Monday, March 4, 2019

Book Review: "Where the Forest Meets the Stars" by Glendy Vanderah

There are books you read that you enjoy, there are books that you love, and then there are the books you hold in your heart. Having just finished Glendy Vanderah's stunningly beautiful debut novel, Where the Forest Meets the Stars, I know it will be one to cherish. What a special book this was.

Joanna Teale is an ornithologist who is recovering from a double blow: her mother's death and her own battle with breast cancer. Bearing physical and emotional scars, she returns to her graduate research on nesting birds in a rural Illinois town. She interacts with very few people—only the man from down the road who sells eggs, and those she encounters on her trips to the laundromat when the rain keeps her from her fieldwork.

One night her solitude is broken by the appearance of a barefoot young girl dressed in dirty clothes, who has bruises on her body. The girl claims to be an alien from the distant planet Hetrayeh, and she calls herself Ursa Major. She says that she is on her own type of graduate study, and can return to home only after she witnesses five miracles. (It's up to her to determine what constitutes a miracle.)

Jo is worried about what kind of a family situation Ursa has left, and even though she is concerned about her bruises, she knows the right thing is to return Ursa to wherever—and whomever—she escaped from. But Ursa sticks to her story about being an alien, and when Jo calls the sheriff to report Ursa's appearance, she runs away. And when the sheriff's deputy doesn't prove helpful anyway, Jo lets Ursa stay with her—temporarily—until she figures out what to do next.

As the days pass, Jo begins to rely more and more on Gabriel, her next-door neighbor and the "egg man," to help her figure out what to do with Ursa, since the child has become attached to him as well. Gabriel has his own traumas to deal with, including social anxiety and a host of family-related issues, but the two can't help but be drawn to one another. Inherently, however, they know that a relationship between them can't work, given the fact that Jo will return to her graduate studies in the fall, and they also know that they need to contact the police, so Ursa can be returned to her family or at least placed with a foster family.

But why hasn't Ursa shown up in any missing-children bulletins? How can this young child not only read, but understand ornithology texts and Shakespeare? Why won't she tell them the truth about where she really came from, and why does she keep endangering herself by running away every time Jo and Gabe try to get to the bottom of her family situation? There can't possibly be any truth to the story she's telling them, can there?

"Gabe started to live as Ursa did, in an infinite present disconnected from the past or future. Jo let him have his fantasy. And she let Ursa have hers."

As the summer draws to a close and all of their lives approach a crossroads, one night will change everything. It will put all of them in danger and expose the lies they've been telling themselves, and threaten to destroy the fragile trio they have built, even if it's built on a dream or a fantasy.

From the very first sentence, I was hooked on this story. It reminded me a little of Eowyn Ivey's beautiful novel The Snow Child, in that the presence of a seemingly magical child transforms those in desperate need of rescue. But Where the Forest Meets the Stars has its own magic, buoyed by Vanderah's masterful storytelling, gorgeous imagery, and the immense heart of this book.

I'll admit as I was reading this, I vacillated between wanting to get to Ursa's "real story" and hoping that she was perhaps telling the truth, despite the fact that such a resolution might require me to suspend my disbelief. But at its core, Where the Forest Meets the Stars is a story about friendship, love, bravery, and how the family we choose is often more important to us than the family we belong to, so I decided it didn't matter how Vanderah wrapped up her story.

When I saw that this book was one of Amazon's Kindle First selections last month, I really wanted to read it, but couldn't fit it in. However, I couldn't wait any longer, and nearly read the entire book yesterday during a cold, rainy day. It was one of those books you want to devour yet savor, and of course, I was sad when I finished it. But I know these characters will live in my mind and my heart for a long time to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment