By Lisa O’Donnell
246 pages, $26.99
By Mona Simpson
318 pages, $25.95
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Children of separation, divorce – and secrets – narrate two engaging new novels set in the often turbulent space between the preteen years and adulthood.
Lisa O’Donnell’s “Closed Doors” takes us to an island town in her native Scotland; Mona Simpson’s “Casebook” to Los Angeles and environs. Both authors’ protagonists are boys, nine or so and 11 at the outset – Miles in “Casebook” and Michael in “Closed Doors.”
Both novels are poignant and wonderfully witty – featuring mothers who are highly intelligent (with glaring exceptions) and sons who are über observant.
“I was a snoop, but a peculiar kind,” Miles of “Casebook” tells us. “I only discovered what I didn’t want to know.”
“They never tell me anything,” Michael of “Closed Doors” muses. “Everything I find out is by accident.”
“Closed Doors” is the exceptional novel here. Raw and winning, it is the story of a marvelously real-feeling working class family comprised of Ma, Da, Granny and the aforementioned Michael. Its subject – the violent rape of Ma as she cuts through the nearby “Woody” on her way home from work – is treated a bit too obviously, perhaps, but not for its early-1980s era, a time when one still didn’t speak of such things, for fear of what others might think!
On the night in question, Michael is awakened by his mother’s sobs:
“We have to call the police,” says Da.
“No,” cries Ma.
“What are you talking about?” says Granny. “There’s a madman out there.”
“No…” begs Ma. “I don’t want people to know … We’ll say I fell. I won’t go the police. I won’t. They’ll say things about me. Terrible things. Oh God.”
And so begins the lie that will have repercussions for the whole town, starting with the hospital where Ma is treated for her injuries and where the fib that she fell down some stairs is not believed. No. It is, instead, presumed that Da inflicted this hurt, a taint he will bear throughout the community for the sake of his wife’s pride.
“Reputation is everything,” explains Granny while Michael, whenever he is banned from an adult discussion, does what he and most of his peers have learned to do: “listen at doors.”
Eavesdropping gives Michael a unique perspective here – and, while the day-to-day life of his now-damaged and secretive family plays out before us, so too does the secret, taking its poison back into the Woody where more women will encounter the madman, riddling Ma with guilt.
Mixed into this dynamic is an array of Michael’s friends, each with parents harboring their own secrets or life burdens – a microcosm in other words of the world. Best of these is “Dirty Alice,” a girl of Michael’s age who has lost her mother and who awakens in Michael feelings of both love and hate.
O’Donnell is a splendid writer – her simple-seeming prose and dialogue both layered and at times disarming. Her characters grow as we read, then walk whole, right off the page – a feat for so short, and so amusing, a book.
Halfway through, Michael has a philosophical moment and shares what we glean is the very raison d’etre for O’Donnell’s novel:
“Lies make people happy, I think, and that’s why people tell them, not to hurt or anger anyone, but to keep them safe from the truth, except our lie, the lie Ma and Da and Granny are telling to themselves and everyone else around them, it is the worst of lies and it is making no one happy and when lies don’t make you happy you have to wonder what will happen next.”
Deception is also at the heart of Mona Simpson’s not as successful but nonetheless intriguing “Casebook.” This novel, like O’Donnell’s, centers on a boy who eavesdrops on his parents – in this case via walkie-talkie, heating vent and phone extension as well as under the bed and listening at doors, with more sophisticated means to follow …
Miles – who is actually a young man recalling an earlier time in his life – is our narrator. And although at first his curiosity is centered on what his parents are saying about him, it soon finds its focus elsewhere. For his parents are divorcing!
This entails a grand upheaval in Miles’ life, one that leaves him, a fourth grader, the man of the house he now shares with his mother (“the Mims”) and his much younger twin sisters, Boop One and Boop Two. The time is shortly after 9/11 and, from this point forward, Miles spies on the adults of his world with his best friend, Hector, a charming creation whose deadpan take on the events that follow are often priceless. As are many of Myles’ observations.
During his parents’ separation, he tells us, his father would pick up the children on Saturday mornings: “He usually ran late so we had to wait on the porch with our hair combed and then run down to his car. My mom came out in socks. He’d open the passenger window and hand her something – a cup with a straw, takeout containers, crumpled napkins – and say, Could you throw this out?”
“Casebook” is much more, however, than a novel about children coping (in their ways) with separation and divorce – and this is because the Mims takes up with “the dork guy” she used to run with, a man called Eli who, Miles tells Hector, works for the National Science Foundation which requires his spending much of his time in the nation’s capital.
“My mom was nice enough looking for a smart woman,” Miles reflects on the fact – one that will see Miles and Hector grow both fond of and suspicious of Eli. They will snoop, keep a casebook (some hand illustrations for which appear in the novel) and, by the time they are juniors in high school, hire a private eye.
Another, unsurprising secret will be revealed, causing Hector to shake his head and say, “You just want to believe in magic. So does your mom …”
But it isn’t magic Miles is after – he is looking for constancy in the face of change, at one point thinking his mother was moving to another town: “when was she going to tell me? I thought as long as she didn’t, maybe everything could stay the same and I could continue the way I was, unrunning.”
At another, darker time he claims, “All of a sudden it seemed our family had been lying. We’d been trying to be this great divorced family when really our lives, like the lives of any kids who were the products of failure, were coming out worse … We’d been churning fast, trying to convince people. Probably nobody believed us anyway …”
There are some nice touches here, in the end Miles sadly concluding, “All our suspicions hadn’t protected us from the bad truth.”
Sadly, the adults in Simpson’s novel aren’t particularly convincing – yet she has her finger firmly on the pulse here of divorce and its countless and often unending ramifications.
She is, by the way, the sister of the late computer visionary Steve Jobs – and therein lies an even better story.
Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.