In this post I will be talking about The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall and Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.
I put a lot of pressure on books. Especially during these troubling times when I am rationing my exposure to social media and the news, and actively searching for solace in personal relationships, simple pleasures, and books. I want to be fully engaged — enraptured, even — and for a book to hypnotize me with its world, its story, its characters, its art, its uniqueness, or, a combination of some or all of those. Too, as the times become increasingly difficult for me to understand and accept, books need be better and better to carry me away because my attention and energy is so focused on the tumult and fears of real life.
What I’m looking for now in fiction (and in real life) is Hope. And Healing. My two latest reads explored these issues, albeit in very different ways. Here I go.
The Book Of Polly, Kathy Hepinstall. Hardcover, 336pp, March 2017, Pamela Dorman Books
When first I read about this book the words heartfelt and lovable central characters and full of quirky Southern charm gave me pause; rarely have I found Southerners charming, and too often heartfelt and lovable is code for sacchariferous, self-consciously cloying tripe. After said pause, I paused again and thought; Times are hard, a little sugary hooey might be just the thing to distract me. So, I did a library reserve and picked up Polly.
I’m glad I did. Kathy Hepinstall has offered up a speedy-easy on the brain romp which has sentiment without being over-sentimental, quirks without inanity, and an unlikely, outre plot that doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief of proportions insulting to one’s intelligence.
Polly is in her late fifties, recently widowed, when she gives birth to Willow, who narrates the tale which is to do, mostly, with Willow’s fears about Polly’s mortality, a concern exacerbated by Polly’s smoking which eventually results in her diagnosis of The Bear, which is the family’s quirky (there’s that word) name for cancer.
Ultimately there is Willow’s insistence on a road trip (part of which happens on a raft) for a faith healing to the reluctant Polly’s home town, which she departed decades ago under a cloud of scandal, the details of which Willow has long been trying to ascertain. In the wind-up to the raucous (and rewardingly happy) final act we are introduced to Willow’s older (much) siblings — the ne’er-do-well brother, Shel, and the born-again, disapproving sister, Lisa, as well as Shel’s friend, Phoenix — who is something of a knight in dented-armour type and my favorite character (I wish he’d ended up with Polly for a sort of Harold and Maude kind of thing), Polly’s long-lost love, Garland, and Willow’s first love, Dalton, and, well, a bunch of other characters with peculiarities and idiosyncratic particularities which made me sometimes smile and sometimes smirk, but never sneer.
The Book Of Polly is a fast, fun read in which there is much to recommend and little to which I objected, except, twice during the course of the book Willow is subjected to near sexual assault, both of which episodes were jarring and awfully realistic, scary renderings of the kinds of assault to which women are constantly subjected, but in this near-fantasy novel the assaults seemed more plot-devices to facilitate Willow’s being saved and the ennobling of another character as opposed to necessary plot points. But, perhaps my discomfort has to do with my expectation that this novel would be a gambol through escapist territory, and sexual assault is never, ever something I find in any way quirky or fun, which the tone of the rest of the novel was — so, as I said, it was jarring and uncomfortably realistic in a near-fantasy novel.
But, other than that, it was full of hope and healing, and plenty of humor, all of which were much welcome in these often seemingly hopeless, fractured, sad times.
Idaho, Emily Ruskovich, Hardcover, 320pp, January 2017, Random House
This was not a book full of the hope and healing for which I am looking during these disquieting and fretful days. Rather, Idaho is a perplexing, disconcerting novel of emotional and structural complexity which demands a great deal from the reader.
Ann Mitchell is married to Wade, whose first wife, Jenny, murdered their younger daughter, May, at which time their older daughter, June, disappeared, never to be seen again. Wade, like his father and grandfather before him, is beset by early onset dementia, episodes of which result in his being violent with Ann. Jenny, serving a life sentence, befriends her prison cellmate, Elizabeth, another murderer, whose story we are also told. Ann’s life is touched by a boy, Eliot, who she knew briefly as a student when she was a music teacher, a boy Ann also witnessed the missing June being obsessed with, the witnessing of which facilitated Ann and Wade meeting.
We are in and out of all these characters’ (and some others) stories in a complexity of leaps in time and perspective, a quilting of near-short stories, the threads of which intertwine and make new shapes with each additional detail, like a literary cats-cradle, a concoction of such intricate construct the reader is required to slowly contemplate each new movement, stop and examine its structure, and wonder what the next move will do to its composition.
Small aside here: I am getting weary of this new literary fiction trope of such EXTREME jumping and mosaic-making with time; these cryptic, piecemeal zig-zaggings of hints and exposition have always been a literary device but recently have grown so severe and MFA-influeced-arty, the authors seem to be almost trying to make following the plot a near-impossible effort. Stop it. Most writers can’t accomplish this and reading ought not be a slog making one feel as if reading a novel is a graduate school assignment.
But, be warned, as accomplished as is the writing in this novel — and aside from the delicate dance of interwoven and interconnecting plotlines, the author’s facility and gift for language is quite stunning — there are no answers. If you are looking for resolution or healing, or hope, this is not the book for you. Because of its complexity, it is a slow read, and it is suffused with a sadness I found draining. All of the characters are damaged, and by the end of the novel I felt like I had spent time with one of those friends who is always in pain, in need of solace, unable to find their center. It was exhausting. And as beautiful as the language was, I’m not sure the relationship was worth that much effort.
And so, my friends, the first two of my reads for April were each three stars; liked but did not love. I need some love. I’m fifty pages into my next read and not sure it’s going to do it for me either. Hope and healing are hard to come by lately.
On every level.
But, I am plodding along — even skipping along sometimes — determined to find the joy where I can. I have found my center. I hope you are finding yours, too.
Love and Light dear ones, here I am, going.