A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents- Liza Palmer

I’m going to develop a reputation for not liking Liza Palmer’s books, but I swear that’s not true.  I really did enjoy the first two of her books that I tried.  (Proof 1 and Proof 2)  But I guess pushing that proof aside, I really did not like A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents.

Alright, so the premise of this story is Grace is from this super tight-knit family with four kids, an estranged father, and a really awesome mother.  Grace’s mother died five years prior to this story started and Grace hasn’t spoken to her siblings since her mother’s funeral.  She has isolated herself in this little bubble of numbness, hiding from the intensity of her grief.  Then, one day, Grace’s sister calls to tell Grace their father has had a stroke and has made their older brother his power of attorney.  Grace sucks it up and out of a feeling of obligation to be a good child like she thinks her mother would have wanted her to be, drives up to see her father and her siblings gathered at his bedside.  It soon becomes clear that Grace’s father is dying and there is a big scuff-up because a lady claiming to be his wife keeps turning up, making it incredibly puzzling why their father left his power of attorney to a son he hasn’t seen in 20 years.  Amid the legal issues this precipitates, Grace is left with trying to process her grief for her mother, resolve her feelings about her father who abandoned her, get back in the good graces of her siblings and nieces/nephew, and reconnect with the boyfriend (who is also older brother’s partner at their law firm) who she abandoned when she deserted her family five years earlier.

There were parts of this story that worked for me, particularly the sibling relationships.  It felt like a very real reunion between these four very close siblings, with some anger and resentment from her sister, total acceptance from her younger brother, and some tough love from her older brother.  In the face of some really trying circumstances, they band together to make sure their father’s dying wishes are complied with.  I also enjoyed the plot antics in terms of the second wife and legal rights and inheritance and all that.  It was an original and interesting plot for a chick lit book and was actually a cohesive plot (unlike that of Girl Before a Mirror).  Also, Palmer’s writing is very readable and this book was no exception.

But there were parts of this book that did remind me of my dissatisfaction with Girl Before a Mirror.  Mainly the romance and character development in this book felt forced, much like they did to me in GBAM.  Grace’s grief bubble dissolves in the blink of an eye.  That sort of sudden character change doesn’t feel authentic and is kind of confusing.  In addition, the romance in this book lacked the establishment of a real connection between John and Grace.  It’s mostly told in flashbacks, but the on-screen, real-time romance we get is no real discussion or resolution of the five years separating these two, but rather just some sex and quick forgiveness and I love yous and never ever leave agains.  And that was also much the same way that the resolution of relationships went for Grace between her and her siblings and between her and her father.  It was all quick and easy forgiveness, and while I was willing to buy that Grace and her siblings could put aside the past to work together on their father’s behalf (after all, that’s what families do), I had a hard time buying that her ex-boyfriend whom she abandoned and the father who abandoned her would result in such easy resolutions.

Also, I wasn’t particularly happy with the ending of this book.  The epilogue was gag-me-with-a-spoon cheesy (seriously, why do authors think the surprise pregnancy is a cute, romantic thing?  WHY?) and for a story with a lot of people in heartaching situations, everything ended up a bit too rosy.  A story about a father who abandons his children and then calls them to his deathbed 20 years later could have much more depth and emotion than this story managed to.  This was all a little more fluffy and happily ever after than you might imagine based on the plot description.

And I think that brings me to the big thing that has been bugging me in Palmer’s books– she chooses very big issues to discuss in her books (the death penalty, school shootings, the death of one’s parents, sexism in advertising) and instead of digging deep, still manages to turn out a story that is rather fluffy without any major examination of those big issues.  I think that’s why Seeing Me Naked and Nowhere But Home worked for me– they were mostly about the family and personal drama.  The death penalty could have been a big issue in the latter, but plot-wise it wasn’t necessary, so it didn’t work against the overall development of the characters.  And I think this is also is why A Field Guide for Burying Your Parents fell so flat for me– it promises to deal with the grief of losing both parents through death and abandonment, but ends up settling for an easy out with a father who always loved his kids and ex-wife, but could never ask for forgiveness and come back to them and made grieving a mother as simple as not talking about it for five years and then having a mini-breakdown in a parking lot.

I only have one of Liza Palmer’s books left to read and I’m honestly not sure if I will or not.  It is her debut and should be closer in tone to Seeing Me Naked.  But I have had such mixed results with her books, that I have a hard time imagining giving them another try with the failures so fresh in my memory (Girl Before a Mirror was such a major disappointment for me).  In any case, it has been interesting to be working on authors’ backlists this year (kind of unintentionally) and to see that sometimes an author who really works for me in one book doesn’t at all in another.  Has this ever happened to you?

Girl Before a Mirror- Liza Palmer

I was super excited about this book.  I’d read Liza Palmer in the past and liked her books and saw the potential for her to write my new favorite book.  The premise sounded interesting– a 40 year old woman turning things around at work, in her love life, and in her friendships and family relationships.  The early reviews were mostly 4 and 5 stars and from reviewers whom I trust to approach the work of a familiar author with critical eyes.  All that to say, I had very high hopes coming into this book and I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite as disappointed with a book as I was with this one.

Girl Before a Mirror is about Anna.  Anna has just turned 40, is divorced and has been on a dating timeout for a couple of years, and works in advertising.  She’s been trying to reshape her life– getting rid of toxic relationships and trying to go after what she really wants.  One thing she really wants is a big, important account at work.  She’s tired of getting no respect for working on ads for women’s products.  She gets a great idea to pitch to Lumineux Shower Gel, to totally rebrand the under-the-radar item and get it into every woman’s shopping cart.  She figures if this is a success, she has a shot at landing Quincy Pharmaceuticals, the parent company of Lumineux.  Part of her ad campaign involves getting a romance novel cover model to be the man in the Lumineux ads.  So off she and her younger coworker, Sasha, go to Phoenix to attend RomCom, the romance novel convention.  In Phoenix, Anna meets Lincoln, a consultant in Phoenix on business and the two hit it off quickly, but while they find intimacy between one another easy, true commitment is another story.  These events set the background to Anna’s journey of self-discovery, as she tries to remake herself into the woman she wants to be, free of the insecurities of her youth.

All of that sounds like a book I would have liked to read, but I did not like reading this book at all.  The plot was very convoluted.  The ad campaign made very little sense to me– its tagline was “just be” and it was supposed to be about women accepting themselves as is, and this somehow had something to do with romance novels and the male models on their covers.  Anna’s relationship with Lincoln felt like instalove.  They meet in the hotel bar, barely talk, then end up making out in the elevator, and suddenly they’re sleeping together and talking about their insecurities and thinking about love.  All over the course of a couple of days.  I don’t want to dismiss whirlwind relationships, but these are two very closed-off people with walls built up all around them.  It was impossible for me to buy that they reached the level of emotional intimacy that they did so quickly and with so few interactions that weren’t just sex.  In addition, most of Anna’s friend/work relationships seemed to suffer from the same feeling of false intimacy.  Anna and Sasha declare themselves friends, but I didn’t really see the building of that relationship.  They are working closely enough together that it seemed reasonable for them to become friends and they acted like friends in the end, but the close confidences and intimacies between the two happened before it felt natural for them to occur, especially with Anna being so afraid to let people in.  On top of Anna’s work and her love life, there is a side plot about Anna’s brother, Ferdie, who ends up in drug rehab and both his problems and Anna’s issues all end up being blamed on their parents who just sort of magically appear as awful and absent people midway into the book.

All of these threads were going on and weren’t handled in way that made it easy to keep things straight… at times I felt like I was missing something– a chapter, a previous book, a conversation, something– that would have explained why Anna felt or acted in certain ways.  The issue with her childhood and parents felt like it came out of nowhere.  And there is a scene where she is rebuffed by the big name romance novelist for dismissing romance novels and for the life of me I couldn’t remember a time where Anna verbally dismissed romance novels.  After all, it was her (and Sasha’s) idea to come to RomCom in the first place.

Palmer tries very hard to make important points about how society undervalues women– as consumers, as workers, as people, as readers.  I nodded my head at most of these points– at how women’s products aren’t important advertising accounts, yet women are the ones spending money.  How ads aimed at women talk down to them or try to make them feel inadequate, rather than trying to speak to them like equals worthy of great things.  How romance novels or pop music are routinely dismissed as trivial or guilty pleasures, when there is value in stories about love and value in pleasure, no matter its source.  But… as important as these points are, they felt out of place in this book.  They are things Anna thinks or talks about, but they didn’t feel organically incorporated into the story.  It isn’t necessary to have Anna say advertising is sexist because it is obvious from the way her bosses treat her accounts, for example.

I left this book feeling like I had read a first draft, like there was something to be fleshed out of this story, but it hadn’t happened yet.  I generally enjoy introspective, smart chick lit and I feel like this was an attempt to be just that, but the lack of cohesion in the plot, the characters, and the deeper message left me disappointed.

Nowhere But Home- Liza Palmer

seriously cute cover

Queen Elizabeth “Queenie” Wake grew up in small town, North Star, Texas, the daughter of the town tramp, who was killed when she was caught sleeping with her best friend’s husband.  Needless to say, the Wakes have been the subject of town gossip and ridicule for a long time.  Ever since Queenie reached adulthood, she has been running from her hometown and her past, taking (and losing) kitchen jobs all across the country.  After a particularly brutal firing in New York City, Queenie decides to make her first visit back to North Star in the past decade to see her sister and nephew.  Queenie takes an opportunity to cook last meals for death-row prisoners at a local prison and starts to consider sticking around.  She loves her sister, her nephew, cooking in her own kitchen, and is starting to get a little closure about her past.

There is one thing that Queenie can’t seem to get past, though, and that is Everett Coburn.  The Coburns are one of North Star’s elite families.  Queenie and Everett had a “secret” relationship all through high school and college, which ended abruptly when Everett decided to marry the girl his parents picked for him.  Even after all this time, Queenie still loves Everett and it seems Everett returns her affections.  But both are afraid to make their relationship public and face the criticism of the town.

I really enjoyed Liza Palmer’s Seeing Me Naked, and Nowhere But Home was also enjoyable, though a little more problematic.  I enjoyed the small town Texas setting, especially because it wasn’t particularly romanticized.  I also liked the seriousness of Queenie’s issues and her courageousness to try something a little weird to work through her issues.  Queenie’s willingness to be herself, even if it’s different, even if it makes her fodder for the town gossips, was good to see.  I have said it before, but I really like seeing young adult women deciding they deserve to be happy and then going after it.  In that respect, this book was yet another excellent chick lit pick.

I did have a few quibbles with this book.  Number one on this list is the love interest, Everett.  He was hardly in this book, except in flashbacks, and he spent most of his youth being ashamed of his feelings for Queenie.  The two haven’t seen each other in 10 years and yet pick up right where they left off.  I just… can’t believe that.  There is so much baggage and so many years between these two, I needed a little more from this romantic plotline to believe it.  Also, capital punishment is a big issue in this book, but it is sort of glossed over.  I know it’s Texas and Texas executes more people than any other state, but really?  Everyone in this book just accepts capital punishment as good and right, even though the details make them squeamish.  I know this is chick lit, but I would think if you’re going to bring up a hot button issue like capital punishment you’d make the discussion a little more nuanced.  And finally, I think the ending here was, like Seeing Me Naked, a little too tidy and a little too happily ever after.  Palmer seems to want to leave every single character a little happier than when she started… and well, that’s not life.

All that said, I will probably read more Liza Palmer in the future.  Even with the flaws in her books, I still find them fun, yet intelligent stories of women making their lives better and creating their own happiness.  If you like smart chick lit, definitely give her books a try.

Seeing Me Naked- Liza Palmer

Elisabeth Page is the daughter of writer, Ben Page, who has the sort of celebrity rarely reserved for writers.  Her brother is heir apparent to their father’s throne, also receiving critical acclaim as a novelist.  Elisabeth chose to stay out of the spotlight by pursuing her passion for cooking, much to her parents’ eternal disappointment.  Years of working demanding hours for low pay have landed her the role of head pastry chef in LA’s hottest French restaurant.  While it is the prestigious role she always dreamed of, it doesn’t leave much room for her to be creative and demands that she work 70+ hour weeks.  Elisabeth has an on-again-off-again relationship with Will, a family friend, who never stays in town for more than a couple days at a time.  But a new relationship with the UCLA assistant basketball coach, Daniel, and the offer of a new job as a television chef have Elisabeth wondering if there isn’t something better out there and if it is about time she allows herself to be happy.

I really enjoyed this book.  Elisabeth is dealing with some difficult issues, particularly her emotionally distant and disapproving father and the fall-out from his selfish, philandering ways.  But she realizes that she deserves a shot at happiness and is willing to make drastic changes to her life to achieve that goal.  I like this sort of chick lit– where there is a lot of character growth and the character has issues that go beyond her love life.  Of course, I also enjoy the hit of romance.  Daniel was a good romantic hero, he was just a genuinely nice guy and had a lot of patience with Elisabeth, who’d never had a functional relationship before.

I did have a couple of minor complaints.  I wasn’t so sure at first about the first person present tense Palmer uses, but eventually I got enough into the story that it stopped bothering me.  And there was something just a little too tidy about the ending of this story that didn’t really fit with the rest of the story.  There are some pretty serious and real problems that Elisabeth deals with, so it kind of came off unnatural for everything to end in sunshine and rainbows.

Overall, though, this was the perfect kind of chick lit for me: smart, with a likeable but flawed main character, and a romance that I could root for.  I definitely want to read more Liza Palmer in the future (and in fact read another one of her books immediately after finishing this one).