Monday, June 22, 2009

Sunnyside Blues, by Mary Carter - Review

The Facts:

Title: Sunnyside Blues
Author: Mary Carter
Pub Date: June 30, 2009

Publisher's Blurb:

Twenty-five-year-old Andes Lane has spent nine years moving restlessly from place to place as she searches for somewhere that feels right. In the little blue houseboat bobbing on a Seattle lake, she thinks she’s found it. But Andes has barely had a chance to settle in before her new life is upended by her landlord, Jay, and his ten-year-old son, Chase.

Smart, secretive, and precocious, Chase touches a chord with Andes even as he plays on her last nerve. When Jay needs someone to take care of Chase temporarily, Andes agrees to accompany the boy to Sunnyside, Queens, on a quest she’s sure will prove fruitless. But in this new, strange, unexpectedly welcoming city, Andes will confront the secrets she tried to leave behind and the lies that have kept her running. And against all odds, she’ll discover a place, a man, and a newfound peace of mind that feel very much like home…

(I tend to think that the blurb emphasizes all the wrong things, but I can't argue that they were all in there). I had some trouble with this book at first. The main character... well, let me put it this way: You know our blogger friend Jen The Ginger Kid? In her "about me" blurb, she says, "I'm addicted to the internet, I'm great at wasting time, and I have the attention span of a toy poodle on speed." In Jen's case, I'm pretty sure it's an exaggeration, but I wasn't so sure about Andes. The "toy poodle on speed" phrase kept haunting me as I tried to connect with this character. In the first couple of chapters, I found her to be shallow, spazzy, kind of slutty, and well, not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I was ready to write back to the author suggesting that maybe we pass on the review. Then I got to this:

Emily Tomlin wasn't afraid when he first lowered her into the well. Her behind fit snugly into the horse harness as if it were a sling, and because her mother had threatened bodily violence if she got her new pink dress dirty, he lowered her until she dangled just a foot from the muddy bottom.*

Whoa. What is going on here? From there on, I was hooked, dangling from the line just like Emily.

The following story has an element of morbid fascination, tracing the journey of that little girl growing up in a fundamentalist, snake-handling Appalachian religious sect. Her sometimes-unreliable narration of events gives an overall compelling character study. A childhood history of traumatic events, a nomadic young-adulthood, and a self-told backstory of dubious truth chipped away at my initial impression of this character. Though "shallow, spazzy, kind of slutty, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer" turns out to be not precisely untrue, the story reveals the complexities and, I might say, neuroses that combine to give that impression.

The unsubtly-named Chase and his search for his father force Andes into a psychological confrontation with her own daddy issues. To be honest, I wasn't that interested in Chase as a character, but he provides a decent foil for Andes to play out her drama against and a plot engine that keeps the pages turning. Without him and the two mystery subplots (his parentage, and who is setting the fires that follow him around) the novel would be in danger of devolving into uninterrupted navel-gazery.

There's a third character here, one who inadvertently plays a part in Emily's estrangement from her roots, and the way that affects him in the years after--and the way that effect sort of accelerates and culminates in the now of the book was really well done. The storyline ups the tension and helps draw Emily/Andes into the final confrontation, but the author uses a deft restraint to keep his [potentially fascinating] situation from overwhelming the rest of the story. Just the right amount of salt.

There's a fair bit of melodrama, hyperbolic narrative and improbable coincidence at work in the story, and perhaps the least palatable bits were the occasions when Andes broke down into... well, fits? psychotic breaks? She would have these uncontrollable crying jags that she didn't seem to realize were happening until she "came to," though she didn't actually seem to lose consciousness. Since the scenes were written from her point of view, it was fairly jarring to piece together what was happening. Perhaps a good old-fashioned swoon would've worked better.

Despite all that though, I have to say I enjoyed the ride. Perhaps it's the same ignoble instinct that makes me want to gawk at traffic accidents, but I found the descriptions of the revival meetings truly fascinating and horrifying at the same time. Offbeat, engaging, a little bit horrific, touching.

*quote is from uncorrected proof copy, so it may not appear exactly as shown in the published version.


JenB said...

The toy poodle on speed thing is only a slight exaggeration. Still mostly true. LOL

This book sounds very interesting. I have a hard time with unsympathetic heroines, so I wonder how I'd react to this. Hmmmm.

Carolyn Crane said...

Nice review, and what an unusual backdrop. I totally know what you mean about the morbid fascination element - I've had that too with certain books. Thanks for the review - this sounds good. It sounds like a really intense ride, and I mean that in a pos way.

Sheila DeChantal said...

This sounds good. I know what you mean about the book blurb.... or they give away the best part on the back of the book (much like movies previews do now) and that is equally frustrating.

Happy Blogging!


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