THE GIRLS mostly lives up to its hype, but in unexpected ways

The Girls

The Girls

By Emma Cline

Random House, June 2016

355 pages

The Girls was one of 2016’s most anticipated novels, and it fulfilled those expectations by becoming a big-time buzz book and a bestseller. Despite hearing that Cline was an outstanding young writer, I avoided her book because I had absolutely no interest in its premise of a 14-year-old girl getting enmeshed in a group of older girls who belonged to a commune that was clearly based on the Manson family.

My interest was eventually piqued by the raves for Cline’s prose-poetry, a style of writing about which I am always curious. And, to my surprise, I liked The Girls a great deal, despite finishing it with reservations about several aspects of the book.

The Girls is in some ways not what it was represented as: it’s a coming-of-age character study set against the socio-cultural turmoil of 1969, rather than a plot-driven, page-turning tale of evil (although it makes an appearance, as expected, late in the story). The first hundred pages are among the most piercingly accurate depictions of yearning, confused adolescence I have ever read, thanks to Cline’s insight and her memorable prose.

Set in Petaluma, a nondescript town an hour north of San Francisco, The Girls introduces us to Evie Boyd through that uniquely intimate relationship one shares with one’s best friend in the fraught years of early adolescence. Evie is disoriented by her parents’ divorce and struggling to find her place in relation to her parents and her few friends in the emotionally overheated transition from junior high to high school. Summer has already become boring, and she and Connie are at odds with each other, in part because Evie has a fierce crush on Connie’s older brother, Peter. Cline perfectly captures the inchoate desire of young girls:

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.”

And a few pages later: “That was our mistake, I think. One of our many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”

Set adrift after things become too complicated with both Connie and her New Age-y mother, a lonely Evie encounters a trio of feral young women at the local park and becomes smitten with the leader, Suzanne. Before long, she catches a ride with them back to the isolated, run-down ranch where they are living with the darkly charismatic musician-prophet Russell.

The bulk of The Girls concerns Evie’s slow introduction to the life of these wayward girls and their wastrel cult leader, and her dawning awareness that she was both fascinated and frightened by the thought of joining their commune. Events in Evie’s life and that of the girls slowly begin to spin out of control when the family’s wealthy rock star benefactor fails to deliver the long-promised lucrative record deal.

The last third of the book brought to mind the seemingly prescient words of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Evie’s lack of conviction saves her from drowning in “the blood-dimmed tide” about to be unleashed. Yet she doesn’t seem significantly altered by her experiences, as one would expect in a coming-of-age novel. Only through the framing device of a middle-aged Evie still unmoored from her own life do we get a partial glimpse of the impact that summer had on her.

The evocative quality of Cline’s writing consistently impressed me, as did her insight into the lost girls so drawn to Russell despite his constant manipulation and evident madness, which they viewed as a form of hypnotic and sensual charisma. When Evie first talks with Russell, she is entranced. But her attraction to him seems little different than her earlier interest in 17-year-old Peter.

“It all started making sense, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.”

And, despite the slow-moving plot, the sense of foreboding one brings to the reading of The Girls is managed to powerful effect by Cline. While not quite a page-turner, the brooding intensity of Cline’s writing turns the screw steadily until it snaps off at the expected climax. The Girls is a haunting depiction of a young girl’s initiation into the incomprehensible contradictions of the adult world.

Three years and five drafts: Stephanie Gangi on the writing of THE NEXT

stephanie-gangi-sidesmile_tr-002  the-next

In a recent conversation, this blog’s proprietor, Bill, asked me a question about my debut novel, The Next (St. Martin’s Press): “How do you combine a fast and complicated plot with character study and writing that is ‘literary fiction’?”

That gave me pause. Did I do that?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the question. Because I wanted to write what I love to read, Bill’s classification of The Next as literary fiction is gratifying. To hear from a reader (and Bill is a voracious reader) that my novel delivers a complex story at a good clip about human beings of depth, with lyrical prose … that’s thrilling. That’s what I was going for!

But I have to stop and think. How, exactly, did I make it happen?

Let me count the ways. I bought a dozen craft books. I made an outline, a timeline, noted my key themes, embarked on character studies, defined plot points and subplots, made and hit my word count goals, created a climax and then another climax, and knew the ending in my bones before I even began. I workshopped, I recruited beta readers, I integrated feedback, I wrote and re-wrote my ideal “review” as a kind of mission statement. I had notebooks full of, well, notes, and titles, character names, playlists, chapter descriptions, on and on. I wrote and re-wrote two, three, four drafts.

Two years after I began, I felt finished. I had a draft I was happy with, and serious “interest” from a renowned literary agency. I handed The Next over and waited in a state of high anxiety while four professionals read it. An email was received, a meeting was set, and I turned up nearly giddy with hope. With readers’ reports and notes in hand, the agents said, in the kindest way possible, You’re not there yet. Try again.

Try again. Try again? I’d decimated my social life, neglected my real job, spent money I didn’t have on classes and readers and craft books, forgotten to return calls and pay bills – all to get to this point. I’d given it my all and my best, my very, very “good student” best! I had followed the advice and experience of real writers; I had been committed, meticulous, thorough. I thought I had cracked the novel-writing code, and yet: Try again. Now I was exhausted, sick of the whole enterprise. I sunk into a funk. After weeks of wallowing, I went back to the craft books for wisdom, for encouragement, for a solution. It was unanimous: Step away.

Ever the good student, I set the manuscript aside (literally, as I can write on screen with no problem but cannot for the life of me revise and edit on anything but paper) for three long months. When anyone asked me how it was going, I went stony, I shrugged, I shut down all conversation. (Pro-tip: Tell as few people as possible anything about anything if you are writing your first novel. Resist all urges. Shhh!) I busied myself. I binged on Netflix and endless “Law & Order” reruns. I concentrated at work, I went out with friends, I threw a couple of parties.

One evening, I poured myself a glass of red wine and sat in my favorite blue chair with The New Yorker in hand. I was unable to focus. All I can say is, I was called back. Something compelled me to physically set aside that wine glass and toss the magazine and reach the high shelf where I’d exiled my manuscript.

Okay, I didn’t really set aside the wine. I drank and I read and at some point, I got a pen and I started marking up the pages. A lot of pages. All the pages. The story seemed new to me, and rife with challenges and obstacles, but as those appeared, so did ideas to solve them or navigate around them. For the first time, I grasped the mechanics, the tactics, the behind-the-scenes of my own novel. It was a puzzle! It had taken me four drafts to create all the pieces, and I hadn’t realized there was more to do: fitting them in place.

When I sat back down after the long break, I was a different writer. I ignored outlines and timelines and reports and feedback. I started again. Draft five, page one.

With distance, I’d gained the confidence to rely on my own critical eye and ear. I got out of the way and let my characters live through dialogue and action rather than back story. I read out loud and listened closely for the rhythms of “my style” and then I applied my beat to sections that felt flat or expositional. I didn’t shy away from writing about sentimental things or angry things or pain or grief. I meditated (yep) and tuned in to the way my body responded to what I was writing. When I got teary, or raced along, or felt bored, I realized it was time to ramp up or tone down or create a conflict to maintain my own interest. Many, many times, I closed my eyes and typed like a madwoman, typos be damned. When I’d “come to,” I would be disoriented and shocked at how time had flown. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being high while not actually being under any influences.

Here’s Bill’s question again: How do you combine a fast and complicated plot with character study and writing that is “literary fiction” level?

Here’s what I think I did:

  • I learned as much craft as I could.
  • I applied my new craft knowledge to building the world of The Next.
  • I failed to make that world come alive.
  • I walked away in disgust.
  • I rested.
  • I couldn’t stay away.
  • I had an epiphany – it was all part of the process.
  • I recognized my own particular style and applied it to enhance the story.
  • I discovered my rhythm. Dare I say my breath, my heartbeat? Dare I say the “literary” aspect of my fiction? And I let it beat strong and consistent under plot and character.

Quite simply, I screwed up and tried again. I learned to trust myself. I would not quit. It is only now, in the writing of this piece, that I realize that is exactly what my characters go through, too. That is a major theme of The Next.

Damned good question, Bill.

STEPHANIE GANGI lives and works in New York City. She was born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, and raised her own kids in Tribeca, Rockland County and on the Upper West Side.

Gangi’s first publishing credit, many years ago, was a children’s book, Lumpy: A Baseball Fable, co-written with New York Mets pitching great Tug McGraw. She ghostwrote a tell-all about Liberace in 1984 but left the only copy in a taxicab. She has written jacket copy, pitch letters, business plans, speeches, mortgage checks, absence excuse notes, letters to editors, hundreds of poems, dozens of story starts, dating profiles, countless emails, texts, sexts, and random tweets. She once chalked a love note on the wall of a Paris alley in the rain.

Her poem, “Four,” was a 2014 award winner and appears in the anthology for The Hippocrates Society of Poetry and Medicine. The poem “Talking to My Dead Mother About Dogs” appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of the New Ohio Review.

The Next is her debut. She is working on her second novel.

HERE COMES THE SUN probes Jamaican “paradise” to explore the lives of women struggling against the cultural current

Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun

By Nicole Dennis-Benn

Liveright Publishing (W.W. Norton Co.): July 5, 2016

$26.95, 349 pages

Here Comes the Sun was one of the summer’s “buzz books” that, unfortunately, took me a while to get around to reading. That was a mistake because Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel is an impressive debut that marks her as a writer to watch. Here Comes the Sun succeeds both as a page-turner of a story and a fearless character study of four women struggling to make sense of their lives in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Dennis-Benn takes us behind the sun, sand, and sea to explore the lives of the people who live in the real Montego Bay but work in the fantasy world that tourists inhabit for their brief stay in Jamaica. The protagonist, Margot, works in one of the resorts owned by an aristocratic white family. Strikingly beautiful and willfully charming, Margot is a workaholic determined to save enough money to send her younger sister, Thandi, to a good private school and then on to college and medical school so that she will not have to spend her life working in Montego Bay.

But Margot’s regular job is not sufficient for her purposes. So she engages in late night rendezvous with wealthy hotel guests, doing her best to keep this knowledge from her co-workers. She is willing to sacrifice part of her soul to save Thandi from menial labor and from their mother, Delores, a taskmaster at home and a tenacious vendor at the swap meet favored by tourists with money to burn. It’s clear that Margot is broken but not why. What has led her to pay this high price to facilitate Thandi’s escape?

Margot has more than one secret, though. She is also, contrary to Jamaican culture’s fierce opposition, in love with another woman. And 16-year-old Thandi, though a dedicated student who wants to please her big sister and mother by becoming a doctor, eventually discovers that she too has dreams and desires. Margot’s love interest has her own story as well, fraught with sacrifice and loss in the face of omnipresent disapproval.

All four women dream of a better life for themselves and those they love, and they are willing to do nearly anything to make their dreams a reality. Margot, Thandi, and Verdene simply wish to be allowed the freedom to follow their heart and love whom they choose.

Dennis-Benn captures the sights and sounds of Montego Bay through both major and minor characters, many of whom speak the island patois. Margot’s internal conflict is reflected in her code switching from standard English to Jamaican Creole as needed, sometimes in the same conversation and even the same sentence.

Here Comes the Sun weaves a complex series of personal and cultural conflicts into a coherent whole that makes for absorbing reading. Everyone has a secret, or a secret self, and these secrets are tested by the challenges of a changing economy in the face of climate change and corporate greed, personal circumstances and actions that shock the unsuspecting, and two characters’ newfound determination to embrace their sexual orientation despite living in a culture that treats any divergence from the heterosexual norm as a sign of Satanic possession.

Dennis-Benn has created an unforgettable character in Margot and a powerfully personal story of women seeking self-fulfillment at nearly any cost. After reading Here Comes the Sun, you will never view Jamaica the same way.

2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS charms with 3-pronged narrative and Philly setting


2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

By Marie-Helene Bertino

Crown Publishers, Aug. 2014 (hardcover)

Broadway Books, Oct. 2015 (softcover)

288 pages, $15.00


Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, was a real sleeper. I’d purchased a copy when it was published in August 2014 but somehow never got around to reading it (too many books means some of them occasionally get lost in the crowd). That’s a shame because it is a terrific book that I enjoyed from start to finish.

As with classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and recent novels like Anne Korkeakivi’s An Unexpected Guest and Maya Lang’s The Sixteenth of June, Bertino’s story takes place in a single day, this time Christmas Eve eve. (And like Lang’s book, it is also set in Philadelphia.) It is primarily the story of nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari, whose mother has recently succumbed to cancer and whose father is so depressed he can’t get out of bed.

But feisty little Madeleine has not been left entirely to her own devices; neighbors in her inner-city neighborhood who loved her mother are keeping an eye on her in various ways. Elderly Rose Santiago of Santiago’s Cafe feeds and fusses over her, a surrogate grandmother. Vince Sherry, owner of Beauty Land salon, and his hair stylists are an alternate family of cool characters (and cut Madeleine’s hair). And Sarina Greene, her young teacher at Saint Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, has taken a special interest in her “orphaned” charge.

Madeleine has been raised on the record collection of her jazz-obsessed father and deeply influenced by her mother’s local singing career. She is an old soul who listens to and sings the songs of Billie Holiday and Blossom Dearie and wants more than anything to be a jazz singer herself.

Bertino’s story also follows the recently divorced Miss Greene, who has returned to Philly and been invited to join some old school friends for a dinner party by an old friend she bumps into that morning at Santiago’s Cafe. Her old boyfriend, Ben, will be there. And over in gritty Fishtown, Jack Francis Lorca is in danger of losing his legendary but seedy jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, unless he can come up with $30,000 to pay off a mountain of city fines for every violation one can imagine.

The narrative bounces among these three characters through short, vibrant chapters filled with humor and heart. The dialogue is snappy and distinctly “Philly,” the characters are rough-edged but endearing (but not caricatures), and the plotting cleverly weaves everyone and everything together, leading up to a memorable late night finale at the Cat’s Pajamas.

Bertino manages to both pull on your heartstrings and make you laugh your head off. Cat’s Pajamas was the perfect follow-up to the intensity and heartbreak of Nayomi Munaweera’s brilliant What Lies Beneath, a palate cleanser of the best kind. I genuinely liked and cared about these characters, and I find myself still wondering what they are up to and how they are doing.

I wouldn’t be upset if Bertino decided to write a sequel. She has a winning combination of characters and setting here, with a compelling narrative voice that brings it all to life.

How connecting with early readers through my “Reader Feedback and Serialization Project” helped me improve and publish my first novel

Charmed Particles  Headshot

When I finished writing my novel, Charmed Particles, and was ready to begin the search for an agent to represent it, I wasn’t new to the agent-hunting business: a few years earlier I’d tried and failed to find an agent for the first novel I’d written; I heard over and over again “There’s some lovely writing here, but I don’t think I can sell this.”

In retrospect, I’m glad that first book never made it out into the world. In all sorts of ways, it wasn’t ready—I was still learning how to write a novel. But when I put that book aside (a painful and difficult decision at the time) and began work on a new novel project, I knew I wanted to do something different when the time came to take the book out into the world in search of an agent and then a publisher.

I wanted to know what the experience of reading the book would be like for readers, and I knew this would be especially important given the subject matter for this new novel: particle physics.

Charmed Particles tells the story of the events surrounding the U.S. government’s attempts to build a scientific tool—a particle accelerator–called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) during the late 1980s. Communities under consideration as locations for this facility were wary of it—a giant circular tunnel system built under their homes, schools, and farmland. They worried about whether it was safe to be living on top of such a thing. The project was begun in Waxahachie, Texas, but ultimately abandoned to the great frustration of the particle physics community. Many scientists argue that had the project gone forward, confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson (often referred to as the God particle) would have occurred much earlier and on American soil instead of in Switzerland at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

But that description of the book is perhaps deceptive, because while those events inform the novel, the story is really about the people—two families in particular, who find themselves grappling with ambition, curiosity, and uncertainty against the backdrop of this controversy as it unfolds in their town.

So I knew that I had a previous failed attempt at publishing my first novel, and now I had this second novel on a challenging topic. What to do to give this strange little book a fighting chance out there? Well, I thought back to the issue of salability. To the challenge of getting books into the hands of readers who will care about them. To the importance of writing books that will resonate with readers, not just with other writers.

At the time, I was teaching a course on the history of book publishing, and we were studying the way many of Dickens’ books originally went out into the world as chapter-by-chapter serializations published in periodicals. I was also thinking about something I often tell my beginning creative writing students: that what matters isn’t what you intended to do with the piece, but rather what the reader’s experience of it is.

So here’s what I came up with: The Feedback and Serialization Project

Here’s the initial pitch I made, via Facebook, word of mouth, and sign-up sheets I circulated at a few works-in-progress readings I gave:

You’re invited to participate in the Feedback and Serialization Project

What is it?

A weekly e-mail that will include between one and three short chapters of Charmed Particles, my novel-in-progress, for you to read and respond to. The goal of the project is to

  • Provide an innovative opportunity for community involvement with and participation in the arts
  • Provide an opportunity for me to connect with a community of readers and to learn from the feedback these readers offer as I revise the manuscript.


The writing life can be lonely, especially while in the midst of a large, several-years-long project, and writers often get feedback on our work only from other writers.  For me, the project is an experiment in avoiding the pitfalls of being a writer who writes only for other writers and an opportunity to connect with a large and diverse audience. I especially look forward to feedback from those participants who identify as readers but not as writers.

How will it work?

I will share the novel in weekly chapter installments, giving readers time to respond to the work via e-mail. I’ll then be incorporating feedback and suggestions from participants into a revision of the novel in preparation for submitting it to literary agents and publishers.

What kind of feedback should I give you?

Anything. From “Hey, you forgot a comma here” to “I forgot who this character is–you might need to remind readers” to “Oh, man this book is a snooze-fest!” For those of you who haven’t before critiqued a manuscript, this may feel strange and perhaps a bit uncomfortable, but writers are used to hearing feedback (often negative) on our work, and it’s what helps us make our work better. And it’s helpful, too, for us to hear about what is working or what’s almost working. So have at it!

Want to know what the book’s about before you sign on?

Set in a fictional prairie town in which the two overarching industries are a colonial American living history facility and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics, Charmed Particles tells the intertwined stories of two families.

Abhijat is a theoretical physicist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory. His wife, Sarala, home with their young daughter, Meena, focuses her energies on assimilating to their new American culture.

Meena’s best friend at school is Lily, a precocious child prodigy whose father self-identifies as “the last great gentleman explorer” and whose mother, a local politician, becomes entangled in efforts to stop the National Accelerator Research Laboratory’s plans to build a new Superconducting Super Collider.

The conflict over the collider fractures the community and creates deep divides within the families of the novel.

Interested in participating?

If you’d like to be part of this experimental project, you can sign up by e-mailing me or contacting me via Facebook with the e-mail address you’d like me to use.  And thank you!

So, that was it! People kindly signed up, started reading, and offered lots of good feedback as the project went on!

Why feedback from readers as opposed to writers?

Writers spend an awful lot of time talking to one another, showing one another work, and giving one another feedback. While this is immensely helpful (not to mention generous on the part of other writers, who often don’t have a lot of spare time on their hands to do this sort of thing), it struck me that it might also be a little insular. That by doing this, I might only be getting a sense of what the book was like for other writers, but not for readers. I work in academia, and because we spend so much time talking to and working with specialists, we sometimes find it challenging to translate our work to a general audience. (Incidentally, this communication challenge also ends up being one of the central themes of the book.) I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen here. As a writer, I care about writing books that challenge readers, but that also invite them in and engage them.

Who participated?

By the time the project began in the summer of 2011, my volunteers included members of our small town’s Kiwanis club; several former high school classmates; former students (who got a kick out of having the tables turned and getting to critique their professor’s work!); a local banker; the woman who used to own the house my family and I now live in; our university librarian; colleagues from across campus, in English, chemistry, biology, and political science; former coworkers; former college classmates; a high school student; and some of the physicists I’d interviewed during my research for the novel.

What kind of advice did you get?

All sorts! Little things like “I’m finding this sentence challenging as written” to “this chapter felt slow,” but what was especially cool (and unexpected on my part!) was that everyone brought their own areas of expertise to the project. One reader, Nancy, is a soils scientist, so she caught an obscure agricultural error I’d made. A former high school classmate, who’d had some run-ins with mean-girl types pointed out that initially, she wasn’t sure whether she or the character Sarala should trust another character–Carol’s– intentions. This helped me realize that while I knew that Carol genuinely cared about Sarala, the reader needed a few more clues about that along the way.

Were there any other unintended challenges or benefits?

Writing the “Want to know about the book?” section for the project description helped me practice the pitch for the book I’d use in my query letter to agents–that horrible moment when you have to take a 300-page thing you wrote and boil it down to a pithy two-minute elevator pitch!

I also mentioned the Feedback and Serialization Project in these query letters to agents, hoping it might pique their interest and help the book stand out from the rest of the submissions they received.

But by far, the most important benefit for me was that the project built an engaged and supportive community around the book. As any writer knows, the process of writing a book and looking for an agent and then a publisher can be a long, lonely, and discouraging process. But this project meant that I had a team of readers who were invested in and rooting for the book, who were hoping–right along with me–that it would find its way to an agent who believed in it and a publisher that did, too. (And it did! Hooray for Eleanor Jackson and Dzanc Books!

Every weekend when I stopped in to our small town’s lone grocery store to do the week’s shopping, there was Tom, calling out from behind the butcher’s counter, “Hey Chrissy! You found a publisher for your book yet?” On campus, as I taught and graded, friends and colleagues checked in to see how things were going with this other part of my work life.

And when, at long last, the book came out in November 2015, there was a crowd of people who were excited right along with me (and perhaps also a bit nervous, as I was!) to see how the book would do out in the world as the publicity team worked to help Charmed Particles find its way to readers and reviewers.

The participants in the project were from all over—Washington, DC; Wisconsin; Illinois; Alaska; and Texas—but the largest number of participants came from the small rural town where I live and work. Because of this, in many ways it felt especially like the whole town of Morris, Minnesota, was as excited about the book as I was. When the book finally came out, the local paper ran a huge story about it. (Link: The local library ordered 10 copies and hosted a series of book group events around it.

Morris Public Library Book Club event

The high school creative writing teacher invited me in to her classroom to talk with her students.

pic from Morris high school gig 1  pic from Morris high school gig 2

pic from Morris high school gig 3

My dentist’s office sent me a congratulations card signed by every person in the office, from the dental hygienists to the receptionists!

card from Morris Dental clinic

I’m hugely grateful to all of the participants in this strange experiment! You’ll find them listed by name on the book’s Acknowledgments page. In all sorts of big and little ways, they helped to make this a better book.

Would you do this again?


Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her debut novel, Charmed Particles, was published by Dzanc Books in November 2015. Her work has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton),  Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions), and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, as well as in a number of literary journals.

She has received a Norman Mailer Writers Colony summer scholarship, an Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies fellowship, a Loft Mentor Series Award in Poetry, and grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Lake Region Arts Council, and the University of Minnesota. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she’s one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival.

Author Photo: Nina Francine Photography

THE HOME PLACE blends literary fiction, a suspenseful mystery, and a powerful sense of place into a compelling portrait of a Montana family

The Home Place paperback  Carrie La Seur

The Home Place

by Carrie La Seur

William Morrow: March 31, 2015

$14.99, 320 pages

[This is a re-post of my original review from July 30, 2014.]

No matter how hard we try to escape it, our past is with us. We may succeed in fooling ourselves and others for a certain length of time, but the past has a way of sneaking up on us and tapping on our shoulder. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” The same axiom holds true for family and place, the two inescapable, powerful sources that shape us inexorably.

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s school outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral. While Alma and Vicky had remained in contact, their relationship was fraught with drama. Vicky began a downward spiral after the car accident, despite adapting fairly well to her prosthetic leg. Although she had been taken in by older brother Walt and his wife Helen, by her early 20’s she was a mother to Brittany and was using drugs, bouncing from one job to another, and relying on number two brother Pete and her sympathetic grandparents to help her with finances and child care.

Alma returns home warily but with the sense of obligation and honor that has always served her well. Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business. Did Vicky simply slip on black ice while taking a drug-addled walk at 3 a.m., or did someone have a motive to kill her?

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma’s heart is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billings: “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Walt, a grumbling grizzly of a man, hides in his garage workshop and has little to say to Alma, his wife Helen (in a wheelchair due to worsening multiple sclerosis), or anyone else. Pete, with whom Alma has a good rapport, owns a high-end coffee shop with his partner Shep. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property. And Alma is surprised to find her high school boyfriend is also back in Montana running the family ranch after finishing his education at Stanford.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. The characters are people we care about (or, in the case of the less admirable ones, at least wonder about), the plot is complex and emotionally resonant without sliding into melodrama, and La Seur’s writing is graceful and evocative.

In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced. In that sense, it reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite books of last year, M.L. Stedman’s impressive debut, The Light Between Oceans. La Seur has already made a name for herself with this sure-handed and cinematic story. She spent nearly a decade writing it while working as an attorney in Billings, and the time and effort shows on every page. Highly recommended!

WE ARE CALLED TO RISE captures intersection of lives in the real Las Vegas, inspires with humanity

We Are Called to Rise paperback U.S.  we-are-called-to-rise-UK paperbackUK

We Are Called to Rise

By Laura McBride

Simon & Schuster: April 28, 2015

320 pages, $15.00

Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.

The first half of the book introduces us to the lives of the main characters in alternating chapters. Avis is forced to cope with her hotel executive husband’s surprising request for a divorce when she should be overjoyed with the return of her son Nate from Iraq. He has completed police academy training and is about to join the Las Vegas Police Department. Nate’s young wife, Lauren, is even more thrilled to have him home. But something about Nate seems off. He’s impatient, prone to angry outbursts, and abusive to Lauren. So while Avis tries to determine where her marriage went wrong and what she should do next, she tries to save Nate and his marriage.

Bashkim is a sweet-natured, bright boy who is thriving in school and keeping a watchful eye on his little sister, Tirana. His parents own an ice-cream truck, a seemingly failsafe source of income in the Nevada desert; yet the Ahmeti family is in financial trouble. But his father was a political prisoner in Albania and remains hostile and even paranoid. He has isolated the family from everyone, including the local Albanian immigrants. Bashkim’s mother attempts to hold the family together and serve as a buffer between her husband and the children but bears the brunt of her husband’s discontent.

Army Specialist Luis Rodriguez is being treated at Walter Reed Hospital for a head injury and PTSD after two traumatic incidents in Iraq, which have left him wracked with guilt. He hopes to return home to Las Vegas to live with his abuela(grandmother), who raised him, until he can figure out what his options are.

The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. The conclusion, while perhaps stretching the boundaries of plausibility somewhat, is emotionally fulfilling.

McBride’s ability to fully inhabit each of these characters is an act of supreme authorial empathy. The four narrative voices are distinct, idiosyncratic and, most importantly, instantly credible. You will love some of these people and respect others, but you will care about all of them. They are as real as your friends and neighbors.

Another strength of We Are Called to Rise is the pacing. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace.

There is a paradoxical sense of foreboding and hope in these pages; one feels the plot strands coming together inexorably, but McBride’s tone and the reader’s inherent optimism combine to maintain a feeling of hopefulness. These characters have such big hearts and good intentions that one roots for them despite knowing that circumstances rarely turn out as one would like; life so often chews up and spits out people that it can seem as if that is its purpose. But when we doubt the presence of God or an overarching purpose, we can find it if we look for the people who are trying to help. Readers will find those helpers in We Are Called to Rise.

My only quibble with the book is the overuse of names in dialogue. People simply do not use each other’s names this often when they’re talking. It occasionally detracted from the otherwise believable and mostly natural-sounding dialogue.

McBride has used the setting of suburban Las Vegas effectively. A longtime resident, she shows us the real Las Vegas, where working people live, love, go to school, marry, and raise children. Its neighborhoods are both Middle America and sui generis.

“Most Las Vegas children don’t grow up quickly. They aren’t fast like their coastal counterparts. In Vegas, children pass through their novel environment unconsciously, lacing up their cleats or humming to the radio while a parent maneuvers through the traffic on the Strip; while bare-chested men thrust pornographic magazines at open car windows, while women wearing a few feathers leer seductively from billboards, while millions of neon bulbs flash “Loosest Slots in Town” and “Babes Galore.” And still the children don’t notice. They’ve been taught not to notice, and it’s only the transplanted ones – the children who arrive from Boston when they are nine – who think to tell their friends back home about the naked billboards, the “Live Nude” signs, the doggy-sex flyers.”

“The families just off the Strip – the ones occupying mile after mile of nearly identical stucco houses – live conservative lives at home. Dad might be a dealer, mixing with high rollers at Caesar’s five nights a week, Mom might be a waitress, wearing a butt-skimming skirt at forty-seven, but home is for another life….It can be cloying, it can be surprising, but after a while, it simply becomes the way it is. And the good in it, the old-fashioned neighborly niceness of it all, is one of the reasons people stay in Vegas, stay even if they can’t explain quite why, even if they tell their friends they hate it, that the place is a dump, that off the Strip there is nothing to do, even if they worry about schools and bemoan the lack of art and feel stranded in the stark vastness of the Mojave Desert.”

As a lifelong Californian with two family members who’ve lived in Las Vegas for 15-20 years, I can vouch for the fact that this is as accurate a description of the real place as you will ever read.

Roberta, who provides the closest thing to an objective viewpoint, describes how these children go off to war, having been raised in a city with a large military presence.

“In Las Vegas, armed forces recruiting centers dot the landscape like Starbucks shops, across from every high school, near every major intersection. Everyone knows someone in the military. Thousands of people live on the base at Nellis; many thousands owe their livelihoods to it. Schoolchildren thrill to the roar of Thunderbird air shows, commuters estimate their chances of making it to work on time when they see four jets return to base in formation each morning.

“We send our children off, knowing that they will grow up, thinking the military will give them security, hoping they won’t be hurt, praying they won’t die, believing that ours is a patriotic choice. And our children come back with that war deep within them: a war fought with powerful weapons and homemade ones, a war fought by trained fighters and twelve-year-old boys, a war fought to preserve democracy, to extract revenge, to safeguard oil, to establish dominance, to change the world, to keep the world exactly the same. Yes, Vegas children fight America’s wars. These most American, least American of children, these children of the nation’s brightest hidden city: the city that is an embarrassing tic, a secret shame, a giddy relief, a knowing wink.”

McBride can write up a storm and, like the gods of old, she can throw down one perfectly aimed lightning bolt after another. At one point, Nate attempts to describe to Avis what it was like serving in Iraq. His explanation is the most comprehensive fictional depiction I have yet encountered of what it is like to fight in that complicated conflict and how it feels to come home to a completely clueless civilian population with the war still going on in your head.

“You can’t imagine, Mom. What it was like there. What we had to do. I thought I would die every day. Every hour…. You’re afraid of the kids. You’re afraid of the old ladies. You’re scared as hell of any rock you can’t see around, any building with a hole up high, where a gun might come through. You’re looking for it all the time. You’re seeing it even when it isn’t there…. And then you get back. And you’re home…It’s like a dream. Only you’re still so damn jittery. And I’m still looking for that hole in the wall up high, and the rock, and the kid with the bomb. I’m looking for it all the time. I can’t stop. If I hadn’t been looking when I was there, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t be here, Mom.”

Ultimately, though, McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.

“It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing. What is most beautiful is least acknowledged. What is worth dying for is barely noticed.”

We Are Called to Rise will carry you away for a few hours, break your heart, and then put it back together tentatively, the fragile pieces held together by hope and love and the little things that matter.

This review was originally posted on June 3, 2014 to coincide with the publication of the hardcover edition of We Are Called to Rise