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Vinegar Hill (Oprah's Book Club) Paperback – March 1, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 considered Jimmy'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 entangled in familial desperation, she makes a surprising discovery about James's long-dead grandmother--a woman whose rebellious spirit inspires Ellen to rescue herself and her loved ones from the impinging darkness. This late-breaking redemption doesn't cancel out the preceding unhappiness: Vinegar Hill remains a tough, uncompromising tale, one that requires some fortitude to read. But those with the heart for it will be rewarded with fine, spare prose and a hopeful ending. --Alix Wilber

From Publishers Weekly

Set in 1972, Ansay's debut novel revolves around Ellen Grier's struggle for liberation-liberation from her marriage to James, from her virtual enslavement to her sanctimonious, cruel in-laws and from what she see as the stultifying demands of her religion, Roman Catholicism. Financial difficulties have forced James and Ellen, along with their two children, to move back to the small Wisconsin town where they grew up and where they now share an acrimonious and joyless life with James's parents. Virtually every character is victimized by a private misery that causes pain and alienation and that in turn victimizes others. Ansay, who teaches creative writing at Vanderbilt, is adept at delineating these worlds of suffering, and her language can be both apt and beautiful. But she offers too many descriptions of the nightmares and waking bad dreams that seem to afflict all of her characters, and the reader begins to share the sense of being caught in a bad dream. As the story concentrates more on Ellen's search for identity-a familiar tale presented here in a familiar way-this sense of nightmare is intensified by an impression of deja vu. Though uneven, the novel offers glimpses of Ansay's potential to deliver a more coherent book next time.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reissue edition (March 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380730138
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380730131
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (306 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,922,600 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

71 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Denise M. on January 31, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Before purchasing this book, I read a number of customer reviews on Amazon.com. The recurring theme was that the book was depressing and that the main character was weak. Notwithstanding a vast number of 'negative' reviews, I purchased the book and was pleasantly surprised. I found that the only way to fully appreciate the story was to view the situation from the standpoint of a 30 something year old woman, living in a small Mid-western farming town, conservative Catholic during the early 1970's. Essentially, I viewed the book as a story about the struggle of a woman to establish and preserve her own identity in the face of outside forces i.e., family, religion, in-laws, expectations etc. I basically saw is as a conflict between what she should do as a good "Christian wife and mother" and what she needed to do as a person and how she ultimately resolved that conflict. I also saw Ellen as a woman who was trapped by those outside forces and expections. Although many reviewers of this book thought that Ellen was somewhat weak and spineless, I felt that she had an enormous amount of strength to do what she needed to do in light of the pressures of outside expectations. I think that the base example was when she went to talk to her sister about leaving James. Her sisters response was one of shock and disbelief and her sisters advice was to have another child. I think that Ellen would truly have been weak if she were not aware that her life was not right and changes needed to be made. However, since she was aware of the problems in her life/marriage and decided to take steps, particularly at a time when leaving your husband (in the Catholic religion) was something that women did not do, showed a great deal of strength.Read more ›
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Maurice Williams on November 30, 1999
Format: Paperback
Kinda wicked, kinda crazy, but definitely a good read. The writing was clear, the story moving. I view this novel as a reflection of how blind faith can lead one astray. Although an excellent tale of one's ability to endure and overcome, I was slightly disappointed that Ansay didn't expose us to the new Ellen, strong and confident, sturdy and assured. Even though most of Oprah's book seem to have a similar theme (struggle, oppression, eventual self-actualization), she does an excellent job of selecting novels that cover the theme creatively, and realistically.
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45 of 49 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 22, 1999
Format: Paperback
I bought this book in spite of it being an Oprah pick, and I was very satisfied with it. The characters are so richly drawn, and after reading this, I very much appreciate what my mother's generation went through (I am in my early 30's). I saw alot of the women of my mother's generation in Ellen and Barb (characters in the book), and now have a new appreciation for them. This book was hard to put down--you really want to see what happens to everyone.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 19, 2000
Format: Paperback
I read several reviews on this book and wasn't sure I wanted to read it. But my husband gave it to me for Christmas. I admit, I am drawn to books that are uplifting, entertaining, and funny. I like a nice escape. But I also appreciate good, descriptive writing. This book has fine writing. The author has you right there on Vinegar Hill with Ellen and James. You really get to know the family, even if you, like me, are shocked by the secrets it holds. I learned a lot of what it must have been for women in the 70's, and a lot about the place religion held in their lives. As a working mother of two, it made me realize how easy we have it today. We have so many more choices than the women even a generation before us. Most married young women today are equal partners with their husbands. Ellen was not treated as an equal partner and it was a real eye opener for me. Ms. Ansay does a beautiful job of pulling you into Ellen's world, feeling her pain, loneliness, and despair. I really recommend this book to anyone who enjoys good writing, even if it is a bit depressing at times.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 15, 1999
Format: Paperback
Although this book carries on the tiresome theme of abuse that is a staple of Oprah's choices, at least we are treated to writing that is much superior to her usual choices. The prose is beautiful, the characters are well-drawn, and the plot is very easy to get caught up in; you can easily read it in one evening. The writing contained a lot of beautiful imagery. I did think the family's "secret" was too obvious and easy to figure out; it took me only a few pages and I am usually pretty dense when it comes to that. The book seemed similar to some of Anne Tyler's works, but in addition to the usual cast of eccentric characters, there are a few really mean and vicious ones. Overall the book is much better than most new ficiton, and I hope the author will be giving us more.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Linda on December 9, 1999
Format: Paperback
A beautifully written book that draws you into the story of a couple moved by circumstances to live with the husband's parents. Stingy with both affection and money, the man's parents provide a home as cold and austere as the Wisconsin winter in which the novel begins. Ansay balances the precision of style of a true wordsmith with the compassionate perceptions of a skilled observer as she explores the ways Ellen, the young wife, finds the strength to deal with her increasingly distressing situation. This book looks at relationships, control, and dirty family secrets in ways that may make you wince in empathy if not recognition. But it also considers resilience and inner spirit, and in the end leaves you with hope. Read this book, then read the others she's written. No doubt about it, Manette Ansay is a fine writer.
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