Saffran’s tale of an unconventional mother and her two daughters takes readers to the islands of the Pacific Northwest.
The Juno in the title is Jennifer “Jenny” Alexander, mother to 17-year-old Lilly and 13-year-old Frankie. Lilly, gorgeous, rebellious and aware of her own sexuality, is a recent high-school graduate working her way not through college but through all the men on tiny San Juan Island. San Juan, which is only reachable by ferry from the mainland, is part of a chain of small islands where life is still stuck in the peacenik hippie years. In fact, most of the residents of San Juan are aging hippies themselves. Dale, an unapologetic dirty old man, and his wife, Peg, each year bring a Shakespearean play to the islands. They stage parties where guests bring hash brownies and are famous for holding a rehearsal in which the cast appears in the nude. Jenny, a weaver who barely squeaks out a living, fled to San Juan when her rock guitarist husband, Monroe, beat her one time too many. The girls have grown up in a time warp on the island, without television or computers. But Frankie suffers from the looming loss of her best friend, Phoenix, who is moving to the mainland to escape the isolation. Lilly and Jenny, meanwhile, both lust after the same man, an actor slated to play Trinculo in The Tempest. Lilly, dreadlocked and occasionally stoned, puts a full court press on Trinculo, but he prefers Jenny. The three Alexander women are cast in the production, which opens the door for emotional drama and much second-guessing. Saffran’s prose is wonderful, but her characters wax self-indulgent at times: Jenny congratulates herself that her children only use organic drugs instead of the hard stuff like kids on the mainland. The author also inexplicably plops a chapter written in script form in the center of the book, an unnecessary distraction that breaks the rhythm of the writing.
This debut novel will resonate with some and make others want to grab the main character, shake her by the shoulders and tell her to grow up already.