Victoria Jelinek

Plainsong by Kent Haruf
July 21, 2016, 2:24 pm
Filed under: Book reviews | Tags: , , , , , , ,

PlainsongA small town community in the ‘heartlands’ is the setting for Plainsong and its rendering of the quintessentially American experience. Kent Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, a pregnant high school girl, and a couple of brittle old bachelor farmers as they undergo radical changes over the course of a year. With lyrical, eloquent prose that is richly nuanced, Haruf presents the steadfast courage of decent, troubled people getting on with their lives.

Weather and landscape set the quiet, observant mood of the narrative, while descriptions of rural existence are poetic invocations to the natural world. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama, however. His beautifully imagined characters and the vivid depictions of their experiences, makes each of them seem non-fiction, which can evoke both heart-warming and heart-wrenching feelings (respectively) in the reader. Emotions that resonate long after one finishes the novel. This is a contemplative and compelling story about grief, loss, loneliness, and frustration, as well as kindness, love, benevolence, beauty, and what it means to be a family.

Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler

earthly-possessionsFor thirty-five-year-old Charlotte Emory, leaving her husband is the only way out from the humdrum of her days and the banality of life’s earthly possessions. She goes to the bank to withdraw what money she has, but finds her getaway is not at all what she expected when a young bank robber takes her hostage and they head south for Florida in a stolen car.

I don’t read the “blurbs” on the back of books anymore, relying, instead, on its reviews. John Updike, Nick Hornby, The Times on Sunday, and The Observer all write that Ann Tyler is “wickedly good.” So I dug in. While I appreciate Tyler’s prose and her astute eye for the “ordinary” detail that’s telling about a person, circumstance, or context, I didn’t rush to bed at the end of the day to read the book, nor drag it everywhere I went in case I found a moment to read a page or two.

That said, the book remained with me after I finished it. I found myself lingering on elements of it, particularly the characterization. Our heroine, seemingly mousy in all ways, from her looks to her actions. The obese mother who told her own daughter she was a changeling. The husband, who seemed so romantic and moody. The bank robber who appears to be a greasy loser. It was only upon reflection that I understood how expertly Tyler had developed these characters and given them a wholeness that wasn’t immediately apparent. They are at once repellent and utterly sympathetic. There’s a line in the book that reads, “I never did have the knack to realize when I was happy.” This sentiment remains with me because of its message, and also its subtlety, truthfulness, and its poignancy — three words that encapsulate Anne Tyler’s book Earthly Possessions.