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No One You Know (thoughts)

May 19, 2009

no-one-you-knowAs regular readers of my blog know, I don’t read much contemporary American literature. It’s not so much that I’m not interested in it, but that I’m more interested in other genres. Anyway, so when author Michelle Richmond first contacted me about reviewing her second novel No One You Know, I wasn’t sure it would be a good match. Fortunately, after reading up on it online, I decided to go for it. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much I got into the story; in fact, I read it in a single night.

But let’s back up a little. No One You Know is about Ellie Enderlin, now in her forties, whose life has been shaped by the murder of her older sister twenty years earlier. At the beginning of the novel, a catalyst occurs, that sends Ellie on a quest to pin down who killed her sister, which of course dredges up a lot of old memories. This is very much a woman’s book, since we’re inside Ellie’s head, and so much of her thoughts revolve around her sister, her relationships with men, her mother: the kind of things that preoccupy many American women. I loved this aspect of it; Ellie felt very real to me, and I was definitely emotionally invested in her. Also, I liked how it was a quiet book; yes, her sister’s murder overshadows everything Ellie does, but it isn’t at all a mystery or thriller. Character development is much more important than plot, which is just the way I like it!

Another thing Richmond does well is weaving interesting things about math and coffee into the narrative. In one of those fun moments of reading synchronicity, I was reading Javatrekker, a travel memoir by a coffee person, at the same time. In the book, Ellie is a coffee taster and buyer, and while there’s never enough dwelling on coffee to slow the story down, it definitely plays a role. The scenes with Ellie at her job felt quite organic to me, and even though I can’t drink coffee myself, I definitely lived vicariously! As far as the math goes, Ellie’s sister was a mathematical genius working on her doctorate at Stanford when she was murdered. Ellie gets a hold of the notebook her sister carried everywhere, and various mathematical proofs and puzzles are sprinkled in the text. This part felt a bit gimmicky, to be honest, but the math was interesting enough for me to forgive that. ;) And for any math-phobes out there, since we see the notebook through Ellie’s eyes, things stay simple.

The book also had a strong sense of place: Ellie is a San Francisco native, which is where the author herself lives, and the city was definitely more than just backdrop. It’s almost like another minor character, as Ellie goes around the area meeting various people, and just living her life, I could picture the various city streets along with her.

Michelle RichmondWhile all of this contributed to my enjoyment of the book, what I really connected with (other than Ellie herself) was Richmond’s exploration of stories, and how the telling of our lives can affect us. It’s human nature to tell stories, and perhaps the one we tell the most often is of ourselves; I know I find myself shaping narratives in essays for school admission or scholarship contests that, while everything is true, simplify things considerably. That choice of how we get down to the basics of our lives, which events or characteristics we prioritise and endow with meaning, I find fascinating. And it’s not just autobiographical writing; in any nonfiction (and you know how much I love reading it!), the author has to take sides, build an argument or a story or something to hold together a book based around facts. After her sister died, Ellie turned to an English professor for mentoring and friendship. Of course, she talked a lot about her sister, and only months later learned that her professor was writing everything down and had decided to write a true crime book about the event. Obviously, Ellie was horrified, but she couldn’t help reading the book anyway. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

The sixth chapter of Murder by the Bay, more than any other, shined a spotlight on our home life. Entitled “A Tale of Two Sisters,” it focused in particular on the relationship between me and Lila. As I read the book that night, three weeks after its publication, I cringed at the picture Thorpe painted of the two of us, the idea that we could be so easily summed up.
One was tall and dark, the chapter began, the other petite and fair. One was a math prodigy, while the other was always lost in books.
Both of these sentences were basically true, although the language implied a kind of fairy-tale dichotomy that had not existed in real life. …Thorpe went on to portray Lila as painfully shy, me as wildly sociable. But to anyone who actually knew us, it would have been clear that Thorpe had grossly exaggerated our differences for dramatic effect. Anything that might disrupt the narrative as he saw it was omitted: he never said that until Lila’s death, I had always been quite studious when it came to the classes I enjoyed. He never mentioned that Lila, while basically a loner, could be quite friendly with strangers.

Sorry that was so long, but I shortened it as much as I could! :)

I definitely enjoyed No One You Know, and while I’m not rushing out to read Richmond’s other books, her elegant and intelligent storytelling impressed me. I’m certainly glad I stepped outside my usual genres to get a taste of current American writing. If any of what I’ve mentioned sounds interesting, or if the book blurb grabs your interest, I encourage you to go ahead and read this one. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2009 12:55 pm

    Fantastic review! I really want to try some of Richmond’s work.

  2. May 19, 2009 1:36 pm

    Sounds good. I’ll add to my tbr pile.

  3. May 19, 2009 1:45 pm

    I was surprised to see this on your site because I know you don’t typically read books like this, but I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I read The Year of Fog last year and was a huge fan, and I’m actually getting a copy of No One You Know sent out to me as I type – I’m sure I’ll love it. :) Thanks for the great review, Eva!

  4. May 19, 2009 1:49 pm

    Really great review. I enjoyed this book also.

  5. May 19, 2009 2:09 pm

    OOOoo – I want to read this now! Thank you, excellent review as always.

  6. May 19, 2009 2:28 pm

    I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction either but I think I might like this one.

  7. May 19, 2009 3:55 pm

    You know this doesn’t sound like I book I would naturally gravitate to either, but your review definitely left me intrigued. I loved what you wrote about storytelling and the ways we define our lives.

  8. May 19, 2009 4:19 pm

    Sounds like a very good read for an afternoon. I’ve been reading more American literature recently, finding the voice of women very appealing.

  9. May 19, 2009 6:48 pm

    I’d like to read this one as I enjoyed the authors earlier book.

  10. May 19, 2009 7:16 pm

    I don’t think I would go rushing to take this off the shelf, but you make it sound interesting, especially the story-within-a-story-within-a -story, which would be difficult to pull off. Like what you wrote about the stories we write & tell about (and to)ourselves. So true!

  11. May 19, 2009 10:13 pm

    I was surprised to see this book on your blog :)
    I read a lot of contemporary literature and this book does sound interesting to me, I am just not very fond of the math stuff. But if you say, it’s not overbearing I’ll take your eord for it :)

    I’m glad you stepped out of your genre’s and decided to give this a try, you’ll be surprised to know that there is a lot of contemporary American literature you might enjoy.

  12. May 20, 2009 6:20 am

    Joshilyn Jackson has an interview with Richmond on her blog. You should check it out if you want.

    This book is on my TBR list. Your rave review just bumped it up a few rungs. :)

  13. May 20, 2009 7:42 am

    I love those “women fiction” books. I guess maybe as I get older I feel like I’m finding more things to relate to with those stories. Who knows… Anyway, I read Michelle’s book The Year of Fog earlier this year and loved it. She uses memories and photographs a lot to explain the events in the story and for me that really made it standout from other women fiction type books.

    Thank you for such a great review of this one. It’s definitely on my wish list!

  14. May 21, 2009 3:34 pm

    BermudaOnion, thanks!

    Linda, I hope you enjoy it. :)

    Heather, it’s definitely not my typical read, but it was still good! I think you’ll definitely love it. :D

    Darlene, thanks!

    Care, you’re so sweet. :)

    Belle, it definitely impressed me!

    Debi, I think you’d like it, but I’m not sure you’d love it.

    Matthew, yep: definitely a lazy afternoon book!

    Diane, I hope you enjoy it!

    DS, thanks: I just love storytelling stuff.

    Violet, I promise there isn’t a lot of math stuff! :) I bet there’s a lot of American lit about there I’m missing, but I can only read so many books lol!

    Nik, oh very cool-I love Jackson. :D

    Iliana, I’m loving women fiction lately too, as long as it’s well written. :)

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  1. Review – No One You Know by Michelle Richmond | Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?

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