The Monday Book: THE YEAR OF FOG by Michelle Richmond

FogPublished in 2007, this drifted into our bookstore, and I picked it up because it had a beach on the cover. It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter, and despite what your teachers told you, yes, you can judge a book that way.

From this inauspicious beginning, Fog turned into one of those books you carry with you from bathroom to bedroom, stuff into your purse in case you get a spare minute, sneak open when you should be dusting. It’s a cracking good read.

Richmond has a kind of four-part harmony going throughout her novel: it’s part mystery, has a lot of science bits about the brain and camera function in it, contains about three love stories, and is lyrically philosophical. Too intellectual to be a fast read, too compelling to be a slow one, all I can say is Richmond may well have invented a new genre: smartlit.

The story rolls around a central theme: a photographer named Abby, engaged to a man with a little girl, takes her for a walk on the beach, and the child vanishes. The whole next year is about memory, loss, memory loss, and how our brains work–not to mention Abby’s search for her missing step-daughter-to-be. Reminiscent of Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, but more tightly woven as one story, the themes swirl around each other: protagonist Abby relives a bad love affair while trying to keep her current one alive; she researches brain activity, giving lovely insights into what the hippocampus and amygdala do and how we live that out day to day; she explores what it means to be the stepmom in a family, to love two people as part of a whole package; and then there’s the actual mystery of where the little girl went, and why.

My agent Pamela and I often discuss narrative arcs (she sometimes in despairing terms at my journalistic writing style) and this book is not only a good read, but teaches a great deal about how to create one. The themes are so tight intrinsically, yet bounce off each other so well that, if one of them doesn’t interest you all that much, you can skip it and still enjoy the story. I didn’t give two hoots for Abby’s old love affair, but skimming those parts didn’t diminish devouring the book an iota. Richmond’s writing is an odd amalgam of tight and fast, yet relaxed and unhurried. It’s as if Ernest Hemingway had allowed himself to be happy in life, and this got reflected in his writing.

As our shop cat Valkyttie would say, two paws up for Richmond’s The Year of Fog. This author has other books; I’m going to keep an eye out for them.


9 Pieces of Memoir Writing Advice from 8 Great Sources

William Zinsser: “Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives.”

Gore Vidal: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life.”

Patricia Hampl: “You can’t put much on paper before you betray your secret self, try as you will to keep things civil.”

And also Patricia Hampl: “I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.”

Darin Strauss: “I think each family has a funhouse logic all its own, and in that distortion, in that delusion, all behavior can seem both perfectly normal and crazy.”

David Ben-Gurion: “Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs.”

Joan Didion: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.”

Stephen King: “The scariest moment is always just before you start.  After that, things can only get better.”

Gloria Steinem: “Just remember, you can’t divorce a book.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.”