Friday, July 6, 2012

Where We Have to Go by Lauren Kirshner

No critic or reviewer can be objective; it stands to reason that every story and experience affects us differently depending on a multitude of factors that encompass who we are and where we come from. But I find some books are harder than others to give a fair review, or at least a review that will help people who are not me decide if they want to read it.

This book is one of those, because I identified so strongly with the protagonist, Lucy Bloom. She is two years older than me, and the story is her growing up in the nineties, dealing with body image issues, longing to be popular, aching to understand the adult world (and then, the more she understands it, longing to be rid of it). The friend that she makes halfway through the book, Erin, is like a composite of the three or four friends I had in junior high and high school who saved me by being so smart and strange. A lot of what happens to Lucy didn't happen to me, but she is such a perfect encapsulation of being a girl of that age, in that time, that it's like reading my own diary.

So that's why I'm not sure how much this review will apply to those who don't fall in the category of "girl born in the early eighties and raised in middle-class (to lower-middle class) Western society", but I imagine you will still like the book. It is absolutely wonderfully written, and as remarkable for the stories left out than those included.

Lucy is eleven when we first meet her. Her parents' relationship is falling apart; her father is a travel agent who has never been anywhere, and is a little too friendly with a woman at his AA meetings, and her mother is a thrift-store shopping, just a little too embarrassingly foreign woman with the classic "Jewish mom" concerns of getting Lucy fed and fixing her up with a nice boy. Lucy takes refuge in watching Alf reruns (remember Alf?) and nurtures compulsions that, if her parents paid attention, are clear early warning signs of the eating disorder she later develops.

The book follows Lucy through about eight years of her life. I loved how major stories that could have taken up the whole book - her parents' divorce, her eating disorder, her relationship with her grandfather - are presented as important, but just one piece each of a whole life. This is not a story about eating disorders or family relationships or death. It is a story about growing up as a girl. It is in some ways painfully 90s, but in other ways perfectly timeless.

I read that Kirshner was mentored by Margaret Atwood, which makes sense to me - this book is like the spiritual successor to Cat's Eye. However, while Kirshner touches on many of Atwood's pet themes - particularly women and girls, and how they act towards and around each other - she has her own very distinct style. The tone is not as dark as in Atwood's work; throughout the story, I always had hope for Lucy, a hope I never have for Atwood's characters. Kirshner is masterful with light humour that doesn't intrude on the momentum of even the sad parts of the story. She is absolutely a gifted writer; I would read more of her work in a heartbeat.

Four CN Towers out of five.

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