A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
I regret that this, Strout’s first book, is my most recent one read, after having perused five other Strout books previously. The novel is indeed a tour de force, worthy of premiering a writing career. In it Strout tells the story of titular characters Amy and Isabelle, daughter and mother respectively. It is one of the hottest summers on record in Shirley Falls, a New England town in the 1970s. The site’s yellowing river exudes a strong Sulphur smell. No one has air conditioning, and everyone is hot all the time, in every dwelling whether it is at home or at work. Years before Isabelle has come to Shirley Falls with a baby in her arms. Her husband has died, she tells everyone. Now Amy is seventeen, and her mother is youngish, in her thirties.
Readers in essence become acquainted with the entire town. All of Isabelle’s co-workers in an office where she is the boss’s secretary: Fat Bev and a number of other notable characters. There are Amy’s school friends, particularly Stacy, who is pregnant, and, being the daughter of two mental health workers, is allowed to have her baby and give it up for adoption. The two friends share lunch each day sitting in the nearby woods and smoking a single cigarette each (Stacy hides them in a Tampon carrier kept in her school bag). They are close, yet there are secrets about themselves they never reveal to the other, things that might make one dislike the other (each fears). There is Amy’s middle-aged math teacher, a bearded man, not particularly handsome, but charismatic enough to lure Amy into an illicit relationship. There is the disappearance of a girl about the girls’ age from another town, a story that sends shivers up and down the backs of everyone in Shirley Falls. All of these people have ordinary but messy lives, even though the town is beset with an active church life divided among a number of denominations. Even so, an undercurrent of unease, perhaps some might say evil, brings all these souls together in a manner that keeps one reading as fast as one can.
But one should not read too fast, because by doing so one can buzz by the small and delicious details that Strout plants along the way. Pregnant teenage girl. Middle-age man lovingly seducing his pupil. An ambitious mother with a dark past of her own. Oh, and several adulterous affairs. How could it be a boring narrative? And yet, the novel is not a potboiler in the traditional sense. There is no cathartic ending in which all the bad people get their comeuppance. No real heroes—except in the way that true friends can be heroic to each other. The story ends as satisfyingly quiet as it begins. Yes, after a long, hot summer, where the inhabitants of Shirley Falls are frying in the hell of their lives, the sky opens up and the heavens pour forth rain, providing at last a natural relief. Finally, the characters of Shirley Falls may breathe again. Until the next wave of heat develops.
TUES: A Writer's Wit | Pat Benatar
WEDS: A Writer's Wit | Also Leopold
THURS: A Writer's Wit | Jack London
FRI: My Book World | Bloom & Atkinson's Evidence of Love