Friday, February 18, 2005

Necessary Madness by Jenn Crowell

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 212 pages
# Publisher: Putnam Pub Group, 1997
# ISBN: 0399142525
# $29.50

I admit it: I'm floored. Seventeen years old? But yes, the author of this very well-written novel was all of a ripe and vintage seventeen years of age when she wrote it. Nearly impossible to believe. I would give this novel highest marks even had this not been so, but that it is so - well, I'm floored.

I read Crowell's second novel, "Letting the Body Lead," before I read this one. It was good, and one would expect an author's second novel to be better than their first... but this is not the case. While her second novel is strong and her command of literary language impressive, it is the first novel, this one, that really astounds. Age of author aside, this is real talent. The story line begins with a young widow and mother who has just buried her much-loved husband, succumbed to leukemia. Crowell's language draws the reader into the bleeding soul of the young widow, makes the pain achingly real. The inner struggles to heal are more than convincing. Even the descriptions of the deceased husband's artwork, "painting for his life" as the character puts it, bring the paintings to life in the mind's eye of the reader. The child, a young boy, is forced to mature over early, as he is told he is now "man of the house." For a while, he is the stronger of the mother and child grieving their loss, but isn't it often so? The two exchange roles of who is the healer, who is the one most in need of healing, and so both begin their faltering steps to recovery from their grief. Loss of a loved one brings out the man in the boy and the child in the woman, but, gradually, they resume their stations in life of mother and son and are stronger one for the other. Dealing with death, for all three members of the family, is a necessary madness and Crowell expresses it just that way. "He coaxed the words onto my silent tongue," the widow says of her husband.

The least convincing thread weaving through this novel is the relationship between the young widow and her estranged mother. Something's missing. The young woman's anger at her mother is palpable, but the degree of it remains a puzzle. Mom tends to yell and be abrasive and unkind, but so many family dynamics are messy and imperfect, that the grown daughter's fierce hatred of her mother doesn't quite ring true. Her relationship with her father, however, described as something of an "emotional incest," the father worshiping his daughter as a replica of his own lost and youthful love, however strange, is more convincing. Minor flaws.

Upon turning the final page, the overall sense of the book remains that this is not only the vivid description of the death of a young artist and the heartache of those who love him, but that it is in itself - a work of art. At any age.

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