Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #65: The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

I tremendously enjoyed both of Walls’ earlier books, The Glass Castle and Half-Broke Horses, and so was excited to read her first novel The Silver Star. The book is written fairly well, and without the constraints of her own personal experience, she clearly felt free to roam a bit. Which is why I was kind of shocked to discover that the first two-thirds of the book was an unabashed take-off on Cynthia Voight’s beautiful young adult novel Homecoming, which led to its own movie and a highly-successful series of sequel novels. In both books, young children have no father, are abandoned by their dysfunctional mother, make a cross-country trip on their own initiative to visit a reclusive relative who isn’t prepared to take them in, but they worm themselves into their relative’s heart and ultimately into the small-town community they adopt as their own.

In truth, the mother in The Silver Star is clearly modeled on Walls’ own dysfunctional mother and is less the broken woman in Homecoming portrayed with such pathos by Voight and more of a self-centered bitch. The daughters in Walls’ book are interesting characters—the tough smart young one is Bean, who at age 12 is a survivor, while the eldest is Liz, a sensitive 15-year-old poet and dreamer and a bit of a genius—and yet they somehow don’t quite ring true. They are both too mature and yet lacking in basic common sense. They get into a horrible situation with the town’s psychotic bully and abuser when they go to work for him behind their uncle’s back, and I couldn’t help but wonder where their smarts had disappeared to when they made such an absurd decision, with not unexpected consequences.

The novel attempts to address a number of issues, from racism to Vietnam War politics to the effects of economic depression on small town America, and as such Walls is to be commended. And the story has enough humor, pathos and gasp-aloud moments to make it work. But I couldn’t get past the fact that it felt like a cheap knockoff of Homecoming, and that somehow soured the experience for me. Although I must admit that the emus were a delightful touch and made for a sweet ending.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #56: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

I adore Richard Russo, with his simple but powerful storylines, his colorful yet identifiable characters, his rollicking sense of the absurd, his wit and his penetrating insights. That Old Cape Magic does not disappoint, and if it is another story about a dysfunctional family and the lasting consequences of that dysfunction, it is also a story about the human condition, our human condition.

Griffin is a former LA screenwriter of hack movies turned creative writing professor at a small northeastern college. He has a wife he loves, a daughter he adores, and a good life. But not a contented one, for he is haunted by his parents—one alive and one whose cremated ashes have been traveling in the trunk of his car for the past year. His parents were both college English professors made bitter by their perceived failure to achieve the academic greatness they felt was their due. Their intellectual snobbery, their fierce competitiveness, their rudeness towards all things smaller than their own egos, their serial philandering, their constant moving from one job to the next, and their toxic parenting style all have a stranglehold on poor Griffin’s psyche. Griffin believes he has successfully exorcised his parents from his life, but his wife recognizes his unresolved relationship with his parents as the deep-rooted source of his discontent, and is not sure how much more she can put up with.

The novel begins and ends on Cape Cod, whose beach homes have always symbolized for Griffin’s parents the pinnacle of academic success which has eluded them. In the beginning, Griffin is attending the wedding of his daughter’s best friend, and has a moment of near lucidity about himself and his family which he is unable to sustain. When next we meet Griffin, it is a year later. He has been back in LA living a miserable existence of self-loathing, and he is separated from his wife. His mother is dead, but her voice lives on inside Griffin’s head. Griffin and his ex are both bringing “dates” to their own daughter’s wedding on the Cape, and a hilarious series of events ensue which have the power to force an emotional and psychological awakening on the part of our hapless protagonist.

The stories that make up Griffin’s life are as hysterically funny as they are heartbreakingly sad, and That Old Cape Magic is that rare book that can make you cry and laugh at the same time, while giving you a deeper appreciation of the human spirit.