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Vinegar Hill Oprah Book #28 [Paperback]

A. Manette Ansay
2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (243 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 1 1998 Oprah's Book Club
In a stark, troubling, yet ultimately triumphant celebration of self-determination, award-winning author A. Manette Ansay re-creates a stifling world of guilty and pain, and the tormented souls who inhabit it. It is 1972 when circumstance carries Ellen Grier and her family back to Holly's Field, Wisconsin. Dutifully accompanying her newly unemployed husband, Ellen has brought her two children into the home of her in-laws on Vinegar Hill--a loveless house suffused with the settling dust of bitterness and routine--where calculated cruelty is a way of life preserved and perpetuated in the service of a rigid, exacting and angry God. Behind a facade of false piety, there are sins and secrets in this place that could crush a vibrant young woman's passionate spirit. And here Ellen must find the straight to endure, change, and grow in the all-pervading darkness that threatens to destroy everything she is and everyone she loves.

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From Amazon

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.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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In the gray light of the kitchen, Ellen sets the table for supper, keeping the chipped plate back for herself before lowering the rest in turn. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Another Oprah "miss" Dec 24 2001
I am still wondering what the point of this book is. I read many of the readers reviews and agree that the book was depressing, although I would not have minded this (many fine books are depressing), if I had felt that I had gotten something out of it, or if I felt that the charachters had changed in some way, learned something. I don't consider Ellen as having changed much because she was persuaded to seek a better life by her friend; the change did not seem to come from some inner growth or desperate need to escape.
I also don't buy the argument that the book was realistic because, in the '70s women had no other choices than to stay in unhappy marital and family situations. I would have respected Ellen's attempt to keep the family together if the author had shared Ellen's fears, confusion and ambivalence throughout the story. Instead, Ellen continues to stay with her dysfunctional inlaws and depressed husband bearing a flatness and resignation which frustrated me. I can agree that Ellen had FEWER choices than women have now, but she could have sought some type of counseling. She had a job, some money, and presumably some health insurance. So what was the point of the book? Was it a historical novel written to help us all understand what the '70s were supposedly like for a woman in her position?
The only reason I gave this book any stars is because it did hold my interest--I was waiting for something significant to occur, something which would enlighten me. Maybe I could learn something from the book if I saw Ellen change. Not a chance.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Vinegar Hill is one of the best works I've read this year. The author should be congratulated on her outstanding achievement.
Yes, the readers who complained about the book being "bleak" or "whiney" did miss something: the growing awareness of the intelligent, far-from-whiney heroine, Ellen, who finally comes into her own at the end of the book. This does NOT have an unhappy ending. In fact, the ending is absolutely exquisite, but I will not give it away here.
It is a book about abuse - handed down from a despicable man to his entire family. His wife - Mary Margaret - is what I like to call a "swamp" - you could get lost in her bitterness, her cynicism, her bigotry, her hypochondria. Yes, she, too, is a product of abuse, but that doesn't excuse her manipulative, self-serving, constant diatribe that poisons the air around her.
Nevertheless, Ellen is a fairly objective observer in all this mayhem. She is like a swimmer, trying to break the surface so she can breath. Finally, she does, and it is such a welcome moment. I just loved her for her backbone - and her compassion even for her nasty in-laws. Every character is drawn beautifully.
This is a great women's book. What happened to the women of this country being grateful for a glimpse into a real woman's life? Guess what, critics? Abuse of women and children still exists. It seems there is some kind of backlash going on, a return to the former women-hating-women routine pre-Women's Movement. I, for one, can't have too many books about women - their joys, their struggles. I, too, have some criticism of Oprah's Book Club, but not because she chooses books that portray women's issues. That's one of the best things about her choices. Let's get together again, my women friends, not tear each other down.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Vinegar Hill June 26 2004
A brilliant but gloomy story about Ellen who married her high school sweet heart after they became involved after one date. Several years into their marriage, James lost his job and when they began to run out of money, they had to move into his parent's house. Ellen was forced to cook and keep house in a dreary cluttered home with little love and affection. In addition to the terrible surroundings, she lived in a love-less marriage with "Jimmy", an insecure man who was afraid of his parents.
Ellen's mother-in-law was a pathetic figure who accepted a life of abuse and despair with her domineering and miserable husband. Together they lived a status-quo existence where they rarely communicated. Each one lived in his/her own world. They did not decorate for Christmas and Ellen's children were not allowed to play and interact as normal children.
Finally, Ellen sees the light with the help of her friend; she decides to leave her husband and his parent's home. She takes the kids and moves out to make it on her own... a victorious ending!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Dutiful Drudgery June 21 2004
What is it that holds one within a family, a marriage, outside of love and duty? Lack of courage perhaps, or misguided religious inclinations. The protagonist puts up with more than many might because of her strong religious beliefs, dogged beliefs which leaves her a husk of a woman. I cannot emote an empathy for this, but I can empathise with sticking it at all costs even when all is bleak and hopeless and hard by. Ellen's inlaws are mean and spiteful, harsh and narrow minded, and set off Ellen's insecurities to best (worst?) advantage. Her husband is henpecked, not by Ellen who does not know how to and is too spineless to do so, but by his embittered, cruel, old world parents. Everything falls most burdensomely on the children of the marriage, who feel the misery around them, but cannot understand why there is such, save for the fact that it must be all of their fault. Ansay's prose is relentlessly descriptive, the details she pays mind to myriad and minute. Not a good read, not a good ending, but rather a painstaking portrait of a time, a culture, and a mindset.
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Complete and Utter Bore!
Well, I got to page 100 of this book and could not continue on any further. I do not understand how this book could possibly be as critically acclaimed as it is. Read more
Published on Dec 30 2009 by Nancy Drew
4.0 out of 5 stars The in-laws from hell!
If you ever had a bad in-law experience, this book might help to put things in perspective. It could be worse, you could have in-laws like the one's in this book.
Published on June 26 2004 by M. Alther
3.0 out of 5 stars Dark, dark, dark
We all know people who struggle to stand up for themselves, who get caught in lifestyles we think we'd never tolerate. Read more
Published on June 11 2004 by Student at Dutch Fork Middle School
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved It!
The extremely normal and familiar sirtuations that the main character in this novel faces are portrayed fabulously by the author. Read more
Published on May 28 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars Bitter to the end
What a boring, depressing novel!
It's an easy read, but I personally didn't get anything from it. The story does have some interesting characters but not much happens to them. Read more
Published on May 24 2004
3.0 out of 5 stars A Decent Book--------
This author has the potential of writing well & has previously. Perhaps it was simply the plot (or lack of) that just couldn't keep me captivated. Read more
Published on May 4 2004 by Leigh A. Taft
4.0 out of 5 stars Better than expected
The writing was excellent in this book, but at times I found the story a little unbelievable. Still, I would highly recommend this book, if for nothing else the fact that it was... Read more
Published on Feb. 6 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Very detailed
If you like books with a lot of detail, this is it.Besides from being a very nice person, Ms. Ansay writes beautifully and keeps you guessing, very nice book, I recamend it
Published on July 2 2003 by A
4.0 out of 5 stars Brutally honest but important
A bitter book without a Disney ending, but an important story. Throughout reading this book, I was impatiently waiting for Ellen to stand up for herself, or if not for herself then... Read more
Published on June 20 2003 by Erika R.
3.0 out of 5 stars Acid melancholy.
I enjoyed its acidic melancholy. But really... I think I need to watch a week of Disney films to pull me back out of the well. Read more
Published on May 20 2003 by Akethan
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