Friday, July 23, 2010

How to Survive a Natural Disaster by Margaret Hawkins

I love “discovering” new writers, and first novels thrill me. I felt that when I read Hawkins’ The Year of Cats and Dogs. Better yet, every member of my book club loved it, too. However, when I come across a second novel by a writer like Hawkins, a sense of apprehension comes over me. I approached reading How to Survive a Natural Disaster with that sense of foreboding. Oh, me of little faith! Hawkins has equaled her success with this second effort.

The novel has an ensemble cast of quirky and wonderfully interesting characters. Roxanne, a divorced, single mother of the brilliant April, Roxanne’s mother Jacklyn, Roxanne’s second husband Craig and their adopted daughter May, and last, but certainly not least, Phoebe, a neighbor who edits textbooks at home and who has some mild psychological problems. Then, the animals, all with quirks and secrets of their own – Mr. Cosmo, the three-legged weimaraner who seems a bit psychic and Bill, Phoebe’s faithful companion.

Each chapter belongs to a different character, and the star of this series is undoubtedly Roxanne. She has the longest chapter (about 25 pages) a quarter of the way into the story, and when I finished it, I immediately turned back and re-read it. This chapter could almost stand on its own as a short story. The psychological self-examination by Roxanne -- and all these characters – is exactly the kind of novel I love reading. I also thoroughly enjoyed the (sometimes) minor differences in interpretation of events and perceptions regarding the other characters. All the people that inhabit this first-rate story have a solid, realistic quality about them – some are better humans than others – but they all ring true as clear as a digital recording.

The “natural disaster” occurs about three-quarters of the way through the novel. With 50 some pages left, I felt the ending might be a bit too long. But as I made my way through the final chapters, I began to see the importance of those pages describing how the event affected all of them. I began thinking about tragedies – specifically Shakespearean tragedies – and the way he gave the final lines to the most important character, which hints at the future. In this context, most of the ending words and thoughts fall to one person – Phoebe. This epiphany made all the difference, and the ending became powerful for me.

Don’t be tempted to look ahead as you read, because two of the chapters consist of only one line each, and if you read those, it might spoil the ending. Scheduled for publication in early October, move Hawkins to the top of your reading and collection lists. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/21/10

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