‘The English Wife’: A royal Shakespearean tragicomedy

She was an foreign actress when he first met her. He was not quite a prince, but he came from an old Dutch family with money and expectations. They came from different worlds — hers in London, his in New York. They met through a mutual acquaintance, traveled the world, got married, became controversial all-caps headlines in international tabloids with the latest as: “KNICKERBOCKER MURDERS WIFE AND KILLS HIMSELF! MURDER AND SUICIDE ON THE HUDSON!”

They were the Van Duyvils, Annabelle and Bayard, principal characters in Lauren Willig’s new novel “The English Wife,” but I can’t help imagining them as the Meghan Markle and Prince Harry of their time — gorgeous and happy with a fairy tale romance. These reminders make peering into the Van Duyvil’s lives seem like a guilty pleasure.


“The English Wife” 
By Lauren Willig. 
376 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.

Besides the whole murder and suicide bit (if you believe the headlines), which happens about nine pages into the book through the point of view of Bayard’s 26-year-old spinster sister Janie who finds Bayard’s body, Annabelle and Bay were practically royals in late 1890s New York, expected to wear fancy hats, entertain high society and never cause a scandal. They lived in a secluded mansion, which they named Illyria after Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and had twins they named Sebastian and Viola.

But that changes on January 6, 1899, when Bayard’s found lethally stabbed with a costume sword and Annabelle’s seen submerged in the Hudson River. The couple were to host a wondrous costumed ball that night in their new mansion modeled after the English Tudor home Annabelle grew up in. They would be have danced and laughed, perhaps, and showed the gossips how happy they were.

Instead, cousin Anne and sister Janie find Bay’s body — and the rest is printed in the presses.

Willig’s novel alternates between the past and present, between the romances of Janie and Janie’s sister-in-law. Desperate to clear her brother’s reputation (because Bayard couldn’t have killed both himself and his wife), Janie Van Duyvil recruits reporter James Burke to find out the truth behind her brother’s death. What she finds isn’t what she suspects, but madness and mixups are part of what keep “The English Wife” entertaining.

In true Shakespearean fashion, Willig introduces pairs of twins, sisters who could be twins masquerading as each other, and confusing similar-sounding names. There are an Anne and Annabelle, a George and Georgie — the characters even comment that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who.

With the comedic elements and tragic circumstances, “The English Wife” is a Shakespearean problem play — one that starts with a tragedy and ends with people dancing at a funeral.

The dialogue is bit thick at times — with characters literally quoting lines from Shakespeare to each other (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”), but when the characters take a bow, you take their cue and grin and applaud.



Predicting the next ‘American War’

More than 50 years in the future, the second American Civil War isn’t fought over race, or confederate statues, or religion. The war is fought over fossil fuels, according to Omar El Akkad’s debut dystopian novel “American War.”

In 2074, America is divided between the Red states (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina; Florida has been swallowed up by ocean) and Blue states (most of the rest of continental U.S. as we know it).

Global warming has brought upon areas of extreme heat and cold, swallowing up more and more land. Solar panels and wind energy are standard in most U.S. households that industries like coal are obsolete. Yet folks in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, collectively known as the Free Southern State, succeeded from the Union and clung to these dying industries, just like they clung to cotton and slavery in the first Civil War.


“American War” 
By Omar El Akkad. 
333 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

El Akkad’s future feels much like the past with bloodshed on U.S. soil, people routinely ducking from air bombing (which they call Birds), global interests suppling weapons to insurgents, poor refugees camps which become breeding grounds for recruiting suicide bombers and child soldiers, and inhumane torture facilities off far-off islands.

To understand this world, El Akkad recruits Sarat Chestnut, a six-year-old dark skinned black girl uprooted from her home in Louisiana after the war moved into their backyard. Her mother, Martina; twin, Dana; and older brother, Simon; travelled to Camp Patience (which was based off Guantanamo’s Camp Justice), a refugee camp for Reds displaced by the war, before that too became a casualty.

Through it all, Sarat learned to grow up too fast — to play with rats, get drunk off Joyful (a jungle juice of rotten fruit, crushed painkillers and alcohol), swim in brown rivers, sharpen a knife, hold a rifle, maim, kill, fight for the South. She learned about pain — what it’s like to be humiliated by boys with mean smiles, what it’s like to be betrayed by her mentors, what it’s like to lose everyone and everything she knew. And she learned about war — how “the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language.”

“American War” isn’t an easy read and it might take a few tries to get into, but El Akkad’s fiction, which is influenced by El Akkad’s own reporting on Black Lives Matter protests, Arab Spring, war in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, feels very real.

Perhaps that’s because it’s like how he describes in his book: “The misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language. Its native speakers occupied different ends of the world, and the prayers they recited were not the same and the empty superstitions to which they clung so dearly were not the same—and yet they were. War broke them the same way, made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way. In times of peace and good fortune they were nothing alike but stripped of these things they were kin. The universal slogan of war . . . was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”


Falling in love with ‘The Rules of Magic’

Alice Hoffman’s “The Rules of Magic” is a story that begins with “once upon a time” and doesn’t end with “happily ever after.”

It’s a story about losing and loving and losing and living and loving and living despite of it.

You see, the Owens family, who you might have met in Hoffman’s bestselling 1995 sequel “Practical Magic” (which also became a 1998 motion picture starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as the great nieces to the characters in this book), are an old magical family of witches from Massachusetts. Their ancestor Maria Owens was persecuted for witchery during the Salem witch trials in the 1600s. After being imprisoned and betrayed by her lover John Hathorne, she cursed her family to never fall in love.


“The Rules of Magic” 
By Alice Hofman. 
367 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27.99.

Try as you might, you can’t help but fall in love with Maria’s descendants: resourceful Franny, kind Jet and charismatic Vincent, who come to age centuries later in New York City during the Cold War, Kennedy assassination, Stonewall riots and Vietnam War.

The Owens siblings inherit their family’s curses: to always float above water, to be able to read minds, to know the future and to be unlucky in love.

Told in six chapters that span decades, “The Rules of Magic” feels like Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” meeting Diana Wynne Jones “Howl’s Moving Castle” — the type of story that makes your heart grow three sizes and believe in the impossible. There’s magic and poetry and longing in Hoffman’s words. You just wish the book didn’t have to end.


When you can’t stop thinking about ‘Turtles All The Way Down’

John Green’s newest young adult novel “Turtles All The Way Down” begins with a fictional character wondering if she’s a fictional character from someone else’s imagination.

And she is entirely fictional, conjured out of Green’s mind, but she feels very real.

That realness comes from Green, who like his creation, 16-year-old Aza Holmes, has crippling anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Like his character Aza, he sometimes loses himself in his thoughts and can’t stop thinking about it how the bacteria around him could make him sick, how the food he eats might be poisoned, or how to write a novel that could follow the smashing success of book-turned-movie “The Fault in Our Stars” (2012).


“Turtles All The Way Down”
By John Green.
286 pp. Dutton. $19.99

“Of course, you pretend to be the author. You have to,” writes Green. “But I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”

Aza tries to tell her own story too. She really does. But it’s hard when all her brain thinks about is if she’s real. She thinks of herself as more a sidekick to her best friend Daisy rather than the main character, really. That’s why when billionaire Russell Davis Pickett goes missing and Daisy wants to find him to get the reward the police are offering for information leading to his arrest, Aza passively goes along with it.

Daisy knows Aza has an in. Aza used to go Sad Camp — a.k.a. camp for kids whose parent(s) died — with Pickett’s oldest teenaged son, Davis, whose family’s mansion is 10 minutes from her house. And so the plan is to get close to Davis again and find out where his missing dad is.

This is one of the rare John Green novels where you want to spend more time thinking about the boy (the Miles to Alaska of “Looking for Alaska”, the Colin to Katharine in “The Abundance of Katherines” or the Quentin to Margo in “Paper Towns”) rather than the book’s quirky teenaged heroine. Perhaps that’s because Davis is the tragically abandoned, wonderfully nerdy, articulate and misunderstood teenaged billionaire who looks at stars, watches space movies and writes poetry in his spare time (Do those really exist in real life?). But mostly, it’s probably because you’re in Aza’s mind and her consciousness has you picking at your blisters, slabbing on hand sanitizer and breathing into a paper bag too.

If you had some control, you’d put the book down and try to think about the reward at the end of the treasure hunt — just anything other than your own insecurities. But that’s not how anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders work. You can’t stop thinking about how the tiniest of moles might be cancer, how everybody hates you or how you just might be a fictional character in someone else’s story.

Mental illness isn’t easy to live with, but through Green’s novel, you get a peek into its host. Aza can’t kiss anyone without panicking about germs. But somehow, life goes on anyway.

It doesn’t matter what you think of ‘Emma in the Night’

No matter what you think of Wendy Walker’s newest psychological thriller “Emma in the Night,” that doesn’t matter.

“We believe what we want to believe,” writes Walker in the book’s opening lines, perhaps challenging those who dismiss it as a worser version of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” or as a book that makes so sense.


“Emma in the Night” 
By Wendy Walker. 
305 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.

The theory in her case is two teenaged sisters went missing on the same night about three years ago. Three years later, Cass Tanner, now 18, returns on her mother’s doorstep. Her older sister, Emma, is still missing, but Cass says Emma’s held captive on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine.

Walker’s book alternates between the first person perspective of 18-year-old Cass and that of 32-year-old Dr. Abigail “Abby” Winter, an FBI forensic psychologist who’s been examining the case with her partner Agent Leo Strauss. (Weirdly enough, since the chapters are titled either “Cass” or “Dr. Winter,” Dr. Winter’s chapters are written in the omniscient third person where the narrator knows what Abby is thinking and feeling — a direct contrast to the “Cass” chapters, which are written in first person.)

These writing conventions make “Emma in the Night” a bit hard to follow, for perhaps both author and reader — especially when you’re reading points of “Dr. Winter” chapters when Cass is supposed to be talking, but speaks as if she’s writing; or when you’re reading Abby chapters where Abby knows exactly what Cass means with a bit of obscure dialogue.

It’s as if Walker is arguing about a pig who could fly with an elephant on its back in a submarine in outer space.

But that’s besides the point.

The point is that it doesn’t matter if you hate “Emma in the Night” because there will also be those who love it, its unreliable narrators and it’s plot twists. To borrow Walker’s words, “We believe what we want to believe” — which means it’s pointless to try to convince someone why they need or don’t need to read “Emma in the Night.”

‘Out of Sight! Art of the Senses’ changes how you think of art

The Albright-Knox Art gallery’s experiential modern art exhibit “Out of Sight! Art of the Senses” seems like it’s geared toward “millennials who prefer experiences over things.”  

Curated by Peggy Pierce Elfvin, Janne Sirén, Joe Lin-Hill and Cathleen Chaffee, “Out of Sight! Art of the Senses” features contemporary art you can not just see, but also touch, smell, feel or taste.

The exhibit opens with Feliz Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Water)”  — a curtain of aqua-blue and clear beads hung from wall to wall. Torres intended for the viewer to interact with this work by either running their fingers along the beads to feel the “water” or walk through the beads to get to the other side.

Many walked around the work, but those who walked through it found Lucas Samaras’ “Mirrored Room” (1966) — which is exactly what it sounds like, a cube of mirrors which contains only a desk and chair. Since it’s a square room made up of 300 mirrored surfaces on wood, it seems much bigger than it is — almost infinite.

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“Mirrored Room” by Lucas Samaras. (Photo by Qina Liu)


The subject(s) change depending on who’s in the room and where they are in that space. It’s also the perfect place for the most epic “Matrix” mirror selfie you’ve ever taken.


All the works in this exhibit encourage you to interact with them in some way. Korean artist Do Ho Suh built a life-size polyester-made replica of the corridor to his old apartment and invited viewers to walk through his past.

Ernesto Neto’s “SoundWay” (2012), features this giant crochet blanket suspended in mid-air to form a tunnel of waves. Bells and shells form the tassels of this blanket, but they don’t make sound without a subject. As you experience this piece, run their fingers through the blanket so the bells and shells clank together — forming the melodic and meditative “sound wave.”

One of the coolest and perhaps scariest pieces in this exhibit (depending on how much you like actually talking to people) is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work — a orange tent where its attendants (whether friends or strangers) are encouraged to sit for tea and conversation.

Works like these challenge how you think of art — not just as something pleasing or unpleasing to the eye — but also as space, experiences and memories that could last lifetimes.

“Out of Sight! Art of the Senses” was organized by Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director Janne Sirén, Deputy Director Joe Lin-Hill and Chief Curator Cathleen Chaffee. The exhibit is displayed from Nov. 4, 2017 to Jan. 28, 2018 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y.