Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So not okay

Everything is Fine is the kind of book that enrages me as an adult reader. What kind of father would leave his pre-teen daughter home alone with her grief-stricken and almost catatonic mother? Huh? What kind of father? (I had a similar reaction reading The Hunger Games and Ender's Game, among others -- who would do that to kids? Yes, yes, I know the answer ... doesn't mean it doesn't make me mad.) Just because it enrages me, of course, doesn't mean that it's not a good book. I have an underlying sensation of anxiety and impotency (as did perhaps the other adults in this Ann Dee Ellis novel) that upsets me as I read or listen. Which I suppose is a sign of a powerful piece of fiction -- it seems so real to me.

Young Mazzy is left in charge of her household when her father gets his chance to appear on a national stage as a sportscaster for ESPN 360. Mazzy's family has been in crisis since the loss of their toddler daughter, Olivia, in a terrible accident. Dad calls frequently, he's arranged for a home health aide/friend to check up on Mom every couple of days, and someone else shops and delivers groceries. But Mazzy is clearly not up to the job. She watches a lot of television (and gets her advice on human behavior from Oprah), occasionally tries to rouse her mother, and keeps an eye out on the neighbors. The adults have called Children's Services, but otherwise they seem to do little but check up on Mazzy occasionally. Everything is most definitely not fine (although it is a very clever way to meet the needs of fiction for young people -- first get the parents out of the picture).

Mazzy's story is told in a series of short (occasionally just a sentence or two in length) first-person chapters. She's understandably pissed off at her father, frightened -- which comes off sometimes as bravado and sometimes as simple nastiness, and fiercely loyal to her mother. She also might be expressing herself artistically (more on this in a moment).

The narrator is Carrington MacDuffie, who I heard read (that is such an awkward phrase ... I struggled with it on a previous post) Once Upon a Marigold a year or so ago. She has a slightly hoarse, adult-sounding voice, but she moves it up a register to speak Mazzy's dialogue. She sounds authentically youthful, and I found it a very effective technique, as it seems to be another manifestation of a child forced to be an adult. MacDuffie is also quietly splendid in the few opportunities she has to voice Mazzy's mother: This woman is indeed sick and tired and you could hear it in every word she struggles to say.

There are other adults in this story (now that I think of it, there is just one other young character), and MacDuffie has the narrative skills to create unique and consistent voices for each of them. Along with Ellis' vivid descriptions of them, I can see many of them clearly: Fat, diabetic, sympathetic neighbor Norma; snippy, busybody-ish neighbor Mrs. Dean, and the kindly yet determined social worker with a lot of cleavage.

The novel has a feature that makes little sense to me as a listener, though. Periodically, MacDuffie reads what sounds like a title for a piece of art, as it is followed by a description of the medium. The artwork is usually connected to what Mazzy has told us in the preceding chapter. But, since I don't have a copy of the book (my library hasn't purchased this ... and we buy everything!), I don't know if the art is represented in the book, or if the titles and descriptions stand on their own. I think I understand why they might just be titles and descriptions -- which is why I confess to confusion as a listener. I'd like to see the book.

I liked this book enough that I might just pick up Ann Dee (which is pronounced Andy) Ellis' first novel: This is What I Did.

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