The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004–2016

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 20 May 2018

Member Reviews

“She appreciated the first half, with its examination of faults and forgiveness and the process of growing up, but she loved the second half, when each sister made her own way into the world.”

Meredith Gruber is thinking about Little Women here, but Nicole Dieker has echoed the same structure in volume 2 of The Biographies of Ordinary People. In volume 1, we met the Gruber family of Kirkland, Missouri—Meredith, her sisters Natalie and Jackie, and their parents Rosemary and Jack—and followed them as the girls grew up in their small college town. Volume 2 begins with Meredith away at school, Natalie and Jackie soon to follow, and traces another twelve years of their intertwining lives as they get jobs, fall in and out of love, move around the country, and figure out how to relate to their parents as the girls become adults who will also forever be daughters.

As in volume 1, it’s Dieker’s small moments that get me—the internal thoughts and asides that echo or encapsulate feelings I’ve also had as I’ve grown up and moved away from my family. I don’t usually highlight much in fiction, but I found myself tapping the screen of my Kindle again and again to capture those small moments. They’re not big, profound quotes, just nice little summaries of feelings we all have as we mature.

The Grubers and their friends, as the title states, are all ordinary people, and Dieker’s two-volume treatment of their lives doesn’t really have a driving narrative; her books are a collection of experiences and events that add up to … well, life. This vignette-heavy structure left me wanting more in the second book, as big events in the girls’ lives get dealt with off-camera, if you will, only mentioned in subsequent chapters. I wanted to see Meredith realize that graduate school wasn’t right for her; I wanted to know more about James and how they met; I wanted a little more showing and less telling.

In volume 1 the Gruber girls have big dreams for their futures, but volume 2 involves learning how to adjust when those dreams don’t pan out. (view spoiler) Rosemary and Jack deal with growing older and figuring out what their lives look like now that their daughters are gone and their careers are winding down. Rosemary’s chapters, in particular, really got to me, as I could imagine my mother sharing many of her same thoughts and emotions.

In The Biographies of Ordinary People, Nicole Dieker has created an engaging, relatable cast of characters. I anticipate that these books will become “comfort reads” on my Kindle—books that I re-read over and over when I need a break from everything around me.
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This book may look familiar, as it is a sequel to Volume One. I enjoyed Volume Two more than Volume One, as you watched the characters grow older and deal with the economic and political changes around them. I look forward to seeing where Volume Three goes!
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Thank you Nicole Dieker and Netgalley for  an ARC of this book.

I enjoyed this follow on from volume 1 of the Gruber family, it was an easy, enjoyable read and I was happy to spend more time with the Grubers seeing where life took them as they were a little older.
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If this looks familiar, it’s because it’s a sequel to (perhaps unsurprisingly) Biographies of Ordinary People Volume 1: 1989-2000, which I reviewed earlier this year. When I read Volume 1, I felt that the characters were interesting and realistic, but that it was very much a character-driven novel. As the title suggests, it is supposed to be about ordinary people – not people whose lives look like soap operas. It wasn’t full of dramatic twists, but it did feel very real.

Then the author kindly offered for me to read the second one, which I was really excited about. And I’ve been meaning to write this review for a while because – wow.

I loved it!

I thought I might miss the nostalgic feel of the first book – the Gruber girls grew up around the same time period that I did, and I liked that nineties vibe. As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry about that. Volume 2 spans from 2004-2016, and it served as a reminder of how much of our culture changed in that short space of time. The girls are women now, and they’re navigating their world, moving away from home, figuring out relationships and careers, and just generally trying to find their place in the world. In that time, they see the explosion of social media. They see YouTube becoming a thing (particularly in Jackie’s case). And finally, they see the election of Trump, and the political landscape as they know it changing beyond recognition.

I’ll quickly sum up the three Gruber daughters and their respective journeys – Jackie, the youngest, follows her heart, comes to terms with her sexuality, and kind of stumbles into a very interesting career path. Natalie takes what is perhaps the most ‘traditional’ life choices of the three. And Meredith enters the relentless struggle that is the desire to make art vs. the need to make actual money. Helplessly creative and full of determination, it is Meredith’s story that struck me as the most interesting, and nuanced, and, well, real. And although she has her own, personal moments of happiness, to see a main character in a story genuinely grapple with how she can somehow make her creative pursuits a career was so refreshing. Nothing gets handed to her on a plate, and there are plenty of doors that get slammed in her face along the way.

Another interesting – and poignant – viewpoint was of Rosemary and Jack, the Gruber parents, still living in their small town in the Midwest, now with an empty nest. I felt so strongly for Rosemary as she watched her grown daughters and pondered her place in their lives, that it almost felt like an ache when I read her chapters.

I think I would have liked to have heard more from Natalie. I don’t remember as much of her story off the top of my head, and I remember thinking I wanted to know more about her. That is a small complaint though in an otherwise wonderful story, whose characters settled into my heart and stayed there. One of my favourite reads this year.
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he Biographies of Ordinary People, Volume 2 follows directly on from Volume 1 and covers the period from 2004 to 2016. Even the chapter numbers continue from the first volume. This is definitely not a sequel (the author originally envisioned it as one book but it got too large) and you would be missing an awful lot – in so many ways – if you decided to read it without having read the first volume. 

In the first volume, the reader was immersed in the domestic life of the Gruber family, following the three daughters – Meredith, Natalie and Jackie – through their school and teenage years. In the second volume, the three girls are out in the world trying to achieve their career and life ambitions – in the fields of drama, business and music – but always mindful that they are ‘Gruber kids’. ‘The Gruber way’, instilled by their parents Jack and Rosemary, is all about the importance of education, always trying to do your best, being courteous and polite, doing your homework, doing your piano practice, getting good grades.

The Biographies of Ordinary People does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s brings us the daily life experiences of the Gruber girls. The sort of things that happen to most people: moving to a new town, hunting for an apartment, managing on a small budget, making new friends, returning home for family Christmas dinners, attending friends’ weddings, meeting your brother’s new girlfriend. It also captures the emotional side of life: the uncertainties of growing up, relationship difficulties, exploring your sexuality. Yes, the book has an episodic structure but isn’t life just really countless small episodes?

In this second volume, world events impinge a little more – from the election of President Obama to the election of President Trump. And, where in the first volume, the Internet was a strange new thing, in this volume we get to see the emergence of technology such as email, text, Skype, AirBnB, YouTube, reminding the reader just how long some of these things have been around. The reader sees slightly less of Jack and Rosemary who have their own adjustments to make now their daughters have left home and they are approaching retirement. However, there are a couple of lovely scenes between them.

As in the first volume, out of the three sisters, I found myself most drawn to Meredith. She’s ambitious, eager to learn, to be pushed and has an idealistic view of what college education can offer. Her dream is to pursue a career in the theatre and write and direct successful stage musicals; that is the narrative of her life she has mapped out. She confesses in her diary: ‘I wish there was a right path I could point myself towards and know it works out in the end, as long as I keep aiming in that direction.’ However, Meredith finds that life can’t be lived as if in a book. Visiting her childhood friend Alex, now married and with a child, she reflects: ‘Alex – Meredith looked at her, wanting to ask and not guess, but guessing instead – was living a different book. Maybe not a book at all; maybe Alex was just living, without trying to measure herself against a narrative.’ 

Eventually all three girls find fulfilment in slightly different ways, not necessarily in the way they would have expected when they were younger. But, hey, that’s life, isn’t it?

If you’re looking for a story with shipwrecks, visitors from outer space, dragons, or gruesome murders, this is not the book for you. The Biographies of Ordinary People gives the reader an absorbing and intimate insight into the lives of its characters. The author’s chief achievement is to make the characters seem absolutely real and credible. You feel you could be sitting next to one of the Gruber girls on a bus or train, get chatting to them in a bookstore, come across their blog or vlog online or meet them at a conference or event.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of the author and NetGalley in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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This is the second volume of The Gruber sisters saga from Nicole Dieker.  There's a familiarity in these sisters and their lives. Maybe it's too similar to my own.  - Small, midwestern towns, big dreams.

The sisters are all desperate to leave their hometown and make their mark. This is the story of an emotional bond between sisters, and mothers, and daughters. 

Thanks at NetGalley for the opportunity to finish this lovely series.
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