Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Secrets of a small town

A sleepy, hot summer in the small town of Olena, Illinois (the Google map pretty much sums it up) is palpable in Andrea Beaty's Cicada Summer. The 17-year cicadas with their distinctive song have returned, only the post office is air conditioned, and 12-year-old Lily Mathis is still fooling all 117 residents. Since a terrible accident two years earlier, Lily has not spoken -- and she's done nothing to alter the opinion of the townspeople that she suffered some kind of brain damage as a result of the accident.

As happens in small-town fiction, a stranger comes to town: Tinny is the grandneice of kindly Fern, the owner of the Olena general store. Tinny spies Lily secretly reading her beloved Nancy Drew and tells Lily that she knows her secret. Tinny has a secret as well, and hers is a little more dangerous. Another stranger has followed her to Olena and -- as Lily silently observes -- he seems to think that Tinny knows something about a lot of missing money. When Tinny disappears, Lily realizes that she's the only person who knows how to find her. But can she release herself from her self-imposed silence, and tell the secret she's been holding on to since the accident?

(Well, if you're a grown-up, I hope you know the answer.) Beaty's prose is all about that sleepy summer atmosphere, with its underlying sense of something's about to happen. We get glimpses of life before the accident -- meeting Lily's older brother Pete -- so our sense of uncertainty mounts over this as well. The suspense builds and its resolution is appropriately frightening, but ultimately satisfying. There is a bit of scary violence, but I think readers of gentle stories will enjoy this.

I don't think I can recommend it as a good listen, though. In the beginning, the flashbacks are initially very confusing (intentionally?) -- I was well into the novel before I realized that we were working with two different time periods. Since Lily is such an astute observer, her dialog and interactions with the other characters in the flashbacks didn't initially strike me as dramatically different from her present mute behavior. This, coupled with the fact that the flashbacks are in the same present tense as the current time, confused me in the early chapters of this audiobook. (I understand that the book uses an italic typeface to indicate the flashbacks.) A less sophisticated listener might be equally confused.

The narrator is Maria Cabezas, who has a nice youthful sounding voice. Lily's quiet watchfulness is mirrored in Cabezas' subdued narration. I really hear the humid, soporific summer days in her voice. In the flashbacks, once I clued into the time shift, Lily's narrative grows slightly more expressive and animated. Ultimately, though, Cabezas' quiet reading -- combined with the somewhat confusing flashbacks -- make this a difficult book to concentrate on. I found my attention wandering even during the most exciting scenes.

There are also enough things in the story that bothered me while listening that I'd lose focus on the narrative, and start thinking about these:
  • I just can't believe that a 10-year-old can have realized that her silence means people think she's brain damaged, and that she kept up the fiction for two years.
  • Isn't 12 on the far outer edge of loving Nancy Drew? (Of course, there is the innocence implied for a small town.)
  • A stranger from Chicago shows up in a gossipy small town and no one but Lily's interested?

I wonder if a little cicada music would have livened things up?

No comments: