Tuesday, July 18, 2017

ONCE, IN LOURDES :: Sharon Solwitz

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.

In 1968, Lourdes, Michigan is home to high school seniors Kay, Saint, CJ and Vera. The insular foursome hangs out in a park where they play bridge, listen to music and rail against issues both timeless and of the Sixties: Vietnam, God, sexuality, drugs, race relations and the eternal black hole of teenage angst. One day magnetic Vera, who wields a physical deformity like a weapon, challenges the friends to reveal their ugliest secrets. The dare leads to a pact so defining the group agrees to wait fourteen days to carry it out in order to ensure each member's dedication to the others.

Once, in Lourdes is Sharon Solwitz's deeply disconcerting portrait of four bonded, troubled teens on the verge of adulthood, struggling to keep afloat amidst the stressors that threaten to consume them. Through the perspective of overweight, sensitive Kay, Solwitz explores the pressures endured, risks taken and prices paid by each teen over the two week period of their pact, culminating in the night of its deadline.

Solwitz (Blood and Milk), English professor at Purdue University and National Jewish Book Award finalist, flays each character wide and exposes every soft corner of their cores. The story never loses its power or focus under her steady hand, despite the wide swath of emotions and multitude of dysfunctions working on her characters. A powerful tale of friendship, pain, anger, self-control and identity, Once, in Lourdes is every coming of age story ever told, yet one unlike any other.

STREET SENSE:  Fans of intense friendship and dysfunction stories will love to dig into this one.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: More than a singular passage, I enjoyed Solwitz's ability to turn a nifty phrase. A few that stuck out:

His steady gaze, the bass notes of his warm voice, made you think of good kings, wise rulers of nations--of people with power they didn't abuse.

My stepmother's dagger voice pinned me to the cross on my dinner plate.

...a feeling so bad and good she wanted to have it always and at the same time wipe off the plate of her mind right into the garbage.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I was going to say I didn't pick this one for the cover, but it did pull me to read the synopsis, which then won me over. It's not one I would buy for the cover, but the cover did a fantastic job of making me immediately think of the Sixties. Something about the colors and that image just says "Peace, love and Bobby Sherman." It's not fancy, but still a job well done.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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