Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: There Will Never Be Another You

I had seen Carolyn See's name in the Washington Post book section almost as long as There Will Never Be Another You sat on my shelf, a recommendation from my friend Kathy.  I took my time approaching the book, but once I started, I couldn't stop.

As the book opens, Edith's husband has died and the debris of his care covers their home.  She is alone, dragging bag after bag of medical and personal care items to the incinerator.  It's Los Angeles, it's a hot September morning and when she finally answers the ringing phone, her son Phil tells her to turn on the television because it will change her world.  Her life already has changed; what else could compete?

Phil's life is about to change, as well.  The loss of his stepfather was a sad event, but he has experienced loss already as a young boy when his father died.  His life goes on in the UCLA Medical Center where he skates along the top of life.  Dermatology is a low-risk specialty with few surprises.  Phil's wife Felicia is shrill and angry, unsettled in the life she chose but unable to articulate what will make it better.  His teenage daughter Eloise is absent in all but body. His son Vern is angry and confused, on the cusp of his life and may be destined to the horror of public middle school unless Phil can create a miracle for Vern and his life.

Into all this comes the U.S. military and its paranoia about the "next attack" on American soil, and how exactly dermatology is involved.  (Although after the cats, nothing should surprise Phil.)

The story is told primarily from two perspectives, Edith and Phil.  From time to time their stories overlap, and hearing the same situation from the two perspectives is a strange delight.  However, both seem to love each other but live totally separate lives, despite their paths crossing regularly when she volunteers at the medical center.  Edith also brings other people into the story, peripheral characters whom we see from afar until their stories begin.  Interestingly, only Edith is presented in the first person, which is disconcerting when other stories tug readers attention only to be re-introduced to the "I."

The acceleration of the story is subtle and gradual, like a hill you don't realize you're climbing until you're halfway up it.  The gentle presentation of the story does not prepare readers for the energy and conflict.

Lately, I have been impatient with books that take their time winding up — and at first, I thought I was again being wound up.  However, See makes this book one huge surprise, like the rollercoaster that didn't look that scary but snuck in enough dips and turns to keep the rider hanging on for dear life.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book and recommend it to readers who want to be reminded how they really cannot judge a book by its placid cover.

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