A teenage girl endures fire, flood and the loss of her parents in this bracing, oddly uplifting debut.
As this coming-of-age novel begins in 1953, narrator Eunice is living in a small Illinois town with her mother, Mern, whose affection for Hollywood movies is nearly matched by her erratic behavior and questionable taste in men. Eunice’s reprobate father is out of the picture, but when he returns for just one day to take her to a carnival, it’s transformative for her. Alas, dad is back in the shadows fast, and Mern’s boyfriends don’t last long either, signaling the grand theme of this novel: The love of others is something that always seems to slip just out of reach. A nearly biblical flood separates Mern and Eunice, putting the girl in the care of Rose, a flighty but compassionate earth-goddess type, and the knowledge about nature that Eunice picks up serves her well when she falls into the orbit of an attractive farmer named Fox—until catastrophe strikes yet again. Kushner seems to have taken more than a few lessons from Joyce Carol Oates about both crafting a novel with a broad scope and putting female characters through the wringer. But there’s also a lightness to Eunice’s narration that keeps the Job-ian incidents from feeling oppressive—she’s observant, witty and genuinely matures across the nine years in which the novel is set. Kushner makes some structural missteps—for instance, she delays revealing much detail about Fox, which dulls his character early on and blunts the impact of the novel's climactic drama. But Kushner is remarkably poised for a first-time novelist, offering an interesting adolescent who’s possessed of more than a little of Huck Finn’s pioneer spirit.
A fine exploration of growing up, weathering heartbreak and picking oneself up over and over.