This book review, if you will, is an excerpt from one of my (now many) novels in progress.
Part of Melissa’s job at The Antiquarian was to close up the bookstore at 9 PM promptly. She didn’t always though and often times because she was lost in reading. If there were still customers in the store, she would leave them be as long as they were quiet and lost like herself among the stacks of used paperbacks. Richard kept the first editions under lock and key at the front of the store, near the desk where she sat. Sometimes Melissa wondered if he really wanted to part with any of those first editions. As long as she had been working for him, now about a year, she hadn’t seen one sale.
Tonight she had ushered the last customer out at nine-thirty, locked the door and pulled down the shades. She turned off the display case and all other lights except for the reading lamp in the far corner of the store. In that corner was also a red velvet stuffed armchair, quite worn in the seat cushion because it was a popular spot for customers to sit and peruse a selection of books. It was also Melissa’s favorite spot to read after everyone had gone.
She could hear Richard moving around in his apartment above the store and knew that in a few moments he would be working his way down the stairs with a tray topped with a pot of Earl Grey tea and a plate of cookies. She settled into the red velvet chair and pulled her legs up and under her. In her lap was a copy of Parts Unknown, a novel by Kevin Brennan. Richard had asked her to read it, which she had done, finishing it the night before. He soon appeared through the side entrance, set the tray on the low table between them, and seated himself on the twin of her red velvet armchair. While he proceeded to pour the tea, Melissa picked up one of the cookies and was glad to see it was pumpkin spice with vanilla bean ice frosting. Richard really did know her taste in cookies.
“So … ” Richard started as he handed her a cup of tea. “Tell me what you think of Parts Unknown? We need to decide where to place it as well as whether to purchase more copies of it.”
Melissa sat up a bit straighter, taking a bite of her cookie as she flipped through the book with one hand. “Well, I really liked this novel. It is contemporary literary fiction so it needs to go into the stacks over there.” She nodded toward the bookshelves on the opposite side of the room, near the tables of calendars and gift sets.
“Yes, of course,” Richard said. “He’ll be in good company with Chabon and Eggers.”
“And we should order more copies. Even though the story takes place in California, mostly in Sonoma County, it has a rural, agricultural landscape that would appeal to people here. A lot of the farmers here like to read about people who live off the land, whether it’s dairy farming or cattle raising. It’s all hard work. Your schedule is what Nature allows it to be.”
“So there’s a strong sense of place. I like that. Place is very important.” For a moment Richard looked away to a dark corner of the bookstore. Melissa wondered if he was thinking then of London, where he had grown up. She would never understand why he had moved to her tiny spot of a town, where there were more cows than people.
“The structure of the novel took a bit to get used to, though. Brennan’s chapters move from one decade to another, from one character’s voice to another. I couldn’t tell at first if there was any design in how he tells the story.”
“And the story is …?”
“Oh, well, it’s about a photographer, Bill Argus, a famous one in the novel, like a desert Ansel Adams. He has a late mid-life crisis and decides to return to the small town and family that he had abruptly left forty years before. He left behind a young wife and four or five-year-old son. Just up and left them with no warning. And then, with almost the same lack of warning, he decides to go back. And he brings his current wife along, Nora, whose roughly the same age as his son.”
“Oh, my.” Richard leaned forward to pour more tea and help himself to another cookie. “Go on.”
“The novel shifts from Nora talking in the present day about Bill’s reception, about how his first wife has some kind of dementia and his own son was raised to believe that his father was some kind of hero killed in the Korean war. Some of the tension in the novel is everyone’s fear that Bill will crack and want to claim his son.”
“And does he?”
“I’m not saying, Richard. Just add the book to your reading list. I’m just going to tell you enough for you to decide how prominently we should display the book.”
Richard winked at Melissa.
“Anyway, the whole story of why Bill Argus left his family unfolds through each character’s version of events. Except for his wife Nora, of course. She goes down memory lane quite a bit too, but it’s own her past that she reflects on, not Bill’s. Yet, her past does explain why she’s with Bill and why she goes with him on this trip and why she is kind of the peacemaker, or person who tries brings everyone together.”
“So what you would say is the theme of this novel? Regrets about mistakes made in the past? Reconciliation? Retribution?”
“Well, here … “ Melissa opened the book and began to read. “It’s about nostalgia—which is a sickness, you know, a pathology—and how places are constant in your mind but always changing. If you weren’t there you missed them, and if you were there you didn’t notice the changes happening. The thing is, this passage is early in the book. It’s Bill explaining why he wants to go back home, ostensibly to put together a book of photographs of his old home. This is before he sees his first wife Annie, before he’s hit hard with the reality of their life without him. Much later … ” And here Melissa opened the book to another dog-eared page. “Much later, Nora says this to Bill: Distance always make the pain duller. Of course it’s harder being at the scene of the crime.”
“Ouch!” Richard shifted in his seat. “I guess old Bill Argus had some reckoning coming to him.” Melissa squinted at Richard. “Reckoning” wasn’t a word she often heard him use.
“Well, yes and no. There is a reason why Bill left his family, his home. It may not be the best reason, and he could have handled it differently. But the point is that it’s all hindsight. The novel is also about the lies we tell each other and ourselves, and the lies are part of the nostalgia, part of the pathology. At one point, Nora says, But maybe there was something to be said for a big lie. People are lying left and right in this novel, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes not. It reads like a web that you get caught up into. The more you struggle against the lies, the more tied up you are in them.”
“So, should we put this book on the front table first? With the other recent acquisitions?”
Melissa thought for a moment. Parts Unknown was a complicated novel, yet she hadn’t been able to put it down. Well, she had but reluctantly. She reflected on Nora and Bill, Annie and Hays, even Big Don and Bad Ray when she wasn’t reading. She wondered how things would go for Bill: would he break down and reveal everything to his son? Would Nora be able to survive the animosity that greeted Bill as well as the guilt? How did these two people even get together and how far did the lies in their lives extend? Brennan could have limited the perspectives to just Nora and Bill or kept it within their realm of knowledge. But the reader gets to hear Nora’s mother’s side of it as well Bill’s father’s side of it. Brennan seems to suggest that even if we’re not present, we are affected by the lies people tell or don’t tell. With Nora, no one hid the fact that her father simply up and left. With Hays, no one told him the truth. They are almost two sides of the same coin: one innocent, one far from it. Yet they both have a kindness in them that warms people to them.
Melissa laid the book on the end table next to her. “Everyone has a story to tell in this novel. Everyone has his or her version of reality. Whether you like it or not, you have to come to grips with the idea that everyone has their set of memories, their idea of how things were. You want to blame someone, but, in a way, no one is to blame. They all did what they believed was the right thing to do.”
Richard finished off his cup of tea as if he were downing a shot of whiskey. “Well, then, it sounds like this novel, Parts Unknown, needs to go to the front of the store. I’ll contact Brennan and see how many more copies I can get. It definitely sounds like the kind of book that people will talk about for quite some time.”
“And reread. I know that this is the kind of novel I would want to reread. It’s almost like … now that I know how it ends and where everyone fits, I want to start over and read with that added knowledge.”
Richard nodded, a slight perhaps wistful smile on his face. “A good book begs to be read more than once. Thank you so much for staying late and having tea with me.”
Melissa smiled back at Richard. She had just had some good hot tea and sweet spicy cookies with a good friend whilst talking about a book. Whilst? Now when did she start using words like that?
You can read the first chapter of Parts Unknown by clicking here. Better yet, purchase a copy for yourself or a book-loving friend directly from Kevin Brennan at http://kevinbrennanbooks.wordpress.com/buy-parts-unknown-2/
Kevin is also the author of: