Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, by Janet Peery*****

theexactnatureofourwrongsThe place is Amicus, Kansas; the Campbell family has come together to celebrate the birthday of their frail, ancient patriarch, Abel. Ultimately, though, their attention is drawn, unavoidably, to the youngest among them. Billy is a walking pharmacy, but he won’t be walking anywhere for much longer if something isn’t done.

I read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. If I had paid full retail price, it would have been worth every red cent. It had me at hello, and performed a miracle of sorts by rendering me temporarily speechless; I had to gather my thoughts and look at my notes before I could comment.

But back to the Campbells of Kansas. Everyone has known for some time about Billy’s dependency issues; he’s been riding the roller coaster of addiction for many years. Billy’s father wants to take a hard line with him, while his mother, Hattie, just wants to bring him home and tuck him into the guest bedroom. Brother Jesse objects, “He’s forty-fricking-seven, Mom.”

Elder daughter Doro, who is sixty and perhaps the only sane, normal person in the family, is concerned for her mother, who is past eighty and has already had a heart attack. Doro reminds her mother that “It’s Amicus. It’s your family. Where two’s company and three turns into an intervention.”

The setting of Amicus and the time period we see as we reach back into the family’s history is well rendered, but remains discreetly in the background as it should, not hijacking the story. The story itself is based on character, not just of any one person, but of the family itself. By the twenty percent mark I feel as if I have known these people all my life. The full range of emotion is in play as I immerse myself in this intimate novel, and there are many places that make me laugh out loud.

It isn’t too long before I can identify someone I know that is a Hattie, and someone that is a Billy. Given the widespread horror of opiate addiction, I will bet you a dollar that you know someone too.

But before the halfway mark is reached, a terrible sense of dread comes over me, an aha moment I would not wish on my worst enemy. I begin to sense that perhaps I am Hattie. And within a week of having read this epic story, my eldest child calls and tells me that he’s had a phone call from his younger sibling’s dealer, a man that flatly states, “I don’t want your brother on my conscience, man. I won’t sell to him anymore, but I’m telling you, there are plenty of others that do. You gotta do something, cause he’s out of control.”

Generally, I do not include personal notes in my reviews, because that’s not generally what the reader is looking for. But here I have chosen to do so because this problem is everywhere. In the case of Billy Campbell, there’s a complicating factor: Billy is HIV positive and has been since he was 21. And again, I suspect that for many others, such issues also blur the distinction between medical treatment of some sort, and addiction.

I hope that you can get this book and enjoy it for its sly humor, brilliant word-smithery, and unmatchable character development. It’s excellent fiction, just exactly right for a chilly autumn evening in your favorite chair or snuggled beneath the quilts. But for me, it is valuable as a wake-up call, and it will do the same for many other readers also—I have no doubt.

It’s the right story, at the right time.

Among the Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont *****

amongthetenthousandJack is an artist living in New York City. Sometimes he sleeps in the apartment where he lives with his family. Sometimes he sleeps in his studio, when his work is really going strong. Just as sometimes he sleeps with his wife, whereas sometimes, he sleeps with whoever. This story is about the fallout that occurs when one of the random women he has taken up with, then discarded comes back with a vengeance, and though she intends to punish Jack through his wife, instead she ends up punishing him and his wife through their children, who are the unhappy recipients of the series of randy e-mails the woman he’s just jettisoned prints up and delivers to his building. My god, my god. And before I go farther, let me say thank you to Net Galley and Random House for allowing me a sneak peek. This book will be published next month.

Jack and his latest-fling have been prolific writers, it seems. It takes a large, somewhat weighty box to hold all the hideous missives that have passed between the two of them. And though it’s a rotten thing he’s done to his wife Deb, it slips out early on that she has married him only after dating him while he was married to someone else. Hey, what goes around, comes around.

Unfortunately, Jack is sufficiently garrulous enough with his recent conquest that he shares his children’s names with her, and when eleven year old Kay accepts the box to take upstairs, she is thinking that it is nearly her birthday, and perhaps what is inside is a gift that she can’t wait two weeks to know about. And then one of the papers on top of the pile has her name on it. It isn’t underlined, nor in bold or colored ink, but one’s name tends to jump out at one. And so the steamy sex talk she is way too young to see in any context whatsoever is accompanied by the sentence, “I know about Kay.”

It’s almost enough to permanently traumatize a kid. Well, maybe we can forget that “almost”.

The events are so horrible that any sensible reader would turn away rather than face what comes next, but Pierpont has a fresh, immediate writing style that pulls one in, almost to the extent that we care about those kids as if they were our own. We keep reading because we have to know what happens to them.

Several times I grew angry enough with Jack that I found myself senselessly typing angry retorts into my kindle comments. Nobody sees that stuff but me, but typing seemed better than waking my spouse to inveigh against this self-absorbed asshole, this swine who has the nerve at first to blame Kay for reading mail not meant for her eyes. Oh please!

And when Deb equivocates, I want to smack her, too. Sure, I know I said that what goes around comes around, but once you have children, the whole equation is altered, and you have to act immediately on their behalf. She feels a little sorry for Jack at first, at the alienation his children display toward him, and I just want to shake her. Don’t feel bad for him, the pig! Feel bad for your kids! Hello?

The kids are really what the book is all about, what makes it worth reading. They aren’t little big-eyed Holly Hobbie dolls, but both innocent and insolent, naughty and adorable, disturbed, devastated, and resilient as well. They flounder; they struggle. And when the story ends, the spell isn’t really broken until one accepts that they are fictional, because believe me, the whole thing feels so very real.

Pierpont is a damn good writer. She will be a force to be reckoned with in the literary world, a writer to watch. I can’t wait to read whatever is next!
As for you, you should get this novel when it comes out July 7. Maybe you should even reserve yourself a copy. What a fascinating book, by a strong new author.