Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Two Very Different Novels: A Disturbing Look at Teenage Ties (Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman) and a Stirring Portrait of Family and Community (LaRose, Louise Erdich)

I like to try and tie books together with some sort of theme or even just an apt post title when I'm posting multiple reviews.  I keep failing with this pair since these were such completely different experiences.  I'm posting in the order I read them which also puts the harsher review first and the more positive one second (I always did prefer bad news before good)....
It is the '90s in a small, rural town in Pennsylvania.  Hannah is a quiet girl, the type who gets lost in the crowd, when suddenly Lacey appears on the scene.  Lacey is new to town and she is anything but invisible.  Hannah and Lacey become the closest of friends and Hannah adapts much of Lacey's world including her rebellious attitude, goth-like fashion, and her love for all things Kurt Cobain.  She even adopts a new nickname, Dex.  The friendship develops in the wake of a popular boy's suicide and a cruel bullying incident involving his popular girlfriend Nikki, who is nearly but not quite a third protagonist.  Dex and Lacey's tie takes extremely dark twists and turns with sex, drugs, and violence abounding, all building to an explosive conclusion. 

This is NOT a happy teenage story.  It is VERY dark and readers need to know that (a few moments of bubbly-girlhood only serve to make the dark moments darker).  There are moments that make my stomach turn even as I write this review.  It is hard to put that aside.  I certainly believe there is a place for dark fiction.  I believe that some of the very best books make the reader a bit uncomfortable.  However, I feel like that discomfort needs to serve a purpose and I have trouble finding one here.  I can see the power of Wasserman's prose and I can see that there is an audience for this book.  It's just not really me. 

There is POWER here and the book deserves praise for that.  I want to recognize that Wasserman certainly has a talent and there are moments that are drawn in very vivid, real-feeling prose.  Still, I was anxious for it to be over and felt like the story just kept piling more and more damage and darkness to the narrative.  It is tough to place a rating on this book because I want to recognize the strengths of this book, but I always promise an honest review (I received an ARC from the publisher) and I end up at 2-2.5 stars.

LaRose opens with tragedy.  Landreaux is hunting a deer, just at the border of reservation land, when he mistakenly hits and kills his neighbor's young son.  Landreux and his wife, Emmaline, choose to follow an old tribal custom and give their own son, LaRose, to Nola (also Emmaline's paternal half-sister) and Peter, the grieving parents.  The arrangement evolves over time and it becomes abundantly clear that the young boy is wise and spiritual beyond his years and he binds the families together while also causing jealousy and resentment at the same time.  The reader learns that he is just one in a line of Larose's, all the rest female, and the reader is taken through time to meet the original LaRose.  Also figuring into the narrative are a minister who has been working on the reservation (and is in love with Emmaline) a childhood companion of Landreaux's whose life took a very different path, and Larose's siblings (in both households). 

I'll start with the broad statement that I very much enjoyed this book.  There are some truly captivating characters, including some who take paths I never expected.  I loved the aura of the Native American heritage that pervades the entire novel, including the elderly reservation residents in the modern day and the LaRoses in the part who struggled to find their place at the intersection of two worlds.  My primary issue with the book is simply that it tries to include far too much.  I can't possibly hit every topic and keep this review reasonably succinct.  I'd have preferred if the author cut at least a few of the storylines.  I do appreciate that the book attempts to paint a big picture of a community at the same time as it is about one little boy, but there are still a few too many branches on the tree.  Still, the writing is gorgeous and evocative.  This is an emotional novel, but while much of it is quite sad it still left me with a feeling of hope and an appreciation of the beauty of its world.

Four out of five stars.  With thanks to the publisher for providing an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.