Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Book Review: "The Reminders" by Val Emmich

"...for most people, memories are like fairy tales, which means they're simpler and funnier and happier and more exciting than how life really is. I don't understand how people can pretend something happened differently than it actually did, but Dad says they don't even realize they're pretending."

Ten-year-old Joan Sully has HSAM, or highly superior autobiographical memory. She can recall every day in her life in explicit detail—she knows what day of the week any day was, what she was wearing, what she was doing, who she was with, and what they said to her.

While this ability certainly comes in handy at times, it's actually very hard to live with. She's not able to enjoy things like movies because something will remind her of a memory from another day, and she'll start replaying that entire day in her head. Not only that, but Joan's mother doesn't like to be reminded how many times she's uttered the phrase "it never fails" over the last six months. (Twenty-seven.)

For someone who can remember everything so clearly, Joan's biggest fear is being forgotten. She saw it happen when her beloved grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Joan misses her terribly. An aspiring musician who worships John Lennon, Joan is determined to win a songwriting contest, which she believes will be the first step she needs on the road to notoriety.

Gavin Winters is just starting to experience success as an actor after many years of trying. His life is utterly rocked by the sudden death of his partner, Sydney, and he doesn't know how to cope without him. After the decision to rid himself of anything in the couple's house that reminds him of Sydney gets a little more media attention than he's expecting, Gavin flees their home in Los Angeles for New Jersey, where he hopes to hide out at the home of his old college roommate, who happens to be Joan's father.

At first Gavin is unsure how to handle Joan and her memory, but then he realizes he can use it to his advantage: Joan can tell him in detail each of the times Sydney visited, what he talked about, how he seemed. If Joan shares these memories with him, Gavin agrees to help Joan write her song, and even sing it.

"I was wrong about there being no way of building new memories of Sydney. They can be found, it turns out, in the minds of others."

As Joan shares her memories of Sydney, Gavin starts to discover that there were secrets Sydney was keeping from him. What was Sydney hiding? Was their relationship everything Gavin believed it was, was Sydney the man Gavin thought he was, or were his perceptions vastly different from reality? Sometimes in our desire to remember things, we uncover things we might wish we never knew.

This is a sweet, moving, and thought-provoking book. Val Emmich, who is a terrific musician and an actor, shows real finesse with his debut novel, creating memorable characters and situations that might not always surprise you, but definitely tug at your heartstrings, although not in a manipulative way. (At times Joan seemed a little odd, but then I remembered she was only 10.) If you've ever dealt with the loss of a loved one, you know what it's like to wish you said one more thing, spent more time together instead of worrying about what seemed insurmountable at the time. And if you've ever thought that having a better memory would be a blessing, this book helps you see the flip side of that.

I really liked this book and found it tremendously charming. But can I now put in a plea for no more books featuring characters with unique illnesses or syndromes? So far this year I've seen Moebius syndrome (David Arnold's Kids of Appetite) and prosopagnosia (Jennifer Niven's Holding up the Universe), not to mention the various maladies that affected Ivan Isaenko (in Scott Stambach's The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko). I'm a hypochondriac, so I'm thankful that none of these are contagious, or otherwise I'd be absolutely miserable!

I look forward to seeing what's next for Val Emmich. I know I'll keep listening to his music, and I'll read whatever he writes in the future!

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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