Tag Archives: Good Graces

Paint It, Black

The Grief of Others: A Novel by Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead Books; $26.95;  388 pages)

While an author can develop some great sentences and paragraphs in a novel, using language that is either stunningly creative or even gorgeous, it doesn’t mean much if the tale being told does not advance.   In The Grief of Others, a promising and potentially engaging story is overwhelmed by obtuse storytelling.   Because of this, I found the novel to be far more frustrating than pleasing.

The story revolves around Ricky Ryrie, wife and mother of two, who loses a third child (a male) 57 hours after his birth.   The child was diagnosed with Anencephaly four months prior to its birth, a fact that Ricky kept from her husband John.   Since Ricky once had an affair with a work colleague, this raises serious trust issues in the marriage; a marriage which may not survive the tragedy.   Ricky would not let John hold or touch the baby while it was alive, and so he goes on to remind her, “This was my child.  Too.”

But it’s not just Ricky’s story that’s covered here…   We also witness John’s, and those of the children – 13-year-old Paul and 11-year-old Biscuit – and of Jess, John’s daughter by another woman.   And then there’s Gordie, a young man who attaches himself to the Ryries in much the same manner as the troubled young man Kiernan does with the Lathams in Anna Quindlen’s novel Every Last One.

Unfortunately, Cohen’s book does not seem to handle the issue of overwhelming, shattering grief as effectively as Quindlen’s story; nor does it tackle the issues of  marital trust and fidelity quite as well as Commuters, the near brilliant debut novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe.   There may simply be too many characters on the stage here, another one of whom is Will, Gordie’s very sick father.   Cohen seems to have spread herself, and her story, a bit too thin.   Some of the writing is admirable as when John notices that the instant tragedy seems to foster “in everyone around him a sudden, alarming presumption of intimacy.”   (It can be a tad frightening when strangers and coworkers are seemingly a bit too kind and understanding.)

Of all the characters, Ricky’s daughter Biscuit is the one that appears to be the most true-to-life, as if she had been created by Lesley Kagen (Whistling in the Dark, Good Graces); however, the key problem is that the young children Paul and Biscuit are saddled with the thoughts of adults, thoughts that simply don’t seem credible.

Biscuit thinks that, “Her parents seemed like the books you could see (in a bookcase):  they smiled and spoke and dressed and made supper and went off to work and all the other things they were supposed to do, but something, a crucial volume, had slipped down in back and couldn’t be reached.”

Paul, meanwhile, worries that, “(His parents) couldn’t seem to detect anything wrong with each other, never mind that his mother had been silent for most of the past year, or that his father, for all his apparent optimism, was beginning to show fissures.”   How many 13-year-olds would know the meaning of the word fissures, let alone think in such terms?

An intriguing twist – a pregnant Jess lands on the family’s doorstep almost one year after the family’s tragedy of losing the baby – tends to get lost after all this.   This is an almost 400 page novel that feels, in the reading, to be almost twice that long.   At one point, Ricky thinks about her “unbearable helplessness,” and her loneliness in carrying to term a defective child:  “The thought exhausted her.”

This read was something of an exhausting experience.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Only the Good Die Young

Good Graces: A Novel by Lesley Kagen (Dutton, $25.95, 337 pages)

“The almighty works in mysterious ways, ma cherie.”

It’s 1960.   You’re a young girl living in a quiet suburb of Milwaukee, in a community whose foundation is the Feelin’ Good Cookie Factory (the closer one lives to the odoriferous factory, the poorer one’s family is), with your cunning sister Troo.   The problem is that the adults in the community seem to be clueless to the problems in their midst, including juvenile delinquency.   Troo’s reporting of the troublemaker known as Greasy Al means that he’s been sent to a juvenile detention facility, which seems like good news until you find out from your police detective step-dad-to-be (he’s engaged to your  mother) that the evil kid has escaped.   Now it’s up to Troo to come up with a perfect plan for dealing with Greasy Al’s imminent return.

As Troo’s sister, you know that she’s no amateur when it comes to this business.   You previously had a problem with a male summer camp counselor, and Troo made him disappear from the face of the earth.   So now you’re hoping that Troo’s plan for Greasy Al is not too efficient…   And just when you’re dealing with this, you learn from other kids in the neighborhood that one of the respected pillars of the community is making young boys “do bad things,” which immediately changes everything.   Now Troo puts Plan A on the back-burner while she develops a new plan to bring law and order to your town.

You and Troo must rely on a couple of other youngsters to help you – one male and one female – and you have to hope that they can keep their lips sealed forever if Troo’s new solution works.   You both think you can count on Artie and Mary Lane, especially the latter since:  “She’s been tortured by the best in the world – nuns.   So detectives asking her a couple of questions wouldn’t bother her at all.”

Good Graces, written in a child’s voice, is simply one of the most enjoyable novels that I’ve read in years (at least three or more).   Kagen’s ability to write in an adolescent’s voice is remarkable, and she has fun toying with the artifacts of the time, such as the TV shows Queen for a Day and Howdy Doody.   Adult readers who grew up in less prosperous homes will identify with the characters, as will Catholics and lapsed Catholics.   The young characters in the tale attend Catholic school and learn that the  nuns can indeed inflict pain when it’s needed and otherwise.

At its base, this is a fine and fun morality play in which children save a community and the almost-brainless adults are never the wiser.   It’s the sequel to Whistling in the Dark, and I can hardly wait for the third part of Lesley Kagen’s true justice trilogy.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Moving, funny, and full of unexpected delights…   Kagen crafts a gorgeous page-turner about love, loss, and loyalty, all told in the sparkling voices of two extraordinary sisters.”   Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You.

Good Graces was released on September 1, 2011.

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A review of Good Graces: A Novel by Lesley Kagen.

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