The Breakdown Lane – Jacqueline Mitchard (giveaway)

Contest closed.

Tammy, I pulled your name out of the hat. Please contact me with your postal mail address so I can get this book to you.

[asa book]0061374520[/asa] Julieanne Gillis’s life falls apart in a matter of weeks. Her husband walks out on her and their three kids (two of them adolescents, one hardly out of toddlerhood) and goes into hiding so as not to be disturbed while he reinvents himself; then it turns out the odd symptoms she’s been having — and he’s been either ignoring or ridiculing — are something after all. Julieanne is diagnosed with [[multiple sclerosis]]. For a woman who’s greatest joy in life is dance and who takes great pride in her physical fitness, this is an especially hard blow.

She collapses, physically and emotionally. As Julieanne makes a living writing an advice column, the irony of her situation is not lost on her.

The narration switches between Julieanne and her oldest, Gabe. Gabe is fifteen, extremely observant and intelligent, but he’s got some learning disabilities and thus lives on the periphery at school, where the jocks call him Ed (for Special Ed). Wasn’t it Confucius who said ‘the stones in the street cry out at the cruelty of children’? Fortunately Gabe has a number of things going for him. He’s tall, a nice looking kid able to express himself and with enough confidence and perspective to stand up to the jocks. The adults at the high school are another matter. This novel throws a harsh light on the way public high schools can cause more harm than good and worse, how the staff and teachers sometimes take satisfaction in driving away kids who make them uncomfortable.

I really like Julieanne, who goes through hell and doesn’t turn into a saint, as so often happens in novels. She’s furious at her body and at Leo, the selfish idiot of a new-age spouting husband who doesn’t answer letters or phone calls from his desperate children; she’s worried about money and her kids and her job. Her sense of the absurd still struggles to the surface now and then, more so as her symptoms even out. I liked Julieanne, but I adored Gabe.

Gabe is one of those characters I want to grab by the ears and sit down to talk to. When Julieanne is too sick to turn in her advice column, he teams up with her best friend, a therapist, and they answer the letters together. But it’s Gabe’s personality that comes forward and he turns out to be far better than his mother at this advice business. Mostly because he pulls no punches. His advice is brief and unadorned with social niceties. Its popularity skyrockets, of course.

His voice is so authentic and his tone so believable I sometimes forgot I was reading fiction. Anybody who has had a kid who doesn’t fit into the standard high school cubbyholes and suffers for that will appreciate Gabe, because he provides a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the inside of that. I found myself wondering how I could get him and the Girlchild into the same room, and then I realized that this would only be possible within the confines of a Woody Allen movie.

This is a big novel with a lot of characters, but they are all very distinct one from the other, even those who don’t get a lot of face time with the reader. Julieanne’s very supportive parents-in-law, for example, experience what is going on in a way that is almost palpable. And then there’s Leo. I don’t want to say too much about him, except that he’s so awful that he manages to be disgusting and interesting at the same time.

In short, I found this a most satisfying read. It’s one of those stories that has been following me around and that I’ll have to read again to see what I missed the first time.

I’ve got an extra copy here, so if you’re interested, please leave a comment.

Still Summer

I’ve talked about domestic drama before. I think of it as the genre that-dare-not-speak-its-name, because it flies under the radar of the litcriterati. A genre written mostly by women and read mostly by women — one that doesn’t get trivialized or bashed (for the most part) — that’s something to nurture. The bigger names (Jodi Picoult and ELinor Lipman, for example) get serious reviews in the big name places. And that’s good. In fact, that is excellent.

[asa book]0446578762[/asa] Jackie Mitchard is one of my favorites in this select group of women who produce well written, intriguing stories about women who live what might seem to be traditional or even boring lives. Many of the subjects are no surprise: divorce, sick children, unexpected violence, family dysfunction. But as is ever the case with a story — it’s not where you end up, but how you got there.

Mitchard’s most recent novel is Still Summer. This is a novel that took me by surprise — and excuse me for sounding know-it-all, but that is hard to do. Still Summer breaks out of the genre in an unexpected and interesting way.

Instead of a small town or a suburban neighborhood or a farm, we have four women on a sailboat. Three of them are old friends who charmed and rabble roused their way through high school together twenty-five years earlier. Tracy, Holly and Olivia as well as Camille — Tracy’s 19-year-old daughter –set out on a great adventure.

There’s enough material right there for a novel, albeit a quiet one. The backstory is chock full of conflicts, enough to power the four women all the way to the Caribbean and back again. But Mitchard doesn’t stop there. The four women set out on what was meant to be a lighthearted adventure, but it turns into a struggle to survive the elements, the sea, predators (some of them human), and twenty-five years of personal history.

Still Summer is a rocking good story, one that pulls you along. I picked it up thinking I’d just read the first few pages and didn’t put it down again until I finished. What Mitchard managed to do here is to take the best of the domestic drama genre and an adventure story and interweave them so that they support each other beautifully.

It is in fact Still Summer, so I suggest you get a hold of this book. Except maybe not on a sailboat. Another one of Mitchard’s novels that I like a lot: The Most Wanted.

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.