The Short Version: After Henry Cooper accidentally lights a devastating fire on his postal route, the lives of the residents of Arcadia Street change forever. Two elderly sisters lose their home, a young man loses his wife, and the neighborhood loses any sense of normalcy. But Henry tries his best to right this wrong and repair these people’s lives – without much though to his own life, his wife, or whether or not these people actually want to see him again.
The Short Version: I’ve often joked (or not joked, as it were) about the terror of suburbia. Thoreau’s quote about lives of quiet desperation is a passable quote for the understanding of the average suburbanite… but it also feels a bit too high-brow to truly express the strange (and utterly American) oddity of the suburbs. It can be terrifying – the things happening in the houses next door to you that you’ll never know about but that are whitewashed by the picket fence and the siding and the lawn. You might live next door to somebody like Billy or like Peg – and you might only have a glimpse of just how not-terribly-nice they are. At the same time, you might live next door to somebody like Sam and never know the unexplored artistic depths he holds. Still terrifying, just a different sort of terror.
And then there’s the terror of the simple ways things can go wrong. One of the old sisters (I forget if it was Joan or Nan) says, at one point, something about how we prepare our whole lives for big things to strike us down and in the end, it can just as often (if not more often) be something completely unexpected and stupid – it isn’t the heart attack that kills you, it’s the football in the tree. It isn’t the other man who starts to break apart your marriage, but your own blind idiocy. That sort of thing.
Most of all, this is a novel full of heart. You know how I know? There are moments – brief, but crucial – that are written from the dog’s perspective. And not in a cheesy or gimmicky way, either, but in one that just sort of makes sense. It’s not just full of heart, though – this is a novel about hearts. About how our hearts grow, heal, change – especially in the wake of loss, whether that loss is personal, spiritual, physical, or something else entirely. I had a preconception (from nowhere, to be honest – it just seemed instinctual) that this novel would be only that sort of novel – but it turns out, that was a misconception. This isn’t the kind of novel you could turn into a movie, like a slightly more grown-up Jonathan Tropper novel – instead, it’s something a bit more akin to Saul and Patsy: a novel about people trying to make their lives and all of the complexities that come with trying to do so.
Nothing is quite what you think it’s going to be in this novel. The prose becomes sparse just as you’d expect it to grow lush. The scene shifts just when you’re prepared for it to plow on ahead. And while you can undoubtedly predict some of the plotlines of some of the characters, I’d wager that most of your predictions will be unfulfilled within the present tense action of the novel. Does that make sense? Let me put it another way: it’s pretty obvious, for example, how Sam and Ava’s plotlines might develop – but they only develop so far by the time the last page is turned. And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s irritating or even a sign of bad writing for an author to leave things up in the air – but instead, Mahoney knows exactly when to draw the curtain. We don’t need to see what we assume may eventually happen, because the story that is being told here… this is the logical place to end it. The turning point, if you will.
There’s really a marvelous build to the novel. It gets off to a somewhat rocky start and the pace, at times, jerks a bit. We’re tossed from character to character without sense, right away, of why we need to hear from them. Why we need to understand all of these characters in a sort of Edward St. Aubyn-y panorama instead of through regular old authorial omniscience. But as we spend more time with these characters – especially Henry, Ava, and Sam (although not to give Peg, Joan, Nan, and Billy short shrift – despite the fact that Billy, especially, never feels quite fully realized) – the more we realize how lovely it is to spend time with them. By the end of the novel, you feel as though you’ve visited the cabin in the woods and seen Sam’s incredible carvings and that, as you (for those Americans reading – sorry everyone else) sat down to your Thanksgiving meals yesterday, you might well’ve been around a table with these folks just as easily as you were with your own folks.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Some roughness at the beginning and a dark near-twist at the end keep the novel from feeling completely organic and well-formed – but for a debut novel, this is quite impressive. It doesn’t aspire to much and, as a result, it delivers a magnificent reflection on (to coin a phrase….) our fellow mortals. The struggles, the hopes, the dreams, and the efforts that we all must make every day in order to live with one another. It’s funny, it’s romantic ( not ooooh, love, flowers, chocolates, etc. romance but rather the sort of romance you find 30 years into a marriage), it’s sad – and most of all, it is honest. Makes you want to give thanks and rightly so.