Once, In Lourdes: A Novel by Sharon Solwitz

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“There are times in a person’s life when, even as an event is occurring, you know you might not ever understand it.”

This is another novel that left me with feeling ‘off’. What time is less understood, as you’re living it, than your teenage ones?  In this novel, a pact is made by four high school friends upon a ledge above the sea at the local park in Lourdes, Michigan (which they call ‘The Haight”. It’s not your usual sort of pact, in fact is is a final one. Each swears to stand on the same ledge and jump into the ‘infinite’, putting an end to their miserable existence but in a strange ode to their tight friendship. As the days move on, the dynamics of their circle changes and nothing can ever go back to the way it was before.

Kate lives with her seemingly perfect step-sister, stepmother and father. Her mother is long gone, in a statement so big Kate wonders if it was meant as a blow her father could never recover from. As fate would have it, the wound has become Kate’s to bear.  Her father has new love with Arlyn, “a woman for whom things would always turn out right.” Not like her dead mother, whom loved her more than anything and yet didn’t have a the natural grace and beauty her step-mother has, nor did she have Kate’s father’s attention. Among her friends, the only real connection and love she seems to have in this world, Kate has a semblance of a life. She spends her time abandoning classes meant to ‘improve her mind and body’ in order to be with her pals. Resentful of her father, shunned by his new ‘perfect’ family she carries her losses heavy in her heart and feels ” I was a bucket with a hole in it, never to be filled.” She feels trapped in her  heavy body with no hope of love unlike her beautiful friend Vera. Despite her hand deformity, Vera exudes sexuality and a confidence Kate can only dream about. But what boils beneath the surface of her hard exterior leads her to find love with anyone, in order to erase the numbness she carries in every cell of her being. ” So often these days her body feels like a dead thing.” Vera can be sugary sweet and turn with venom without prompting. She carries a burning, shameful secret that will alter not just her future, but her friend’s lives too. Full of fight, never one to be cowed by her ‘imperfection’ she struggles with a volatile father, distant mother and confused brother. Her life to this point serves as the storm that brews within. Naturally boys and men are drawn to her, the relationship she has with her brother and father will make any reader uncomfortable. Beauty, a natural allure can be a curse to any young girl, particularly without a mother’s guidance and protection. Saint comes from his own troubled background. He is the quiet and calm in their noise, but his pain in abysmal. Originally from Detroit, he knows true poverty which dazzles the friends. With a brutal early childhood, he has vowed to be nothing like his violent father. He has a grace that settles over the circle, focused on mantras and religion. Confused about his sexuality, constantly the victim, he is drawn to Vera whose changing moods seems so different from his own. But has he tamed the animal in himself as much as he believes he has? CJ seems to think of his father as a reluctant Jew, angered that he doesn’t share stories of his internment during the holocaust, he hungers after all things holocaust and Nazi related. His little brother looks up to him, and his sexuality is a big question mark that makes him an immediate outcast. There is a confusing attraction he feels for Saint, which complicates the foursome even more. CJ and Kate turn to each other as Saint and Vera become closer, but CJ and Kate can’t help but feel left out still.

The story is an emotional tide, pulling you in with compassion, shoving you back to the shore with anger. The friends don’t talk about each other apart, it’s almost an unspoken rule, but after the pact the the ‘rules’ alter and soon they are pairing off. Everyone is flying off the edge, collapsing in their pain or shedding their skin to morph into someone new. After the next few weeks, no one will ever be the same and the friends may well see the end to the family they made in each-other.

The novel is set in the summer of 1968, which works wonders for the entire novel. I wasn’t alive yet but I felt like I was back in time. Saying ‘things were different then’ is a loose and obvious thing. It was a tumultuous time in American history and the friends are just as chaotic. I felt disturbed by Vera and yet knew girls like her. The fiery girl whom appears to be bursting with life and excitement, can’t fill themselves with enough attention and love and people imagine they live a blessed existence and yet there is a bottomless sadness in them, one that most of us would never want to touch. And poor Kate, I don’t care what sort of beauty a girl evolves into, everyone has a bit of Kate in them, the awkward stage just doesn’t leave everyone at the same speed. The ending had me spinning, and oddly, angry. I can’t wait to discuss it with other readers but to say more will ruin the entire story.

This was different to be sure. While it’s about teenagers, it’s better suited to adults.

Publication Date: May 30, 2017

Random House Publishing

Spiegel & Grau

 

 

 

 

 

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