It's been a long time since I stayed up all night reading a book start to finish, but a combination of insomnia and a riveting writing style kept me up last night reading Laura Catherine Brown's Quickening, a former Ballantine Reader's Circle book that I once remembered getting a nice review in People magazine, and picked up on a Barnes & Noble used table.
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::: Oh, Mandy, Well You Gave and You Gave Without Taking :::*
We meet our protagonist, Mandy, on the day she is leaving for college. Within no time, we are privy to her not-so-easy life, with an ill mother who seems mentally unstable as well, and what appears to be an alcoholic father who can't even drop her off at college without stopping for a drink or three along the way. Mandy is close to her father, the only one who seems to value her and believe in her, and has a very combative relationship with her mother.
Once at college (a well-described State University of New York at Albany, which in my neck of the woods is known as SUNY-A, not Albany State), Mandy throws herself into all things college with great abandon, from classes to partying to an all-too-typical one-night stand. Her roommate, Barb, is always the life of a party, and Mandy has the perfect first semester, with the only thing pulling her back a chance meeting with a townie-type, Booner, when home on break. Suddenly, she has a boyfriend back home who calls once in a while, and the rest of the semester goes well, with a huge drinking celebration when finals are done. She arrives back at her dorm room to learn that her father has died, and returns home for Christmas break with her mother, alone with a woman she hates and fears for the first time.
And so our story really begins. Mandy struggles through the school break, fighting to get back to school against he pull of her mother, only to discover that things aren't as she left them. Her friendships fizzle; she quits going to classes and her work-study job; and she spends most of her time either drinking or sitting in her dorm room smoking pot. When Booner invites her to his apartment in New York for a weekend, she jumps at the chance, only to slide into moving in with him and getting herself pregnant, only to realize that this isn't what she wants. Before the end of the novel, she goes home to confront her mother, makes a decision about her pregnancy, and also a decision about Booner.
::: Yesterday's a dream, I face the morning cryin' on the breeze, the pain is callin' :::*
Brown's writing style is a dream come true: descriptive without being Faulkner-like and giving full development to her characters. You feel every cell of Mandy's being as she defends her father after his death, knowing in her heart what he is, but loving him all the same. A scene at the beginning sums up their relationship perfectly; she holds his hand in the elevator up to her dorm room and lets it go when the door is opened. Every bit of her story is believable (and having seen people implode in college for much less significant reasons, it's very true to real events), and her lack of any normalcy in her family life leaves her ripe for the poor decisions she makes the second she is out on her own.
My only problem with the book is that I had a very hard time finding Mandy very sympathetic. This is a girl who had scholarships to college, and yet I wanted to slap her upside the head at every chance. She sees Booner for what he really is from his first phone call, yet lets herself get drawn into an emotionally abusive relationship anyway. While it's a realistic response from someone who grew up in the way Mandy did, it didn't stop me from wanting to shout at her.
This is still an excellent novel, much less first novel, and I look forward to seeing what Brown does in future books.
* lyrics from Mandy by Barry Manilow
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