Losses & Choices: Joy Leftow on Sandra Novack’s Precious


Precious, Sandra Novack, Random House

On Facebook, seeing Ms. Novack advertising her full-length debut novel Precious, from Random House aroused my interest. Curious, I promptly wrote her a letter explaining I wanted to review her novel. Thus began my journey through her smooth agile verse. Precise and accurate elegiac, like the movements they describe, Ms. Novack opens her tale with the premise of what could possibly go wrong in a pleasant nuclear middle class family in a burb of Pennsylvania not far from New Jersey.

Novack jumps in and out of each of her characters magically, like Sissy jumps in and out of the pool in the back yard and Eva jumps into wayward trouble without her mother around to set her straight. As easily as an able person can enter and leave a shower, she follows their watery moody depths from one situation to the next. Like the stick of a pinprick, punctiliously moving from one character to the next, she reveals the most hidden thoughts of each character.

Natalia wants more than what she has with her introverted reserved husband, Frank, who spends all has spare time beneath his car. Nostalgic for her gypsy roots, and romance, Natalia decides to leave. When her teenage daughter, Eva, tries to convince Natalia to stay, her mom replies, “A person’s heart doesn’t shed itself like a tree in winter, it doesn’t bare itself just because you want it to.” Natalia, bored with her life, her husband, and her children, idealizing her freedom and seeking new experiences, leaves on a trip to Europe with the doctor she works for. Natalia’s fantasies don’t play out how she imagined. Once in Europe and alone with the doctor, Natalia discovers she’s more bored with him than she ever was with her husband. Since her early childhood, Natalia had yearned to return to her gypsy family, a desire nourished by faint distant memories mixed with tales she heard from her adopted family.

Surprised, Natalia finds herself desperately pining away for her children and Frank, reminiscing longingly. This, combined with her sadness about her feelings of loss is what drives Natalia back home. Novack is inside her character’s heads, she knows them intimately. (page 47) “Didn’t he suddenly want to give Eva what a girl like her so desperately wants – to see herself through another’s eyes and to find that she is precisely as she wishes but never quite believes – beautiful and full of possibility.” Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others is what we all think we want – until we do it and are often caught off guard in what we see. We often wish to see the world through the other’s eyes. Novack has hit the nail on the head.

Eva is filled with anger and wanting more, yet stuck with her kid sister, Sissy and her Dad when Mom abandons them. Eva searches for love and finds separation and sorrow in the middle of nowhere as do all teenage girls in trouble. Eva keeps herself alive and vibrant through her interactions with Sissy, her pivot. Eva is guilty for being a young girl who goes out to meet boys and have fun while she is responsible for taking care of her younger sibling. Eva sustains herself by feeding stories to Sissy. Eva’s stories are fed on exasperation mixed with myth and her anguished insights into adult behavior. Disillusioned by love, her family, her mom’s return home instead of righting things in the family, sends Eva over the edge into a place she cannot come back from.

The title of the book, Precious, and the placing of the title in the story raised a childhood memory for me. As a youngster from a poverty stricken Jewish family in New York City, filled with illness and sorrow, I watched my sister pamper her dolls. I was not permitted to touch my sister’s dolls and although she was twelve and I was six, she held on to her dolls for dear life. I respected her belongings because I feared my sister’s temper. I only got my first new doll the Christmas after the ensuing event. One day after we’d (myself and my 2 sisters) returned home from school at about 3:10, almost simultaneously, my sister discovered her beloved porcelain doll with its head broken off. Because my sister could see no other possible culprit, she accused me of breaking the doll and proceeded to beat living daylights out of me with no interference from anyone in my family. Later, I was surprised to learn my mother had kept silent and let me take a beating for something she knew I hadn’t done. That made no sense. Several days later, mom divulged she’d had a guest that day who had brought her small child with her when she visited and mom had not paid attention to the child. I surmise my mom was afraid of my sister’s temper too and that was why she let me take that beating. I had no clue back then. I was six years old.

The doll in Novack’s tale is also ruined when Sissy and her best friend Vicki fight about who can play with the doll at a sleepover. During their struggle when the doll is literally ripped in two, Vicki becomes Sissy’s ex best friend. I wondered why a half page description about a doll named Precious becomes the title. Maybe because relationships and people mean more than we imagine and when we give them up we discover their preciosity and maybe because of the evocative tone of Novack’s descriptions. After all, Novack’s words brought my memory back to me from my six-year old self.

It is Vicki, Sissy’s ex best friend, who broke Sissy’s favorite doll Precious, who goes missing, never to be seen alive again. Vicki’s disappearance drives the story forth, revolving around every character’s angles. The townspeople come together to try to help Ginny deal with the loss of her child. Natalia is conflicted with survivor guilt and grateful her children are safe even if she had nothing to do with keeping them safe. She cannot confront Eva’s behavior and accusations. Eva and Frank are unforgiving and relentless in their judgements. Natalia rehearses speeches she cannot say while struggling to regain her footing in a lost life.

After reading Precious, I ask, what possibly couldn’t and won’t go wrong? Isn’t that the way of the world, after all? The law of thermodynamics rules everything when the world goes amiss, changes occur in a finger snap. Novack’s lyrical and haunting prose maintains a rhythm; she doesn’t skip a beat. She reminds us of all of our losses and choices. She makes us wonder if anything new will ever take the place of what we lose or if there’s even a chance to begin to fill all the empty spaces. Some losses last a lifetime. Trust me, I’ve had a few.

A Warmhearted Journey: Amy Schrader on Stefan Merrill Block’s The Story of Forgetting


The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block, Random House

I’ve been reading poetry almost exclusively for about three years running, so I was both excited and a little wary upon picking up The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block’s debut novel. It had been so long since I’d read so many words at one go…I guess I’d forgotten how one can become immersed in a story, carried effortlessly along by fictional devices. Luckily, Block’s novel provided an immediate reminder of such pleasures.

The novel’s strength lies in the clear, compelling voices of the two main characters, Abel Haggard and Seth Waller. Block moves seamlessly between these two narrative threads. Abel Haggard, a 68-year old hunchbacked hermit, is constantly haunted by memories of his now-absent family. Seth Waller is an awkward adolescent who strives for what he hopes will be an impenetrable protective wall, or “Mastery of Nothingness,” but actually manifests more as “weirdness with nothing to compensate for it…nothing greater or more profound than its zit-encrusted, slouching, skittish, Too-Smart surface.” (225) These two characters are simultaneously repulsive and endearing, and my fondness for them kept me reading.

The plot is relatively simple: Seth embarks on a research project to uncover his mother’s mysterious family history in order to fully understand her familial curse of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The plot also captured my interest for most of the book—a genetic mystery novel!—although the final discovery is not particularly surprising or unexpected, which was a little disappointing. The main storyline intercuts two different threads: textbook-ish and scientific information about Alzheimer’s disease, and a fable about Isidora, a mythical land of forgetting. I enjoyed the science more than the myth; the Isidora chapters come across as too broad, and a little heavy-handed in terms of the allegory and “memory loss” symbolism.

Perhaps my poetry bias caused me to be particularly charmed by the novel’s sharp and well-defined details. Block is deft at setting a scene, fleshing out even the most minor characters: Abel’s horse (Iona); Abel’s truck (humorously named The Horseless Iona); and Seth’s classmate Victoria Bennett, nicknamed The Sloth “slouching and sluggish…her hair was a long brown tangle…whenever possible, she avoided predators by disappearing into the trees.” (79) Block certainly knows his social outcasts presenting them with humor as well as unflinching honesty.

The author also offers many lovely—almost lyrical—moments, such as the description of the game Seth plays with his mother before her illness takes over: “My mom and I also had another game…one of us would start to pretend to be the other…” (125) The novel was the most interesting and original in these moments, and the interactions that Abel and Seth have with the more minor characters best reveal their foundational human-ness. In the end, I wanted a little more of these elements—and less of high-concept historical mystery and science—but enjoyed the warmhearted journey nonetheless.