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The Boston Globe

Books

Short Takes

Capsule reviews of three recent titles

AFTER THE FALL

By Victoria Roberts

Norton, 184 pp., illustrated, $24.95

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What’s an Upper East Side family to do when the coffers run dry? In this loopy, charming fantasy by New Yorker magazine cartoonist Victoria Roberts, they simply move across Fifth Avenue, settling into the expanse of Central Park. Pops, a formerly successful inventor, and Mom, a chain-smoking Argentine fashion plate, relocate daughter Alexandra and son Alan, along with the family’s three pugs, to their new digs, bringing along the wine cellar (now buried underground, where Pops has to dig for bottles each night like a squirrel). At first, Alan, the book’s narrator, spends days at the Metropolitan Museum (tuition unpaid, the children’s private school turns them away), but as cold weather sets in the family stops leaving the park entirely.

Part graphic novel, part extended New Yorker cartoon, “After the Fall” is more surreal than social realism, and yet a certain emotional gravity takes hold as Alan learns to go to bed hungry (the next day a chef from one of their favorite restaurants shows up with a peace offering, so it’s fleeting). Still, the children face travail and danger, and do so with aplomb. With its echoes of Salinger’s Glass family, as well as any in a Wes Anderson film, Alan’s eccentric clan is memorably strange and winning, and the book slight but satisfying.

LISTENING FOR MADELEINE: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices

By Leonard S. Marcus

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 363 pp., illustratd, $28

“It was a dark and stormy night.” So begins Madeleine L’Engle’s most famous book, the children’s classic “A Wrinkle in Time.” Her choice to use “one of the hoariest of clichés” to open “her most audaciously original work of fiction,” as Leonard Marcus puts it in this multifaceted new look at the writer, illustrates her great wit and contrarian energy. Marcus, whose previous books include a stunning biography of Margaret Wise Brown and several works on the history of children’s literature, approaches L’Engle obliquely here. In a series of interviews, he unearths reflections on L’Engle from family, friends, editors, and fellow religious seekers. Among their memories, he paints a portrait likely more accurate than that L’Engle herself put forth in her many memoirs.

Born in 1918 to a New Yorker father and a Southern mother, L’Engle seemed out of place to her Florida cousins (“always writing or reading,” one of them complains). At Smith College, she was a classmate of the future Betty Friedan; after college, she acted professionally and wrote in her spare time. She declared herself apolitical, refusing to stand as a feminist icon — even though for many of her own children’s friends, she was the first working woman they ever knew. A devout Episcopalian, her books were among the earliest children’s literature to blend science fiction, fantasy, and spiritual concerns — such genre-busting was no doubt part of the reason “A Wrinkle in Time” was initially rejected by so many publishers, an affront L’Engle reportedly brought up for decades afterward. Complex and sometimes difficult (her daughter Josephine remembers her with love but exasperation here), L’Engle is beautifully served by this thoughtful, sensitive book.

LILLY: Palm Beach, Tropical Glamour, and the Birth of a Fashion Legend

By Kathryn Livingston

Wiley, 244 pp., illustrated, $25.95

You see them every summer: floridly bright and dazzlingly patterned shifts worn by country club ladies and girls of all ages. Back in style again (though in some quarters they never went out), Lilly Pulitzer dresses rank among the icons of 20th century American fashion. Their eponymous creator was a native of the upper crust — born Lillian Lee McKim, she went to Chapin as a classmate of Jacqueline Bouvier’s — and her marriage to Peter Pulitzer was vaguely scandalous because of his Jewish roots and the young couple’s plan to live in Florida (Lilly was “Palm Beach royalty” via her stepfather, Ogden Phipps) year-round. Her dress business began in a juice stand (the Pulitzers owned groves); before long, the Lilly, an easy-to-wear shift in colorful cotton, became more popular than the juices.

Livingston, a journalist covering the resort beat, tells Pulitzer’s story with admiration and a keen eye for luxury. Relentlessly peppy and fueled by gossip, the book can read like a particularly long society-page dispatch — or a publicity notice for the clothing brand — but at times it’s great fun, as when Pulitzer responds to a retailer asking her to make fall or winter clothing: “Oh, but you don’t understand, it’s always summer somewhere.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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