Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: "Visitation Street" by Ivy Pochoda

Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite authors. While I've tended to love his grittier books more than his recent forays into historically-tinged fiction, I absolutely love the way he writes and the way he creates and develops his characters.

Lehane recently started his own imprint at HarperCollins Publishers, called (what else?) Dennis Lehane Books, and Ivy Pochoda's terrific Visitation Street is the first book released under this imprint. It's truly a book worthy of its impresario, and I believe it signals the arrival of a fantastic writer with a tremendous amount of promise.

Valerie Marino and June Giatto are 15-year-old best friends growing up in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood. It's summer and the two are bored, and starting to feel the pull of maturity separating them, as June wants to be treated like an adult and hang out with boys, while Val is still content to go on doing the same things they always have. But Val doesn't want to lose June, so in an effort to seem more mature and brave, she encourages June to accompany her on a late night ride on the East River, using a pink rubber raft. On the water that humid night, something happens, and only Val returns, washed up on the shore under a pier, injured but alive.

June's disappearance lights a spark among those in the neighborhood, for different reasons. Jonathan Sprouse, a disillusioned musician-turned-music teacher who rescued Val from underneath the pier, is haunted by his own demons and the questions and aftereffects his heroic act leaves behind. Fadi, the Lebanese owner of a neighborhood bodega, fancies his store as the community center of Red Hook, and hopes June's disappearance and his attempts to bring the community together around it will help his business and his sense of belonging. Cree, a friend of Val and June's, dreams of getting away from Red Hook but finds himself rooted there because of his mother's inability to let go of his father's memory—and his own pursuits leave him vulnerable to suspicion. Ren, a talented graffiti artist with a mysterious past, is determined to try and insulate Cree from suspiccion—for mysterious reasons.

But of course, the person most affected by June's disappearance is Val. Unable to remember (or perhaps acknowledge) what happened on the river that night, afraid that taking responsibility might mean June really did die, she starts acting out in strange and potentially dangerous ways, if for no other reason than to feel a part of something again, to feel that someone else other than June cares about her.

The characters all collide around the events of that summer, a summer that sees the Red Hook neighborhood struggle with potential gentrification and the arrival of the first cruise ships to the area, as well as the usual distrust and dissatisfaction that occur among racial, cultural, and socioeconomic lines. It's a story about friendship, relationships, and how important it is to come to terms with your own demons, as well as how you can't always tie yourself to your past and need to move on.

This isn't a mystery per se, in that June's disappearance seems fairly self-explanatory, but the book is more about the events that incident sets into motion. I thought Pochoda did a terrific job setting the story and giving life to her characters, and I really found myself captivated from start to finish. Having read many books that have had similar plots, I worried that Visitation Street might veer into more clichéd territory and was so pleased it didn't. I really flew through the book and actually wanted it to be a little longer, because as is the case with many books I enjoy, I wanted to know what happened next to the characters.

I'm very excited to see what's next for Ivy Pochoda's career, and look forward to seeing the next books to emerge from Dennis Lehane Books. If they're as good as Visitation Street, Lehane may prove himself to be just as successful finding new talent as he is showing off his own.

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