Sunday, October 18, 2015

Staff Review: A Trio of Recent(ish) Novels

I am woefully behind in my fiction reading, an unfortunate situation caused, in part, by a long detour into Nonfictionland. In an attempt to catch up, I just blew through a trio of novels I missed over the past two or three years.

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My favorite was The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout (of Olive Kitteridge fame), which tells the story of three adult siblings from a Maine family racked by a tragic childhood event (one of the three accidentally killed their father in an incident relayed in the novel's first pages). Oldest son Jim Burgess is a hot-shot corporate lawyer heading for a fall, Bob Burgess works for Legal Aid and seems rather spineless, and Susan Burgess is a frumpy, jilted wife whose only son is in a world of legal trouble.

The author seeds a rich plot woven of dramatic family interactions with real-life, local-to-Maine hot topics, like the unlikely presence of a large Somali community within economically-depressed and homogeneous Lewiston, Maine (the old mill town upon which the novel’s fictional setting is based). The story moves at a fast clip and resolves so satisfactorily (a real accomplishment in a time of often-disappointing conclusions), with a big truth revealed, certain characters getting their comeuppance, and others finding redemption or peace.  

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My second favorite was Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, a novel that tackles climate change in a compelling but not story-clobbering way. Set in present-day Appalachia, Kingsolver’s novel serves up a strong female lead in the person of Dellarobia Turnbow, who finds herself trapped in a way-too-small life with a sweet but slow hulk of a husband. 

Monarch butterflies by the millions suddenly appear in her small mountain town, a cohort of scientists moves in, and over the course of events Dellarobbia blossoms into the sort of capable and confident woman who’s bound to land a bigger life.
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The third novel on my catch-up fast-track was the fine debut novel The Wild Child by Eowyn Ivey, a book that has garnered glowing reviews and that I figured would pull me into different territory with its quasi-fantastical elements. Set in the homesteaders’ Alaska of the early twentieth century, the novel’s main characters are an older couple, left bereft by the stillbirth of their only child, who leave Pennsylvania to set up in the rugged outback of Alaska, where they encounter (or do they conjure?) a young child named Faina who seems to live, and even thrlve, all alone in the frigid, wolf-haunted wilderness. 

The author’s depiction of Alaska’s pristine landscape bowled me over (wolves, wolverines, bears, moose, icy waters, looming peaks, killing cold), but I was less compelled by the elusive Faina (I admit I am fantasy-resistant), whose pale presence nevertheless constitutes the novel's central question: is she real flesh-and-blood or the fairy-tale snow child of the book's title?     

~Ann, Adult Services

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