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Sandra Newman is an adopted child whose life could be a novel in itself. Raised in suburban Massachusetts her adoptive mother committed suicide when Sandra was 13. Family life was a struggle and she barely spoke to her brother Jeff for about 20 years. She wrote off her dad's car and was arrested for shoplifting; just two of many cries for help. It's not hard to see why she has written a book about mental illness and peculiar family relationships (in the family home, Sandra lived in the basement, her Dad on the ground floor and her Brother on the first floor - barely crossing paths, they rarely spoke to one another).
Sandra has written one other Novel - Cake, 2006; and one non-fiction piece - How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, 2008 (with Howard Mittelmark)
The book is mainly told from the point of view of Chrysalis (or Chrys for short), an orphan from South America. Chrys was adopted by John Moffat and bought back to California where she now resides in a mansion like house of her parents. Both of the adopted parents are now dead and Chrys is psychologically unstable. Her equally unstable adoptive brother, Eddie, is back from his overseas travels and has brought back a new friend, Ralph. Ralph is apparently the answers to all problems as he will be a fake Buddhist Guru in the mansion that will be transformed into a Tibetan School of Miracles in order to fleece naïve Californians. The book deals with the causes of Chrys' mental state - an alcoholic adoptive mother, an absent adoptive father - as well as family secrets stretching around the world, and a series of coincidences that tie things together.
My synopsis of the story is necessarily brief and may seem vague but explaining evening the basics of the plot would send me to an early grave! Its overly complex and only hindered by the writing style (more on that below!)
Chrysalis Moffat - A troubled young woman who is mentally unstable and desperate to connect with the people she thinks she loves (Eddie and Ralph). Chrys is an interesting and believable character, acknowledging and playing on her instabilities but only internalising these things (she forces herself to picture a crowd of dead children surrounding her as she 'wants to have a hallucination' and thinks this would be a good one)
Eddie Moffatt - Deeply unlike-able for no other reason than that he is an irritating schmuck. He seems to have had an overly privileged life yet feels he is the most hard done by person in the world. He lacks sympathy for anyone around him and requires all attention to be on himself. I guess the character himself is fine but we never get to understand why he is like this, making it difficult to connect with him.
Ralph (Allan Michaelson) - Taking the first opportunity to flee his old debt ridden life, he offers to become Eddies fake Guru. Ralph is prone to sever mood swings, jeopardising the fake Tibetan School. In actual fact, the naive pupils think this is part of his teaching!
Denise Cadwallader- a Black Jack player that knew Eddies Father; met Eddie on his travels; and also knows Ralph.
This is Sandra Newsman's debut novel first published in 2002. It was short listed by the Guardian for their 'First Book' award - I can see why it got no further than short listing.
This novel is written in an erratic way, presumably to convey Chrys' state of mind. We jump around from one story to another without sentences being finished from the previous chapter. A considerable amount of the story is written in a report fashion ("1. My mother died of complications following liposuction surgery. 1.1 A mild heart attack; pneumonia; septicemia. 1.2 Long-term alcoholism was the root cause") which makes reading this is a little stunted. I really enjoy encountering different writing styles and must admit that I find this an interesting way of writing.....except that continuity is rarely kept and piecing things together takes a considerable amount of effort, not to mention re-reading. And, even after the re-reading, I think I would still be at a loss to tell you the conclusion of the story!
This is a severe case of style over substance. My overall feeling is that I have many hours of my life that I am never getting back because of Sandra Newman!
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (1 April 2002)
Purchase price: RRP is £6.99 but its can be found on amazon for £5.59 from new, and from as little as £0.01 for a second hand edition. If you must read this, go for the second hand edition; at least you wont have wasted time AND money!
© of funkimunki. Also posted on Ciao under jonescraiga