Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Sharon Solwitz's novel, Once, in Lourdes, in exchange for an honest review.
PLOT - Set during the late 1960's in Michigan, Once, in Lourdes, is the story of four high school friends who make a suicide pact. The teenagers sign a pledge to throw themselves off of a cliff and into the ocean at sunrise in two weeks. In the time leading up to the pact, they find themselves making bold choices and living as if they're going to actually kill themselves. Who is solid with the plan and who might have doubts?
LIKE- Solwitz has set her novel during the Vietnam War, with her two male protagonists rapidly reaching the age where they might be drafted. The overriding feeling is one of uncertainty and fear, which felt fresh and relevant for our current political climate. Solwitz does a great job at rooting her story in the era and it made me feel transported.
Once, in Lourdes is told in a close third perspective of the four main characters:
Vera- a complicated girl from a wealthy, yet abusive home. She is beautiful, but has a disfigured hand that she alternatively tries to hide and use to shock. A force to be reckoned with, she's the group leader.
Kate- Sweet and loyal. Kate is overweight and clashes with her stepmom, who has made it her personal mission to get Kate to slim down. Their home is focused on goals and perfection.
C.J. - Brainy and geeky. C.J. is gay and is struggling both internally and externally with regard to his sexual feelings.
Saint- Handsome and the only one in the group from a poor family. Saint is quiet, kind, and mysterious. Vera, CJ, and Kate all have a crush on Saint.
Once, in Lourdes dips into the minds of all four characters and gives a little backstory of each. I was most interested in the Kate sections. Kate is the least willing to kill herself. In the two weeks leading up to the suicide date, she undergoes the biggest and most natural transformation of the group. Kate finally stands up to her stepmother and she begins to develop a crush on a boy that she plays tennis with, someone who is not part of this somewhat toxic and odd-ball group of friends that she has had for years. What's even more, Kate allows herself to crush on the tennis boy, even when her friends don't approve. Kate transforms into someone who has her own opinions and shares them, which is not who she is at the start of the story. I found Kate, who on the surface seems the most mundane of the group, to be the most fascinating.
Solwitz writes vivid descriptions and beautiful prose. I often paused to admire her writing. I thought that the very last chapter was the strongest of the novel. I was intrigued to see how it would all end and the ending has a good emotional pay-off.
DISLIKE - The story was made distracting and less effective, by too much shock value. Vera and her brother, Garth, are in an incestuous relationship. This is core to the story, leading to a major plot development towards the end. However, CJ also has a sexually laced encounter with his brother, while the two play a game of pool. They get naked and although nothing technically happens, CJ is clearly thinking of his brother in those terms. This was just too much for me. I'm not at all a prude, but the story is filled with graphic sexual details of all of the characters, which were simply less interesting than other aspects of the story. It didn't need to be eliminated entirely, but it could have been used more judiciously for greater impact. It overwhelmed the narrative and I felt assaulted.
I was unevenly interested in the characters. I wish the story had more of both Saint and Kate, and less of Vera and CJ.
RECOMMEND- Maybe. Once, in Lourdes was okay, but I'm not sure that it will be a novel that sticks in my memory. Solwitz is a strong writer, enough so, that I'd be inclined to check out her other novels.