New England Symphony
violinist Olivia Klein Van Doren destroys her husband’s Porsche
after he places her mother’s house in financial jeopardy. For her
community work, she chooses to volunteer in the class of an inner
city high school music teacher, who is the key to her secret, and a
lifeline to someone from her past.
Spinella excels at complex characters—Olivia is less endearing than interesting, and yet elicits sympathy. She also presents a marriage of larger-than-life personas who have developed a unique, symbiotic relationship, which does not preclude financial disaster, and survives volatile behavior. The story hinges on Olivia’s ability to finally communicate her needs and be honest with loved ones. A novel by a talented writer inevitably includes a life lesson or two, and a huge takeaway from this one, beyond communication being key, is foregoing judgment on what appears to be obvious. Plus, it’s a good story! I won this novel in a giveaway on Facebook and fell more in love with this author.
After the death of his son, Judge Coleman uses his influence and connections to foster and adopt 9-year-old African-American Anton, convincing his mother Anton is happier with the Colemans. She’d been kidnapped and drugged by her dealer, leaving Anton locked in their apartment during a heat wave with little food, until he escaped a week later, unaware of his mother’s whereabouts. Judge Coleman’s position and wealth boost Anton up through the ranks of politics, with Anton choosing to have no contact with a mother he believes rejected him. The secrets seep out eventually, damaging the Coleman’s marriage and Anton’s relationships with all of his parents, as Anton desperately tries to determine his identity.
The crux of the story is that a black mother’s son is stolen from her by a white man, whiffs of slavery nipping at her heels. As Umrigar presents white privilege and systemic racism within the judicial system, she attempts to garner sympathy for a man in a powerful position based on the loss of his son and his emotional distress debating his desire to have a child and the ethical choice to keep a family together. He chooses poorly and everyone struggles with his decision.
Photography artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, OH, bringing a new element into the staunchly middle-class, by the rules neighborhood, changing dynamics of two families, her own as a single mom, and her landlady Elena Richardson’s properly planned one as third generation Shaker Heights. Into this volatile blend is thrown teenage hormones, a King Solomon dilemma, and outside the box thinkers, culminating in “something’s gotta give.” Wisdom comes from unlikely sources.
Throwing an artist into the mainstream never goes as planned. This is a brilliant expose of the bubbles in which we live, what happens when someone pops it and we must acknowledge that our life may not be what it seems. I love how Ng shows the reader the different perspectives of the characters, especially the Richardson’s youngest daughter’s idea that her mother likes her least, because she’s harder on her, when the reality is that her mother has feared for her life since she was born prematurely. Ng shows how easily failing to communicate feelings can lead to harsh presumptions. Her characters remain true to themselves throughout, and although there are lessons to be learned, there’s no “moral of the story” here, leaving a satisfying open ending.
Readers of Lian Moriarty may like this novel. If you love complex characters that build tension through miscommunication, strong feelings, and searching for themselves, you will like this book.