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.
In 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+
~ JanetHQN ARE