Monday, January 16, 2012

Review: The Great Lenore by JM Tohline

The Great Lenore
JM Tohline
204 pages
Atticus Books
Published June 15, 2011

I kept seeing this book mentioned.  It was on Twitter and then another blog mentioned it and then I ran across it on Atticus Books' website.  The reviews were mostly positive and the premise interested me so I got myself a copy and read it in a single day.

Now, I'm a parent of three small children.  I have a two-and-a-half year old son and 22 month-old-twins (boy and girl).  My life is hectic and usually my only reading time is right before going to sleep or early on weekend mornings.  But somehow I managed to squeeze Lenore into a single Saturday.  I stole away from my family for brief moments to grab five pages here and there until finally, after everyone had gone to bed, I finished it.

The story takes the form of a memoir, narrated by Richard, a newly famous novelist.  Preparing to begin his second novel, Richard's friend Sandy offers him the chance to spend the winter in Sandy's family home on Nantucket.  Once he arrives he quickly becomes integrated into the neighboring Montana family and becomes tangled in the complicated relationships of one Lenore Montana, deceased.

This is the Montana clan: Momma Montana, who reminds me of a fake Paula Dean, Mr. Montana, the money-obsessed patriarch, the genius slacker-stoner Maxwell, the not-quite-good-enough-and-kind-of-an-asshole Chas, beautiful sister Cecilia and finally Jez, the impeccable young business associate of Mr. Montana.  And let's not forget Chas' wife, Lenore.

Lenore, according to everyone that knows her is the perfect woman.
He talked about how, when you were with Lenore, you always felt like you were the only thing that mattered to her, like you were the single most important person in the world.

Lenore cared about people, he said, in a way you hardly ever see -- she cared about each person as an absolute individual.  Lenore could be around someone for a week, or less, and understand them in ways no one else ever had before.

Lenore touched something inside you, Chas told me. Everything about her, it was all so intangible, so indefinable. But when you met her, you understood. You knew you would never meet another person quite like her, no matter how long you lived.
Everyone loves Lenore and they can't stop talking about her because she just recently died in a plane crash.  Or, at least, everyone thinks she died in the crash.  Days before her funeral, Lenore shows up at Richard's door and asks him to hide her while she watches how the Montana family reacts to her death.  In the meantime, Richard learns about Lenore's very complicated relationship with the Montana's and despite his best efforts, gets dragged into the drama.

I grew up on the south shore of Massachusetts and I went to Nantucket three times in my youth.  It's not a big island - almost 49 square miles.  Common folks like myself could only access the island via ferry and it takes about two hours to travel from Hyannis on the southern coast of Cape Cod to Nantucket.  It's a small, exclusive place and it's just out there in the ocean, isolated.  In the winter months, the island population drops dramatically and I'm sure it gets pretty lonely out there.

JM Tohline does a great job capturing that sense of isolation.  There's never anyone else on the beaches and Richard doesn't really see anybody except the Montana family.  Even with all of the commotion going on next door, the sense of loneliness is deep and it feels like it's in everything, everywhere.  Richard drinks Hemingway quantities of whiskey and falls asleep at the computer but never writes a word.  It made me think a bit of Jack Torrance in The Shining - banging out words that never amount to anything.  Richard spends more type re-typing Poe's "Lenore" than producing any actual work of his own.

I can't finish this without mentioning The Great Gatsby.  The book's title is a reference to Gatsby and there are a number of references throughout the text.  The easy reference is that Richard is Gatsby's Nick Carraway, Jez is kind of a stand-in for Jay Gatsby and Lenore is, of course, Daisy.  There's also a car accident and someone actually does die.  But The Great Lenore stands on it's own, even without the Gatsby references.  As the author remarked in an interview:
As things stand, I believe the creation of Lenore owes as much to the likes of Hemingway, Joyce, and Steinbeck – and modern writers such as McEwan and Tartt – as it owes to old Fitzy himself.
The writing has an nice, easy flow and Tohline easily wrapped me up in his story of missed opportunities and lost love.  Tohline builds anticipation for the finale throughout the book, but it does start to feel a little heavy-handed near the end.  Yes, yes, I get it.  Big Event coming up.  Right, I get it.  But that's my biggest gripe with this story and it doesn't really diminish the quality of the work.

Remember a month or so ago when we were all talking about what literary fiction we might recommend to someone who isn't into literary fiction?  Well, The Great Lenore is definitely on that list.  It reads like a page-turner, but the writing is so smooth and almost poetic at times without ever feeling like a chore.  It's a book that draws you in and holds you close.

I'll leave you with this quote:
I think of the finished product - how we hold it and feel its texture while we dive within its pages. How we sometimes read a book in a single, exhilarating sitting.

For those of us whose lives are too busy to allow for single-sitting reads I think of how a book accompanies us on the subway, or how we keep it in our car. How we sit in bed at night and burn through the pages until we're ready to fall asleep. I think of that fortunate fraternity who is lucky enough to have found someone to love - how that someone lies beside you with their body curled and their eyes closed, saying, 'Darling, please, turn out that light. Please, I'm ready to fall asleep.' And how you say to them, 'Just one more section, sweetheart. Just one more chapter.' And your love signs, and you rest your hand on their back, and you continue to turn the pages until you can't keep your eyes open one more minute.
Recommended? Yes
Book Source: NetGalley

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