In my continuing tale of pretending that I am not taking part in SuperWendy’s TBR challenge, I continue to (quasi) take part by riffing off her monthly themes, and this month is Location Location Location.
Observation 102: Foreshadowing the reading note 42. There is a long history in Australia of migrant Greeks opening milkbars in suburbs and country towns from the mid-twentieth century. Most of these have either closed down or morphed into cafes run by the original migrant owners’ children and grandchildren. Australian photographer and historian couple Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski have captured much of the history of this Greek migrant phenomenon in their non-fiction books.
For example, I remember in 1982 my family going for a holiday to Port Macquarie. My mother mentioned to my dad that she believed her cousin ran a milkbar in the small city but didn’t think it was possible to find her. My dad pulled his car over and called out to a pedestrian “excuse me – where is the best milk bar in town”. The man leant over and said “that would be the Greeks” and proceeded to give my father directions. Dad drove a few blocks. We all got out and it was my mum’s cousin behind the counter.
With stories like these, and experiences in Greek milkbars in Marrickville, Dulwich Hill and Summer Hill in the Inner West where I have spent my whole life, the milkbar is synonymous with family and friends and my experiences. There is even a small bar in Summer Hill called The Rio Bar which draws on its previous history as a Milk Bar which stood there for over 60 years and closed only when its elderly owner George Poulos passed away. The external signage being left intact.
Reading Note 43: Familiarity with a location in novels. Other than romance fiction, I have two other absolute go-to fiction reads – books set in the Inner West of Sydney, (Melina Marchetta, Marele Day) and books written by Greek Australians (Christos Tsiolkas, Peter Polites). So upon discovering that Greek-Australian author Andrew Pippos wrote a book about Greek milkbars in the Inner West of Sydney, it was an auto-read (though it sat on my TBR for over a year). So for my only leisure reading adventure in April, I read Andrew Pippos’s Lucky’s. The Goodreads blurb is as follows:
Lucky’s is a story of family.
A story about migration.
It is also about a man called Lucky.
His restaurant chain.
A fire that changed everything.
A New Yorker article which might save a career.
The mystery of a missing father.
An impostor who got the girl.
An unthinkable tragedy.
A roll of the dice.
And a story of love – lost, sought and won again (at last).
Following a trail of cause and effect that spans decades, this unforgettable epic tells a story about lives bound together by the pursuit of love, family, and new beginnings.
I am not really sure where to start with this book. I was intrigued and excited to read it. The promise of a novel about Greek-Australian milkbars and coffee shops had high expectations for me. Sadly. Because high expectations just makes the disappointment that little bit more palpable.
The book is premised on recently made redundant editor Emily who travels from London to Sydney on a search for her (dead) biological father’s connection to a painting he had given to her of a restaurant called Lucky’s. Emily discovers the story behind Lucky (nicknamed as such because “Vasilios” was too hard) who with his wife Valia, built a franchise of restaurants across New South Wales, having first purchased the restaurant from Valia’s mean-assed father, Achilleas (I can’t remember if it is Achilleas or Achilleon. I have returned my library copy so I can’t check). But like many people who build fortunes, Lucky lost his, due to lives that were lost, his wife divorcing him, and his life opportunities being reversed.
As part of her own search for her father, Emily meets Lucky to interview him for a story she was writing in The New Yorker, an opportunity provided to her from a friend and old lover, a man who gave her the chance to rediscover herself after the revelation of her husband’s infidelity. Pippos’s characters are richly written and the one thing that did shine strongly was his ability to write well-defined female characters, something that his male Greek-Australian contemporaries Peter Polites and Christos Tsiolkas fail, their female characters often being reduced to stereotyped caricatures. Pippos is successful where they are not. I like Emily, Valia and the other women in this book. They are full characters, they are believable and complex throughout the story.
The novel moves back and forth through time, from 2002 to the 1940s, 1960s right through to the 1990s. I do enjoy a book that time jumps in its aim to unravel a story but it didn’t really work for me in Lucky’s. I found that there was too much of a disconnect between Lucky’s tragic story and Emily from England’s story, and the time jumping did it no favours. Unfortunately, this was not my only gripe.
I was annoyed by the idea that Lucky’s was a franchise. I get it. This book is fiction. You can write anything you want in fiction, it is poetic licence and writers can do whatever they like to embellish their stories but I was unconvinced and it annoyed me when it could have easily just carried me with the story.
This is not unusual for me. I’m all over the place with my opinion on anachronisms in fiction. In one book, I may be totally fine with an EJ Holden being driven during a Jazz era scene, and in another book I will be annoyed with go-go dancers in a WWII scene. I am totally at ease with wallpaper historical romances, yet easily annoyed by historical inaccuracies in the series The Tudors. And yet the mention of a 1990s trip to Tempe Tip annoyed me. Tempe Tip closed in the 1970s dammit!
There was too much suspension of disbelief required for my reading of this novel. Lucky’s being a food franchise from the 40s and 50s annoyed me. Food franchises didn’t enter Australian until much later in the 1970s mostly through the American experience of McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It certainly was not true to the Australian experience of Greek milk bars and cafes. These were single family business and it really bothered me that the set up for the whole novel challenged this knowledge. It even got me wondering if there was even a kernel of truth to it, making me question what I considered an absolute certainty, one validated by the Alexakis and Janiszewski photographic histories. That said, I am more than happy to be corrected on this point.
I also felt that the sense of place was lacking. Even though Pippos makes mention of all the suburbs that I live around, and towns that I have visited, there is a lack of description. I hate to draw comparisons (but I will still do it), but Peter Polites’s description of Sydney (both East and West) is visceral and truthful, as is Melina Marchetta whose description of the Inner West is like the places I frequent every day – though in Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son, there is a scene where the main characters drive to a Newtown pub from Maroubra Beach via the Anzac bridge which is the most ridiculous double distanced route possibly imaginable. Despite this, Marchetta’s Inner West is as strongly characterised as her protagonists. However, the issue with Lucky’s is that the roads and suburbs, the light, the air, the sounds, the sense of standing in the places that his book described to me was a feeling that I didn’t experience. Pippos doesn’t really describe the cafes in the story beyond names. The cafe itself is not a main character, and neither is the city a character. They remained names and any name, any location could have been used.
Another annoyance which is personal and just for me, was Valia’s name which is fine and good. However, it was revealed partway into the book that it was short for Vassiliki and though I can kind of imagine how this is a possible shortening of my name, it is one I have never come across. Name shortening isn’t letter potluck, right? There are naming rules like chopping out syllables, mostly about finding Anglo equivalents. The name “Valia” doesn’t do this and I remain unconvinced.
That being said, I was pleased to be able to add another book to my “Vassiliki/Vasiliki” Goodreads tag which is pathetically sitting on five books having a character with my name.
Just a quick heads up that you may want to stop reading here because there are some spoilers ahead.
Movie Note 1: I masked up and went and saw a movie. So not even an hour ago, I walked out of the darkness of the movie house, and I had two things on my mind. Sandra Bullock and my ride home (cheeky wink for The Outsiders fans). I just watched The Lost City and I was so amused, so delighted, so so so happy that a light-hearted romance comedy had been made and it just slayed. It had everything – an adventure romp with witty repartee, love and snark and everything in-between. It had an enemies to lovers trope. It had cover model jokes. It had the sassy best friend trope (wellll….kinda with a twist – she was author Loretta Sage’s literary agent). It had the nasty (short) villain trope, it had purple sparkly prose metaphors (oh that onesie that Bullock wears for most of the film sublimely channels all the romance expectations), it had allusions and intertextuality, it had lush location location location Atlantic island setting,, it had folklore singing sages, it the dark moments, it had swoon, oh and it had….it had spark!
I have always loved Sandra Bullock romcoms (Miss Congeniality, While You Were Sleeping, The Proposal, Two Weeks Notice) and she just excelled in her role of a tad recalcitrant romance author Loretta who has given up on her dream of being an archaeologist due to her true love husband having died. I have never seen a Channing Tatum movie (that is correct – not even Magic Mike) so I was pleasantly surprised at how cheeky and cool and fantastic he was in this movie as the gormlessly sweet cover model Alan who like Fabio seems to have no surname.
For lots of fun convoluted reasons Loretta gets kidnapped from the launch of her book tour by evil (Murdoch-like) mogul Abigail Fairfax (like realllllly??? The scriptwriters must be keenly in tune with the former Australian mass media family moguls) played by Daniel Radcliffe. Fairfax needs Loretta to translate a dead language for him that only she knows so he can find lost archaelogical treasure. Alan along with Loretta’s literary agent, Beth Hatten (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) hire former Navy SEAL (lol – romantic suspense trope much) Jack Trainer to find Loretta. Jack Trainer is handsome, tough, a deft fighter, and all things OTT amazing including adding complete and utter validation as tough man Navy Seal, he is a hatchback hero who drives a tiny Bajaj Qute. To the scriptwriters – I feel heard! Trainer (Pitt) is a total hero who makes Alan look soft. But that is why Alan is so cool. I won’t go into what happens other than were being twists, turns, fights, blow-ups, burials, a swoon-worthy dance scene, and just a whole lot of fun.
The Lost City reminded me so much of Romancing the Stone (I do believe this is deliberate) yet it felt fresh and original. And isn’t that the thing about truly magical, truly fabulous movies. The storyline was similar, the locations were similar, as were the stars. But I suspect that The Lost City undoes the 1980s sexism, and instead injects a 21st century sensibility. I loved it.