What about Jack? What was his purpose in the story?
- If you were casting a movie, who would you cast as each of the main characters and why?
You’re reading a fancy book, why not have a fancy cookie with your tea?
Recipe: Fig and Cherry Cookie Pies
Adapted from the NY Times
3 cups/408 grams all-purpose flour,
¾ cup/92 grams confectioners’ sugar
¾ teaspoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons/256 grams cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
3 large egg yolks
5 tablespoons/75 grams heavy cream, plus more as needed
½ cup/82 grams loosely packed chopped dried figs, hard stems removed (about 6 dried figs)
½ cup/80 grams dried sweetened sour cherries or cranberries, chopped
¼ cup/38 grams raw or roasted almonds
3 tablespoons/41 grams dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons Kirsch or other cherry liqueur
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest (from 1 orange)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
1 cup/123 grams confectioners’ sugar, sifted
½ teaspoon almond extract
3 to 4 tablespoons heavy cream
Combine the flour, confectioners’ sugar and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and rub with your fingers until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the egg yolks and cream, and stir with a fork just until the dough starts to come together. Add more cream if necessary, but stop before the dough is too wet. Form it into two disks and wrap each half in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 2 hours.
Combine the figs, cherries and 1¼ cups water In a small bowl and microwave for 1 minute. Stir well and let sit while the dough is chilling. Transfer to a blender and add the almonds, brown sugar, rum, orange zest, cinnamon and salt, and pulse until you have a relatively smooth paste. You may use a hand blender. It will be very thick, don’t let that scare you.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with 1 ball at a time, roll the dough out to ⅛-inch thickness on a very lightly floured surface. Use a 2¼-inch cookie cutter or a glass to cut out circles. Transfer the circles to the prepared baking sheet. Scoop about a scant 2 teaspoons of filling onto half of the dough circles. Brush the edges of the filled circles with a bit of cream and fold over making a half circle, gently pressing the edges with a fork to seal. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. (If the dough becomes too soft, pop it into the fridge to firm up before continuing.) You can reroll and cut the dough scraps one time.
Chill the pies for at least 30 minutes. While the cookies chill, heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Brush the top of each cookie with cream. Bake until they’re golden and crisp, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool completely.
In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, almond extract and 3 tablespoons cream. The icing should be spreadable. Spread a bit of the glaze on each cookie Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days or freeze for a month. These keep wonderfully at room temperature.