The Short Version: In a town where the fantastic is more commonplace than yours, two families with dark histories smash together when Meridia and Daniel fall in love. This is Meridia’s story, from childhood to her thirtieth year – and it is a story of wonder and magic – not magic in the sense of spells and potions, but magic in an elemental way. There is love, death, ghosts, otherworldly forces, and a general sense of autumnal mystery about the whole thing.
The Review: The plot of the book seems so simple, on the one hand. It’s about a girl who meets a boy and their families don’t really like each other. Eva, Daniel’s mom, is a domineering deceitful bitch who grapples with Meridia across a decade – it’s the sort of character description that seems straight out of… well, straight out of a traditional family novel. But this is anything but traditional. I liken the experience of reading this book to how I felt the first time I watched “Pushing Daisies” on TV. It is most certainly not our world and yet it could be. It’s our world if our world was a bit more magical – or hadn’t forgotten the magic that exists. I lean towards the latter.
The characters, every single one of them, are so vivid and real. They’re so well drawn, with subtle repetition of facets of their personalities and persons, that they exist fully formed from the start. You read the words on the page and they spring to your consciousness as though thrown up on a screen. Ravenna, with her ramrod spine and her tight bun – Eva, with her matronly build and warm face that hides steely eyes – Daniel, large and friendly and gentle – Pilar, with her deformities and her gray shock of hair. They’re all so vividly drawn in that same color-saturated way that Bryan Fuller shot “Pushing Daisies”. Think about that show (and if you don’t know it, Google it) and the way that things seemed so bright and rich. It bordered on twee, for sure, but never quite went there because it was so guileless and honest about the whole thing. That’s this book, too.
I’m still struggling to put into words how, exactly, Erick Setiawan crafts his spell here. The prose is simple, elegant, flowing… and it never feels like he’s trying for something. It feels like he simply put his pen to the page and with the innocence of a child he created something so devoid of artifice, so lacking in agenda, that it is a fairy story for adults. Think about how, when you were a kid, you let your imagination roam free. There were fairies in the garden, monsters in the woods, and the fall was a time when the ghosts and goblins scurried about at night – and that was true. You knew it was true. Those stories, how they just felt right – and then suddenly you grew up and knew they were nothing more than stories? This is the rarest of rare occassions: a story for adults that makes you feel that same way.
There’s actually a Bradbury-esque quality to this book. The magical realism, the open and enrapturing prose. This book goes in a different direction from Mr. Bradbury, but I suddenly see the very plain and clear literary ties. Something like the house on Monarch Street, with its staircase that extends or shortens on a whim and its ghosts in the mirrors and the three mists – one at the door to rough up visitors and the colored mists that take away and deliver Gabriel. Before I’ve even been asked to believe it, I already do. That house exists somewhere – just not in this town. But in the town I want to move to when I’m ready to start my family? Yes, perhaps.
There’s a scene (there are many) but there’s one that sticks in my head for some reason. Daniel and Meridia, young and reckless, have stolen away to the beach and they find a chest washed up on the shore. Inside, there’s the body of a dead fawn, torn up and mutilated. Daniel distracts her with amorous advances and when they look back… the chest is back out bobbing in the middle of the water. Something about this scene, in my head, captures everything about this novel’s beauty. The colors are vibrant and clear – the water is such a deep blue, the sand a tawny yellow, the fawn so clearly realized and yet not revolting. It’s scary but also intriguing. The way they’re surprised that the chest has floated back out to sea… I felt myself equally as surprised.
Another scene, when Meridia is in the midst of labor and Eva’s bees – a terrific invention on Setiawan’s part – are causing difficulties with the birth. It is so vividly realized in my mind, not in the way one often pictures a birth (graphic, etc) but in a clear and breathtaking way, like coming around a bend and seeing stretched out in a valley a panopoly of autumnal leaves and it just makes you feel like magic has happened here. The struggle between Meridia and Eva in that scene can be found in many other books – how often does the mother-in-law hate the wife? hell, I’m about to read The Dark Glamour and that was basically the entirety of the plot of its predecessor – but here, it was just so… imaginative. It was fresh, it was new, it made me feel like a kid again – but also a grown-up.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I can go on rhapsodizing about the book but really I should tell you to just read it. Read it in October, as the leaves are changing and the air is getting crisper. The world of this book is the world that I’ve created inside my head for the last 23 years; I just never realized that other people imagined the same place. This is a magical novel more than a magical realism novel – but don’t get bogged down in categories with this. Just take it with you into October. I promise that, if there’s an ounce of imagination in your probably grown-up mind, you won’t be disappointed. It’s like a warm cup of cider and blue jeans and a longsleeve t on a crisp Saturday afternoon while the leaves crunch and everything feels perfect.