"Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in the beautiful, austere woods of northern Minnesota, where their nearly abandoned commune stands as a last vestige of a lost counter-culture world. Isolated at home and an outlander at school, Linda is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect Linda as she wrestles with her own fledgling desires and craving to belong.
And then the young Gardner family moves in across the lake and Linda finds herself welcomed into their home as a babysitter for their little boy, Paul. It seems that her life finally has purpose but with this new sense of belonging she is also drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand. Over the course of a few days, Linda makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. As she struggles to find a way out of the sequestered world into which she was born, Linda confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do—for the people they love."
I loved this book. A deep, intense, all-encompassing love. Interestingly enough, I found that the average rating for this book on both Amazon and Goodreads is 3.3 stars. Maybe I know very little about good fiction. Maybe other readers have bad taste. Who knows. I (reluctantly and petulantly) agree to disagree. There were a few reviewers on Amazon who hated this book because they said "nothing even happened," which is a shocking summation to me because -- so much happened. However, I agree that it's not action-packed in a way that's rife with explosions and kidnappings and car chases, so if that's what you're looking for -- you won't enjoy this one.
This book is dark. Linda, our protagonist, is 14 years old. She lives in the Northern Minnesota woods, in an abandoned commune with her parents -- who may or may not be her biological set-- she speculates that they may just be two people who decided to stay, and keep her, when everyone else left the commune to resume normal life. The setting is perfect for the story -- stark, rural, isolated, lonely.
Two story lines run parallel in this book; Linda observes a beautiful classmate being admired by their new history teacher, who is later arrested for possession of child pornography. Too, a new family moves across the lake from Linda, and she becomes the babysitter for four-year-old Paul. She loves Patra (Paul's mother), and Paul himself, but finds herself wary of Paul's father, Leo -- for good reason; the reader learns early in the novel (like within the first two pages, so no spoilers here) that Paul is doomed. He will not survive the summer.
I really appreciated Fridlund's writing style. She's a master at painting pictures through description. She explains the winters; they're snowy -- completely frigid, and they last too long. She also explains the summers; they're hot -- way too hot, and filled with bugs. At all times, the characters are uncomfortable with the weather, which is essentially the perfect backdrop for the events of the story. A tense sense of unease permeates the entire novel. There were parts of this book that were so deeply uncomfortable for me to read -- not because of any particular event, but just because Fridlund succeeds at making the reader feel through her phrasing and her descriptions.
Reading this novel is like being inside of Linda's brain. Though a bit disjointed, it ultimately just, works. The chapters are broken up into sections, and in one section Linda will be highlighting the events of that notorious summer, and then in the next section, she'll be reflecting upon how that summer affects her now -- as a 37 year old. It juts back and forth between the past and the subsequent years of Linda's life, but the thread of connection is always there -- as though Linda is saying "that summer when I was 14 continues to happen to me."
I love books that invoke thought; this book hits on some societally delicate topics -- such as pedophilia and organized religion -- and it caused me to examine my own belief system. Pedophilia is easy; I make no personal allowances for people who indulge in this. Arguments can be made about mental illness and torturous, uncontrollable impulses and I hear this -- but frankly all I care about here are the children who are affected. Hard stop.
Organized religion though, is more of a challenge for me. I don't subscribe to any organized religions -- the nature of them doesn't work for me on a personal level, and the more anyone gently pushes (though it's usually more of a shove) religion at me, the further I wander. Conversely, I'm a believer in the phrase "live and let live," so I begrudge no one their own personal beliefs, and have nothing against organized religion (barring using it as an excuse to kill others).
But, this book leads the reader to the question(s): at what point does a religion become harmful, and when (if ever), should observers on the outside step in? Separation of church and state and letting individuals have their own beliefs -- it's a real thing, and it's vastly important. So is science. And medical advice. And human safety. Where do we draw lines?
This book took me two days to read. I highly recommend it. I'm giving it five stars because I honestly find no faults. It's provocative and uncomfortable; it's elegant and horrifying, all wrapped up in gorgeous wordsmithing. I did not interpret this book as a condemnation of religion -- so if you do enjoy a particular religion, and are hesitant to read this book on that basis, I do think you'll find it to be okay (though this is where I'll enter my disclaimer that everyone interprets things differently). It's not a beach read, nor is it for those moments in which you seek something airy and lighthearted. However, if you're looking for something equal parts compelling, frightening, and thought-provoking, this is one for you.
Buy this book here.
Up Next and Coming Soon (finished): Into the Water (Hardcover), Chemistry (Hardcover)
Still Reading: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (Audible), Dark Corners (Kindle), The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hardcover)