Sunday, October 4, 2015

Book Review: "After the Parade" by Lori Ostlund

I recently devoured Lori Ostlund's short story collection, The Bigness of the World, which I absolutely loved. (See my original review.) I so fell in love with her writing and her storytelling ability that I very quickly jumped into reading her debut novel, After the Parade. While I don't think I loved this book as much as her stories, I continue to be dazzled by Ostlund's talent and her ability to provoke so many different emotions with her writing.

Aaron Englund has been with his older partner Walter for 20 years, since Walter rescued him from a lonely existence in his small town of Morton, Minnesota. But while the two shared a strong bond, Aaron felt that Walter always controlled him, and never let him forget that he saved him. So one day, Aaron leaves their home in New Mexico and heads to San Francisco, where he hopes to start a new life and continue his career as an ESL teacher.

"Perhaps that was the nature of love: either a person was not in it enough toc are, or was in it too deeply to make anything but mistakes."

Settling into a small garage apartment in San Francisco, Aaron begins to realize that a new life isn't all it's cracked up to be. While he enjoys helping his students maneuver their way through the idiosyncrasies of the English language, he spends most of his time alone, knowing he did the right thing in his relationship with Walter yet still missing him, and feeling ever more alone and isolated, but scared and unwilling to try and make new friends.

Through flashbacks we get a better understanding of what has shaped Aaron into the man he has become. His angry, abusive father was killed in a freak accident when he was five, and his mother vacillated between smothering and distant. He never felt he was the same as his fellow classmates, and he often was the object of ridicule and/or bullying. Throughout his childhood and young adulthood he encountered a number of people whose differences were either physical and emotional, yet he felt at home with them. And then, while he was in high school, his mother left home in the middle of the night with the town's priest, and she never connected with Aaron again.

After the Parade is a moving story about feeling isolated, feeling different, and how our relationships and personalities are shaped by the things that occur in our lives. I felt for Aaron so much as I learned more about him, his likes and dislikes, and his inability to feel comfortable letting his guard down. But at times the emotional distance at which his mother kept Aaron, and Aaron keeps the world, translated into an emotional distance for me as well, so at times I was frustrated by Aaron's inability to act, to say what was on his mind, to do something that might bring a change in his life, although I understood why.

This is a story that unfolds slowly (very slowly at times), and while the flashbacks are tremendously valuable for insight into his character, I would have enjoyed spending more time with Aaron in adulthood than in childhood. But while this isn't a book I necessarily enjoyed, it was a book that moved me, and Ostlund's talent is on full display here. It's definitely a book that has me thinking.

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