Friday, September 11, 2009

Review: A West Village Fairy Tale

I've been struggling to write a review for Marjorie Kernan's The Ballad of West Tenth Street. I keep thinking that I will be inspired, that something will come to me, the longer I wait to write this. But three days after finishing it and I still can't think of what to say. I liked it. But now I have to figure out why. 

I'll start with a synopsis. A West Village brownstone is occupied by the Hollanders. Sadie, the mother, is the widow of a rock star, has a bit of a drinking problem, but is also really close to her children. The children are three: Gretchen, Deen, and Hamish. Gretchen is twenty-one and the only one of the children that is old enough to have had a relationship with their dead father, Ree. She's a pro on the drums but has quit playing, stopped talking, and, after a self-cutting spree, has landed herself upstate in a looney bin. Deen is fourteen and on her way to becoming a classical pianist. Hamish is eleven and on his way to becoming a gourmet chef (or at least a good enough cook to feed the family). 

There are many interesting characters outside of the Hollander family that make this a "contemporary fairy tale": uncle Brian, Ree's ex-band-mate that has lusted over Sadie for a dozen or so years; a rich Southerner called the Colonel that moved in next door; the Colonel's Guatemalan housekeeper and his resourceful decorator; a non-union handyman; an eccentric musical genius; and Cap'n Meat, a bum that keeps a pet cat and has befriended the children.

So how is this book an "urban fairy tale" you may ask? Excellent question. The characters are divided into two groups: good and bad. Every subplot has a villain, and we find ourselves supporting the good guys no matter what. So Sadie drinks too much...we still like her better than that godawful wife of Deen's piano teacher. Kernan paints New York as a magical place, one in which a couple of kids can befriend a bum that hangs out in their neighborhood; a rich old man can build said bum his own cabin in the garden so he won't be living on the streets; cops will give bums food and water instead of trouble. And of course, good always prevails over evil in the end. It's kinda like some of those other contemporary-fairy-tale children's books like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, plus drugs and booze and profanity.

I felt like I got to know the characters enough to really care about them, but once I finished the book, I realized I didn't really know all that much about them. How were these characters defined by their qualities and experiences? They end up seeming kind of one-dimensional and you want to know what they think and feel. The story feels concluded once you finish the last page, but then you think about it and you start wanting to know more. How did things turn out? 

But of course, this is all after the fact, anyway. Once you start reading, you're drawn into the world of the Hollanders and none of these musings matter.

1 comment:

Salvatore said...

That's a wild response: to feel like you know a character the whole time you're reading, only to have you second guess that after you're done. Based on the plot outline, it doesn't sound like that's a 'good flip' per se. But I do find the concept of characters being empty vessels yet somehow giving the facade of depth fascinating.