Cage of Stars- Jacquelyn Mitchard

[asa book]0446578754[/asa]There’s a fiction subgenre that doesn’t really have a name, or at least, not one that’s used consistently. The kind of novel I’m talking about isn’t about romance or romantic love in the first line, though that may be one of the subplots. These are novels that examine the way families work, or fail to work, in the face of crisis. And I mean crisis in the bigger sense of the word. Divorce would be the least of the problems in this kind of book. We’re talking accidental deaths, fatal illness, rape, murder, permanent disability, kidnapping, felony arrests. You get the picture. The term domestic drama is sometimes used.

Some of the authors who are active in this genre (which is sometimes called domestic drama, a term I dislike because it feels dismissive) are Jacquelyn Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean, A Theory of Relativity), Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper, Vanishing Acts), Judith Guest (Ordinary People), Elizabeth Berg (Range of Motion,We Are All Welcome Here), and Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me).

Somehow this subgenre — though it is written primarily (or maybe even exclusively) by women — has mostly been spared trivialization or undue snark from the litcriterati. A few of these novels have received both high critical praise and popular success.Ordinary People is the best example of that, and it is also the novel that sets the standard for this genre. And of course, not all attempts at this kind of family in crisis novel are equally successful or well written.

Before I talk about Cage of Stars, I wanted to ask you what other novelists or novels you think might fit into this category.

So now, Mitchard. She’s best known forThe Deep End of the Ocean, which was an early Oprah pick. It was her first novel, and it catapulted her into the best seller list. Publisher’s Weekly said: “One of the most remarkable things about this rich, moving and altogether stunning first novel is Mitchard’s assured command of narrative structure and stylistic resources. Her story about a child’s kidnapping and its enduring effects upon his parents, siblings and extended family is a blockbuster read.”

I’ve read most but not all of Mitchard’s novels since her first. The second one,The Most Wanted [asa book]0451196856[/asa] probably made the biggest impression on me. Publisher’s Weekly wasn’t so happy with it: “Despite portentous foreshadowing, Mitchard second novel never achieves the dramatic momentum and the emotional immediacy of her acclaimed fiction debut,The Deep End of the Ocean. But her depiction of two female protagonists is so large-hearted and wise that readers undoubtedly will be engrossed in their story.”

Side note: Beware the review — especially the PW review– that starts with the word despite. I speak from personal experience here. Another note: I think they’re wrong.

I read Mitchard’s newest about two weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Of course that’s a good thing, a story that stays with you. But in this case there was something off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. One thing that jumped out at me was how much her style has changed, or maybe just her approach to this story is a departure. Not necessarily a bad departure, but I was strongly reminded of Jodi Picoult in a way that Mitchard probably wasn’t aiming for.

Cage of Stars is about a small, healthy, close knit Mormon family that lives in a tiny rural community where people generally get along and take care of each other. In the course of the novel you learn a good amount about the LDSaints, all provided in a matter of fact way. You get this information through the main character, Veronica Swan (Ronnie to family and friends), who is twelve years old when the novel opens with a very powerful image: “At the moment when Scott Early killed Becky and Ruthie, I was hiding in the shed.”

This is a story not so much about the murder of two little girls as it is about the way violence is embedded into the heart of their twelve year old sister. Scott Early, who commits this crime, does so in the grip of a psychotic break. It’s his first, and with it, his history as a good guy, a man loyal to family and scrupulously honest, is null and void. He is not convicted of the double murder of the Swan girls, but is sent off to a hospital for the criminally insane for treatment.

Ronnie spends the rest of her adolescence nurturing her anger, while her parents work to overcome their despondency and sorrow after the little sisters are buried. Eventually they meet with Scott Early in the hospital and they forgive him. Which only makes Ronnie more determined to extract justice.

Most of the novel deals with how she does that. Her plan, which is elaborate and well thought out, eventually takes her to California where she inserts herself into the lives of the now released, medicated and stable Scott Early and his wife and infant daughter. This sounds like a retelling of The Babysitter, no? But it’s more complex than that, and we’re in Ronnie’s head for the whole time, watching her thoughts as they evolve.

And here’s the cause of my discomfort: This is another case where I’m unhappy about a first person teenage narrator. And I freely admit that this is a matter of my own quirk, my need for a broader narrative scope and a dislike of the restrictions Mitchard puts on her readers by keeping them in Ronnie’s head.

So is this a good story? Yes. Is it worth reading? You will like it, if you aren’t as sensitive to the narrative voice issues as I am. If you are getting started with fiction writing yourself, this is a novel that might be instructive in terms of approach and structure. It’s one of the few cases where a prologue felt off to me (I generally like prologues; which you probably knew if you’ve ready any of my novels).

At any rate, I continue to be a great fan of Mitchard’s work and look forward to the next novel.

18 Replies to “Cage of Stars- Jacquelyn Mitchard”

  1. It seems like a majority of the books that Oprah books for her bookclub might fit into that category. Two novels that come to mind are, The Poisonwood Bible and Bluest Eyes.

  2. Sounds like an interesting story. I will put it on my list. The h2b ordered Homestead and Tied to the Tracks on Saturday (two days after I had hoped). So excited!

  3. This is a genre I try to avoid, possibly just not wanting that much domestic in my drama. On the other hand, it often falls into my lap by way of curiousity. I just read The Poisonwood Bible, and I wouldn’t have classified it as a domestic drama but I see the connection, for sure. Family come undone. It was the stamp of Oprah (should that be capitalized?) that put me off the P-Bible for so long. What a shame for me. I’ve been rightly punished for judging a book by its pusher. Still and all, I first learned to read fiction on science fiction, so I think I prefer the fantastic to the domestic. But like wine appreciation, I believe I’ll get around to it with age. Ever heard of the theory that we all start our wine appreciation with whites, then move to roses (or is that blush?), then on to reds, then ports, then back to whites. Something like that – do you think it could happen with book appreciation that way too? Only, wherever you start on the continuum – and what a continuum! – you progress until, in your dotage, you get to appreciate the stories of your childhood, and the circle is complete.

  4. I can think of a few more authors. Anna Quindlen (though she doesn’t confine herself to this genre) and Chris Bohjalian (the only male I can think of). I’m not sure that I would consider The poisonwood bible as part of this (sub)genre. But I’m hardly an expert. For me, I see this group of books mainly to be set in contemporary times (though the event or crisis may have happened in the past). Also, they seem to be quite suburban in their locale. ie. present day middle America. I generally like reading within this genre but some do it better than others.

  5. I haven’t had much luck with Picoult. I happened to read/skim the two books you listed above and with both I felt the storytelling was too pat while I didn’t like the people much. (Though I know she’s very popular.)

    I actually think it’s my default reaction to be very annoyed with books about these issues, whereas if an author gets something wrong when they’re aiming for lighter, fluffier books, I don’t mind. So, I tend to avoid these books though I can’t help but admire the authors who tackle them.

    I wonder if Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake would fit into this category. As they were successful reads for me.

  6. I personally love that genre. Makes my life seem so good in comparison! I am a huge fan of Jodi Picoult; I think she really masters that type of writing. Of course, I am an even bigger fan of Rosina!! :;

  7. Yes, I thought that “The Lovely Bones” might also fit here. I’m also not too fond of Picoult. I find the way she does the different POV a little annoying (though I don’t necessarily dislike this style in general). I don’t find her characters all that likeable either and there is always at least one POV (in each book) that I find really annoying so I tend to stop reading when I get to that POV. After awhile I always just want to say, “get on with the story!!”.

  8. Maile Meloy’s novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter.
    The first is the stronger novel but the second is the more intiguing (but only if you’ve read L&S first).

  9. Family Pictures — I was trying to think of that title. Thanks. That is a good example.

  10. Maybe it was also a matter of timing. A few years ago there were a few books out about female artists, like Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for example. Could be that it wasn’t the right time for that kind of book?

  11. Carrie — I follow your weblog, and I wish you lots of luck. We need more unusual historicals.

    Marg — I’m sure fashion does have something to do with it, but it’s also true that Italy is one of those places Americans are interested in.

  12. …das ein weibs bild also viel machen soll.
    should read:
    …that the picture of a women should fetch so much.
    nevertheless, you are right to imply that women in those days were oft times underappreciated (which is likely a huge understatement).
    It must be said, however, that once established as an artist or businesswoman they were often extremely well respected (money talks?)

  13. Willem —

    I have to disagree with your translation. Weibsbild is an early modern German alternate to “Frau” or “Weib” and beyond that, the miniature was *made by* a woman, the picture itself was of a male.

  14. Hi. I think readers would be interested in a romance set in any historical period, but they are not often offered something new due to the belief on the part of pulbishers that if something sells, you should keep selling the same thing instead of taking a chance with something different. If the plot is interesting enough, I think the setting will be a secondary consideration. Just my opinion.

    By the way, your book sounds fascinating. Any chance of getting it published? You’ve got me itching to read it now!

  15. Dawn: No doubt you’re right that the publishers and editors make decisions based on incomplete or bad data, and that those decisions are self perpetuating. I have no idea how that could ever be changed, though.

    Maybe someday I’ll have the time to rewrite Mourning Virgin to see if it could be sold. But there are many other things on my plate just at this minute. Thanks, at any rate, for the encouraging words.

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