Emma Donoghue, Little, Brown, 288 pages
How do you follow up an international best-seller like “Room”? With a collection of short stories inspired by snippets of history, naturally. “Astray” shows Emma Donoghue’s confidence as a writer, bringing to life the characters that piqued her interest in everything from 19th-century letters to a line in a New York newspaper in 1735. If you’re not sure whether you want to give it a chance, read the Afterword first. Donoghue writes eloquently about what binds the stories together: “Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways – they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of place, out of their depth.”
All the stories are brief, featuring characters far from home who find themselves not just geographically astray, but morally, too. Donoghue is gifted at imagining narrators from all walks of life. She writes one in the voice of a slave in 1864 Texas who murders his master and runs away with his wife: “She turn, she look in my face, she say I packed my bag. Her hand like a knot in mine.” Another tells the story of a pair of 1896 gold diggers in the Yukon who create their own “Brokeback Mountain” when snowstorms force them inside their tent for days at a time.
How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance
Marilyn Yalom, Harper Perennial, 400 pages
Cultural historian Marilyn Yalom argues that the French have shaped our understandings and expectations of love and its discontents for nearly a millennium, from Abelard and Heloise to the existential yearnings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
In the Middle Ages, l’amour à la française as an ideal centered on the notion that love, physical as well as spiritual, conquers all obstacles. In the tales told by troubadours across Europe, it evolved into an articulated code of conduct, codified in the romances of Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Iseult. As the Renaissance flowered, gallantry – the art of pleasing women by any means necessary – was added to the mix. Where courtly love focused on undying love for one woman, gallant love encompassed all women, allowing for all sorts of dalliances. But at its root, love was still seen as a transcendent experience – just not necessarily with your spouse.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th the French idea of love was caught between celebrating l’amour in all its manifestations and cursing its bittersweet legacy of suffering, heartbreak and loss. By the 21st century, Yalom despairs, French literature has all but given up on love. Luckily, she notes, the French haven’t.
In “How the French Invented Love,” Yalom is constantly charmed by the French way of life and love – and literature. Only when she finds the latter wanting does she veer into other forms of culture, like painting and, too briefly, film.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel