Tag Archives: coming of age stories

Book Review: The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (W.W. Norton and Company; 224 pages; $23.95).

            On the first page of Mette Jakobsen’s stylish novel The Vanishing Act, a dead boy washes up on a small snow-covered island “so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps.”  He is about fourteen or fifteen and, curiously, a fragrant odor emanates from his corpse.  He smells of oranges.

Minou, the twelve-year-old girl who found him, desperately wants to tell her mother about her discovery.  But she cannot.  Her mother has disappeared.

Jakobsen writes, “It had been a year since the circus.  And a year since Mama walked out into the cold morning with a large black umbrella.” Mama had performed a magic trick with the Boxman, a magician who lives on the island.  Shortly after the “vanishing act,” she went missing.

Everyone on the island thinks Mama is dead.  “Priest had found her shoe washed up on the beach after she disappeared.  Papa never spoke of the day they put it, salt-stained and minus its heel, in an old shoebox and buried it.”  Minou believes her mother is still alive.  “She is not dead, Papa,” she vehemently tells her father, “she is coming back.”

Minou’s father values reason above all things: he proudly counts the philosopher Descartes as an ancestor.  He thinks his wife, in her heels and umbrella, tumbled over a cliff and perished.  Then, the tide carried her body out to sea.  In time, perhaps her body, too, will return just as her shoe did.  “Things lost to the ocean always return.”

Seeking answers, Papa puts the corpse in his wife’s bedroom.  He opens the windows and allows the corpse to freeze.  He has three days with the boy, who he says resembles a young Descartes, three days before the supply boat returns for the body.

Minou searches for answers of her own.  She seeks out the Boxman, “who used to work in a circus, but after arriving on the island he began to make boxes for magicians.  The kind in which women are sawn in half.”  Boxman has an interesting theory.  The love of his life, Cosmina, used to help him in his performances.  “After they had added a vanishing act to their performance, Cosmina began to talk about things she had never mentioned before.”  She seemed unhappy.  Eventually, Cosmina left him to find herself.  She wanted to “study the stars from the foothills of the Himalayas.”  The Boxman does not think Mama left the island to pursue her dreams, though; he thinks she is dead.

Minou may carry an important piece of the puzzle.  She recalls seeing a “reflection in a mirror.”  She is uncertain exactly what she saw and reminds herself “that Boxman could conjure up doves, rabbits, roses and coins and that nothing was unusual in his barn.”  But the image of “Mama’s lips, her closed eyes, and Boxman’s hand, his red-stone ring against her pale breast” will not go away.

Is Minou recalling an actual event or is the mercury in the lighthouse bulb affecting her sanity?  After all, she sleeps in the lighthouse every night.  “Lighthouse keepers have gone mad” living there on the island, seeing “things rising out of the sea: strange creatures, pirate ships, goats, pigs, all sorts of scary things.”  At times, Minou’s recollections of her mother paint Mama as possibly unstable, leading me to wonder if she committed suicide.  Of the island, Mama said, “This is a terrible, terrible place, Minou.”  No one, Mama believed, “can live on this island and stay sane.”

In the end, what really happened to Mama and what happened to the dead boy are unsolved mysteries.  I was disappointed.

While the setting is strongly rendered in The Vanishing Act, Jakobsen’s characters need more fleshing out.  For example, Minou’s mother’s past was mysterious, too mysterious really.  Her arrival on the island with a peacock in tow and the “war” both Mama and Papa lived through were too vague.  Was it World War II?  Why did Papa spend the “entire war hiding amongst onions and carrots in a small root cellar the size of a cupboard”? Then again, since the story is told from the perspective of Minou, the reader only knows what Minou knows.  Other characters, particularly the Boxman, could have been expounded on.

Jakobsen does a fine job tackling such themes as philosophy and fantasy.  Papa urges Minou to see the big picture and to search for absolute truth; her mother always pressed her daughter to use her imagination, advising Minou “don’t think so much.”  The entire story is really a dance with reason and truth and fantasy and imagination dueling.  At times, the dance can be beautiful, but this reviewer was left wanting more.

This novel feels much shorter than its 224 pages.  I was able to finish the book in one sitting.  It actually feels more like a short story than a full-length novel, though.  In fact, I believe it would have made for a great short story.  As a novel, I have to say it falls short, despite its stylish qualities and its lyricism.

 

 

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She Could Fly

An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer (Harper; 342 pages; $24.99).

 

            Coming of age novels are so popular as of late.  They are everywhere.  Just within the last few months, I have read Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly, Morgan Callan Rogers’s Ruby Red Heart in a Deep Blue Sea, Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea, and others.   The new novel An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer can now take its place beside these favorites.  In some ways, Percer’s book stands head and shoulders above the others.  I think it all has to do with the main character.  In this case, her name is Naomi, and she is a rare breed indeed.

 

One phrase Percer repeats throughout this novel is “she could fly.”  No, Naomi cannot literally fly.  “She could fly” is a metaphor and refers to how this tale allows both Naomi and Percer to soar.  Although she cannot fly, there is something interesting that Naomi can do instead: she just might save your life.

 

Perhaps it is Naomi’s uncommon education that compels her into believing she can save those around her.  But the first thing she saves is not a person, but an object. Maybe “steals” is the better word.

 

Naomi’s father, Sol, holds Rose Kennedy in the highest esteem.  He may even have a crush on her.  As Naomi explains, “My father developed heroic crushes, as my mother called them, where he’d dwell on a person from history exhaustively, or for however long we’d listen to him.”  Sol, though, takes “special care to nurse” his attraction to Rose.  Naomi is uncertain “if his adoration was pure or a front for talking about her as a role model.”

 

Sol has an underlying motive for building up Rose Kennedy to his daughter.  He wants Naomi to have the best education she can have.  For him, that means Wellesley College.

 

Of Rose Kennedy, Sol muses, “‘Now there is an example of a woman with untold potential.'”  Rose was the “matriarch of a nation,” even after her own “early dreams had been squelched.”  Rose wanted to attend Wellesley, but her father, the famous John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald put a stop to any such notions.  His political aspirations did not allow “his Catholic daughter entering a progressive college during an election year.”  And that was that.  Instead of becoming “uncommon” herself, Rose would have to settle for being a wife and mother.

 

Naomi and her father are frequent visitors to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site near their home in Boston.  She finds a letter written by Rosemary to her father in 1939 one day.  Accompanying the letter is a signed and inscribed photograph of Amelia Earhart to Rosemary.  On the back, in the middle of the photo, Rosemary wrote” “She could fly.”  Because she feels the urge to save this memento, Naomi takes it.

 

On this same visit, her father suffers a heart attack.  As Naomi waits for the paramedics to arrive, she frantically makes promises and bargains.  She thinks of ways to “lure him back, of how badly he wanted to see” her “become something he had never been.”  Naomi also thinks of Rose and promises to live her life with no regrets, although she does not understand what that means.  She is only nine, after all.

 

The experience with her father makes Naomi want to be a surgeon.  She knows she wants to save lives.  On her father’s heart attack, she thinks: “And I thought, maybe, that there was a way I could have stopped it.  That maybe there was a way I could learn to stop such things.”  Her desire grows stronger over time and stays with Naomi as she grows up.

 

In one of the strongest parts of the novel, Naomi becomes inseparable from the boy next door, Teddy.  Neither child makes friends easily, and their bond is seemingly unbreakable until tragedy strikes.  Percer writes some heart-wrenching scenes here, especially when Naomi realizes how difficult it can be sometimes to save someone you love, no matter how much you might want to.  I actually hated to see Naomi grow up; the reader, in a sense, grows up with Naomi, too.  My fear was that this coming of age story would fall apart once Naomi got older.  Percer’s tale does not break down, but it does change.

 

Just as Rose Kennedy and Sol dreamed, Naomi gets accepted to Wellesley.  There is a definite lag in the story here.  The decline was so steep I cringed.  However, Percer reclaims the novel’s early promise when Naomi begins her sophomore year at Wellesley.

 

During that time, Naomi sees a fellow student fall into the frigid, freezing waters of a lake on campus.  She risks her life to aid the young woman.  By then, she has “gotten into quite the habit of saving people.”  The rescued student and her friend introduce Naomi to the school’s Shakespeare Society.  Percer’s Shakespearean club lacks mystery, although it is clandestine.  There are no life-threatening or earth-shattering initiation rites or club rituals.  Percer’s decision not to portray the group in those ways was quite refreshing actually.  Some things do not require great mysteries.

 

Since Teddy’s withdrawal from her life, Naomi has had no friends.  But that changes with her membership in the Shakespeare Society.  She finally makes real, lasting friendships with other young women who have bright futures ahead of them.  Naomi’s bonds with these women prompt her to save them, too, whether from things that endanger their lives or from outside forces that jeopardize their futures.  Naomi does not care what the threats are; she only has a kind of tunnel vision where those closest to her are concerned.  If they are in trouble, Naomi will save them.

 

However, there are some perils even Naomi is powerless to thwart.  She comes face to face with this fact when her mother becomes ill.  This realization is difficult for Naomi to accept.  Yet, she must; Naomi cannot save everyone.  But, “…by not allowing herself to be saved,” her mother saves Naomi.

 

Naomi finally comes of age in this moment.  Sometimes being an adult is knowing you cannot save everyone.

 

Percer’s tale is an unforgettable one, all because of Naomi.  She is the glue that holds together this uncommon, graceful, and elegiac story.

 

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