Book Club

Magpie Book Club: The Death of Mrs. Westaway + More.

By: Jen Shoop

Sorry this post went live so late!

So first — our next synchronous book club meeting will be Tuesday, July 10th, at 7 PM!  There will be a live group of us meeting to discuss in Central Park here in NYC, and a second group meeting in Volta Park in D.C.  If you want to be on the list for future in-person convenings, let me know at   Alternately, please read along and share your thoughts via the comments section or in your own little pod of magpies!   As a reminder, we are reading Lauren Groff’s Florida, and I will circulate reading questions in another week or two.  You probably know Groff’s name from her wildly successful first book, Fates + Furies, the scope and depth of which still lingers with me nearly two years after reading it.

Second — what I’ve been reading lately!

Book Review: Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway

Four stars!  I have a soft spot for creepy thrillers — I suppose it hearkens back to my childhood predilection for Agatha Christies, Nancy Drews, Boxcar Children, etc. — so I instantly gravitated toward this one by veteran suspense author Ruth Ware.  The book had a slow start and the heroine was cloyingly sputtering and swoon-y, but it did not disappoint.   There are some scholars who contend that The Gothic is a mode of writing rather than a signifier of a time period, and I would agree after reading this book, which felt thoroughly Gothic to me in its incarnation of space (the central “space” in Mrs. Westaway is an old, decaying mansion and — even better — an isolated old bedchamber to which the heroine is confined with locks on the outside of the door!), its anxieties, even its mirrorings/doublings (twins, plot recursions and symmetries, etc).  Further, much of Gothic literature explores, subverts, or otherwise interrogates primogeniture and patrilineal inheritance as a principal theme — and this book drives squarely in that lane, posing questions of family, identity, ownership, and property, though this time — and the title of the book should stand as a clue — with a determined focus on the female and specifically maternal relationships within the novel.  Spoiler alert (close your eyes if you want to be surprised): I especially appreciated the overall plot arc, where the absence of a mother sends a down-and-out Hal in search of fortune, and she not only finds financial stability but three mothers (Maud, Maggie, and her surrogate mother at the end, Mitzi; even the triplet M names were a thoughtful touch!)  I loved this twist on convention, where the restoration of strong female relationships returns the story to a comfortable denouement; romantic or paternal ones are largely out of the picture.  Further, the novel deftly examined the age-old friction between fate and personal agency, which Ware called into focus with particular emphasis through Hal’s profession as a fortune teller.  (This theme felt a propos of some of my more recent musings, too.)  All-in, this was a carefully crafted novel, and I felt its timelessness lent credulity to some of the book’s “old school” themes and personas (i.e., the sinister, Mrs. Danvers-esque housekeeper); some of Ware’s other books feel more obviously contemporary, and while certain markers (cell phones, cars, etc) reminded us that this story takes place in the here-and-now, its ethos and even much of its plot feel decidedly outside of time.

Book Review: Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife

3.5 stars.  (Fine, I’m going to start permitting half stars — I used to be stickler, forcing myself to round up or down to a whole number because going halvesies is sort of like not picking a side.  But half stars are sometimes so needed!)  American Wife is Sittenfeld’s fictionalization of Laura Bush’s life.  Apparently, Sittenfeld read that Bush was in a car accident as a teen in which the other driver was killed, and spun this entire fictional account out of it — and though many details have been changed (i.e., this story is about a wealthy conservative family from Wisconsin rather than Texas), there are some obvious parallels (9/11, etc.) that make it nearly impossible not to imagine Laura and George as the focal point of the story.  There are three simultaneous and proportional reactions I had:

  1.  Wow — outstandingly impressive breadth of detail!  Sittenfeld writes this as if it were her own diary; she fully inhabits the protagonist, and the sheer aggregation of minute details read more like memoir than fiction.  I am gobsmacked by her creativity and specificity; the characters were complex and well-drawn in a way that afforded the book an earnestness, a truth-to-life, and often left me forgetting that I was reading fiction!  I particularly felt that the protagonist’s internal negotiations with regards to her commitment to her family, her marriage, and her friendships were believable and relatable.
  2. Way too long.  It took me weeks to get through this; huge portions of it dragged, especially the last third of the book, where Sittenfeld seems to entirely drop her narrative style in favor of more general reflections/observations on the protagonist’s role as first lady.  Snooze.  I found this part to be far less interesting than the first two thirds.
  3. Of questionable ethics.  Sittenfeld’s borrowing of certain details from Bush’s real life and her fictionalization of others left a sour taste in my mouth, as I have found myself assuming certain bits of the book to be true when they most likely are not, and — against my best attempts — the book has permanently shaped my perception of the Bush family.  I wondered whether Sittenfeld was criticized for this, or even charged with character assassination?  I suppose any fictional author has the license to write whatever he or she wishes, but when you are a best-selling author writing about a highly contentious president and his wife, I wonder whether…it just feels questionable to me.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading some sort of illicit/voyeuristic fan fiction, and it left me in an odd state of mind.

Next Up: Lauren Groff’s Florida

+Currently reading Lauren Groff’s Florida — another collection of short fiction!  I promise not all of the Magpie book club picks will be short stories (though you should definitely read last month’s if you haven’t yet — it’s amazing!)

+For another book club, I will be reading Hans Rosling’s Factfulness.  Mr. Magpie has been raving about it.  Apparently Bill Gates found it to influential that he gifted a copy to every single 2018 college graduate (every single one!  think about that!)   See if its book jacket tickles your fancy:  “When asked simple questions about global trends—what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school—we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers.  Factfulness…offers a radical new explanation of why this happens. They reveal the ten instincts that distort our perspective—from our tendency to divide the world into two camps (usually some version of us and them) to the way we consume media (where fear rules) to how we perceive progress (believing that most things are getting worse).”  I timely read, I think, in the face of “fake news” and all that jazz!

+For fun: When Life Gives You Lululemons by Lauren Weisberger, author of Devil Wears Prada.  It’s getting good reviews and looks like a perfect beach read (especially if I can finish most/all of the books above prior to my trip next week!)


+One of my longtime readers asked whether I was ever able to find a backpack I loved that I could use as a diaper bag.  The answer is — no!  I’m still looking for something, and therefore still awkwardly tangling my way through subway turnstiles.  I have been super picky about this.  However, I might go for something super simple and unfussy like this.

+Several of you asked what I ended up wearing for my birthday!  I had gone through a quadrillion options (some great picks here), but when a shopping trip with my sister left me empty-handed and then this Gul dress I ordered did not fit (something weird about the boob area on that dress), I decided to shop my own closet and ended up wearing a tiered white Self-Portrait maxi from a couple seasons back that looks a lot like this with my go-to evening sandals and my favorite floral earrings.  During the day, I wore a white DVF shirtdress  from a couple seasons back similar to this and my new floral slides.

+Speaking of shirtdresses, this is right up my alley!

+Two of my favorite birthday gifts?  A set of these and a pair of these. One advantage to having a blog is that my family knows EXACTLY what I want 🙂

+I think I might line my dresser drawers with these.  I love the patterns they come in!

+Meanwhile, for those of us short on space and storage solutions, I ordered two of these for some overflow bulky sweaters that just won’t fit anywhere else.

+Great gear for tiny apartments.

+Some of my other favorite Amazon purchases.

+There’s a great Neiman’s sale raging, with incredible prices on designer dresses — like this one!

+Super pretty iphone case.  It reminds me of my mom!

+Are you a crier?



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10 thoughts on “Magpie Book Club: The Death of Mrs. Westaway + More.

  1. I just learned about Lily Jade bags. Diaper bags can convert into backpacks. They look beautiful – you might enjoy!

  2. I don’t read too many thrillers, but your review of The Death of Mrs. Westaway has me wanting to read it! I just have to get through the like 50 books I own but haven’t read … haha!

    Your review of American Wife has me thinking hard back to my experience reading it. Overall I enjoyed it — I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads — but it’s been nearly a decade since I read it (!) so the memory is not exactly what you’d call fresh. I do recall being slightly put off by certain aspects of the book (thinking of the ethical questions you raise), but I read it very early on in the Obama administration — interesting to think of how the political atmosphere might change one’s perception of the material.

    I really want to read Florida as well, but am going to save it for a future time … I’m trying to finish up two titles I’ve been reading for weeks so I can start something new. 🙂

    1. Yes! You’ll have to give Westaway a try at some point in the future. I know exactly how you feel, though — I have about 34902839283 books on my reading list! xo

  3. After seeing that you are searching for a diaper bag- backpack style, I couldn’t resist sharing a recommendation. I have this bag in the black and love it- after having bag envy of a friend, three other friends also purchased the bag!

  4. Did you find Factfulness to ultimately be encouraging/uplifting? I’m intrigued, but I’m finding current events so incredible depressing right now that I’m not sure I can even handle non-fiction about the world! (How sad is that?)

    1. Hi Brooke! I hear you…! I think that this book is meant to be ultimately uplifting — at least, this is what I can surmise from Mr. Magpie, who says his principle takeaway thus far is that the world is actually better off than ever before (people living longer, more women being educated, lower rates of disease and natural disaster, etc.) I haven’t yet started it but will let you know if I agree when I do! xo

  5. So glad you enjoyed The Death of Mrs Westaway! It was really a pleasant surprise for me, particularly as I thought The Woman in Cabin 10 was vastly overrated as a thriller – far too overwrought and hysterical.

    I recently switched from a tote-style diaper bag to Freshly Picked’s leather backpack, and proclaimed it my favorite purchase of the year – so much easier to carry my little guy’s necessities, especially now that he eschews the stroller most of the time (he’s 2.5 going on 13). And it also fits my laptop for travel days! Highly recommend.

    1. Totally agree with your assessment of Ware’s two books. I felt like this was far better crafted and much richer. Thinking about the two together, I’m intrigued by the themes of confinement vs escape and the psychological/gender implications she seems to be drawn to.

      Thanks for the tip on the backpack! I’m sold on its utility, I just can’t figure out a style I am wild over! ox

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