The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

13547234The 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist was recently announced and bookish people (myself included) tend to love book lists. I mentally make a note to read all of them every year and never succeed. Don’t even really come close actually, but my intentions are pure. When I stumbled upon The Testament of Mary on my local library’s new fiction shelf, I grabbed and conquered this novella rather quickly.

Colm Toibin is becoming quite the prolific author. He’s already become comfortable with being a Man Booker regular. My bookclub and I read Brooklyn a couple of years ago to a fairly mixed reception. I wasn’t the biggest of fans plot-wise, but loved Toibin’s writing. The Testament of Mary is 81 pages focusing on an elderly Mary after Jesus has been crucified. It’s just a short little character study of one of the most famous women of all time. And a Saint, no less.

What worked for me was Mary’s characterization. I liked that Toibin made her a real, elderly woman filled with bittersweet memories, anger, and many mixed emotions about her son and herself. Unfortunately, 81 pages is just not enough time to flesh out such an important biblical figure. With twice as many pages, Toibin could have written a deeply moving masterpiece. Instead, Mary’s contrary characterization comes off as a quick talking point to attract readers rather than a fleshed out analysis of the kind of woman Mary might have been – particularly in light of her life’s tragedies and joys.

I’m beginning to think Mr. Toibin and I just aren’t likely to have a long lasting relationship. I’ve given him two fair tries and nothing has really impressed me. Maybe his genius is just something I can’t see. Or maybe these award lists are full of shit. What do you think? Either way, I’m glad I read it – only took a couple of hours – but I’m even more thankful that I didn’t spend any of my own dollars.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

5246Dear Edith Wharton, I love you. My crush on you knows no bounds and I rank you right alongside Jane Austen. Ethan Frome was awesometacular. Not entirely sure how I will keep myself from living in a Wharton vacuum the rest of the reading year.

Ethan is a guy with a wife. Zeena is that wife and she is a hypocondriac. And just kind of utterly detestable. Zeena has a cousin. Mattie is young, vivacious, and without many plans for her future. She comes to live with the Fromes to help out around the house since Zeena is worthless. Ethan quickly becomes smitten. An elm tree and a sled play large roles.

Ethan Frome is more novella than novel, but still nothing short of brilliant. That ending! I just kind of sat stunned not completely understanding what had happened. So I read the last 10 pages again. And sort of squealed at the ridiculous.

As a character study, Wharton is perfection. I’ve known this some time having reading The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. But as much as I loved those longer novels, I think Ethan Frome has replaced them as my favorite. Which makes me think that Wharton might be even better as a short story writer. This amazes me. I’m crazy excited for her story collections – specifically the ghostly ones.

I recommend this gem to anyone and everyone. It’s so easy to read – give yourself a couple of hours and you’ll knock it out. I’m not sure whether the characters are likeable or even people we should feel sorry for, but I’m still thinking about them nearly 24 hours later. They’ve definitely made a dent in my blackened heart!

And if the characters aren’t enough to entice you or the crazy ending, just know that Wharton’s writing is top notch. Her ability to paint a landscape is genius particularly with so few words. You have nothing to lose here, folks, and everything to gain! Win-Win.

Bonus: 

That pickle holder or whatever it was ended up quite the symbol. Crafty little bugger.