An agreeable, if somewhat routine, novel of a young woman attempting to bring order and meaning to her life, from the author of The Book of Dead Birds (2003).
Flan (short for Flannery) has an unusual occupation—she attends auctions at self-storage units, buying the contents of the unpaid lock-ups. She bids only on the small stuff, units filled with boxes of knick-knacks and old clothes, ten-dollar investments she sells at her Saturday yard sales. It’s not much, but it supplements the lean lifestyle of her family of four—husband Shae, a doctoral student, who bores Flan with his endless quoting of Baudrillard, and their two young children, Noodle and Nori. Living in student housing, Flan enjoys the excitement of an international life by proxy—her friends and neighbors are research fellows and doctoral candidates from all over the world, which includes the Afghan couple across the way, a man and his mysterious burqa-wearing wife Sodaba. Set in the months after 9/11, their presence is a constant source of curiosity, and for some, anger borne of racism. Flan watches Sodaba at the community pool swimming in her burqa, sees her skittering into her house to avoid the neighbors, and wonders why she wants to wear that big black thing in America. Though Flan is characterized by the author as bright (she was set to go to Reed College before she met Shae), part of the novel’s misstep is that she seems a bit of a dim bulb. She spends much of her time searching frantically for her kids, until tragedy finally hits—while Flan and Shae are indisposed, two-year-old Nori leaves the house and is hit by none other than Sodaba, driving without a license. As Nori lies in a hospital bed, Flan decides to save Sodaba from deportation (and maybe death) while fending off Child Protective Services for being an unfit parent. All the while, Flan draws strength from reading her mother’s old copy of Leaves of Grass, which saves her in more ways than one.
A bit too tidily resolved to be wholly convincing, but a pleasant read nonetheless.