Monday, January 30, 2006

For Sarah

Is life a broken promise? A rusty chain? What about a bubble of fear inflated by an innocent kid who grew up to remember it was always there, all around? More questions make their way into debutant author Annie Harmon’s first work of fiction ‘For Sarah’ (Publish America, Baltimore, 2005).

‘For Sarah’ laces several first-person stories of Lee sisters (Angela, Samantha, Rachel, Amber, Jessica, Ash, and Tia) who fight the way of their life out of the horrors of an abusive stepfather. The impact of Harmon’s powerful narration combines with her psychological insight to explore a woman’s many forms of fear that is the fruit of an insecure childhood. As the girls turn into runaways, one by one, their adult lives fall a prey to worse calamities from unhealthy relationships and alcoholism, to attempted suicide and murder, and delusional psychosis in Ashlee (who is the writer of letters to Sarah). While their lives strive to reconcile with peace, the Lee sisters fathom the meaning of strength and weakness.

Harmon’s book is exactly the kind of work that hooks the reader from its prologue to the last word. Every single page is breathtaking; each and every sentence adorable. Harmon’s emotional narrative is a living, breathing story of woman seen through many eyes-those of the Lee sisters, Bridgette (friend of Lee sisters), Nicole (Ashlee’s daughter), Mica (Jessica’s daughter), and the mother of Lee sisters. One can see a daughter, a mother, a sister, a wife, a friend, and a woman living against and with men. And the picture is complete.

In the tradition of masterpieces, ‘For Sarah’ weaves a plot that ends with the last word of the narrative. Annie Harmon, in her author’s note, speaks of the tentative placement of the book in the category of fiction. It closely approaches an epistolary novel but has a mixed flavor of story collection, biography, and monologue. Ashlee’s letters to Sarah, a name she cannot assign to a specific person, produces the mist in the ambience of Harmon’s world. The reader joins hands with Ashlee in finding who Sarah is. The final answer is at once startling and cogent.

The end of the book incorporates a couple of nonfiction pages, those of ‘Questions for Discussion’ in which Harmon repeats the questions already bubbling up in the reader’s mind. The two most significant ones being ‘Why Tia is not allowed a story through the whole book?’ and ‘Who is Sarah?’

‘For Sarah’ is a touching book, raising tenderness and tears, and fortifying one against the shocks of hatred and rage. It is a book for every one who knows a mother, a sister, a wife, a daughter, a friend, and a woman. And who doesn’t?

ISBN: 1-4137-7010-X


Monday, January 23, 2006

Apart from You

Leonore H. Dvorkin gives us a complex character, Elizabeth Nye, a 20-year-old student, developed along the lines of Jane Austen’s Emma. Only the latter was an unconsciously self-deceiving fool, while Elizabeth is always conscious to her selfish advances in love. Dvorkin’s novel Apart from You (Wildside Press, 2000) is yet another work of fiction that explores the mystery of love, though certainly not just another one. A 28-chapter account of Elizabeth’s five-week love relationship with Brian Petersen, a graduate teaching assistant, Apart from You gradually reveals the presence of many undesirable things in a web of relationships: lies, deceptions, betrayals, infidelities, jealousies, transgressions, and rivalries. No wonder the reader might find Elizabeth’s character self-contradictory. She hates her father’s infidelities but engages Brian in a nearly identical situation, given that she is engaged to the absent Alan Abrams while she involves herself with the na├»ve and unwitting Brian, who is ignorant of Alan’s existence. The deal between Elizabeth and Alan that they’ll have complete sexual freedom as long as they are apart imparts a momentum to Elizabeth’s character that gradually reveals her two greatest powers: her strength of reason and her open-minded generosity.

Growing up indignant regarding her father’s infidelity and jealous of her younger sister’s coquetry, Elizabeth starts as a hazy image of a young woman with domestic diligence and a craving for privacy. As her relationship with Brian proceeds, her character sheds its blurredness and stands clear as a cloudless sky in contrast to Brian’s own mist of conservatism. A frustrated and sentimental virgin until his encounter with Elizabeth, Brian believes himself incapable of the sort of dishonesty Elizabeth practices with him until just before she leaves him to return to Alan. In the end, Elizabeth forces Brian to recognize that under the right circumstances, he too might break with conventions of morality, as she and Alan have done. Elizabeth’s return to Alan has rich implications of real love and honesty, which are rarities in this story. Elizabeth loves Brian, and he loves her, but she cannot let him keep her forever, as she has already committed herself to Alan. In the final chapters, the truth comes as a shock to Brian, but Elizabeth’s careful reasoning masterfully defuses its threat. Elizabeth becomes a woman standing on her own feet and Brian becomes a man who will eventually allow her to do so.

Apart From You is tightly written, closely developed around one central theme. However, Dvorkin also touches on the dilemma of homosexuality. Elizabeth’s ‘sympathetic sex’ with her gay friend Stevie is one instance of it. Descriptions of Donnie and her lesbian roommate Jean sound insignificant until it is revealed what an important part Donnie played in Brian’s life and what brutality Jean survived. For a while, the story feels as though it’s digressing from its plot, till the central conflict resurges with greater force in the twentieth chapter.

A wealth of minor and cameo characters adds greatly to the depth of the novel: the beautiful widowed neighbor of Elizabeth’s parents, Brian’s deceased parents and his two very different sisters, sundry university professors, Stevie’s French lover, Brian’s beloved cat, and numerous others. Together, these side characters compel readers to ponder their own views on a variety of subjects: death, domestic violence, women’s changing roles in society, loneliness, the madness of war, the importance of animals in our lives, and much more.

The final lessons one hits upon at the end of the story are moving and profound: Love is wealth, and great wealth can be a burden. Playing with emotions is folly because they are stronger than one’s wits. Above all, it’s love, and not possession, that gives lasting happiness.

Like her nonfiction book 'Why I’m Glad I had Breast Cancer' (Wildside Press, 2005), Dvorkin’s narration of the story is smooth and touching. Bits of humor surface now and again as well. An unusual feature is that the reader is allowed to view almost every event through more than a single pair of eyes, hence the objectivity that forms the wormhole to comprehension.

Of course, it is an adult novel. While sex is integral to the novel’s plot, gratuitous sex is nowhere seen in the book, and each and every sex scene beautifully drives the story ahead to its climax.

To read the first chapter of the novel, see the Dvorkin website:

ISBN: 1-58715-074-3