Monday, May 26, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Jay Fowler
Once upon a time, Rosemary Cooke lived in a stable nuclear family with her mother, her father, her brother, and her sister, and all was right with the world.  That may be the fairy tale version, or the real version, or something from somewhere in the middle of all of that.  What is true is that, when she was a child, she was a talker.  A nonstop, no-breath-taking, talker.  At one point, her parents told her to pick the most important thing and just say that.  It wasn’t terribly helpful.  Eventually, her father told her not to start a story at the beginning; to start in the middle.  That was.
Rosemary begins her story in 1996, in the middle.  She hasn’t seen her older brother in ten years.  She hasn’t seen her sister in nearly seventeen years.  She’s doing college on the extended plan, with no concrete goals in mind.  One day in the canteen, she’s swept up by a human hurricane called Harlow Fielding.  Harlow is essentially a one-woman drama department and most of this part of the story surrounds her.  Or does it?  Because the real story for Rosemary is not so much the people who come into her life; the real story is those who leave it.
It’s good to meet Rosemary in college, when she’s at some distance from the disappearance of her sister.  Rosemary-now is quite different from the hazy memories of Rosemary-then.  Rosemary-then had a sister called Fern.  They were raised together by devoted parents; they were inseparable.  There’s almost no moment of her early childhood that Rosemary can recall without Fern.  Then, suddenly, she wasn’t there anymore and Rosemary had to adjust her entire self.  The fact that Fern was a chimpanzee is really beside the point in those early years.
The author (who also wrote THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB) allows Rosemary to tell her story in a kind of desperately breezy kind of way.  The way someone tells a story when they want to give the impression that they’re not deeply affected, even though any casual listener can see right through that.  As the tone subtly shifts, so does Rosemary.  It’s a unique story that has a lot to say about how we form a family; how we can come to value or devalue events or the members of that family over time.  In essence, our lives are just as much about what we forget or leave behind than about what we carry with us.
Rating: 9
March 2014
ISBN# 978-0-14-218082-2  (trade paperback)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sparrow Hill Road - Seanan McGuire

Sparrow Hill Road
Seanan McGuire
Rose Marshall was sweet sixteen in the summer of 1952.  She’s still sweet sixteen today, or looks it.  That’s because all those years ago, Rose was forced off Sparrow Hill Road.  She and her truck plummeted off the side and burned.  She woke up, in the prom dress that represented months upon months of saving pennies, on the side of the road.  Her boyfriend and prom date, Gary, found her.  They never made it to the prom.  They drove all night, he took her home, and she vanished.  She’s known as a phantom hitchhiker, the phantom prom date, a familiar figure in ghost stories told around campfires and at slumber parties.

Rose still walks the ghost roads, occasionally rising into the daylight to hitch a ride.  She’s a benign ghost, often trying to save a driver from a fatal accident; or maybe just make the driver’s passing a little easier.  She’ll continue to walk the roads until the end of time, or until she chooses to take that last exit that exists on all roads.  She can’t stop.  She’s still being chased by the man who killed her.  Bobby Cross wanted immortality and eternal youth and he was quite willing to destroy innocent souls to get it.  Rose got away from him that night in 1952, but he’s still coming for her, and most likely always will be.

As Rose tells us her story, she introduces the world she inhabits now.  There’s one America where the living exist.  Beneath that, or to the side of it, or on different planes, are an infinite number of shadow worlds called twilights.  Each layer operates on its own, but they’re all bound by rules.  Learning the rules takes a lot of time and not a few mistakes.  There are diners and way stations along each highway, offering various things to various travelers.  Each road is a separate entity.  And there are lots of other beings who dwell in the twilights and down into the midnight where things are very dark. 
The richly-imagined story is separated into several sections, telling some of Rose’s many stories.  Her too-short life; the time she met a great-niece; the time she followed a band of ghost hunters; some of the drivers who offered her a ride.  Each person she encounters has a history and a motive, giving them a sense of reality, even in the shadows.  It’s maybe ironic that even the ghosts are three dimensional here.  Rose is as real as any of them, with emotions and memories and longings that make her completely human.  As Rose says, no one knows exactly where the end of the road is.  If this is the end of her road, I bid her a fond farewell, still hoping we might meet again somewhere down the highway.
Rating: 9
May 2014
ISBN# 978-0-7564-0961-6  (trade paperback)