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Elizabeth Leiknes

REVIEW:  The Understory by Elizabeth Leiknes

REVIEW: The Understory by Elizabeth Leiknes


ETA: Bancroft Press is giving away copies of this book and The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns, which I also reviewed and recommended. Enter before tomorrow, June 1st, though!

Dear Ms. Leiknes:

After reading, reviewing, and greatly enjoying your debut novel, The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns, I was happily surprised to receive an email from your publisher about reviewing your next effort, The Understory. Like your first book, The Understory is a refreshing and engaging mix of genres and gleefully pursues the (ultimately rhetorical) question of whether an amoral female protagonist can have a happy ending. Part fairy tale, part inverted morality tale, and part family drama with a quirky but satisfying romantic thread, The Understory is a lovely book, a perversely amusing and optimistic portrait of grief, cynicism, and failure.

The Understory by Elizabeth LeiknesIn addition to hating her name, Story Thyme Easton, Story hates her life. Dedicated to little in life beyond proving herself a chronic underachiever, even a failure, Story spends her days writing surprisingly successful cotton candy copy for a greeting card company and her nights breaking into Phoenix-area homes and temporarily borrowing the life of the occupants. She also happens to love reciting the opening lines of books, ignoring, for the most part, last lines, in the same way that her own story remains perpetually unfinished. As the novel opens, Story is nearing her thirtieth birthday, and her mother, overachieving inventor of the educational toy line, Socra-Tots®, is urging Story to make something out of her life (aka live up to her name by writing her life as an interesting story), while also trying to ensure that Story remembers to attend an upcoming celebration gala for Socra-Tots®. Story, not surprisingly, is less than enthusiastic about both upcoming events, and her restless denial brings her to a nocturnal adventure at the home of local author and botanist, Martin Baxter.

When she lands in a bedroom featuring an enormous and detailed wall mural of the Amazon rainforest, Story’s own story begins to change. Gazing at the mural and perusing Baxter’s book, a children’s story called Once Upon A Moonflower, Story was struck by the relatively novel understanding that her life was not as dismal as it could be. Indeed, her attention shifted between the book and its young heroine learning to fend for herself in the Amazon, the man upstairs who was barely surviving on a steady diet of bourbon and grief, and a rainforest layer called The Understory, which “teemed with excitement, appearing as one interconnected world of action and secrets,” both like and unlike Story’s own, well, story.

Story’s life of borrowed thrills was based on secrets, but it did not have the colorful, vibrant life that the rainforest’s own understory boasted. Although it seemed to have much more than Martin Baxter did, who had lost his beloved wife and daughter – the inspiration for Once Upon A Moonflower’s heroine, Hope – in a car crash a year before. On the same day, in fact, as another local tragedy, namely the shooting of a local attorney during a convenience story robbery, which left a woman and her young son widowed and equally broken by grief.

Story learns of this second event when she inadvertently breaks into the home of Claire and Cooper Payne and discovers, among other things, a parrot named Sonny and a young boy who cannot go to sleep at night without hearing his mother read Once Upon A Moonflower to him. David Payne had promised the now eight-year old Cooper that upon his ninth birthday, they would seek out the magic treasure box in the Amazonian rainforest at the base of a kapok tree, as Hope did in her own fictional search for the fabled tropical moonflower, which is said to bloom once, for the duration of one night, perfect and unobserved by human eyes. For Cooper, everything he could imagine about his future hinged on that promise his father made, and as his birthday draws near, so does the bleakness of a life without the man who gave Cooper and Claire’s life meaning.

Although I won’t spill all the secrets of The Understory, I will warn you that the book depends on numerous coincidences and serendipitous meetings, the nature of which the novel self-consciously contemplates (fate? luck? random circumstance?). Story’s own cynicism resists the notion of fate; however, as the connections increase, so does her sense of responsibility to a widening circle of grieving people, all of whom are, like the rainforest, intricately connected in ways both secret and superficial.

Along the way she meets a handyman/artist/magician named Hans Turner, whose profound talents in woodworking do not extend – much to his dismay – to the healing of people, which is his most ardent ambition. In fact, Hans’s hands physically ache whenever he meets a person – especially a female – he cannot fix, including Story, who, unsurprisingly, does not want to be fixed in the first place. Hans has a secret story, too, and a secret burden of grief, which makes the attraction between him and Story mutually vexing and irresistible. And while The Understory is not a romance, it has a strong streak of romanticism that makes it impossible not to root for its many suffering characters, including Story, whose unconventional heroism depends strongly on the imperfect and sometimes less-than-admirable aspects of her character:

. . . she drifted through life with the constitution of a wispy, misguided
breeze. Her subconscious desire to explore other people’s skins manifested in her clothing choices, and each day she wore different vintage thrift-store ensembles, hand-me-downs made from the fabrics of other people’s lives, other people’s stories woven into each second-hand thread. She hid behind these garments, disguising her real exterior, which was attractive, although she never bothered looking in the mirror. In general, her beauty was contradictory—her rich, auburn hair shined more than her attitude, and her soft, full lips, beautiful by any artist’s standard, spewed out hard, caustic words. Like many things in nature, Story was simultaneously beautiful and dangerous.

She is often intentionally sarcastic and even rude (especially to her clingy boss, Ivy); she is self-absorbed and even spoiled in her own way; she has little respect or seeming affection for her own mother; and she seems amazingly unambitious about pursuing her own happiness. And yet, she is the necessary link between a somewhat motley assortment of characters, all of whom (including her) need emotional and psychological healing (it should not surprise you to discover that Claire Payne is a therapist).

I posed the issue of coincidence above as a warning, because the reader’s suspension of disbelief will be made or broken on that issue. To some extent it is necessary to read The Understory as a somewhat comic retelling of Classical Tragedy, with its somewhat archetypal characters rewritten to conform to the modes and values of contemporary suburban life. However, the book really invites (I would suggest that it outright implores) the reader to push beyond this superficiality, not for the purpose of teaching a moral lesson, but instead for catharsis based on the emotional justice it dispenses (and it should not surprise you to discover that one of the secondary players is a retired judge). Like the Amazonian rainforest and its titular layer, The Understory is made up of many interconnected themes, images, and experiences: growth, maturity, loss, the nature of heroism, fate, pain, and healing, to mention just a few.

Indeed, there is a great deal of cleverness in the novel, especially in the ways these themes are layered and intertwined, self-consciously referenced and examined (and it should not surprise you to discover that Martin Baxter is a university professor). And, in the end, it was this cleverness that gave rise to my own reservations. Which, admittedly, are relatively minor, but substantial enough to keep the book from being a perfect read for me.

For example, Story’s “danger” felt unexplored in the novel, its potential replaced early on by her rapid emotional investment in Martin Baxter and the Paynes. Even when Story makes morally questionable choices in pursuit of her own mission to save Cooper’s ninth birthday, the danger seems strongly eclipsed by the greater good, and moral relativity is only a true evil in the context of a particular social conservatism to which the novel clearly does not ascribe.

Then there are the points in the story where the cleverness merges with the emotional justice to become, ironically, somewhat heavy-handed:

Story knew that men as attractive as Hans didn’t have to try that hard to bed a woman, but what she didn’t know was that of all his past sexual encounters, this was the first time his hands felt this secure. Still, she sensed he was taking a risk, and that this risk was somehow part of his journey—this she understood firsthand. To show her gratitude, she instinctively took his hands in hers. After inspecting them for the magic she suspected they held, she discovered they weren’t magic at all, but mere tools to carry out the tasks of a magic man . . .

Right then, Hans, the man, knew that Story, the woman, understood the difference between being saved and being lifted up. Suddenly, so did he.

And so Hans Turner lifted Story Easton across the threshold of what used to be, and into the story that was meant to be.

Still, I found the writing more developed and complex in The Understory than in The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns, and I found much to enjoy and appreciate in this second book. That Story’s name moved past the cheesy cliché it could have so easily been, and into thematic territory crowded with questions about how people create their own lives, how we tell those stories to ourselves and others and thus perpetuate them, the nature of personal reality and its impact on those around us, the effect of serendipity on our life paths (and if you don’t think that has real life implications, read this), and the way relationships both affirm and challenge the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. The fabular qualities of the narrative were both etheric and visceral in their presentation and effect, and the lovely articulation and celebration of imperfection stood up against the moments where a lack of subtlety or unfinished narrative development undercut the story’s emotional resonance. Each character faces the same poignant challenge: to thrive in the darkness, like the elusive and beautiful moonflower, not simply to endure it. All in all, a thoughtful, clever, funny, and enjoyable book, and I certainly look forward to the author’s next story. B+

~ Janet

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Dear Author

REVIEW: The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns by Elizabeth Leiknes

Dear Ms. Leiknes:

book review If it were not for the wonderful query from your editor, Harrison Demchick, I do not know if I would have picked up your novel, The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns.   And given my response to the book, I would suggest that more publishers take the approach of Mr. Demchick in either promoting books they truly believe in or at least being very smart about showing respect to and familiarity with potential reviewers.   Because I liked The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns quite a bit and hope that many more readers get a chance to enjoy this quirky, intelligent, clever ode to everything from Faust to Walt Disney to the Native American trickster tradition to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When me first meet the grown-up Lucy Burns, she is welcoming two police officers into her home who are suspicious about the strong thermal energy emanating from her house (and yes, this is a legitimate means for law enforcement to use in seeking a warrant to search your home for drugs).   If they only knew that what Lucy has in her basement is much more problematic than a little illicit horticulture, they never would have knocked at her door.   Most people who enter Lucy’s home never leave, because people who enter Lucy’s home have been invited there to help Lucy meet her quota of souls for Satan.   That’s right; Lucy is one of hell’s “Facilitators,” a person who manages one of the numerous earthly portals to hell.

If it hadn’t been for a letter written “To Whom It May Concern” on the eve of Lucy’s eleventh birthday, she might never have become a Facilitator, but when Lucy’s sister Ellen was hit by a truck and lay comatose in the hospital, Lucy desperately placed a letter begging for her sister’s recovery in the backyard “magic mailbox” she and Ellen used for all their letters to Santa and the like.   “Make Ellen wake up and I’ll be forever in your debt,” Lucy wrote, and it wasn’t until Lucy turned 18 and went off to college that “To Whom It May Concern” showed exactly how concerned He was, and just how indebted Lucy would now be.   In exchange for Ellen’s life, plus eternally perky boobs and Charlie’s Angels-esque beauty, Lucy’s fundamental life purpose was now focused on guiding the particularly sinful to their spiritual just desserts.

At first glance, it is tempting to read The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns as a straight morality tale and to expect that Lucy would either meet the same fate as her “victims” (the logical outcome for one who sins in order to punish other sinners) or to struggle mightily against her fate, determined to be the very best person she can be in the face of her own inadvertent damnation.   But Leiknes resists these obvious paths for Lucy, instead developing her as a woman who, while not untroubled by her life, does not particularly fight it, either.   Moving to Reno and away from her family (cutting off all ties), reluctantly accepting the fact that she can never marry and have children (if she tries to sleep with a man more than once she is compelled to vomit), Lucy lives a pretty solitary existence (she may have devilish mojo, but it’s still awkward to explain her life to people).   To deal with her own guilt, Lucy frequents the Snow White Car Wash, and

Somewhere between the baptismal pre-wash soak and the spotfree finish, though, I noticed I felt lighter, more relaxed and, like my car, cleaner.   With my tires locked on the metal track, the car inched forward, and on every third-mini-lurch, I turned to witness my dirtiest parts, gurgling in defiance, sweeping down, down, down the drain.   Near the end of the cycle, I caught a glimpse of my new self in a large mirror hung near the car wash exit.   It was hazy and out-of-focus, but it was me.

As in Snow White, mirrors and reflections, temptation and the deceptiveness of appearances, all have a big part to play in The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns.   In fact, one of the distinct pleasures of reading this novel is the layering of imagery and metaphor and the riffing on various pop culture references, as well as literature and art.   The image Lucy has of herself, the image she portrays to others, the nature of her work and the questionable state of her soul, are all simultaneously more and less than they seem.   And when Lucy gets the chance – through her one good friend and next-door neighbor Maggie – to see her childhood crush, pop singer Teddy Nightingale, she is dumbfounded when he seems to recognize her, even though they’ve never met.   But in Lucy Teddy seem himself, a reflected image of an unhappy Facilitator (his wish was for mad songwriting skills), and does he have news for Lucy: there is hope for “salvation” from the life Lucy is leading for those who are willing to take the risk and meet the criteria (an accelerated quota of delivered souls, an adequate Facilitator replacement, and elimination of a “target” to be determined by the big boss man himself).   All of which must be completed within an extremely compressed time frame.

So should Lucy try to escape her life?   How bad is it, really; is it better than hosting a Pampered Chef party (at Maggie’s request, since Maggie’s house is under a constant state of renovation) on Halloween for the neighborhood women who think Lucy is at best strange and worst downright scary:

I struggled to remember what it was like to be normal.   Alone on my front porch, I looked down the block, lit by streetlights and silhouetted by black tree branches swaying with increasing intensity. An army of sugar-high children cloaked in various combinations of satin, plastic, and masks marched from house to house, reminding me of a family life I’d never have.   And despite my lack of candy, they kept coming. Waves of disappointed witches and cowboys left empty-handed while the real moms sat in my living room buying cake-decoration kits and whatever else helped “make food fun again.”

Maybe not, but once Lucy meets Luke Marshall, a writer who teaches creative writing at the local university, the allure of normalcy, of emotional intimacy and the promise of having a family of her own, is just too tempting to resist.   But lest you think that Lucy’s journey is from morally ambiguous anti-heroine to virtuous wife and mother, please note the circumstances under which Lucy first meets Luke, whom Maggie has invited to Lucy’s during the Pampered Chef party, convinced he would be a good prospect for Lucy.   Who could anticipate that the nervous Lucy, dressed ironically as a nun and drinking heavily, would forget the direction of her own bathroom right about the time Luke showed up:

“Oh, shoot me now.” I grabbed her arm.   “He doesn’t want to see me.   For God’s sake, I peed in my hall closet! Sure, Maggie, I bet he said to himself, ‘That’s a real hot babe.   She loves to host Tupperware parties, ridicule the nunnery, and get so fucking drunk she pees on herself.   I gotta get me some of that.”

Maggie resumed her belly laughing.

“Seriously.   What kind of weirdo sees that and wants a date? He’s probably a serial killer.   Oh, crap, I know what it is,” I said, walking over to the coffee pot.   “He’s into the whole golden shower thing.   He’s a dirty pee lover.”

Luke’s sexual fantasies are never revealed, but the reason he was not turned off during his first introduction is compelling: Luke is blind.   Of course he is.   Because this is a book all about images, perceptions, reflections, how and what people see, and how and what people choose.   Maggie’s son Finnegan, for example, seems to see Lucy much more clearly than she sees herself, at one point asking her very pointedly if she needs to use the God’s eye he has brought to school for show and tell (and I don’t doubt we are supposed to be thinking about the echoes of sinister and fenestra, the Latin word for window, in Finnster, Lucy’s nickname for him).   Luke, much to my appreciation, does not possess some magical insight into Lucy, despite his powerful attraction to her (if anything, her somewhat twisty nature and complicated life circumstances draw him in further).   And it is easy to understand her appeal to Luke, because she is appealing as the novel’s protagonist.   Not overtly virtuous or sickly sweet, Lucy combines smart-ass cynicism with a good deal of insight into human nature a deep attraction to authentic decency.   It is, perhaps, this mixture of somewhat contradictory characteristics that makes Lucy’s acceptance of her apparent fate both understandable and unsustainable.   When she finally decides to read the box full of letters from her sister she has been collecting but dared not open, she gets some news that makes the semi-passivity of her life as a Facilitator no longer viable for her.   It is time, in other words, to bring into focus a life chosen with intention and not based on a letter (or two) addressed “To Whom It May Concern.”

There are so many clever things in the story I would love to share, but many of them are spoilers, and so much of the pleasure of reading The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns is in the unfolding of these details.   Some of them, like the fact that one of the most powerful portals to hell resides in a casino roller coaster called The Bestia or that Lucy’s own hound of hell is named Pluto, are a little cheesy, while the way Finn worries that his wish to have one of his classmates gone seems to have come true when the kid disappears suddenly from school, is a poignant re-working of Lucy’s own pattern of childhood wishing, as well as a nice play on the ‘omnipotence of thought’ stage children go through and which helps create the foundation for the novel.   That the two big box office movies referred to throughout the book form their own battle of good and evil – one movie is about Jesus Christ, the other about Hitler – serves as a nice comic counterpoint to Lucy’s own vacillating awareness.

As I tried to demonstrate through my use of quotes from the novel, the writing is crisp, clever, and thoughtful.   At one point, for example, Lucy reflects on her admiration for Teddy Nightingale’s songs, noting that his “wasn’t flag-waving patriotism, the kind you see on bumper stickers with buff bald eagles ready to kick foreign ass; it was honest and lovely, the kind of song-writing that made me want to take a coast-to-coast road trip and stop at every diner in between.”   Of her friend Maggie, she is impressed by the fact that “[o]ne minute she was driving a powder-blue minivan complete with the ‘My Kid Is An Honor Student’ bumper sticker, the next minute she was planning absurd parties just to promote neighborhood camaraderie, and capping it all off as a martini-drinking potty mouth who, deep down, feared being normal.”   And of her own gradual dissatisfaction with life, she understood in retrospect that in the same way that the “mainstream was falling out of love with [Teddy Nightingale's] naïveté. . . [she] was falling out of love with [herself]” even if it would take far more than the devil to make her do something about it.

In terms of genre classification, to me The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns would be shelved as general fiction. It has elements of chick lit, women’s fiction, Romance, and fable, but I wouldn’t categorize it as one over another (when Lucy says, at one point, “Nobody is one-hundred percent anything,” I’d say that goes for this book, too).   The novel is also on the short side, which means that there are no wasted sentences or moments, but it also means that the novel is shorter on character development than on its somewhat satiric philosophizing and fable-riffing.   The length was not a problem for me, per se, but I did find the final section of the novel (aka The Resolution) rushed and somewhat too pat.   That’s one of the difficulties, I think, when one sets out to investigate the nature of moral relativism, dualism, and/or moral ambiguity – it makes any resolution a problematic endeavor.   However, the fabular aspects of the story basically require resolution, creating a contradiction that takes just a little more nuance than Leiknes manages in the novel.   That isn’t to say that the ending is not clever, or emotionally satisfying, because for me it was; but at the same time I felt slightly let down that this novel that struck me as so clever and nicely layered tucked up quite so neatly in the end.

Still, I know that I will be re-reading The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns to catch the myriad references and cross-references that I missed the first time through.   There is a richness to the fictional world Leiknes creates that commands the reader’s attention, from the history of Teddy Nightingale’s music to Luke’s novel in progress about a storytelling female bartender who loves the legend of the Corn Maiden (which Lucy has no problem stealing from his bag so she can glean some more insight into him), to the anecdotes from Lucy’s childhood that offer crucial pieces of insight into Lucy’s current predicament.   I know that any time I’m struggling in a review to adequately convey how smart and well-written a book is that it’s a winner. And had the clever balancing act of the novel been sustained through the end, the book might very well have been a straight A read for me.   As it is, though, I can’t give it anything lower than a B+, and I really hope that anyone looking for a witty, literate, wonderfully entertaining read will choose this book.

~ Janet

This book can be purchased in mass market from an independent bookstore or Kindle edition (could not find it in other formats).

Elizabeth Leiknes will be signing in the Kansas City area on the following dates:

  • Monday, June 15  at   Olathe Borders from 5:00-7:00 P.M.
  • Tuesday, June 16  at Barnes & Noble at the Oak Park Mall from 4:00-6:00 P.M.
  • Wednesday, June 17 at Scooter’s Coffeehouse from 5:00-7:00  P.M.