by Maryanne Stahl, contemporary (2004)
NAL, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21218-5
Maryanne Stahl's Forgive The Moon stands out to me in several ways. While many books in the NAL Accent imprint line tend to be unimaginative rightwing propaganda, often delivered by a "dotty southern old lady" placeholder character forcing herself into the affairs of the hero and the heroine, Forgive The Moon is the rare story where there is no left or right, just confusion as the heroine tries to find some peace and equilibrium within herself. Also, I've read so many annoyingly formulaic romances recently that this book smells as great as brand new hundred-dollar bills delivered right at my doorstep. A heroine with real problems and dilemmas, ones that I can emphatize and sometimes even relate to? A story where nothing is wrapped up conveniently? I'm in heaven.
There isn't a plot in this book as much as it is a "stream of consciousness" story where the reader is treated to the thoughts of Amanda Kincaid as she tries to put her life back in order. Her mother was a schizophrenic whose condition began to detoriate when Amanda was twelve. Life could be morbid, however, and Mom died in a car accident during her lucid moment. This story takes place in the one week where Amanda and her ten-year old son Damien join the rest of the family in their annual beach get-together one year after Mom's death. Dealing with the ghost of her mother isn't Amanda's only concern - her husband Keith is leaving her for a younger woman (aren't they always?) but Amanda hasn't told the others about their trial separation yet, her daughter is growing up and Amanda isn't sure how to deal with the empty nest syndrome, and oh, she may be pregnant. But in this one week, Amanda may find answers to her confusion from inside herself as well as from unexpected sources.
At first I can't help wondering whether Amanda's preoccupation with her mother is a little too much but the author does a great job through flashbacks in showing how Amanda's mother affects her this much. This is where I should point out that this book has its share of morbid, often darkly funny scenes, such as one where young Amanda encounters her mother's suicidal friend seated in the kitchen wrapped up in a bizarre outfit that also doubles as a suicide method. There is a haunting scene where the family tries to pull themselves together and celebrate the memories of Mom before they pull the plug on her. I suspect that fans of Deborah Smith may appreciate Ms Stahl's not shying away from scenes that may offend readers of more delicate sensibilities. At least, this fan does. I also appreciate the fact that Amanda was a flower-power gal in her younger days: she smoked pot back in the days and even tried to "cure" her mother with pot once. In fact, she still wishes that she can have some pot now and then.
Ms Stahl's strength in this book is her scene-building, which is essential in a story structured entirely as Amanda's stream of consciousness from first page to last, with very little insight offered into the psyche of the characters around Amanda. This book is all about Amanda and it is crucial that Amanda is interesting enough to merit my turning the pages. Ms Stahl succeeds very well in this - some of the scenes in this book are the most haunting or beautifully rendered I've ever come across in a long time. Caveat emptor, of course - some readers may find these scenes contrived and I can understand where they are coming from, in a way. The author's use of water imageries and similies can be sometimes clumsy, sometimes elegant. I love the way the story begins with Amanda lost in her thoughts as she wades into the sea and ends likewise. I find the author's attempts to associate the sea and the moon (a secondary maternal character is even named Athena, and I confess I rolled my eyes at that one) with themes like changes in life, redemption, and second chances very effective, so evocative, and too romantic. The first page of this book reels me into buying the book and the last sentence of this book is one of the best closing sentences I've come across.
I hesitate to give this book a keeper grade though because the passage of time in this book can get really confusing especially in the first few chapters. The problem here is that the story begins in August. That's fair enough except that this detail crops up only twice in the first page and one of these times is in allusion ("white August sand"). So when I come across several chapters later a header saying July, and me being old and doddering, I am momentarily disorientated as to whether this is a fast forward or a flashback. It is by luck that I somehow turn back to the first page and realize that these July chapters are flashback scenes. There is also no indication that a flashback scene has ended and we are back to the present: I'll have to figure it out myself. While I can figure this out, of course, it is still an annoyance as I have to pause momentarily in my reading to reorientate myself each time the author switches the time frame.
I should also point out that Amanda's romance with Michael Burns, a doctor and fellow musician (Amanda plays the violin), a selling point in the back blurb, is actually very quickly touched on and then placed to the backburner. Michael barely registers as a character: he's a rather too-perfect and unrealistic Plan B for Amanda whom she'll hopefully find a happy ending with one day. But the reader won't find out for sure in this book so anyone looking for a conventional romance story will be very disappointed.
This is one book that will probably divide readers. Heavy with watery metaphors and poetic reminiscences, and everybody being some sort of musician here (snort) - some will understandably find the whole set-up sentimental and contrived. I probably will as well if the author hasn't infused her writing with raw emotions that burn. The book gets especially stronger as it progresses and the last few chapters are simply wonderful. There's nothing like breaking up with an ex for good by... well, it's an unusual break-up, that's for sure, and it is a funny and poignant scene all at once. Forgive The Moon, for me at least, is an often simultaneously funny and heartbreaking story that fires me up from a reading slump.
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