Tag: LitFic

Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng


All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled.

Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.
This philosophy had carried her through life and, she had always felt, had served her quite well. Of course, she’d had to give up a few things here and there….Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.

Remember, Mia had said: Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.

Once Burned…
I almost didn’t pick up Little Fires Everywhere because I felt so burned by Ng’s first novel—Everything I Never Told You, which I read earlier this year. I loved Ng’s writing style and “complicated family” is a theme I will eat up. I appreciated the struggle she set up for Lydia and her mother, Marilyn. In that book, you know immediately that Lydia is dead and you spend the rest of the book backtracking to figure out why. The “why” is revealed in the final chapter, at which point I think I threw the book down. I felt manipulated and would rather have had an ambiguous ending where I didn’t know what I happened to Lydia. (As a side note, Everything I Never Told You would probably make a good book club offering precisely because the ending is controversial. I’m not going to recommend it otherwise because my feelings are still hurt; however, it is a book that will generate different opinions and big feelings, perfect for some bookish debate.)

But then Little Fires Everywhere came out and I remembered that even if I was mad at Ng for emotionally dragging me through the lake with Lydia, I really liked her writing style. I also want to make a point to read more authors of color. And she featured characters of color. And it would be nearly impossible for her to set me up for the same kind of disappointment again. So I bit the bullet and used my Book of the Month credit on Little Fires.

Thankfully my book gamble paid off. I enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere, including the ending this time.

Location, Location, Location
The book is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the first master planned community. While you usually hear of setting talked about as a character when the setting is atmospheric—foggy and wild—Shaker Heights is definitely its own character, though it is as far on the opposite end of the atmospheric spectrum as possible from “wild.” Shaker’s identity is defined by rules and boundaries, with strict zoning codes and housing regulations, down to the colors each home within a specific neighborhood could be painted. As one of the characters noted, the founding of Shaker Heights was based on “the underlying philosophy being that everything could—and should—be planned out, and that by doing so you avoided the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.”

Elena Richardson, the mother of four of the five children at the center of the book, has internalized the Shaker way to heart—she has given up on dreams and risk and lived her life solely within the boundaries. She is safe. She is as happy as she thinks she can be. It is against this foil that we meet Mia, wild and free, artist and mother of Pearl (literally). Interestingly, Ng has us met Mia through others—there is no chapter I can recall where Mia really talks about herself. Instead, we discover her character as she interacts with her daughter Pearl as well as Eleana’s daughters Lexie and Izzy. (Indeed, it is precisely Elena’s rules and structure that drives her own daughters to Mia.) We discover Mia’s past as Elena’s discomfort and internal outrage over Mia’s freedom (though Elena wouldn’t call it that) puts her on a destruction course to discover who Mia really is.

While Little Fires Everywhere isn’t a YA book, Ng’s other main characters were strong, well-developed teen characters. I loved Mia’s daughter Pearl—I loved that she was nerdy but was still able to get the guy. Her struggles and navigating of new friendships in town felt believable. She didn’t make all the wrong choices, nor did she make all the right ones—she was a good friend to some but made some choices that hurt others. She was an internally diverse enough character that there was something in her that it seems most readers could identify with—nerdy, shy, had friends, got the guy, hurt some people, had a complicated but loving relationship with her mother.

Eleana’s two daughters are opposites—Lexie is the high-achieving rule-follower in her mother’s mold while Izzy once tried to free all the cats at the Humane Society and gave all of the not-black clothing her mother bought her to the homeless the next day. This seems to be the way of things—kids respond to (overly) rigid boundaries in two main ways—some kids kill themselves to meet the standards while others chafe and rage against them. Yet here too, they are each believable characters—Ng does an excellent job making them multi-dimensional and not just tropes. While Izzy has been drawn to Mia from the start, when Lexie falls short of the standard, it is Mia to whom she turns, not Elena.

Under the main story line revolving around Elena and Mia is a subplot surrounding the termination of parental rights of a young, uneducated, poor Chinese woman and a rich white couple desperate to adopt the baby. Through existing friendships, Elena and Mia are pulled into this conflict on opposite sides, with the teenagers also splitting to take sides. This subplot, while creating conflict that enables Ng to flesh out Elena and Mia’s characters even more and set up conflict with the teen characters, also provides opportunities to make still salient points about race.

The lawyer for the Chinese mother Bebe scores points in court by pointing out that there are no Asian dolls in the rich couple’s house, though the reader also learns that this is because major companies like Matell have done a terrible job at representing anything other than the “norm” of whiteness.

Elena is able to think she is open-minded and not racist because she “doesn’t see race” which is another common completely unhelpful thing white people say.  By not “seeing race,” Elena and the rich couple aren’t being good and charitable; they’re destroying part of the child’s identity. Whether you see race or not, it’s there. The question is whether the present diversity is recognized and celebrated rather than ignored, like a dirty little secret no one talks about. Elena is able to pat herself on the back for this and think she has no problem with race when it’s clear she does—she has a problem with anything that doesn’t follow the rules and highlights difference.

Shaker Heights itself also can’t have a problem with race since the town officially embraced integration, refused to allow racial covenants, and prevented white flight. Yet, even for all of this, we’re still told that Bebe’s lawyer was one of two Asians in his class and was expected to marry her by all his classmates since they “match.” While Ng’ first novel (set in the 70s) had more overt anti-Asian racism, Little Fires Everywhere features the microaggressions and assumptions still present today. While the tiki torches of Charlottesville have demonstrated that overt racism is clearly still alive and well, books like Little Fires Everywhere show us what “benevolent racism” still looks like in most places, even the most perfect of places.

While not as frequent as the commentary on racism, one of the other points Ng makes that hit home for me was about Elena’s “benevolence”—how she forced people to accept philanthropy they would rather not accept. So often, its easy for me as a well-educated white woman to think I know what is best and to thus foist myself onto someone, thinking I’ve solved the problem without listening or having the person themselves weigh in on what they actually need. Like discarded t-shirts in a third world country, benevolence is often far more about the giver than the receiver. Not terribly surprising, either, is the fact that Elena keeps score. Does it really count as benevolence if you’re always waiting for the opportunity to cash in on the favors you’ve forced people to accept over the years?

Writing Style
I love Ng’s writing style–it’s not overly flowery or showy (she refers to the fires set in the house as looking like they had been set by a “demented Girl Scout” who had been camping in the house), but you can tell Ng has honed her craft to find just the right words. The writing is relatable but polished, falling cleanly into the LitFic category as opposed to simply contemporary fiction.  (Of course Amazon has it categorized as Women’s Fiction —what does this even mean?!?).   Compared to the first novel, Ng’s writing seems to have found a more solid footing—she seems confident of her voice and so Little Fires Everywhere felt like a stronger read to me. I can’t wait to read what she comes up with next.

Published September 12, 2017 by Penguin Press (@penguinpress)
Author: Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing)
Date read: October 8, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book.  All opinions are my own.

“There’s things you think you know that you don’t.”
“Like what?”…
“Home ain’t always about a place. The house I grew up in is gone. Ain’t nothing but a field and some woods, but even if the house was still there, it ain’t about that.” Richie rubs his knuckles together. “I don’t know.”…
“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart. Same time. Where my family lived…it’s a wall. It’s a hard floor, wood. Then concrete. No opening. No heartbeat. No air.”
“So what?” I whisper….
“This my way to find that.”
“Find what?”
“A song. The place is the song and I’m going to be part of the song.”

Thirteen year-old Jojo wants nothing more today than to be with Pop—for Pop to see him as a man and for his mother Leonie to leave him at home where Mam has only a few days left.  Instead, he’s being dragged north with his three year-old sister to retrieve his father from the state penitentiary, with a stop along the way for his mother and her friend to retrieve the drug that pulls her farther and farther from her family. When they finally reach their destination and return home, Jojo’s father Michael isn’t the only thing the family brings back from Parchman. On the way back, Jojo begins to see the form of a boy named Richie who served time in Parchman with Pop many years ago and whose story only Pop knows the end of.

Pacing and word choice
As the book opens, Jojo is at home with his Pop, Mam, and little sister Kayla—the pacing slow, but not quite languid, the stuff of long conversations. When his mother Leonie insists the children come on the trip across the state to pick up their father in Parchman, the language stretches—the words paving the way for the long drive. There is, in fact, very little in the way of action through the entire 3/4 of the book. Instead the long stretches of road serve as the backdrop for character studies of Jojo and Leonie. As the mother and child return home, the writing becomes almost frenetic—the language shorter and choppier as the action takes over, the river of words becoming foaming rapids, pulling the reader frantically to the conclusion. This pacing adds to the atmosphere of the climax scene, leaving the reader as breathless and wrung out as Leonie and Jojo themselves. It’s not surprising to hear that Ward is a professor of creative writing as her spot-on pacing in this book is masterful.

The word choice in Sing, Unburied, Sing is also perfect for the book. The grammar—dropping articles, “sleep” for “asleep,” making plural words singular—transports the reader immediately to somewhere in the rural South without making the book difficult to read or having to rely on gimmicky written Southern accents. The descriptions place the reader in the deltas of Mississippi with the sun blazing its curtain call as it drops below the horizon. It’s descriptive without being flowery, so while there were times I went back to re-read a paragraph just for the word choice, this is not a book that will annoy or trip up readers who care less about these things.

Character study
Sing, Unburied, Sing is character-driven rather than plot-driven. The book opens with Jojo, imitating his Pop, trying to show he can be a man, even as the killing of a goat turns his stomach. Over the following days, Jojo will become a man in the blink of an eye—a blink that Leonie misses.

Alternating with Jojo’s chapters are those of Leonie’s. Jojo’s perception of his mother is limited—as the child of a drug addict, he has been let down or left out so often it is hard for him to see any good left in his mother. Her chapters serve to humanize her, to bring the reader to empathize with her, to hope with her when she tries, to feel her disappointment when she fails. It is a testament to Ward’s writing that she can make the reader love even this flawed woman, dying by her own choices, particularly given that in interviews she expresses her own distaste for Leonie as a mother.

Less prominent initially as he is left behind on the journey, Pop is a character the reader comes to love. He is the solid, the constant, the care left in Jojo’s life. He is the reason that when Jojo becomes a man, he will become like Pop rather than his own father Michael. And yet, as the reader discovers, even this quiet, solid man is deeply flawed, haunted by choices and a mercy he chose to administer many years before.

Finally, there is death. Death literally lurks in Sing, Unburied, Sing, appearing as Leonie’s murdered brother Given who appears to her only when she is high; as Richie, a boy inmate when Pop was in Parchman himself; as a bird with scales; as Mam wasting as cancer snacks on what’s left of her.

Black death
In many ways, it is not merely death that lurks in the corner of each page, but specifically Black death. There are many ways throughout U.S. history that white people have not typically had to die—we have not been lynched, we have not been cut into tiny pieces while still alive, pulled from our beds to face false accusations, had our medical needs neglected until it is too late when our cancer is finally found. It is not just death, but Black deaths that creep silently closer in Sing, Unburied, Sing until they are the forefront, as heavy in the trees as grackles on a line. Like the cancer invading Mam’s body, you know death is lurking, you see it in the pages but you do not realize the magnitude. While you were looking at one particular manifestation, the others were coming up silently.

While many of the manifestations of death in the book are quite obvious—Mam’s cancer having nearly eaten through her, gone-too-soon Given, the ghost-bird-child Richie—Leonie’s character in many ways is a walking death. Leonie, child of Mam and Pop and mother-too-soon of Jojo and Kayla, was introduced to drugs by her longtime boyfriend Michael. She struggles, she fights, but by the time the reader meets her, her universe of available choices is hamstrung by her drug addiction. I am not suggesting that Leonie bears no responsibility for her own choices, but there is poignancy is seeing Leonie’s life becoming walking death after having been introduced to drugs by her white boyfriend. That it is black lives who are often disproportionately impacted by white choices.

What is Mercy?
With the rising specter of death comes the question of mercy. What does it mean to be merciful in the face of death? What is the difference between getting to choose the mercy of death versus having it thrust upon you? When mercy comes, does it comes differently for lives well lived versus those barely started?

And what of the mercy-bringer? If you were being merciful, is there still guilt? And how much? Are you more guilty if you weren’t asked to be merciful and less if you were? Does that actually matter?

None of these questions were answered, leaving an unsettled aftertaste when the reader finishes. Of a meal that filled, that mostly satisfied, but of a flavor you’re trying to grasp even as it fades.

In Sum
Sing, Unburied, Sing is not a book that sits lightly or that passes as you turn the page of your next book. Ward raises questions that remain unanswered, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions of death and mercy, life and guilt. For readers who prefer more plot-driven books, Sing, Unburied, Sing may not be the best book. This is also not a book for someone who dislikes ambiguity.

For readers of literary fiction who love a character study, who are looking to read more from authors of color, who are willing to be unsettled and still love a book, I highly recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing. I know I’ll be pushing Salvage the Bones up my reading list after having read this offering of Ward’s.

Published: September 5, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster) Preorder available on Amazon
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Date read: August 29, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

Review: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Nostalgia is my favorite emotion. It’s like, you think you know how to deal with the passage of time, but nostalgia will prove you wrong. You’ll press your face into an old sweatshirt, or you’ll look at a familiar shade of paint on a front door, and you’ll be reminded of all the time that got away from you. If you could live it all again, you’d take a long moment to look around, to examine knees against knees. Nostalgia puts you in this dangerous re-creation something you can never have again. It’s ruthless, and for the most part, inaccurate.


On February 15, the town of Broomsville, Colorado awakes to find that fifteen year-old Lucinda Hayes has been murdered. As the small town swirls with grief and gossip, we follow three characters—Cameron, a neighbor who loved her and may have also stalked her; Jade, a classmate who hated her for being everything she couldn’t be; and Russ, a police officer torn between his duty to serve and his duty to protect, especially to protect Cameron. As more is slowly revealed, the book begs the questions—Who are you when no one’s watching? And can you ever really know someone if you’re only ever watching from the outside?

At first, I assumed, based on the title, that Girl in Snow was a YA book. A few chapters in, I realized that wasn’t the case. Instead, the title is a nod to the way works of art are named, as we see Lucinda, left for dead on a snowy playground, through the eyes of two classmates/neighbors and a police officer involved in the investigation.

From the first sentences on, the readers knows the central point around which the rest of the book turns is the murder of a fifteen year-old girl, but no one knows who murdered her. Ok, so this book must be a thriller/murder-mystery—indeed, a quick check of Amazon has the book categorized as “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction” and then in the sub-genres of “mystery, thriller, and suspense” within each.

Except, even this genre didn’t fit neatly, or at least, does not follow the typical structure of a mystery/thriller/suspense novel in my book. The bulk of the book follows three characters and the choices they (and others) make when they think no one is watching. Far more time is spent on character development than dropping clues, such that when the killer is identified, the resolution is swift, almost an afterthought to the other sub-stories being told about Cameron, Jade, and Russ. (Which, in the interest of #nospoilers is not say that it isn’t one of them, but simply that the focus of the book isn’t on who did it as much as how these three characters are coping with the murder and the role they have in the event and the resulting investigation).

The highlight of Kukafka’s first novel is Cameron. It’s never directly stated, but his mannerisms seemed to indicate pretty strongly to me that he is on the spectrum—making collections, storing images, intensely focused, but socially withdrawn. Cameron is obsessed with watching—he prowls the neighborhood at night, watching the inhabitants, especially watching Lucinda. Though they have had almost no actual interaction, Cameron loves the Lucinda he watches. When Lucinda’s body is found, he is immediately a suspect—though he has been careful, he’s less clever than he thinks and people know he’s been watching Lucinda. Even Cameron wonders if it might be him, as the night of her death is missing from Cameron’s memory.

Protecting Cameron the best he can is Russ, a police officer who was Cameron’s father’s partner for years on the force before Cameron’s father was forced to leave in shame. Russ, more than the other main characters, has let what others see of him define who he actually is—with the result that he’s walking around half-alive, still consumed with his missing partner and his promise to keep his son safe.

Finally, we have Jade. I loved Kukafka’s little details with Jade—I may have cheered out loud at the reference to her listening to Box Car Racer and Dashboard Confessional (the book is set so that they are teenagers in the late 90s’/early 2000s’ when I was). Jade is that kid in school who doesn’t seem to have friends but also don’t seem to want them. It’s easier to reject someone before they reject you. She’s prickly and unattractive. And yet, like Cameron, she steals her way into your heart.

The last thing you want is for any of these three to have been involved in Lucinda’s death. Yet Jade hated her, Cameron stalked her, and Russ has hidden evidence to protect someone in Cameron’s family before.

These characters are what made Girl in Snow stand out from the typical murder mystery from me. I usually spend my entire time reading, trying to pick up clues. I can usually figure out the murderer and, often, the motive at least a few chapters before the big reveal. I didn’t find myself doing that with Girl in Snow. Kukafka made me care, desperately, more about who I hoped didn’t commit the murder than about who did. I didn’t spend my time looking for lots of clues, rather I waited for Cameron to work his way through his memory, hoping that when it came back it wouldn’t be him. I won’t say more and spoil the book, but turning this typical view of the mystery on its head was one of Kukafka’s better choices, as the book was richer than your typical mass market paperback murder mystery, though diehard mystery/thriller fans may find the ending rather abrupt with very few clues leading you as to both who the murderer was and why.

In some ways, by choosing the three characters she did, Kukafka chose the three anti-heroes. None of the three of them are likeable. Even the other significant minor characters—Ivan, Ines, and Cynthia—wouldn’t have been terribly likeable had their narrative been added. But then again, the more you find out about someone you’ve been watching, in many ways, the more unlikeable they become. Just as Cameron never got a full glimpse of Lucinda in his hours of watching her, perhaps love is coming to know someone, to find them unlikeable, and choosing them anyway.

I struggled more with rating this book than with others. As I noted, since it didn’t read like a typical mystery/thriller to me, it didn’t seem fair to judge it against others in that category I’ve enjoyed or think are well done. It was almost more of a straight literary fiction novel that happened to be set around a murder. With that in mind, I gave this book 3 ¾ stars—it’s well-written, tightly-edited, and Kukafka can turn a beautiful phrase, though it didn’t have the pop of something like This is How It Always Is or even Almost Sisters. It wasn’t as stand out as other lit-fics I’ve recently read, so that knocked it down a bit.

However, this was by no means a book that’s finding itself on my running list of “Books I should have abandoned” (looking at you Hillbilly Elegy). I was engaged, I enjoyed the story, and I thought Kukafka did well by her characters. I loved her gentleness with Cameron in particular. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know I can get a little heart-eyes over flowery prose—this book isn’t flowery. The prose is well done without being over the top. So while I didn’t love the prose as much as I did in something like The Heart or Exit West, I know those books also drive some readers a little nuts. If that’s you, you’ll do fine with Girl in Snow—it’s beautiful but not showy. If you generally enjoy non-standard murder mysteries and highly character-driven books, I suspect you’ll find Girl in Snow worth your time.

Published: August 1, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Danya Kukafka (@danyakukafka)
Date read: August 15, 2017
Rating: 3 3/4 Stars

Review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo


Sometimes in the morning, while she waited for her brother to get out of the bathroom, Meredith Oliver would stand in front of her bureau mirror, lock eyes with her reflection, and say, “This is me. This is really me. Right now. This is me. This is my real life. This is me.”

She would say these things to herself because she liked the moment when she suddenly became uncertain that those things she was saying were in fact true, liked the way it made her feel unmoored, the hole of doubt that opened inside her, and the wind the blew through that hole….And she liked equally—not more and not less, because it was just the same sensation backward—the moment she became re-certain that those things were true—this is me, this is really me—when the hole closed, and the anchor caught, and she could smell the eggs her father was scrambling downstairs.

On a September day punctuated only by an Algebra test, a broken pencil, and not enough time to finish graphing the asymptotes, eighth-grader Meredith suddenly finds herself on the floor of a local restaurant as a robbery becomes a kidnapping and Meredith is the one left behind.  The Fall of Lisa Bellow is the story of what happens next for Meredith and her family as they come to terms with Meredith’s being left behind while still having to move forward.

I remember the first time I watched Gilmore Girls, I identified, unquestioningly, with Rory. Many years later, re-watching it before the recent revival, I realized at some point I was far closer in age to Lorelai in the series, and, while I remembered feeling the way Rory did at times, Lorelai’s story lines were suddenly more relevant.

In some ways, my experience with The Fall of Lisa Bellow was similar—I felt the ache of middle school injustice and cliques and could remember how it felt to be where Meredith is (awful…it mostly felt awful), but I identified as strongly with her mother Claire as I did Meredith. I’m in the sweet spot of being able to see myself in both major characters.

In Meredith, I remember the feeling of not fitting in—not entirely sure what it was about me that made me different, just knowing that I wasn’t popular or, frankly, well-liked. Like Meredith, I missed the memo about the Titanic iceberg that is middle school and spent the rest of the time feeling like I was catching up. And yet, there is a point where we see Meredith from her mother’s eyes, talking about the mean girls with her friends. And in that moment, Meredith is one the nice-girls-become-mean in the tearing down of other girls. I see this so much in myself in hindsight. I was one of the nice girls but I was not nice. I was not kind. In seeing this in Meredith, I see this in eighth grade me. It made me feel gentler toward Meredith, knowing we shared this flaw that neither of us could or would see until we were adults, removed from thirteen by enough distance to see the landscape behind.

In the alternating chapters with Meredith’s mother, I could see parts of Claire’s parenting that felt true to me. I’m not a parent but I could see where many of the mistakes she made could easily be my mistakes in the future. The earliest glimpse of Claire’s parenting comes as she examines a patient who made fun of her first-grade son, calling him a “porker.” As an adult, Claire has power, but as a dentist, Claire welds more power than she should—and in a moment of decision deliberately inflicts just a bit of pain on her son’s bully. There’s something shockingly human in the description of this incident. Though the book is written in third person it reads like a confession, but a confession from someone who isn’t sure she’s sorry. She knows she should be, but that’s as close to remorse as she’s been able to come in the ten years since.

For Claire, the problems are now too big for dental retribution. Six months before the book opens, her son Evan catches a line drive foul ball in the eye, destroying his sight and his dreams for a baseball career. Now, with Meredith, not taken but gone somewhere Claire can’t understand, Claire has to fully accept that can’t protect her children and there isn’t always a physical monster she can bring to tears with her sterile tools.

Though there is nothing on paper that should make me identify particularly well with either of these characters, the highlight of The Fall of Lisa Bellow for me was Meredith and Claire, as well as the minor characters of the father Mark and son Evan—in their struggle through grief and loss and almost-loss and guilt for the grief—they make choices that can’t make sense because none of those emotions set the foundation for rational thinking. And yet, I can see the nonsensical choices they each made and see, exactly, how I too would wind up in a stranger’s bathtub, drunk on my own front lawn, unexpectedly in a seat at the popular kid’s table for a fleeting moment.  It is a strength of Perabo’s that though I had little to nothing outwardly in common with her characters, I identified with them so deeply as I read.

I read a book several years ago about “ambiguous loss,” a phrase made mainstream by Pauline Boss. Ambiguous losses aren’t solid, they’re like a family whose loved one has Alzheimer’s—there’s a death with a living body still walking around, so how do they mourn this non-loss? It’s a loss of expectation in some ways, but deeper than that.  It’s not a loss you can see; it’s not something that prompt the neighbors to pull out the casserole dishes and fill your freezer. Though what Meredith experienced isn’t truly an ambiguous loss—Lisa is gone and Meredith is not—the way Meredith processed what happened—that she is still here reminded me in some ways of ambiguous loss. We all grieve experiences differently, even if what would seem to be the expected emotion isn’t grief. It is in the processing of her experience and the loss of Lisa that Meredith begins to literally see Lisa, to imagine what is happening to her. How Meredith comes to terms with her own trauma, the “lesser” trauma of that day, is simultaneously completely irrational and completely identifiable. Through the ordeal and later, she fixates on a problem she ran out of time to solve in math class—she latches onto the rational problem with a finite solution that she can still solve.

For Claire, the immediate thought is that Meredith is still here—what does she or her family have to grieve? And yet, there is the almost-grief, the difference of eeny-meeny-miney-mo landing on your daughter rather than the other one in the restaurant.

After Lisa is taken within the first few chapters of the book, the rest is how Meredith comes to term with Lisa—a classmate who wasn’t a friend but, in that short moment, was as they both lay on the floor of the Deli Barn. How Claire mourns the loss of her daughter’s innocence while simultaneously struggling with the idea that she, as the parent who didn’t lose a child, shouldn’t be mourning at all.

Because I can’t not-comment on the writing
The Fall of Lisa Bellow stuck with me more than most books I’ve read recently—the larger themes had more poignancy than the other books I’ve read this summer. In this way, while the little details were the high point of the other books, here they were the matting surrounding the larger work—the work was better for the professional matting and framing job, but the work stood on its own.

The themes carried you, swimming in almost-grief and almost-guilt masquerading down the halls of eighth grade, while the word choice and details were the individual steps that got you from one end of the hall to the other. The writing didn’t smother the theme, it wasn’t over the top but it wasn’t so simplistic that it detracted. There were paragraphs to re-read for the way the characters made you feel and others to re-read for the word choice. The Fall of Lisa Bellow was balanced in a way most books rarely are.

Recommended for….
This is a book that drew some strong reactions in the MMD book club—some of us loved it, but I think we may have been in the slight minority. The action happens in the left over parts with the left behind people. It doesn’t move quickly and some of the choices the characters make just aren’t rational—if you’re not in a place where you’re also inhabiting those characters with Perabo, then I can see how those choices, those words, that character’s tone would drive you to pull out your eyelashes waiting for something to happen. Despite the kidnapping plot, this is not a mystery/thriller. The focus is never on the girl who was taken but the girl who was left.

With that said, I loved this book and devoured it in days. If you enjoy well written, traditional literary fiction and character-driven books, The Fall of Lisa Bellow was a highlight of my summer reading and I highly recommend it. This is another book I’ll be acquiring my own copy of for my shelves to lend and re-read in the future.

Published: March 14, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Susan Perabo
Date read: June 12, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars