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Vinegar Hill (Oprah's Book Club)

A book by A. Manette Ansay.

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Depressing tale of sub-human family

  • Jan 20, 2000
Although a quick read with language that flows off the page in deft simile and metaphor, Vinegar Hill ultimately disappoints the reader. Set in the age of burgeoning feminism, the story is concerned with the survival of Ellen, wife of James and mother of two, who has been forced to move in with her austere in-laws. Little by little she watches her husband revert back to the insecure and deprived child ridiculed by his crude father and similarly unenlightened older brother. The revealed reasons for her marriage are almost ludicrous, even in this small farming community. Surely, one protests, there were other options? As she observes the decline of her immediate family unit, she stumbles upon the truth behind her mother-in-law's pathetic dreams and how they impact this dysfunctional group to the current day of the story. Her ultimate decision comes as no surprise, but one wonders how successful she will actually be, set adrift in a world where she is most definitely not endowed with the necessary navigational skills. The primary fault of her characterization is her lack of involvement. She "feels", but does not seem to have the ability to "do". She "puts up with" and the author offers nothing as to the "why" of this other than her frumpy reliance on the preachings of a 50s rooted Catholic priest and the sense of moral exactness of her mother and sisters, which, I guess, works historically but, is not enough psychological proof for the more thoughtful reader. What comes easily to her sisters and her mother, even her vengeful and decisive mother-in-law's mother, seems to be absent from Ellen's make-up. And so her 'big' decision seems flawed, conceived and acted upon by someone much stronger than the weak observer portrayed within the pages of the book. On the positive side, Manette's depiction of the Griers, mother, father and son is truly chilling in its sad realism. The desperation of James and his cleaving to his parent's sick and destructive ideologies creates an almost too real picture of the American dream gone astray. Obviously, this is not a story glorifying the stalwardness of America's heartland but rather a bleak and ruthless portrait of how one's unrealistic romanticism draws life's righteous lesson-givers to wreak havoc on the idealistic and ultimately destroy themselves and everyone else in the process.

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review by . April 01, 2000
Not since A THOUSAND ACRES by Jane Smiley have I been so impressed with an author's ability to reach inside and expose what many of us never uncover until the second half of our lives. No one ever said life was easy, we just pretend in order to survive circumstances that seem to be untenable and irreversible. It took Ellen the entire novel to fight her way free of rules and obligations imposed by a rigid religious and male-dominated society. If that isn't powerful, maybe you had to be there... or …
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Oprah Book Club® Selection, November 1999:Vinegar Hill is an appropriate address for the characters who populate A. Manette Ansay's novel of the same name. After all, when Ellen Grier and her family return to the rural hamlet of Holly's Field, Wisconsin, it's not exactly a happy homecoming. Her husband, James, has been laid off from his job in Illinois. And for the moment, the family has moved in with Ellen's in-laws, Fritz and Mary-Margaret, an unhappy pair who dislike their daughter-in-law almost as much as they despise each other:
The first time Ellen sat at this table she was twenty years old, bright-cheeked after a spring afternoon spent walking along the lakefront with James, planning their upcoming wedding. It was 1959 and she was eager to make a good impression. She didn't know then that Mary-Margaret disliked her, that she was consideredJimmy's mistake.
Thirteen years later, in 1972, Ellen is back at the table with no escape in sight. Both she and her husband do find work. Yet James seems to settle a tad too easily into his old life, and shows no interest in finding a place of their own. Even worse, his job takes him away from home for weeks at a time, leaving Ellen to cope with her abusive in-laws.

In Vinegar Hill Ansay paints a searing portrait of the Midwest's dark side, of a rural culture infected with despair and ruled over by an unforgiving God. Yet she does hold out a grain of hope, too. Just as Ellen seems permanently ...

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ISBN-10: 0688180639
ISBN-13: 978-0688180638
Author: A. Manette Ansay
Publisher: William Morrow

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