Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: "The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets" by Kathleen Alcott

Some books wow you with unexpected plot twists, breathless action sequences, and/or memorable characters. Other books simply dazzle you with the power and beauty of their narrative, of the authors' ability to weave a story. While the ideal book combines all of these characteristics, sometimes a book is so strong in one category that it doesn't matter that it might fall a little short in others.

Such a book is Kathleen Alcott's debut novel, The Danger of Proximal Alphabets. I was absolutely blown away by Alcott's writing ability and her use of language; I can't tell you how many times I found myself re-reading paragraphs and marveling at, even envying her talent. Although I didn't feel the overall plot was as cohesive and strong as I would have liked, Alcott's characters and the way she described the situations they found themselves in made this a truly memorable read.

Ida, and brothers Jackson and James (or "I" and "J," as they referred to themselves), grew up together. There rarely were moments they didn't spend in each other's company, spending nights in the brothers' room, sneaking out in the middle of the night to explore the city around them, even drinking on the deserted train tracks or on rooftops. As they grew older, and Ida and Jackson's relationship transformed into a physical one, James was still always there. While to the outside world, even to their parents, the three were just good friends and neighbors, they saw themselves as a family unit, even keeping secrets the way siblings do, even into adulthood.

"It's ridiculous the way all three of us retained that childhood bond of keeping secrets from the adults no matter the cost, insisted on naming it us versus them when it had become so clearly us versus us..."

As Jackson's nightly habit of talking with his brother in his sleep transforms into both sleepwalking (far beyond simply walking to the refrigerator) and more violent behavior in adulthood, it threatens his relationship with Ida. But helping him see the positives that come from this behavior doesn't seem to help either. James experiments with drugs and starts struggling with mental illness, and suddenly Ida can't seem to penetrate the relationship of the two brothers.

This is a book that explores the different components that make a family, that those to whom we're closest aren't necessarily those with whom we share blood or genes. It is also a story about how we seek to fill the voids left in our lives, by the parents, lovers, and friends who leave us behind. I didn't always understand Ida's actions or motivations, but found the relationships between her and the boys, as well as her relationship with her father, poignant and rich.

Ida says, "there's no guarantee that someone standing at precisely the same longitude and latitude as you will remember the view the same way, no promise that one person's memory of a moment or a month will parallel yours, retain the same value, shape the years of living that follow." The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets doesn't always unfold the way you expect it will, but it is compelling and surprising at times. And if at times the plot wears a little thin, Alcott's use of language more than fills those gaps.

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