someone_elses_love_story_review_429_648Someone Else’s Love Story, the new novel by Joshilyn Jackson, a New York Times best-selling author, tells the story of Shandi Pierce, the college-age mother of a brilliant 3-year-old, Natty, and William Ashe, a hunky geneticist with a tragic past. When Shandi and William meet during a botched robbery at a Circle K convenience store outside of Atlanta, their lives are changed in dramatic and unexpected ways.

Shandi, along with her best friend, Wolcott, has packed up her VW, left her beautiful and devoutly Christian mother back in rural Lumpkin County, and headed for her Jewish father’s condo in Atlanta. Although the move is eminently practical — Shandi and Natty will be closer to the Georgia State campus where Shandi is a student — it feels to her mother like the ultimate betrayal. She and Shandi’s father are in bitter, if amusing, competition for their daughter’s love, not to mention her religious affiliation.

During the robbery, Shandi realizes she must abandon her fantasy that Natty’s was an immaculate conception but involved a real human, likely her rapist. As soon as Dr. Ashe recovers from his gunshot wound, she will enlist his help in tracking down her son’s biological father. Despite the recent loss of his toddler daughter, and, we’re led to believe, his wife, William Ashe is intrigued by Shandi’s dilemma and agrees to help.

Told in alternating chapters — Shandi’s in first person, William’s in third — the narrative is lively, fresh and often hilarious. Each voice is distinctly its own. Shandi’s is peppered with millennialisms: “The tests said my kid was rocking an IQ north of 140 … ” The liberal use of “effing,” “bring it,” “freakin’” and statements ending with question marks makes her an authentic, if at times annoying, 21-one year old. William’s more mature narrative is equally quirky, as we’re told that he’s an “Aspie” who has had to learn to navigate social situations and interpret emotional cues. He does not seem to notice, until his brash and thoroughly delightful friend Paula points it out, that Shandi has set out to seduce him. William and Shandi have best friends of the opposite sex: salty Paula and the endearing poet Walcott, “the sperm-donated product of a pair of lesbians.” Both are loyal protectors of their friends.

Although an entertaining romp, the novel keeps the reader in the dark well into the story regarding a crucial fact upon which the narrative depends for its forward momentum. Even William, from deep inside his own head, manages not to give it away. The reader may feel a twinge of betrayal at being misled, but with a satisfyingly sweet resolution, can forgive the author in the end.

Ms. Jackson takes on lofty themes — faith, friendship, love and loss, not to mention the odd miracle — and delivers them with a distinctive Southern twang, “Atlanta, straight up, with a twist of hick.” If you’re rocking a 20- to 30-something demographic, you’re likely to be drawn in, even charmed, by Shandi and her sidekicks. If you’re somewhat older, perhaps a fan of clean, spare writing, this is not the book for you.

Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski is the author of a novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, which was a semi-finalist in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. She blogs about art, design and dance at and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband, son and growing collection of mid-century ash trays.

This review was originally published by the Washington Independent Review of Books, a wonderful source of book reviews, author interviews, and much more for readers and writers alike.


For someone who grew up in San Francisco hearing Tagalog spoken by a playmate’s father and his friends, Monstress, a debut collection of short stories by Lysley Tenorio, is a gift: A chance to understand what those Filipino émigrés might have been saying about their lives, loves, disappointments and sense of being the other.

The cover art, a tropical bird, upside down, talons with a precarious grip on a branch, gives a clue of what to expect. Inside, we’re in a world populated by outsiders and eccentrics. Tenorio’s writing, assured, economical, often lyrical, zings from the outrageous, to the hilarious, to the tenderly wise. The eight stories take the reader from the Philippines to America and back. Throughout, the characters experience longing and ambivalence for the place left behind and for their lost illusions. In “The Brothers” we meet a transgendered son; in “The View from Culion” a lonely young woman in an island leper colony; in “Felix Starro,” a legendary Filipino “healer” who performs ritualized cures involving fake blood and chicken livers; and in “Superassassin” a comic book-addicted outcast. “Help” is a slapstick look at what happens when the Beatles play Manila and Uncle Willy plots to take revenge for a slight against the woman he loves, none other than Imelda Marco. “Save the I-Hotel,” a haunting tale of forbidden love, tells of a life-long friendship, between Vincente and Fortunado now in their sixties, who are evicted from San Francisco’s International Hotel. In “L’Amour, CA” love is not what the child narrator or his adored older sister finds in Lemoore, California when their family moves from a rural village in the Philippines. Fog shrouds the barren streets of this godforsaken town, and the terrible end is a bleak finish to this original and satisfying work.

Don’t expect happy endings, but do expect to be moved, dazzled and surprised by this book.

Even if you haven’t been taping Anna Quindlen’s “New York Times” and “Newsweek” columns to your fridge for two or three decades, reading Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake will feel a like a cozy chat with an old friend. In this memoir, Quindlen again offers her keen observations of a well-examined, well-lived life. A Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and prolific writer of fiction with six acclaimed novels and seven non-fiction books to her credit, Quindlen, soon to turn sixty, is at the top of her game. Her insight is razor sharp, but her observations are also kind, both to others and herself. From the introduction: “It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I’d invented. And finally I was what I was again.”

The aptly titled Lots of Candles pulses with life and all its lucky breaks, inanities, accomplishments, everyday frustrations, and imponderable questions. Quindlen examines our epidemic accumulation of “stuff” (and getting rid of it); our evolving relationships with adult children (“The older I get, the more I want to be like them.”); a successful marriage (“Frankly, I don’t want a husband who knows what toile is.”); and poignantly, the early death of a parent (“I’m living for two, for all the years, the decades, my mother never got.”). As she considers the narrowing of life’s possibilities in late middle age, Quindlen writes, we must face the fact that “the hand you’ve been dealt is the entire deck.”

The reader is often struck by the feeling that Quindlen has been privy to her journal (and yes, I suspect the vast majority of Quindlen’s readers are women, and women of a “certain age”), so acutely does she home in on the issues that preoccupy her generation. At this point in our lives, she writes, we “stand between two enormous forces. On the one side are the difficult and demanding events to come, the losses, the illness, the deaths. You can see them out on the horizon like a great wave, its whitecaps approaching.” The other force, the “levee that protects us,” is the trust of friends we can call “any time, day or night,” for help.

This is a laugh-out-loud book and never more so than when Quindlen looks at own failings and foibles. On the subject of her decision to stop drinking, she says, “Moderation and I have always had an uneasy relationship.” Her first trip to the “Fountain of Botox” was made not to try to look young again, but merely “less crabby.” Parenting is the “obsessive miasma of free-floating worry.” Also, “There’s a problem with turning motherhood into martyrdom. There’s no way to do it and have a good time.” Often her husband Gerry has the laugh line. On looking around the bedroom at his wife’s exercise equipment — free weights, kettle bells, medicine balls, the Bosu ball — he asks, “Are you making a model of the solar system?”

On feminism, for which she was a generation’s spokesperson and champion, she writes, “I’m part of the generation that said it wanted to change the world, and it did.” At the same time, young women today who want to do things differently are not “ungrateful,” but very likely “sane.”

Despite being organized into four loosely defined parts (from “The Laboratory of Life” to “The Be-All and End-All), the narrative meanders from topic to topic, doubling back to reexamine some, then flowing on. The structure, or lack of it, reinforces the sense that Quindlen knows the reader, that we are familiars sharing intimacies. While far from another “chicken soup” of predictable homilies, this would be a great book to keep by the bedside to savor before sleep.

Shopworn clichés about aging are given a twist: Quindlen has so many pairs of glasses because “they are somehow never where I am.” Also, “. . . having a reliably unreliable memory,” means that we can reread mystery novels without knowing “whodunit.” The reader nods knowingly.

While skillful in nailing the quotidian, Quindlen doesn’t flinch from the big topics: the part religion plays in life, questions of mortality, and “what comes next.” She is clear-eyed when examining her Catholicism: “. . . I may have lost my religion . . . But I’ve never lost, and will never lose my faith.” She confesses that, while she would like to be comforted by it, she no longer believes in heaven, for “there is no better place” than the here and now.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, renews and restores our zest for life. As Anna Quindlen puts it, “All I can say for sure is that I want more.”