Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Visibles by Sara Shepard

I have always been able to pick up a book, read the first few pages, and know if I will enjoy the book.  I read the first few pages of the Visibles and was enthralled. I considered buying it immediately, but was in a hurry to jump on a bus to NYC. Luckily, I recently got it from the library.

The book is complicated. It isn't a happy story per say, although I suppose the characters end up better off than they started. But it is a book that tackles a lot of unhappy topics: depression, abandonment, fear of loss, the way a secret eats you up on the inside, terminal cancer, the dissolution of a marriage. I have friends who prefer to only read about happy topics. I am not that type of reader.

At the heart of it, the Visibles is a coming of age story.  The narrator begins the novel, a sophomore in a Brooklyn private school, dealing with the fact that her mother has mysteriously left the family, her father struggles with mental illness, and her brother doesn't have all that much to say to her. The one friend she previously felt close to has returned from a year in France, and Summer wants nothing to do with her. She still can't get over the fact that Claire didn't include her enough during Summer's freshman year (and Claire's sophomore year).  Genetics becomes Summer's raft - a way for her to make sense of her own life, a world for her to lose herself inside. We watch Summer grow, attending NYU, studying biology, and still staying in Brooklyn to take care of her father as his mental health worsens.  The story also contains a series of letters written by Summer's father, a doctor who struggles with severe depression and is still trying to overcome a defining moment from his own adolescence.  

The novel raises a great deal of questions about what individuals are possible of overcoming.  I love pondering how much of adolescence remains with a person. Can we ever outgrow the awkward version of ourselves we were at fifteen or seventeen? Is that the truest version of ourselves?

This is yet another dysfunctional family novel.  And thus, I loved it. It is also such a well-crafted story. The language is evocative and powerful. As a former New Yorker, I loved the depictions of NYC and Brooklyn.  

I loved this book.  The language. The story. It was at times heart-breaking and sad.  I wanted to reach into Summer's life and make so much better for her. I wanted to hunt down her lost mother and shake her by the neck declaring: "What is wrong with you? Do you not care about your children at all?"  At times, I was angry at her father too, for wallowing so much, and not being the father Summer remembered from childhood, or the strong father she needed to guide her forward. And yet, I realize how true these types of individuals are.  I realize that mental illness is a powerful thing that changes someone and often renders them powerless.   Life is filled with flawed people. And Shepard captures them in such a realistic way.  It's hard not to feel for Summer -- someone who thinks so deeply, feels so deeply, and wants so deeply to find the answers to the mysteries of her own life.  It's hard also not to connect deeply with her. With the feeling of needing something more to believe in, something that complains all the strange complexities of every unique family.  I really applaud Shepard for what she created in this novel and can't wait to read her future works.

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