The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Joshilyn Jackson

[asa book]0446579653[/asa] I’ve read a lot of books since I last put up a review. In three or four cases I really wanted to write something, but there just wasn’t time to gather my thoughts. And of course chaos has reigned supreme for so long I can hardly remember what plain busy feels like.

So here we are, talking about somebody else’s book for a change, and let me tell you, it’s a relief.

I’ve reviewed Joshilyn’s first two novels, both of which I really liked. I think it’s fair to say that with each novel she’s got her feet more firmly underneath herself, but in all her books there’s consistent evidence that she was born to write down stories. And she’s a southerner, born and bred. I think the two things are not unrelated. ((She’s got a website, if you’d like to explore, here.))

The first two novels had love stories at their center, but not exclusively. They are both also full of such clear observations of the nonsensical that I found myself laughing out loud now and then.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming has many things in common with Joshilyn’s earlier novels. First and foremost, the way women hold each other up, or down, as the case may be. Emotional complexity and really loud arguments are how many of these female characters communicate.

This new novel is about two sisters, Lauren and Thalia, their relationship to each other (primarily) to their mother, to Lauren’s daughter and to a friend of her daughter’s, Bet. It is also about Thalia’s relentless dislike of Lauren’s sweet, less-than-verbal husband ((Yes, he’s a Mathematician, in case you were wondering. So maybe I’m biased but at points I wanted to shake Thalia and tell her to leave the man be.)) Thalia does nothing by halves, and as the novel goes along we start to understand where that started and why.

Lauren and Thalia are adults still at odds with extreme childhood trauma. Thalia has coped by turning her anger into a high-speed life in the theater, always on the move, always ready to pick a fight. Lauren copes in the exact opposite way; she has a home and a husband and a daughter, she works as an artist out of the house, and she avoids confrontation and threats at al costs. But her past is always there, in the form of the occasional ghost who comes by. Most prominently the uncle who was killed in a hunting accident — until the night she wakes up to see one of her daughter’s closest friends standing next to the bed, soaking wet. Molly’s ghost walks to the window and Lauren follows her. What she sees sets a series of events in motion that drag the past into the present.

There are a few authors who focus on family or suburban drama, as it is sometimes called – condescendingly, in my opinion. It’s a genre that I like and read a lot of. I have a sense that Joshilyn is going to be one of the big names in that particular crowd. I am very curious to see what she comes up with next, but in the mean time I highly recommend The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished. This is one of those rare times I wished I belonged to a bookclub, because there are so many things to think and talk through.

in which Alison Kent winkles a confession out of me

I guess I have to thank Alison Kent for her confession because I feel compelled to follow her example. I’m sure I’ll feel better after I admit to all the books I’ve preordered from Amazon. So here we go, in no particular order:

The Serpent’s Tale (Ariana Franklin); Change of Heart (Jodi Picoult); Evermore (Lynn Viehl); The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (Joshilyn Jackson); Duma Key (Stephen King); Dreamers of the Day  (Mary Doria Russell); Phantom Prey (John Sandford); Nothing to Lose (Lee Child); Elvis Cole untitlted (Robert Crais);  LA Outlaws (T Jefferson Parker).

Between, Georgia — Joshilyn Jackson

[asa left]0446524425[/asa] Back in April I posted a review of Jackson’s first novel, gods in Alabama. Which I found very engagine and worth reading, though it wasn’t without flaw.

I’ve just finished her second novel, Between, Georgia and I’m really pleased to report that this story is as engaging as the first one, and more solidly put together.

Like the author’s first novel, the primary focus of Between, Georgia is the narrator’s relationship with her female relatives and the greater context of the tiny Georgia town where they all live in anything but peace. The narrator is Nonny, thirty years old, on the brink of divorcing a charming but morally challenged husband. If only she could stay out of his bed. Nonny is an interesting, strong character with an engaging voice but she also has a lot of trouble making up her mind. Not because she’s flighty. That role will be taken up by the priceless Amber DeClue, who at one point shouts “I’ve got to go iron my hair!”

Nonny’s personal demons follow from her unusual history: she was born to Hazel Crabtree, the teenage single daughter of the Crabtree matriarch, but adopted by Stacia Frett (also single) and raised by Stacia, her twin sister Jenny and her older sister Bernese.

The Fretts have money, maintain their property meticulously, and work hard. The Crabtrees are every bad thing you’ve ever heard about white trash. The Crabtrees are sturdy and fearless; Nonny’s adoptive mother Stacia was born deaf, and will lose her sight by age thirty. Her twin Genny has escaped this fate, but she is anxious to the point of crippling neurosis. ((Hazel Crabtree is Nonny’s birth mother. The Crabtree clan is big and healthy, but morally corrupt in a variety of ways. Stacia Frett is Nonny’s adoptive mother. Stacia has Usher’s syndrome (born deaf; going blind); and her twin is psychologically very fragile. But the Fretts (at least these two) are solid in every way that counts.))

There’s no question about which female in Nonny’s life has the strongest and truest heart: her connection to her adoptive mother is rock solid but rocky enough to be believable, and above all things, tender.

This novel has a lot of plot, but it’s very well handled, everything braided together in an interesting and not always predictable pattern. I never lost track of the many characters, and I was interested in all of them. There is a small but very compelling romance tucked in here as well, and we watch Nonny trying to work up the resolve to end her troubled marriage and the courage to take what is being offered to her by another, far more worthy guy.

If I had any reservations about the story, which involves everything from raising butterflies to the social intracies of American Sign Language, it had to do with the incident that puts a match to the Frett-Crabtree fuse. The Crabtrees have an autoparts yard, and in the yard they have three Dobermans who have been poorly trained. Somebody does a bad job of locking a gate and one of the dogs attacks poor nervous Genny, coming just short of killing her before help arrives.

One of the Fretts retaliates by shooting the dog in question. There is a fraught negotiation between Nonny and Ona, the grandmother who wanted to raise her and has been frustrated in her attempts to gain Nonny’s love. Nonny wants Ona to give the two remaining dogs away before Genny gets out of the hospital; Ona uses this as a way to manipulate both Nonny and Bernese, her arch enemy.

Maybe you don’t see some logical flaws in this, but I do. And they bothered me, but not enough to ruin the story for me. In fact I have been thinking about this story a great deal, wondering about the characters, what happens with them after the novel closes. Wondering about Stacia, who suffers a loss of objects crucially important to her, but who goes on (as Nonny points out) to live a rich life from what is left to her, something she knows how to do very well.

This was a great story, and I look forward to more from Joshilyn Jackson.

gods in Alabama

gods in Alabama is Joshilyn Jackson’s first novel. The whole package, as you can see, is meant to give you the sense of a fun southern girl out for a good time. That’s what I expected, at any rate. I picked it up because I knew the author is a southerner, and I’m making a short and sweet study of modern southern authors’ narrative voices. To be truthful, I didn’t have high expectations.

gods in Alabama isn’t without flaw — one  in particular that I’ll mention briefly. But it is a well told, engaging story, complex in interesting ways. The main character — Arlene to her family, Lena to her boyfriend — tells her story with passion that stays clear of the pathetic. Arlene has been living and going to school in Chicago for ten years — she left Alabama immediately after high school and made a promise to God that she’d never return. God seemed satisfied with that, but Arlene’s Aunt Florence was not. Pressured on one side by her aunt and on the otherside by her boyfriend (it’s time for her to make a commitment, and introduce him to her family), and shocked by the sudden appearance of a old nemesis at her door, Arlene and Burr head south.

The story of how she came to make such sweeping promises to God comes out in bits, of course, sometimes funny, sometimes moving. Arlene’s secrets take a couple of turns in the telling, some of them unexpected. The story is on one level about Arlene’s relationship with Burr, but the lion’s share of the conflict is her relationship to the women in her family. There’s a good dose of moral ambiguity to deal with here, which brings me to the flaw I mentioned.

There’s a strong urge, when you’re writing a complicated story, to tie up all the loose ends. Answer all the questions about what happened to who when and how. Jackson gives into that temptation (in my opinion) a little too much. There are a series of plot twists toward the end of the novel, one of which went just a bit too far, and strained my credibility almost to the breaking point. I have the sense that Jackson felt this last twist was necessary in order to cement the bond between Arlene and one of her female relatives.

It is a great story and so the book is certainly worth reading, so if you do, come back here and talk to me about that final twist. I’d be interested in other people’s opinions.