Sunday, May 24, 2015

Book Review: "Mislaid" by Nell Zink

Hmm. This book was definitely intriguing.

Peggy Jackson grew up in Virginia in the 1960s, a girl of some means raised by parents with more of an eye on social niceties and appropriateness than actual parenting, especially when she realizes she is a lesbian. She convinces them to send her to Stillwater College, a small, all-girls school, where she can pursue her dreams of literary success, and perhaps find a girlfriend. They are none too happy to send her away.

But it isn't long before she winds up under the spell of Lee Fleming, Stillwater's resident poet, whose wealthy family allows him to indulge his profligate lifestyle and invite poets from across the country to share their talents, not to mention share their drugs and alcohol. Despite one major complication—Lee is gay and Peggy is a lesbian—the two begin an affair, which quickly leaves 18-year-old Peggy pregnant and forced to withdraw from school.

Peggy is unprepared for marriage and motherhood, despite the fact that she loves her son and daughter. But her jealousy at Lee's serial infidelity and his unwillingness to help her advance her literary career leaves her angry and depressed. An impulsive act has Lee threatening to commit Peggy to a psychiatric institution, so with no other choice, she runs away with her three-year-old daughter in tow, leaving her nine-year-old son Byrdie behind with Lee.

Determined to live a life outside the margins, Peggy (now Meg) and her daughter Karen squat in an abandoned shack in the midst of an African-American settlement, and she adopts African-American personae for both of them (despite their outward appearances). They live in near-abject poverty, supplemented by Meg's odd jobs (including aiding a drug dealer), but eventually the two move into a housing project, where Karen can be closer to her best friend, Temple, whose intellect and potential far outweighs those around him, and this helps propel Karen forward as well, despite that she is younger than Meg has led everyone to believe.

Years later, Temple and Karen wind up as students at the University of Virginia (Karen on a minority scholarship), and it is there the two encounter Byrdie, now a senior, happy to be living a life away from his father's emotional complexity. The lives of the three intersect one Halloween night, the implications of which not only threaten to unravel each of their academic lives, but the lies that have been told for years prior.

I thought the concept of this book was really fascinating, and Nell Zink is a very good storyteller with a knack for language and dialogue. However, I felt more often than not, this book was satirical when I expected it to be serious, and chose a heavier hand when dealing with more farcical material. I think it wanted to be a commentary on the heavy weights of racial and sexual prejudice, social mores, and the damages that family can cause, but often it got mired in more exposition than it needed, and I felt the ending was a little too pat for a book that was really unique in most other ways.

If you enjoy social satire, this may be your cup of tea. Zink's writing is crisp and her ideas are really creative, but for me, Mislaid, well, missed the mark.

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