Sunday, August 8, 2021

Backlist Bonanza: Reviewlettes

This summer has found me reading books that have been on my shelves seemingly forever, with mixed results.  Some I wish I head read long ago.  Others I wish hadn't been burdening my shelves with for so long.  Here are my takes on a few of them.

In Elsewhere, Gabrielle Zevin imagines what is ultimately a pretty dull afterlife.  When people die, they arrive in Elsewhere on a boat and age in reverse until they are born again to a new life.  Liz Hall, a fifteen-year-old struck by a cab on her way to the mall, arrives in Elsewhere thinking she's dreaming.  When it becomes apparent that she is not, she has terrible trouble adjusting to her new reality, opting to spend all her time looking back at her old life, even tracking the hit-and-run driver who took her life rather than  embracing the chance to get to know the grandmother she never met in life.  I wish more time had been  spent on fleshing out Zevin's creative afterlife than on transporting Liz's teenage angst into the great beyond.  Liz read a little a young for her age, and her Elsewhere love story as well her grandmother's willingness to enable her destructive behavior seemed unrealistic.  All in all, Elsewhere was a quick read about learning to live and love in the now, but ultimately I think it was a little too "young" for this adult reader.

The Bright Forever
turns a lens on the would-be idyllic small town of Tower Hill, Indiana and reveals its dirty underbelly when Katie Mackey, daughter of the owner of the town's glass making factory, goes missing in early July.  Told from the perspective of high school math teach Henry Dees; his neighbors, Clare and Ray Wright; and Katie's older brother Gilley, The Bright Forever taps into all the secrets that lurk beneath this small town idyll.  Junior and Patsy Mackey would do anything for family, except one thing.  Mr. Dees loves Katie a little a too much.  Ray Wright has a thing for pills.  Clare can't bear to be alone, and Gilley will never forget the night he ratted out his sister for not taking her library books back, because she never came back from the library.

This is a sad story and one that will make readers uncomfortable at every turn.  It's at once a riveting page turner with a mystery waiting to be revealed, but also difficult to turn those pages as the flawed characters reflect on their troubling secrets and the pain that brought them to the fateful summer of Katie's disappearance.  Despite the challenge of reading a book with such dark subject matter, The Bright Forever is redeemed by Martin's skilled depiction of summer, small town life and his sensitive handling of his deeply flawed characters.  Never are you inclined to like them, but in Martin's capable hands, these characters become people we can understand.

In The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff reimagines the life of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's many wives, who left the Mormon church and set in motion the dismantling of Mormon polygamy.  Interwoven with Ann Eliza's story is the modern-day story of Jordan Scott, who was exiled from his town and church, an isolated fundamentalist enclave where polygamy still thrives.  Returning to help his mother, a 19th wife who stands accused of murdering her husband, Jordan is forced to come to terms with the life that he was made to leave behind and the hold it has on his mother.  

If I had one complaint to make about The 19th Wife, it would be that it goes on just a little too long.  At the beginning of the novel, the pages flew by, but the ending chapters dragged a bit and left me the slightest bit unsatisfied.  Aside from that minor quibble, The 19th Wife stands out as a meticulously researched and well-told historical novel.  Ebershoff reinvents Ann Eliza Young and her family using a variety of fabricated primary sources that add up to a compelling picture of the very human history of the Mormon church and the controversial figure of Ann Eliza.  Jordan's story adds a bit of mystery to the mix as he attempts to unearth the truth about who killed his father.  In the process, he reveals the lasting trauma of living in a polygamous society, the very expected trauma that seemed to drive Ann Eliza to speak out about it so many years before, a trauma so wrapped up with love, family, and blind faith, that it is difficult to understand, much less escape.