The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish: A Novel by Katya Apekina

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Yes, mom dragged me with her to every terrible place.I needed to get as far from her as I could. She was consuming me. That day she tried to hang herself from the rafter in the kitchen, I’d been lying on the bedroom floor. My mind was a radio tuned to her station and her misery paralyzed me.

In this gorgeous debut, sisters 16-year-old Edie and 14-year-old Mae’s lives are upended when their mother Marianne is admitted to St. Vincent’s (mental hospital) to ‘rest’ after an attempted suicide. The girls are forced to live with their estranged father Dennis (a literary success) in New York, a man who thinks he can just pick up in the middle of the story and become beloved ‘daddy’. Edie wants to go back to their old life in Louisiana, to her boyfriend, her school committees, her mother. It’s no surprise she was the one who found her mother hanging that day as she has been the one taking care of Marianne for years, through her stony silences and strange episodes. Edie doesn’t trust Dennis, feels it’s a betrayal to even be living with him when their mother needs them so badly. Mae felt swallowed up by Marianne, fearful she is too much like her damaged mother. Mae doesn’t have romantized thoughts about her mother’s illness, it has always scared her. Now that she is free of her, able to finally be herself, she doesn’t want her mother back. With Dennis’ eyes watching their every move, which irritates Edie feeling like they are just ‘new material’, Mae feels being the center of his world is intoxicating. Edie is loyal to Marianne, Mae has shifted alliances to Dennis’ side. So begins the unraveling of the sister’s bond.

It’s meant to be temporary, but time stretches and Marianne isn’t getting better, Mae is under Dennis spell but Edie won’t let herself fall, despite her desire for the comfort it would bring. It’s too late for her, where was he all this time anyway? Busy with his women, not one thought for his ‘beautiful, beautiful girls’ who now have his rapt attention. Are they just a story brewing for him, serving as inspiration as their once  beautiful, fragile mother was in her youth? There is a story there, Marianne as muse, was she the abuser, or the abused?

The reader is witness to the blossoming of forbidden love between Dennis and Marianne, the civil rights movement, and dangerous obsession. With insight from Rose, Dennis’ sister, we are forced to wonder who is to blame for the fractured family. Fatherly love takes a dangerous turn as Mae never wants to go back to that life with her mother, never again wants to be suffocated by her mother’s madness. Yet the further she tries to step away from Marianne, into a new self, the more she becomes her.

Edith is too angry, too perceptive to put her faith in Dennis. In fact, she is downright disgusted with his writing, with his seduction of her young mother so long ago. There is  a line spoken by another character in the novel that expresses the emotional storms within, “It’s hard sometimes, ” she said, “to know where you end and others begin.” You can feel the ground shaking before it opens, know you are being led somewhere you hoped they would never go. Much like the photographs Mae takes, it’s an eerie exposure of the wildly different beliefs we have about our shared experiences. Both sisters are in denial about their mother and father. If Mae hitches her wagon to her father with fat dreams and madness, Edie holds just as much false optimism for her mother’s recovery. Like a needy kitten, love gets twisted for Mae and there is a point of no return. Edie runs to destruction as much as Mae does, they just take different paths to reach the end. There is no mistake that Marianne has been a destructive influence on Mae, who looks so much like her but Dennis… Dennis is a catalyst.

To say more, would ruin the novel. I loved it, Apekina writes beautifully about a very ugly subject.The title alone, isn’t it the best, had me itching to read it. I can’t wait for her next novel, writing about family dysfunction isn’t easy, and taboo subjects if done poorly can repulse readers but it all added up here. I don’t think Marianne is alone in her wounded bird fragility, she got some help toward self-destruction in the form of Dennis and that’s all I have to say about that. Yes, read it! I still have the taste of ash in my mouth.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Two Dollar Radio

 

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Ponti: A Novel by Sharlene Teo

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The distance between where she was and the glossy point where she wanted to be stretched and stretched. 

In Ponti, Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa’s otherworldly beauty and small diminished fame. ” I marvel for a split second at the unfairness of genetics, mysterious spirlas of DNA coiling and cohering into life sentences: You will be plain. You will be beautiful. You will repulse mosquitoes. You will have an iron gut. You will be sickened by crabmeat.” Amisa’s career never took off with the promise her beauty once held. Having left her small village for bigger things, she works hard and falls in love with Wei Loong, they marry and she works full-time at the Paradise Theater until she is discovered by filmaker “visionary” Iskander Wiryanto. She has the perfect beauty, like a mask, exactly who he desires to play the Pontianak (folklore, a ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth and preys on men, in the form of pale beauty, long dark hair) in his films. We follow Amisa through the making of the film, witness to the ‘bloom of her ego’ even in the face of grief for her losses back home. Playing the Ponti takes it’s toll on her, the filmaker difficult, pushing her harder than she can stomach, not as enraptured by her sexually as all men are. Three films in, and her shining star dims, the movie becomes a cult classic, but of the times no one is interested in superstitions nor films about ghosts. The parts dry up, Wiryanto no longer needs his beautiful ghost and life with Wei Loong leads to just another part, of poor housewife. It isn’t long before she is pregnant with Szu, and feeling dreadfully close to her own mother and the life she trudged through. Amisa is more like a ponti now than a starlet. Wei Loong leaves before Szu turns 8, and then it is three, Szu, Amisa and Auntie Yunxi.

Aunt Yunxi and Amisa earn their living as fakes, mediums who ‘trade in hope’, milking the desperation of their clients. It’s necessary to con people for their survival, what with her tragic mother more a ghost of a woman, sleeping away her life. Szu is a misfit and completely friendless, until she befriends Circe. The two of them ‘citizens of nowhere’, feel unique, bonding over their discontent with the world. For Circe, the allure is Szu’s mother and mysterious aunt, even in their ugly home, there is a pull. Jump ahead to 2020, Circe’s team is going to be working on promotions for the new re-make of Ponti, hence “it feels like a can of Amisa-shaped worms has been opened.” The reader is dragged through time, guest to each character’s perspective. Szu, once seeming so bitter, strong, solid begins to fade, retreat into herself.  Something many female relationships wrestle with is the discomfort of familiarity, seeing too much of yourself in another. Sharlene Teo exposes this uncomfortable bond perfectly, there is a pull and push between Circe and Szu, a sort of marriage. They feel warm and cold toward each other, until Circe can’t stomach Szu, when Szu needs to be anchored most to the here and now! “She started wearing her hair in a bubble ponytail just like mine and mooched  about my house all day drinking gallons of diet coke and draping her sadness over my things.” It’s too much heavy sadness, Szu is dwindling, and she isn’t going down with her!  Circe wants to be young, fun, free and this friendship is suffocating, she needs to shake her off, shake off this stale depressive air. Circe of the present day isn’t sure she wants that Szu back in her life, and is surprised to hear of a Szu who turned out differently then she imagined.

Szu doesn’t really hate her mom, she hates that she wants her love and never gets it. That her mother was more a phantom through her entire childhood, never happy to play her part in her real life role. What is more melodramatic than a fallen star? Despising all the ordinary living that remains. How did Amisa, so beautiful, so alluring allow her promise to fizzle out? How could this woman, who as a young girl showed so much grit and courage by venturing into the city, the unknown to become something more, simply surrender? Auntie Yunxi is the bones of the household, maintaining the only structure in Szu’s life. But she is a mysteriously strange woman herself, and where is Szu’s father? Is she right in blaming her mother, for chasing him away being like a Ponti, a threat to his happiness? When he makes an appearance again, after life turns tragic, he has some truths to unveil.

This novel is disquieting, because the real ghost here is grief, blindness, and starry eyes. It’s about the whims of fate, beauty isn’t always a promise of anything solid either, you can’t bank solely on dreams nor a face. It’s giving up and closing your eyes to what you have, haunting your own future and destroying those nearest you in the process. It’s a child trapped by her mother’s shadow, who sees nothing but disappointment reflected back at her, a girl who hungers for the love she will be denied even from the grave. It’s clinging to another person for dear life, because they are a sort of stand in for the mother/daughter bond. Circe and Szu represent that awkward hunger girls have for connection, and how easily it can turn monstrous and all you want is your freedom. The Ponti in this story isn’t so much about the folkloric ghost, the more terrifying creature is Amisa, and what she allows her disappointments to do to her future.  She was so sure her beauty signled her out for more, made her special and she simply retreated from life when it knocked her back to earth. Szu follows in her footsteps for a breath of time, devoured by her own form of grief, like a disease. I found this to be terribly sad, heavy to carry.

I admit I was disappointed by the ending. I felt the story was a gathering storm, waiting for a climactic moment (big things do happen throughout, in their own unassuming way, with death) but I was waiting to be a part of Circe and Szu’s reunion, which was more hinted at. It never culminates. The writing is gorgeous, it’s an emotional upheaval which is strange considering there is a great distance between all the characters. There is an air of detached coldness, but it seems more a defense, Szu isn’t as strong as she seems. Her anger is a wall. Maybe it’s true that grief  ‘makes ghosts of us’ and that is part of why Amisa is more a suggestion of a mother, having lost someone dear to her early on. I am mixed on the novel, this is a talented writer but again I kept waiting for the big ending. Despite the aforementioned issues, the novel itself is beautifully written.  Circe is haunted by the past friendship, and years later carries the burden of her reaction to Szu as she began falling apart. It’s a complicated look at friendship, unwanted motherhood, dead dreams  and the terrible ways we allow certain moments to define our lives, for better or worse.

Sharlene Teo is one to watch. I am wildly curious what her next novel will be about.

Released Today! September 4, 2018

Simon & Schuster

A Key To Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed

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Expectation The Brain spends a huge amount of time expecting things. The brain lives on patterns the way a blade of grass lives on sunlight.

This is a lovely novel written in alphabetical order,  to make some sense of the disorder in orphan William Tyce’s life. There is a lot of talk about absence, as both his mother and father have vanished from his life for different reasons we slowly begin to understand. Living with an eccentric, wealthy  “bugling” uncle who lets him run free, there are still secrets beneath the surface, things his uncle has yet to tell him about his parents. When he isn’t exploring, or floating boats in a flooded basement he is entering neglected forts in the woods or meeting locals from all walks of life. Each entry shows wisdom beyond his ears, a coming of age in the rural midwest, and the setting is beautifully rendered by an entry as simple as canoeing through the reeds.

It is a look into a boy’s life that is sometimes an adventure, other times heavy with sorrow and confusion but always engaging. Sometimes he finds trouble, other times trouble finds him. Even when the adults try to give him gravity, they let him go like a balloon see under Factsthe first sad fact we learn in life… This novel has a certain charm in how it reveals William’s life through glossary entries, it hints at, it guides us through what is happening, much the way we all come of age with our missteps and lessons. We ease into things or get hit in the face by them.

He is abandoned by his father, his mother is dead but we don’t quite know why anymore than he does, until later. Life unfolds as he gets older and loses his childhood innocence (blindness), comes more and more into adult consciousness, as happens to all of us. We confront his life through his reflections, written from the male perspective as he isn’t looking for pity or a good cry, he is just stating the facts with the protective shell most boys use. Not to say boys feel any less, he certainly has depths to swim but it’s more quiet revelations. He becomes very real for the reader. I always enjoy these stories that make me feel like I am getting a birdseye view into another’s life. There is a connection but it’s not forceful, it’s not begging you to feel bad for the character, but you do anyway as life beats him up but he is funny too! “Dogs, however, are an exception, and they love to mate in public. It’s possible they do this because they enjoy being squirted with water hoses in the act.”  It’s a journey with beautiful writing, though you are reading a coming of age, it’s very relatable to adults. He is wounded but keeps on trucking! Yes, read it!

Publication Date: September 4, 2018

Tin House Books

Evening in Paradise: More Stories by Lucia Berlin

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Missed moments. One word, one gesture, can change your entire life, can break everything or make it whole.

I have been wanting to read A Manual for Cleaning Women for a long time, having read glowing reviews so when I saw this one up for grabs I tucked in and wasn’t disappointed. Reading that many stories were based on her real life made them all the more satisfying. I was tickled by Tiny on the roof in the story Noel. Texas.1956. Spending her time overhearing her family, not quite feeling the Christmas spirit for her relatives, the very ones she did her best to escape, I couldn’t help but picture it all in my head. Then the generous toy delivery by airplane that goes all wrong and all I can think is, “life, isn’t that just the way things always are?”

Drug addiction that is both haunting and common in love, family haunts much of the collection. Laughing that two women give a man both the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ years of their lives, coming together in misery and yet somehow stronger women, wiser women for it all. How can a man who is a complete addict be the sort that all those who follow cannot measure up to? Life is mystery! One husband’s drug habit that takes a shocking violent turn for the wife who has no choice but to take care of things, cover something up and yet the next day is just another ordinary collection of days to come. Somehow these stories are both terribly sad, shocking and funny. It echoes many lives, there is one story where a little boy goes missing and it reminded me of something my own son did when he was with my mother and aunt. It doesn’t always work when authors play with the ‘truth’ of their own lives, creating fiction out of fact, but in the end everything we knew, experienced, are just stories with a million perspectives. If you think about it, no one ever tells them same story anyway, and that makes us all fascinating in what we chose to remember. That makes some people uncomfortable, the fluidity of truth but it’s necessary for fiction, I think.

I love reading stories about youth too, as we grow older we forget the bonds we shared with others. How fierce we were about loyalty and friendship. ‘When we got off the bus at the plaza, Hope repeated that she’d kill me if I ever spoke to Sammy again.                       “Never. Want blood?” We were always cutting our wrists and sealing promises.’ It could be the 1940s, the 1970s… human nature doesn’t change that much really. People fall in and out of love, grow and weed out friendships, raise children beautifully and terribly and the world spins on…

In each person there are many lives all full of beginnings and endings, tracks jumped when marriages dissipate or children are born. I loved The Adobe House With A Tin Roof because of the characters, nothing wild has to happen, it’s a quiet story but the plants, all the plants and her rowdy neighbor whom Maya both hates and adores (even if she doesn’t know it) made me feel I was there. One that stayed with me, Our Brother’s Keeper not just for the death of Sarah but more due to the flaw that so many women (especially those old enough to know better) chose to forgive because we sometimes want so badly for everything to just be okay. When it’s good, it’s good, right? Shouldn’t that be enough? Well, no… We may get bitter with age, because of what life does to us but deep down there is still that longing of a young girl’s heart.

I can’t compare her prior work, her audience was small while she was alive and has since grown after her death. Lucia Berlin was born in November of 1936 in Juneau, Alaska and died in 2005. Evening in Paradise is a follow-up collection of her remaining stories, and I genuinely enjoyed them all. Maybe my pleasure is in part my being a fellow November baby, always a little dark humored, easily finding things to laugh about even in the roughest of life’s moments, I can relate. Fitting that the stories will be released in November.

Publication Date:  November 6, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

Amidst This Fading Light by Rebecca Davis

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Time could do many things; soften the blow of misaligned teeth, erase a dead girl’s name and fade memories that ought to be forgotten.

One family moves into Germantown, the Picketts, treated with suspicion, disrupting the ways of the founding families. Following in the footsteps of his older brother Marlowe, Reggie buys the old weathered Himmel homeplace, but one Mrs. Honora Brow says to her audience, “Well, I’ll be. Didn’t you feel that chill?” The Brows have always held sway over the people of Germantown, known to be gifted in the art of ‘Prediction’. The woman who holds fast to her ‘gut feelings’ and it doesn’t bode well that the Picketts don’t hold her in high esteem, as do the rest of the townsfolk. Mrs. Picket is never wrong, how dare these inferior people doubt her? But no one could imagine the stink of tragedy clinging to the Picketts and how it would change the entire town.

This is a brutal tale of the ways in which life picks at people, like vultures. It is about what remains to be salvaged in the wreckage, and the ways in which we are tied. Taking place in the Piedmont region of North Carolina during the Great Depression, choices to be made, actions that horrify our sensibilities today were a reality that had to be confronted. The sorrow begins in Chapter 1, with the passing of a child and a large black pot. A people made of stronger stuff, in a time that snuffed you out with any sign of weakness in character.

Quince isn’t the boy Reggie hoped for, he feels robbed of strapping sons to help work the land and carry on the Pickett name and he never let’s Quince forget it. The slight, dreamy boy gets under his father’s skin while his wife Helen knows the boy is of a tender nature, but Reggie must toughen the boy, and it goes back to his own father, “There was nothing more destructive than his father’s displeasure.” And so the cycle continues. His uncle Marlowe is more successful with the right sort of boys, strong, helpful. Everything is much easier for him, and it eats at Reggie to compare their lives, to know his son could never live up to his inheritance, not like Marlowe’s boys. Years pass, Marlowe has plans, banking on Quince’s tragedy, always wanting something from him. The vile, heartless decision just to make money is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. The horrors never seem to want to release Quince, not even with the gentle touch of love to ground him to the present.

Lela is new to town and quickly befriended by young Louise Pickett, but she can’t help but notice her quiet brother, Quince. So begins their relationship that takes them through blinding grief, deep abiding love, the shaky years of college and the uncertain future that waits for them.  The Picketts come to define Germantown, not necessarily for the better. Something about other people’s tragedy makes those close to it think they own it. Neighbors are often too near, judging as Honora does from the start, setting the Picketts up with her smug, superior ‘facts’ about that chillingly odd brood, and yet on the flip side of the coin you have Lela’s family and their unwavering support. A tale about the whims of fate from illnesses, war, abuse, birth, love and everything in between.

It’s a heavy read, sometimes you really need to light that match and burn down the painful reminders of your past to ash.

Publication Date: August 28, 2018

Southern Fried Karma

Putney: A Novel by Sofka Zinovieff

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She couldn’t have known what I was feeling but I wanted to lie down before her and let her walk on me.

That ‘she’ is a child! This novel is one of my favorites of 2018, having read it months ago it was killing me to hold back on posting a review per the publisher’s request.

A rising star in the London arts scene of the early 1970s, gifted composer Ralph Boyd is approached by renowned novelist Edmund Greenslay to score a stage adaptation of his most famous work. Welcomed into Greenslay’s sprawling bohemian house in Putney, an artistic and prosperous district in southwest London, the musical wunderkind is introduced to Edmund’s beautiful activist wife Ellie, his aloof son Theo, and his nine-year old daughter Daphne, who quickly becomes Ralph’s muse.

Muse and so much more. It really begs the question, do more carefree times really excuse illicit relationships, forbidden ‘love’, seduction of an innocent? What is interesting are the different answers people of all ages give you! Make no mistake, Daphne is groomed however ‘pure’ Ralph swears his intentions are and it begins for her at the tender age of 9. Oh but there is no touching, no spoiling, nothing so vile as that, not yet anyway. Nothing illicit in his train of thinking, which seems to be off the tracks! Her father is Edmund Greenslay, famous novelist living a bohemian life with his gorgeous Greek wife Ellie, an activist whose not always present. How could a child surrounded by the energy of such parents not be enchanting, intelligent and wildly imaginative? He is beyond enraptured! She becomes an obsession, in a different home maybe his access to Daphne would have been less easy but it’s so hard for Ralph to keep away from this extraordinary creature. Soon he has treasures for her, the attention she sorely needs in a home where her artistic parents are always entertaining, working, traveling after all it’s the 1970s, and their parenting is carefree. They have important endeavours that don’t always make room for raising their offspring. They are so trusting of their circle, it never crosses their minds to wonder why a grown man is so attentive of their darling child.

Children love secrets, and what’s more exciting to a lonely yet adventurous little girl than a secret that’s ‘just for us‘? This becomes the theme of their relationship. Ralph is convinced it’s pure, feels he is behaving so long as it’s not sexual until she turns 13 and everything alters.

Daphne now calls her past the ‘Dark Ages’,  where in the wreckage lies a broken marriage, drug abuse in her twenties, trying to reclaim herself, create a stable life in her thirties and presently trying to prove to Ralph that she is okay, that she is healthy and good, that she has made a life worth living. With her teenaged daughter Libby by her side Daphne has returned to London, stepping back into her childhood best friend Jane’s life. Jane was the one person who kept Daphne and Ralph’s secrets, possibly to her own detriment. If Daphne holds her love for Ralph in some charming bubble, Jane is there to burst it with the seedy, ugly reality. She wasn’t always so immune to his ‘compelling’ nature, our Jane. How could she be when even the adults seemed to hum with excitement in his presence. More than her friend, it could well be through mothering her daughter that Daphne begins to see just how much she was hunted, abused. But how will everyone feel when she confronts the truth?

Ralph deludes himself, and the reader’s feelings may well sour more and more with the reading, he gets darker and darker. Instead of being a sinister, dark foreboding presence, though at the start and through much of the novel he is human, we like our monsters to be completely dark so we can spot them don’t we? But Ralph truly is the skin such threats walk around in. Charming, trustworthy to the adults, a friend of the family and wise enough to know what makes a little girl’s heart tick. Smart enough to dodge being found out ‘sniffing around’ her. Daphne is fragile (as all children are) and has no understanding of the adult world, in fact is exposed to it far too soon  with a bohemian upbringing. Love is a fairy tale to little girls, a grown man is exciting! We are meant to trust and like Ralph sometimes and that is the nail in the coffin. He inserts himself in young Daphne’s life, happening upon her everywhere she goes feeling surely that, oh its fate. “He was Dog; always waiting for her..” full of promises, educating her on Stravinsky, a gravitational force in the space where one’s parents should be. I spent so much time reading this novel angry at their lax attitude. There are girlfriends for Ralph, but Daphne has his heart, will always be the one. Loved by her mother and father, she forgives them their absences when really, should she? How will they feel much later, when Daphne faces the rot of it all?

Jane has felt for a long time that Daphne’s ‘chaos might be contagious.’ There is a lot of trepidation in Daphne’s return, their last encounter during her wedding was of a wilder friend. Yet she is as intrigued by Daphne as she was when they first became friends. Soon, they are on the phone making plans to meet up. Jane is pushy as an adult, she knows her friend was victimized even if Daphne doesn’t own that reality and she is going to convince her of this, she is there to take the ‘rosie tinted glasses’ off of her friend, who still holds Ralph on some pedestal. She knows full well what went on at 7 Barnabas Road wasn’t pure and had nothing to do with love. It is sick, Jane knows all of it is sick, but at the back of the reader’s mind one wonders, what exactly is driving Jane’s rage?  The shifting perspectives are wildly different.  Daphne’s strolls through memory lane are haunting to read, disturbing because she holds Ralph in a special place in her heart even now. “Although her memories of being with Ralph as a girl were tender, she knew they could not be talked about openly. It had always been a secret, but not a dirty one.” This is how victims are made. What Daphne romanized Jane sees as poison, just how far-reaching was Ralph’s desires?

What about time, surely if enough time has passed you can’t accuse someone, destroy the life of a gifted, talented beloved man? What if that man is tied, still, to your family? The times… those seventies were all about dissolving boundaries, free love… At least, that’s what Ralph feels.  How strange, being in the mind of an abuser and how they justify it to themselves or the victim who sees their situation as different, special. This is perfect for a book club, so many directions to go, so much to debate. All the enablers…

Yes, read it!

Publication Date: August 21, 2018

Harper

 

How to Set Yourself on Fire: A Novel by Julia Dixon Evans

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The world is a wall of heavy noise. I want to take a big breath exactly as much as I want to stop breathing.

Sheila’s life isn’t full, she spends much of her time listening to Torrey, her neighbor Vinnie’s daughter, grow up through the walls of her apartment, working dead-end jobs with zero ambition, and dodging calls from her mother. Rosamund, her Grandmother, has just passed away and left behind a shoebox full of letters from one Harold C. Carr. A shoebox  her mother doesn’t know she has, letters she was meant to bury to honor Rosamund’s wishes. Sheila’s father is a distant memory, her mother nothing but a headache. With the sad truth that she was never close to her grandmother, the mysterious letters reveal a sad affair that began with her mother’s (a child at the time) destroyed beloved doll and the hard truth about the difficult life Rosamund couldn’t dare leave, not even for love. Sheila is consumed by her grandmother’s past, easier than dealing with her own painful childhood and the black hole where her father once stood. The lover’s letters aren’t the only missives she builds stories upon. There is the UPS man , Jesse Ramirez’s dropped personal letter that sits in a ziplock in her nightstand drawer. A letter she cherishes and cannot return to him, as she should. A line she memorized, a feeling she wishes someone felt about her, is like a drug that fills her lonely heart. The job was her last-ditch attempt at normalcy, her therapist gave her ‘mild’ meds. “I hated her for calling me mild.  I hated how she could posit to measure feelings on a chart, in a table, with a thermometer.”

When Vinnie and his daughter Torrey suffer a tragedy, Sheila slowly begins to befriend the young girl and it’s painfully and beautifully awkward. She is beyond rusty when it comes to people, relationships. Her grandmother’s affair saddens her, knowing the choice she made and how her life played out, that she is the legacy, a mess of a granddaughter, directionless, unable to anchor anywhere. Her family has issues with bonding, unable as a child to dare ask her mother where her father is, why he isn’t in their life any longer. Her mother always a bit cold, distant, unable to be the sort of mother we all hope for. Sad more for never really knowing her grandmother than about her passing, her mother trying to contain what she sees as her mother’s ‘shameful’ secret by not honoring her last request, unaware that through the letters Sheila knows everything. There is a moment in the novel when Sheila sees a picture, a favorite of her mother’s with her own parents, one that shows how much Sheila and her mother looked alike as children. She says “It almost hurts how much she looked like me. I want to be as different from her as possible and she wants to be as close to me as possible.” The lines are a gut punch, and hint at the damaged mother/daughter relationship. Nosing through her grandmother’s letters, she begins to understand her own mother’s relationship with her grandmother Rosamund.

Working temp jobs, she has a special gift for working even that system. She isn’t exactly respectable, in fact seems to struggle with being an adult altogether. Interacting with Vinnie after an accident involving his ex-wife, her tasteless questions expose her social ineptidue.She doesn’t mean to be so ridiculously clueless, such a mess.  I spent so much of this novel cringing from her behavior, which is why I loved it so much. It’s hard to relate to perfect characters, I have a weak spot for the wounded, for strays. I adore the relationship between she and Torrey. Torrey is happy to join the quest in finding out if Harold is still alive, if Rosamund’s letters to him still exist. Unlike other fiction, it stays in the realms of reality, where not everything turns out the way you expect it.

Through Torrey’s savvy, there could be a way to locate this Harold, but like Torrey tells her when she proposes the idea and Sheila isn’t ready, ” You’re weird. You do things weirdly.” Sheila is a strange bird, her inheritance is pretending everything is normal as the roof caves in. For me, the letter she cherishes that isn’t hers to hoard, that belongs to the UPS man, that is like a drug for her says more about her state of loneliness and need. It leads to a strange obsession that is important to the novel, yet not the entire center of it. It is through Torrey she starts to abandon her quiet life, begins to see the real problem lies within herself, even if her mother shoulders a fair amount of the blame. At what point do we move on and stop blaming others for who we have become?

Vinnie is important too, they begin a relationship too, minus strings and while he is mostly on the periphery of the story, he has his big moments, particularly toward the end. The most important relationships are between all the women. The bonds are imperfect, but there could be room for healing.

A moving story about a woman who is stunted, until her grandmother’s past affair and  precocious young neighbor inject life into her. Lovely.

 

Available Now

Dzanc Books