Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: The Tell

The Tell
Hester Kaplan
Harper Perennial
paperback, 325 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-218402-3
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

I just loved everything about this book. Hester Kaplan's The Tell is one of those books that continues to resonate long after you close the cover. In a tightly woven story, Hester Kaplan explores what lies beneath the surface of an apparently ordinary and ostensibly happy marriage. The triggering event is the arrival of a new next-door neighbor for Mira and Owen, a married couple living in Providence, Rhode Island. Mira operates a neighborhood community art school, and Owen teaches at an inner-city middle school. The new neighbor, a formerly famous television star named Wilton Deere, is the catalyst for disruption and crisis for Mira and Owen.

Although Mira and Owen are each leading responsible, contented, and productive lives, each is haunted by loss. Owen can't seem to forget the random act of violence that ended the life of his former girlfriend. And Mira hasn't fully recovered from being suddenly orphaned at the age of nineteen; she is still living in the same house where she lived with her parents, and the stultifying collection of ancient furniture and art seems to weigh down both Mira and Owen. Yet at the start of the novel, these issues and others are kept safely beneath the surface of a loving marriage.

The entrance of Wilton Deere, like the entrance of a sit-com neighbor, disrupts the orderly lives of Mira and Owen. Wilton is a Gatsby-like character:  semi-mythical, self-created, with a collection of false gestures and a house full of brand-new everything. Like Gatsby, Wilton moves into his house hoping to meet again with someone he hasn't seen in years---in this case, it is his daughter, Anya, who is attending medical school in Providence. In another parallel with Gatsby, Mira and Owen invite Anya and Wilton to their home for the first meeting, but Anya never shows. By the time Anya does appear on the scene, there is much awry in Mira and Owen's marriage. Mira has begun accompanying Wilton to a casino in Connecticut, and this causes an underlying tension between Mira and Owen, and between Wilton and Owen.

The seduction of Mira is not romantic or sexual; instead she is seduced by the lure of the slot machines, the brightly lit casino with its artificial waterfall. Owen is left alone, tutoring middle-class kids, or stealthily searching for clues among Mira's private belongings. As Mira and Owen grow farther apart, Owen and Anya begin to connect. The tension builds between Owen and Wilton, and they trade barbs, then secrets. Wilton is alternately charming, pathetic, and manipulative. Owen knows there is nothing going on romantically between Mira and Wilton, but he worries that she might love the slot machines a little too much---a thoroughly justified worry, as it turns out.

Then, just as suddenly as he appeared at their kitchen door, Wilton Deere disappears.

After Wilton's disappearance, Mira and Owen, who have separated, are left to examine the remains of their lives and their marriage. Anya, who has just started to build a tentative relationship with the father she never knew, is devastated. Everything seems to be crumbling: Mira's Brindle school, Owen's patience with his job, the very future of his school in question...and Anya is filled with a burning resentment toward Mira, who she holds responsible for Wilton's disappearance.

Much of the power of The Tell comes from the meticulously crafted sense of place. The neighborhoods of Providence---from the deteriorating school where Owen teaches to the gorgeous old Victorian houses of Mira and Owen's street---firmly anchor The Tell in the texture of lived lives. Mira and Owen are ordinary people doing ordinary work that means something to them, and Mira's passion for her art school, and Owen's daily grind as a teacher are realistic and convincing. Owen narrates the story,and he's a flawed but essentially sympathetic character, driven in part by unresolved loss, but deeply compassionate, and deeply in love with his wife.

The minor characters are appealing too; I particularly liked Edward, Owen's reclusive father, who makes a surprising move toward love and connection at the end of the book. And the various kids in the book---students at Mira's school, or at the middle school where Owen teaches---seem like real kids.

The Tell has the texture of real life. It tells a story that could really happen, but a story that you haven't read or heard before a million times. And the story is told with art and grace. I highly recommend The Tell to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and well-crafted literary fiction. A compelling story with gorgeous prose, The Tell hits the sweet spot.

For more information about Hester Kaplan and The Tell, visit the author's web site


bermudaonion said...

Your enthusiasm for this book makes me want to run out and grab a copy today!

Audra said...

I have to say, the premise really doesn't grab me, but your enthusiasm for the book has me doubting myself! :)

Priya Parmar said...

Sounds wonderful! I love the echoes of Gatsby!

bibliophiliac said...

@bermudaonion-I hope you do read this book!
@Audra-I kind of thought the same thing when I saw the summary, but the writing in this book is excellent. It ended up being much more complex than I expected.
@Priya-there are quite a few direct parallels with Gatsby, which I made the book even more compelling for me...

Beth Hoffman said...

Your review is terrific and I just now added this book to my list!

bibliophiliac said...

@Beth Hoffman-thanks! I think you will enjoy it...and thanks for stopping by :)

Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

Thanks for being on the tour!