Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Review: "In Sight of Stars" by Gae Polisner

Klee (pronounced "Clay") worshiped his father. They shared a love for art and artists, especially van Gogh, and they spent countless hours together painting and visiting museums and galleries, and Klee loved listening to his father's stories, even the ones which were so clearly made up. He knew his father gave up his dreams of becoming an artist to have a stable job as a lawyer, but his father wants him to have the chances he never had.

His father's sudden death turns Klee's life utterly upside down. He's forced to leave New York City, leave his best friends behind, and move to a house in the suburbs with his mother, whom he thinks of as "The Ice Queen." He doesn't think she's sad enough about his father dying, and he blames her for everything that has gone wrong. But he just needs to bide his time a little bit longer before he can go to art school in Boston, fulfilling his father's wishes.

Klee feels angry and abandoned, and isn't dealing well with his grief. But then he meets Sarah, a free-spirited girl in his art class at his new school, and he is drawn to her immediately. She simultaneously draws him in and keeps him at arm's length, but she recognizes Klee's talent and his generous heart (as well as his abs). He starts to think that perhaps Sarah can save him from his crushing grief, but she has her own troubles, and doesn't like it when he broods.

"I follow silently, wondering what it is about her that breaks my heart and fills it at the same time, that scares me but comforts me, that makes me want to tell her things I can't begin to find words for."

One night, feeling that Sarah is pulling away from him and suddenly being confronted with what he believes is the truth about his parents' marriage, things go utterly, utterly wrong. In a moment of abject despair, Klee's actions land him in what is known as the "Ape Can," a psychiatric hospital for teenagers.

As Klee begins to deal with the feelings that sent him spiraling downward, he must begin to confront the truth—about his father, his mother, his parents' relationship, and his relationship with Sarah, and he needs to figure out what is real and what he has imagined, or dreamed into existence. With the help of an understanding therapist, a unique hospital volunteer, and a few of his fellow patients, he starts to realize that he can pick up the pieces and live his life doing what he loves—art.

In Sight of Stars (taken from the van Gogh quote, "For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream") is told in two perspectives—present time and Klee's life after his father's death—in order to get a full picture of the challenges he has faced, and you get to uncover the truth at the same time he does. It is gorgeously told, and you feel the emotions, the struggles, the epiphanies that Klee does.

Gae Polisner, whose last book, The Memory of Things (see my review), made my list of the best books I read in 2016, writes with such beauty, such empathy, such heart. I loved these characters, and wouldn't have minded if the book were twice as long.

I struggled a bit with the start of the book, because in an effort to help you see things from Klee's traumatized and drugged perspective, the narration was a little jumbled and I wasn't sure what was real and what were his hallucinations. But that ended quickly, and I found myself utterly hooked on this story, needing to figure out what had happened. Polisner made me cry, she made me laugh, and she made me think. There were so many times I just marveled at her turn of phrase, or a piece of imagery.

In Sight of Stars might not necessarily break new ground, but it touched my heart and my mind. This is a book that says you can't go it alone, that we need to come to terms with the flaws of those around us as well as our own flaws, admit what is hurting or bothering us, and that is how we can find the strength to move on. I hope those who need to hear that message get their hands on this book.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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