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May 5, 2021

The Notebook

Wendy Francis is the author of five novels: THREE GOOD THINGS, THE SUMMER OF GOOD INTENTIONS, THE SUMMER SAIL, BEST BEHAVIOR and the newly released SUMMERTIME GUESTS. She was fortunate enough to grow up in a book-loving family as both her parents were avid readers. One of Wendy's favorite books to read with her mother was GRIMM'S FAIRY TALES. These old-fashioned stories --- including “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel” and “Rumpelstiltskin" --- taught her important life lessons that she was able to grasp even as a child. Years later, Wendy and her brother came across a very special notebook that perfectly captured the essence of their mother, whose ability to “tell it like it is” shines through in these pages.


Whenever people described my mother, the word “grace” usually found its way into their vocabulary. “She was the grace note at every dinner party,” they might say, meaning she was skilled at keeping the conversation interesting without letting it escalate into a philosophical debate, which was often my father’s forte. My mother was quick to laugh, always at the ready to pour more wine or offer another slice of pie so that you might stay a bit longer and tell your story.

As a child, though, I mostly knew her as my adoring mom and as a woman who loved to read. Every time we moved apartments, our family (my dad was also an avid reader) would box up our books and then unpack them again, reshelving them on the two dark wooden bookcases that traveled with us, like a pair of extra children. But there was never enough space. Our family collected books like stray cats. A long-forgotten novel might be rediscovered to our delight months later in the pantry or in the piano bench. Once we joked that we should use the oven as a bookcase.

Bedtime meant choosing my favorite books to read, but more often than not, I’d pick GRIMM'S FAIRY TALES. There were the traditional stories –-- “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “Rumpelstiltskin” –-- and more obscure ones, such as “The Queen Bee” and “The Dog and the Sparrow.” Did my mother talk to me about the objectification of women in these fables? How Cinderella winning the prince’s affection wasn’t really the secret to a happy life? I don’t know. I don’t recall. I’d like to think she hinted at it. But those old-fashioned stories had other important takeaways, such as: It’s almost always better to be kind, trickery only gets you into trouble and hard work most often pays off. Whether or not we discussed them, those lessons were busily burrowing their way into my young mind.

Years later, after she’d gone, my brother and I were sorting through her things --- books upon books, closets full of clothing --- until we stumbled upon a notebook filled with her impeccable handwriting. To our surprise, the pages contained scores of her brief reviews on all the novels she’d read over a span of maybe five years. Next to each title was a publication date and sometimes a note about where she’d found it (the library, a book sale, a gift). Some of her notes gushed with praise for authors like Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver and Elizabeth George, but other comments could be downright acerbic. My brother and I laughed to see her describe more than one novel as “not that good.” Another had “too many characters” to keep track of, and for yet another she wrote, “Who reads this drivel?” Who knew our mom could throw a zinger when she wanted to?

At first, her comments seemed out of character. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the reviews –-- both the raves and the critiques –-- captured her essence. If she felt cheated out of a good ending, she said so. If there was trickery that went unpunished, she was almost always dissatisfied. She read not only with a writer’s eye for language, but with a discerning mother’s eye about the ways of the world. If a character wasn’t believable, it was duly noted. There was a prevailing sense that if she’d given her time to a book, then it owed her something in return: information, a new perspective, great writing, a killer storyline or, at the very least, authenticity. When it didn’t deliver, the notebook heard about it.

Discovering my mother’s notebook of miniature reviews that day felt like unearthing a piece of her that was both familiar and new. It was a good reminder that just like those old-fashioned fairy tales, life’s stories are a mixture of good and evil, salty and sweet. It’s finding –-- and accepting –-- the balance that makes them so worthwhile.