Monday, December 7, 2009

Our 100th Review!: Under the Boardwalk

Sallie Day's debut novel The Palace of Strange Girls has just the kind of physical presence that catches my eye. With 352 pages, it has a nice weight to it, and the cover contains a retro photo, much like Laurie Graham's novels. Fortunately, that vintage photo wasn't only used for artistic appeal; the story takes place in the summer of 1959 during the Singleton family's vacation at the beaches of Blackpool, England.

The Singletons are four: father Jack, a foreman at the local cotton mill; mother Ruth, a strict and somewhat dour housewife with dreams for a bigger, better way of living; daughter Helen, an obedient fifteen-year-old aching to escape her mother's iron fist and live like a real teenage; and daughter Beth, a charismatic and energetic seven-year-old whose illness and recent surgery keeps her under the watchful eye of Ruth. On the surface, the Singletons look like a normal, middle-class family, but we quickly learn that (obviously) the Singletons are not as perfect as they may appear. Beneath the surface, there is a lot of tension, and there are a lot of secrets floating around. And of course, being the 1950s, it's better to keep up the perfect facade than air out your dirty laundry.

The first half of this book felt muddled. It took me a long time to get into the flow of the narrative, between the flashbacks and the alternating focus on each character. By the middle, I was used to the language and perspective, and I could sense a different tone used when describing each character. Jack is very much a man of the times, torn between convention and passion; Ruth tries her best to maintain an outward image while longing for something more; Helen has the fire of a teenage; and Beth possesses that innocent childhood curiosity. But though the characters had very defined personalities, I never got the feeling that I really knew them. To me, they seemed rather flat, without much dimension.

One fun theme running throughout was that of the I-Spy books of 1950s Britain, in which children were given a list of things to hunt down in a variety of environments. Beth's I-Spy book serves as a means to explore the world by dragging her out of the bubble to which Ruth has restricted her. [It eventually leads Beth to The Palace of Strange Girls, a freak show attraction on the pier, but I still don't find it a pivotal enough scene or theme to have inspired the book's title.]

The Palace of Strange Girls entertained me for the second half, but I felt like it had tension that should have been building up towards something. Some novels can successfully serve as a snapshot of a life or time without ever culminating with a climactic scene and conclusion, but something about this one just didn't gently flow and allow that. I wasn't interested enough in any of the characters to care about what happened to any of them after I read the last page. Sallie Day has the skills to write an excellent story, and I bet her next novel will be more polished.

The Palace of Strange Girls was re-published in September by Grand Central Publishing.
Review copy provided by publisher. Thanks, Miriam!

1 comment:

Salvatore said...

That is one explosive jacket.