I picked this up as part of this year’s BookRiot Read Harder challenge “A Debut Novel by a Queer Author.” I picked up the Kindle Sample and then got it from the library because I knew I had to finish it. Willa and Hesper fall in love and then break up (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler), and then they have to deal with it: the breakup, their families, their ancestry, their traumas. They each rebound to Europe: Willa on a Jewish heritage tour of World War II sites; Hesper visiting her ancestral home in Georgia with her kinda dysfunctional immediate family.
Feltman has some amazing wordsmithing, and the story is abrupt, interesting, and deeply felt. It was definitely a page-turner for me. I loved how specific each characters neuroses were, how Feltman unpeeled their emotional layers so deftly. I loved the examination of heartbreak – especially that first, torturous heartbreak that feels like the world might split in two. “First love and heartbreak” is not exactly new territory, but in Feltman’s hands it feels fresh. I loved how she captured that early-20s combination of adult-ish self-awareness and almost total selfish naivete, that very pointed conflation of emotion about yourself, your heartbreak, and the state of the world at large.
There are a LOT of emotions in this book. It is a book that deals with the Holocaust, painful family histories, being queer and newly out, natural disasters, divorce, and even opens with a sexual assault. The patches of tenderness and hope and love make it surprisingly easy to read, despite the many heavy topics. However, when I had put the book down and had some time to think it over, I had trouble understanding the place of each of these traumatic episodes in the greater narrative. The characters are so absorbed in their own troubled stories, that the other truly troubling things that are introduced later in the book – the Holocaust! natural disasters that kill zoo animals! – are kind of lost. So scenes at the end of the book that should have been extremely climactic–things that were written to be an emotional gut punch, or at least a symbolic gut punch–ended up just feeling a little numb and confused.
That said, it WAS very thought-provoking and she has a great way of introducing a line or an idea and then pulling on that thread throughout the book, referencing it in ways that make you go “Ohhhhh yea. I see what you did there.”
In any case, I will definitely watch out for Feltman’s next book. Her style is clean and engrossing and her observations about intimacy and love are fresh and warm. I’m glad I happened upon this book.