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Book Review: Precious by Sandra Novack

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Recently on Facebook, Sandra Novack advertised her full-length debut novel, Precious, from Random House. Curious to read it I promptly wrote her a letter explaining I wanted to review her novel and she sent me one. Thus began my journey through her smooth agile verse. Precise and elegantly elegiac, like the movements they describe, Ms. Novack’s tale begs the question of what possibly could go wrong in a pleasant nuclear middle class family in a burb of Pennsylvania not far from New Jersey. Ah, my-my, what could not go wrong in Novack’s scenario?

Novack jumps in and out of each of her characters magically, like Sissy jumps in and out of the pool in the back yard and Eva jumps into wayward trouble without her mother around to set her straight. As easily as an able person can enter and leave a shower, she follows their watery moody depths from one situation to the next. Like the stick of a pinprick, punctiliously moving from one character to the next, she reveals the most hidden thoughts of each character.

Natalia wants more than what she has with her introverted reserved husband, Frank, who spends all his spare time beneath his car. Nostalgic for her gypsy roots, and romance, Natalia decides to leave. When her teenage daughter, Eva, tries to convince Natalia to stay, her mom replies, “A person’s heart doesn’t shed itself like a tree in winter, it doesn’t bare itself just because you want it to.” Natalia, bored with her life, her husband, and her children, idealizing her freedom and seeking new experiences, leaves on a trip to Europe with the doctor she works for. Natalia’s fantasies don’t play out how she imagined. Once in Europe and alone with the doctor, Natalia discovers she’s more bored with him than she ever was with her husband. Since her early childhood, Natalia had yearned to return to her gypsy family, a desire nourished by faint distant memories mixed with tales she heard from her adopted family.

Surprised, Natalia finds herself desperately pining away for her children and Frank, reminiscing longingly. This, combined with her sadness about her feelings of loss, is what drives Natalia back home. Novack is inside her character’s heads, she knows them intimately.

“Didn’t he suddenly want to give Eva what a girl like her so desperately wants – to see herself through another’s eyes and to find that she is precisely as she wishes but never quite believes – beautiful and full of possibility.” Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others is what we all think we want – until we do it and are often caught off guard in what we see. We often wish to see the world through the other’s eyes. Novack has hit the nail direct.

Eva is filled with anger and wanting more, yet stuck with her kid sister, Sissy, and her Dad when Mom abandons them. Eva searches for love and finds separation and sorrow in the middle of nowhere as do all teenage girls in trouble. Eva keeps herself alive and vibrant through her interactions with Sissy, her pivot. Eva is guilty for being a young girl who goes out to hang out with boys and have an affair with an older married man while she is responsible for taking care of her younger sibling. Eva sustains herself by feeding stories to Sissy. Eva’s stories are fed on exasperation mixed with myth and her anguished insights into adult behavior. Disillusioned by love, her family, her mom’s return home instead of righting things in the family, sends Eva over the edge into a place she cannot come back from.

The title of the book, Precious, and the placing of the title in the story raised a childhood memory for me. As a youngster from a poverty stricken Jewish family in New York City, filled with illness and sorrow, I watched my sister pamper her dolls. I was not permitted to touch my sister’s dolls because although she was 11 and I was six, she held on to her dolls for dear life. She had very little too and was miserable. I respected her belongings because I feared her temper. She’d hit me before. I only got my first new doll (not hand me downs or throwaways) the Christmas after this ensuing event. I had another sister eight years older too. One day after we’d all arrived home from school almost simultaneously at about 3:10; my sister discovered her beloved porcelain doll with its head broken off.

Because my sister could see no other possible culprit, she accused me of breaking the doll and proceeded to beat the living daylights out of me with no interference from anyone in my family. Later, I was surprised to learn my mother had kept silent and let me take a beating for something she knew I hadn’t done. That made no sense. Several days later, mom divulged she’d had a guest that day who had brought her small child with her when she visited and mom had not paid attention to the child. I surmise my mom was afraid of my sister’s temper too and that was why she let me take that beating. I had no clue back then. I was six years old.

The doll in Novack’s tale is also ruined when Sissy and her best friend Vicki fight about who can play with the doll at a sleepover. During their struggle when the doll is literally ripped in two, Vicki becomes Sissy’s ex-best friend. I wondered why a half page description about a doll named Precious becomes the title. Maybe because relationships and people mean more than we imagine and when we give them up we discover their preciosity and maybe because of the evocative tone of Novack’s descriptions. After all, Novack’s words brought my memory back to me from my six-year old self.

It is Vicki, Sissy’s ex-best friend, who broke Sissy’s favorite doll Precious, who goes missing, never to be seen alive again. Vicki’s disappearance drives the story forth, revolving around every characters' angles. The townspeople come together to try to help Ginny deal with the loss of her child. Natalia is conflicted with survivor guilt and grateful her children are safe even if she had nothing to do with keeping them safe. She cannot confront Eva’s behavior and accusations. Eva and Frank are unforgiving and relentless in their judgments. Natalia rehearses speeches she cannot say while struggling to regain her footing in a lost life.

After reading Precious, I ask, what possibly couldn’t and won’t go wrong? Isn’t that the way of the world, after all? Everything in the world goes amiss, changes in lives occur in a finger snap. Novack’s lyrical and haunting prose maintains a rhythm; she doesn’t skip a beat.
It reminds me of a Woody Allen character announcing, dead-pan, earnestly exuding his pores, “It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Sooner or later everything turns to shit.” And in this small town turned topsy-turvy through a whirlwind of unconnected events, that is exactly what occurs inside Novack’s elegant poetic prose.

When we read others' writings and feel inspired by what we read, plus the author provokes memories, this is where we explore the connections. It is in this vein I write, to reach the person who reads and responds with their guts, with passion.

Novack reminds us that every day we make choices in our losses. Each moment begins with new choices. Each choice provides new possibilities. We live with daily decision-making processes that influence us as we blunder through our lives. Novack exposes our most primal fears concerning approval and loss. She makes us wonder if anything new will ever take the place of what we lose or if there’s even the slightest chance to begin to fill all the empty spaces from all our losses put together. Wounds hurt. At funerals, divorces, and such, people always try to assuage sadness by saying things like, “Oh, it gets better as time goes on,” but that’s absolutely untrue. Some hurts last a lifetime. Trust me, I’ve had a few.

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  • http://www.phillyfiction.com Don Ron

    The recently released Philly Fiction 2 features “Memphis,” a short story by Sandra Novack.