Set in war-torn Chechnya, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena begins with terror. Russian soldiers burst into a house and abduct a man in the middle of the night, burning down his house and taking him somewhere no one ever returns from. His neighbor and longtime friend, Akhmed, watches helplessly until they leave, then races over to save what the soldiers left without: hiding in the snowy forest behind the house is his friend’s eight-year-old daughter, Havaa. Knowing that the soldiers will surely come back for her, Akhmed takes it upon himself to keep the girl safe.
Akhmed inadvertently makes a choice that will change everyone’s lives. His reasoning is initially unclear, but he decides that Havaa will be safe at the hospital in a nearby city. He knows of a skilled female surgeon there — unheard of in their culture — and he’s sure that if he can just get Havaa there, she’ll be safe. The reality of the situation is quite different. He does indeed encounter that female surgeon, Sonja, but she’s cold and arrogant. She’s the only doctor in the entire hospital; aside from her assistant and the security guard, everyone else fled years ago. The last thing she needs is a child running around. Still, by offering to help at the hospital, Akhmed manages to get her to agree.
Though the book technically only spans five days, it actually jumps back and forth from 1994 – 2004. Marra has created a complex web of relationships that extends far beyond their current situation; events that happened years ago set off numerous chain reactions that are finally manifesting themselves all these years later. Even secondary characters who have never met are somehow connected: Sonja’s beautiful and traumatized younger sister, Natasha; Ramzan, the village informant whom everyone shuns; Ramzan’s lonely father, Khassan, who must also bear the stigma of his son’s actions; and Dokka, Havaa’s father. So much is shrouded by loss, violence, and mystery.
Tristan Hart is a wealthy and fiercely intelligent twenty-year-old who has been chosen to study medicine in London. Having been left to his own devices while growing up in the country, Tristan can’t wait to experience London and finally be challenged by one of the best minds in medicine. He won’t be completely left alone, though. Tristan has already experienced at least one violent episode that left his family fearing for his sanity. In London, he’ll be closely watched, lest he experience another “nervous” outburst. But Tristan harbors dark secrets about his personality that go much further than his mental stability. He’s obsessed with pain, especially inducing it. Studying medicine allows him to channel his interests productively, allowing him to cause pain (though surgery, etc.) in order to fix medical conditions. The problem is that as pressure on him increases, he has a harder time telling fantasy from reality, especially when the woman he loves is involved.
I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive going into this book. The premise sounded interesting, but there was a catch (for me): it’s written in the style of 18th century English. For example, this is the first sentence of the book:
One Morning in the Autumn of seventeen forty-one, when I was not yet eleven Yeares of Age, still round in Figure and innocent in Mind, Nathaniel Ravenscroft took me a-walking by the River.
That’s not a problem for a lot of people, but uh…I’m the kind of person who took Shakespeare in Film in undergrad in order to fulfill her Shakespeare literature requirement. Anything to get out of, like,actually reading old school English. (Yes. I was that student.) But here we are, many years later. I can take old school English (but still no Shakespeare).
Bonaventure Arrow comes into the world without making a sound. The result of a whirlwind romance between two people deeply in love with each other, Bonaventure is born under painfully opposite circumstances. His young father was shot and killed just months before Bonaventure’s birth, and his mother is weighed down by grief and guilt. But Bonaventure has a secret: though he’ll never be able to speak, he has the ability to hear things no one else can.
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is set in 1950s New Orleans and Bayou Cymbaline. The point of view jumps around between different characters, but the events of the book revolve around the murder of William Arrow, who was killed at the age of twenty-three by a stranger with no discernible background or motive. His wife, Dancy, finds comfort in Bonaventure’s birth, but as the years go by, she is unable to let go of the love of her life. Meanwhile William’s mother, Letice, is also unable to move on from her son’s violent death. Both women are holding onto secrets and are convinced that they’re responsible for William’s death.
Amidst all of this is little Bonaventure, who’s adored by his family but struggles to fit in with children his own age because of his gifts. He uses a notepad or sign language to communicate, but no one is aware of the extent of his unique gift, which allows him to hear things like colors and the history of objects. He can even hear William, who is stuck in Almost-Heaven.
Elizabeth Percer’s An Uncommon Education is an expansive coming of age story that follows its protagonist from girlhood all the way through adulthood. Having a mother who suffers from severe depression and keeps to herself much of the time as a result, Naomi Feinstein grew up spending most of her time with her beloved father. The two are an intelligent but quirky pair, and Mr. Feinstein always demands the best from his daughter. They both conspire to map out her life from the time she is very young: she’ll excel in school, go to Wellesley, and become a cardiologist.
Of course, life isn’t that simple. When Naomi is still a young girl, her father suffers a heart attack before her eyes; he survives, but the experience leaves her terrified of losing him. Her mother is present, but she remains an enigma in all of the ways that matter; most of the significant details of her life are a closely guarded secret. And Naomi is an awkward girl; she has an amazing memory and does well in school but has no friends. When a boy her age moves in next door, the two become inseparable. Then, eventually, he too is gone. It seems her entire childhood and adolescence are spent in fear of losing those closest her her.
As planned, Naomi gets into Wellesley and begins some of the most formative years of her life. She has a rough start, dealing with the same type of isolation and social awkwardness that she did when she lived at home. It isn’t until she crosses paths with two other Wellesley students that her real college life starts to take shape: the two girls are part of the mysterious Shakespeare Society on campus and convince her to join. It’s weird and fun, and Naomi is finally able to build a network of friends. The new interests she develops, however, are not part of The Life Plan.
Most children latch on to the security of objects, but I went further. I was obsessed with cabinets of curiosities, historical efforts to catalog and control nature’s oddities….Collecting information and talismans is a way of exercising magical control. You can hold a lucky charm and know everything about nature’s creatures yet still be terribly lonely.
Stephanie LaCava was always happy to stay immersed in her own world as a child. She kept a collection of objects, latching on to the items as well as the stories behind them. Admitting from the start that she had always been a strange and awkward child, she writes about a period of her life when this strangeness consumed her. At the age of twelve, her father got a job in France and the whole family moved to Le Vesinet, a suburb of Paris. Thrust into a school with other expats, she was an outsider who retreated further into her world. At the age of thirteen, her depression could no longer be ignored.
Now an adult, LaCava looks back on these troubling years through the prism of her unique perspective. As she retells her story, she breaks up the narrative much like her younger self would have done at the time, giving anecdotes or a detailed history of the object in question in footnotes. Of her ancient Egyptian sarcophagus-shaped pencil case, for instance, she trails off into a footnote about mummy powder, the Greek origins of “sarcophagus,” and Egyptian burial practices. Accompanying many of these breaks in the narrative are illustrations of the objects in question.
If you’ve read Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves (2008), the name “Coutts” will probably ring a bell. In her newest book, The Round House, Erdrich returns to familiar grounds and picks up where Geraldine and Bazil Coutts left off. Now married and the parents of a twelve year old boy named Joe, the happy family’s life is shattered when Geraldine is brutally assaulted one evening somewhere within the premises of the Ojibwe reservation where they live.
When all of this happens, it’s 1988 and Joe is eager to be treated like an adult. He and his friends are barely coming of age and trying to navigate this tricky passage into adolescence. After his mother is attacked, Joe is forced to grow up quickly, regardless of how much information Bazil tries to keep from him. Meanwhile, his mother is traumatized and depressed, isolating herself from everyone and refusing to divulge any information about what happened.
Bazil is a tribal judge and feels that the attack had something to do with him; he hesitantly enlists Joe to help him pore through old case files to look for anyone who might have a serious grudge against him. What emerges are several harsh truths about life on a Native American reservation: the investigation is hindered by federal, state, and local laws (which, naturally, ties the hands of the tribal law enforcement, even though the crime happened on their land). When the attacker’s motive begin to come together, even more complex layers of injustice are added to the mix. And through it all is our young narrator: scared, angry, confused, and wanting nothing more than for his mother to feel safe again.
Pen, Will, and Cat were inseparable in college. They met during the first week of their freshman year and formed a unique bond that no one could touch. They thought it would always be this way, but the trio suddenly dissolved after graduation, each person going their own way in a flurry of hurt and confusion.
Six years later, the three have moved on with their lives and are no longer in contact. Pen, whose point of view the reader sees the most, is now a single mother who is still reeling from her father’s death two years ago. She lives with her brother and is at a very confusing point in her life. Out of the blue, she receives an email from Cat, begging for Pen and Will to meet her at their upcoming college reunion. Pen and Will anxiously meet for the first time since their falling out and soon discover the reason behind Cat’s email; Pen and Will must put the past behind them in order to help their troubled friend.
The book is told in flashbacks that take readers through the highlight’s of the trio’s immediate friendship and ultimate demise. From the instant that they reunite, it’s clear that the bond between Will and Pen is still there, and they’ll do anything to help Cat and get the trio back together. And as much as I wanted to get on board with this story of unbreakable friendship, this is where the book derailed for me.
It’s the summer of 2004, and Brokeland Records owners Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings are fighting to keep their little corner of Oakland alive. Ex-NFL star Gibson Goode has just announced plans to open one of his Dogpile megastores in the area, which would effectively shut down Nat and Archy’s already-struggling business. With their livelihood, their close-knit neighborhood, and the sacredness of their carefully-selected used vinyl on the line, Nat and Archy refuse to go down without a fight.
Meanwhile, their wives are waging a battle of their own. Aviva Roth-Jaffe and Gwen Shanks are the women behind Berkeley Birth Partners. Aviva has a reputation as “the Alice Waters of midwives,” and there is no one whose instinct she trusts more than Gwen’s. They’ve delivered over a thousand babies, but when one of their deliveries goes wrong, the find themselves fighting the smug staff at the hospital in a power struggle that quickly turns ugly. Their hospital access is in danger of being revoked.
There’s quite a list of characters — and sub-plots — in Telegraph Avenue. Nat and Aviva’s teenage son, Julius, is exploring his sexuality with none other than Archy’s son, Titus (who “isn’t gay” but humors Julie anyway). Titus has been shuffled along between Texas and California following his mother’s death; he hasn’t been a part of Archy’s life at all (Gwen doesn’t know about Titus). As a matter of fact, Archy doesn’t even know Titus is living in the same town. Both of the boys are film nerds and adore watching Archy’s estranged father, blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings.
Since the death of his mother and mysterious disappearance of his sister several decades ago, William Talmadge has lived alone on his apple orchard, carefully tending his crops and riding miles into town to sell them at the market. It is now the turn of the twentieth century, and aside from his acquaintances in town and couple of close friendships, Talmadge has lived this quiet, solitary existence in the Pacific Northwest for most of his life. Then at the market one day, two pregnant young girls named Della and Jane steal some of his apples, and his life is changed forever.
Talmadge encounters the girls again on his farm not long after; they watch him from afar and continue to steal fruit from his orchard. They’re filthy and skittish — still just children, really — and Talmadge, sensing their history of abuse and neglect, tries to help them as best he can. He leaves food for them and takes care not to frighten them. He goes about his business on the orchard in his slow, purposeful way and mostly ignores the girls; eventually, they are the ones who go to him. While the girls still don’t fully trust him, they are relatively sure he won’t hurt them, and three settle into a quiet coexistence on the orchard.
And it is here, not even remotely skimming the book’s surface, where I must stop for fear of giving too much away. Not even a quarter of the way through the book, I felt as if I had already read a fully-fleshed, emotionally-draining novel. At that wasn’t even 100 pages in.
Jinx has carried the burden of her mother’s murder for fourteen years. Though she was only sixteen years old when the tragedy occurred, she knows that her actions on that evening were the reason her mother was killed. Now thirty years old, she lives a mostly solitary existence in that same home where the murder took place, pushing away the few people she still has connections to. Then one day, an older man from the past arrives at her front door. Both harbor their own secrets, and over the course of the weekend, the truth will finally come out about what happened on the night of the murder.
Jinx is a dark woman who has managed to bury all of her emotions under a layer of anger and detachment. She has a four year old son from a previous relationship, but she is uneasy about motherhood and has a hard time connecting with her young son, who lives with his father. Jinx also does freelance work laying out bodies at funeral homes, fixing the makeup and getting the bodies ready for presentation; she has a wall up because of what happened to her mother, and actively rejects human connection.
When Lemon shows up at her door, memories from the past flood back into Jinx. Lemon, with his slow Caribbean drawl and peaceful presence, brings with him a lightness that she hasn’t felt in years: he dances, sings, and cooks the Caribbean food that her mother cooked. He also evokes a sensuality in Jinx that she thought was long gone. But of course, he’s also appeared for a reason: he also knows something about the murder, and no matter how much Jinx resists, he won’t leave until she knows his secret.