Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Hillary Frank, The View From the Top, 2010.

Enjoyable and sweet, Frank’s latest novel is a multi-vocal exploration of the angst that exists around topics of love, future, and family. Though it stays in third-person narration with a consistent voice, the story jumps in focus from one character to another. Despite their interactions and the inter-related nature of each character’s story, there aren’t clear links between the sections: this stylistic device serves to heighten the feelings of isolation and confusion that are the principal source of unity for the overarching story.

We follow Anabelle, who is about to leave for university from the tourist town in which she’s grown up. She struggles with her relationship with her boyfriend Matt, and her feelings for his best friend Jonah. Matt’s sister Lexi is pining for Anabelle, as is Jonah—but Jonah is also drawn to Matt and Lexi’s mom. At the outskirts of this circle is Tobin, a brilliant cellist who likes Anabelle and is about to leave Normal, ME, to head to conservatory. Tacked on in a way that doesn’t quite succeed is Mary-Tyler, one of the tourists whose parents have a vacation home in Normal: she felt to my reading more of a character like an attendant lord meant to swell a progress, start a scene or two and her sections read as nearly extraneous and fall flat compared to the remainder of the novel.

In describing Frank’s writing of Mary-Tyler, I realised what falls flat for me in with this novel. Despite enjoying it, I found myself distracted by the vital importance of minor characters to the denouement of the plot: we simply don’t know them well enough to be moved, and I felt manipulated in the closing as I read of Anabelle’s father’s crying. This challenge is compounded with the over-easy dismissal of the other characters’ conclusions—Jonah being chased through the fair and Matt heading off to Boston—and the overly neat resolution between Anabelle and Tobin. I found myself disappointed by the conclusion, despite enjoying the book through the rest of my reading of it. I’ve always felt weak conclusions to otherwise strong stories to be an unintentional betrayal of the contract between reader and story-teller, so it’s taken me a few days to sit down to blog about this novel. Ultimately, I’m glad I read it, but didn’t enjoy it nearly so much as I did Better than Running at Night. Frank has a great gift for drawing her readers into her stories. I’m hoping that her next book will leave me as content through its conclusion as through its middle.

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