Shaye Areheart Books, 2010
My rating: 4 stars
Becca Burke is first struck by lightning at the age of 8. Unfortunately, she is alone when it happens, and, because she is relatively unharmed, her parents doubt whether it actually happened. Yet though she is physically unharmed, the lightning strike changes Becca in mysterious ways–watches break or run backwards when she wears them, halos of light appear around her in photographs. Becca does her best to continue on, yet her family life becomes increasingly difficult as her father’s affairs and her mother’s drinking rip the family apart. As she grows older (and experiences a second lightning strike), the loss of her family, estrangement from her best friend, and her inability to be open to love lead Becca to the tortured life of an artist in New York City, complete with doomed love affairs and too much drinking. When a series of paintings inspired by lightning strikes ignites her painting career, it also leads her to another lost soul tortured by lightning … Buckley R. Pitank.
Buckley’s life is an endless loop of being bullied and teased. His home life is hardly a respite. His beloved mother is the only support he has, yet they are trapped living with his bitter and nasty grandmother. When Buckley inadvertently brings an evangelical preacher into their lives (who is really just looking for good home cooking and a place to stay), Buckley’s life seems to settle into an endless cycle of despair and gloom. But his mother–in a heroic act of will and rebellion–realizes they must escape if they are ever going to have a chance of happiness. Stealing away in the middle of the night, Buckley and his mother settle in Galveston, Texas, where they build a new life that seems filled with the possibility of happiness and love. Then tragedy strikes, and everything Buckley holds dear is ripped away. Returning to his grandmother’s home as penance for his survival, Buckley writes The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors (excerpts of which are scattered throughout the book). Eventually, his journey brings him to New York City, where a chance encounter with Becca’s paintings draw him into her orbit.
As their lives become more closely intertwined, lightning (inevitably) strikes once again … and leads to unexpected consequences.
I know you’re probably thinking “Well just go tell us the entire story, why don’t you?” Believe me when I tell you that knowing the outlines of the story doesn’t give you even a hint of the depth of Young-Stone’s writing. She effortlessly moves from character to character–allowing the reader to inhabit their interior lives for a time. Aside from following Becca and Buckley’s stories, we also venture into the mind of other characters, including Becca’s depressed and drunken mother, Becca’s philandering father, a young drug addict, and Buckley’s newly empowered mother. Young-Stone manages to create an almost dream-like reading experience. This is the type of book where you can know what is going to happen, but getting there is what makes the journey so worthwhile.
This is Young-Stone’s debut novel, and I was very impressed with the sophistication of her writing. Instead of telling you about a character, you get to inhabit their world for a while. I think this is difficult to pull off by even the most seasoned writers, yet Young-Stone manages it in her very first “at bat.” If you are the type of reader who seeks out new authors, this is one author who should make your list. I think she has a true gift, and I’m excited to see what she does in the future.
I was curious about why lightning featured so prominently in the book, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that Young-Stone herself was a lightning strike survivor. I imagine this type of experience would affect you deeply, and learning this tidbit about the author gave the book even more of an air of authenticity. Lightning strikes was an interesting way to connect the stories of Becca and Buckley, and the inclusion of the excerpts from Buckley’s book provide the reader with a wealth of information about lighting strikes and those who have survived them.
Yet Young-Stone’s writing is so powerful that she could have dispensed with the lightning motif and the book would have been just as good because ultimately, this is a book about people … people who are damaged, lost, and trying to find love and happiness. Young-Stone does a brilliant job of creating realistic and touching journeys for all the characters–both major and minor–and I loved that she provided one of my favorite ending devices (a “where are they now” wrap-up … you just don’t get this enough, I think) that answered any lingering questions I had about the fate of the various characters I met throughout the book.
The Bottom Line
A wonderful debut from a writer who has true talent. Reading this book is like entering a dream-like state where you journey into the interior worlds of both the major and minor characters. Definitely recommended.
The Whys and the Wheres
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