Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: "The Given World" by Marian Palaia

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Growing up in rural Montana, Riley worshiped her older brother, Mick. Part guardian angel, part partner-in-crime, Mick taught her about the world around her. But when Mick goes missing in action in Vietnam, the loss is more than Riley or her parents can take, and she spends the next few years in a haze of wild behavior and drugs. She meets and falls in love with Darrell, a boy from the nearby reservation, and then she finds out that she is pregnant shortly after Darrell tells her that he, too, is headed to Vietnam.

Feeling she has no choice, Riley, too, decides to leave Montana, heading for San Francisco, where she hopes the pull of the ocean may right her once and for all. But her journey is one continually punctuated by those who come into her life and those who leave, sometimes tragically, and on many occasions, Riley turns to drugs and alcohol to fill the empty spaces in her life.

"The years since I'd left Montana had fallen well short of a pure, unadulterated, youthful-type trajectory, and my soul was every iota as snakebit as some of the worst ones. Climbing out of the ditch was a hit-or-miss proposition, and even though I was working on it, down was still a hell of a lot easier way to go than up."

Eventually, Riley makes her way to Vietnam, first to Saigon and then to Cu Chi, where Mick went missing, in the hopes she might find some sign, some clue as to what happened to him all of those years ago. But at the same time, she's also looking for a way to move on with her own life, to be able to finally reconcile all of the people who left her, as well as her own leaving.

Marian Palaia's The Given World is a lyrical, poignant book about those who leave and those who are left behind. It's about trying to find the courage to trust again when all around you people break their promises and abuse your faith. It's also about finally letting the world in instead of letting it pass you by.

Palaia's prose is beautiful, almost poetic at times. She populates this book with so many fascinating characters, none more so than the complex, flawed Riley. I found myself so drawn into her story that I hoped the book would take a turn that would otherwise be unrealistic. There are so many characters, and some chapters are told from others' perspectives, so at times the plot is difficult to follow, but Riley's story just takes hold of you and makes you want to race through it.

This book was an unexpected surprise for me, and I can't wait to watch Palaia's career continue.

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