Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Broken For You-- Stephanie Kallos

This is my second book in the From The Stacks Challenge. It is the debut novel of this writer, and lives solidly in midlist fiction.

The story starts with Margaret Hughes, a woman who lives alone in a huge house in the expensive neighborhood in Seattle. She has decided to place an ad to find a boarder to share her house. She is concerned about how the others in her house will feel about a new person.

These "others" turn out to be hundreds of porcelain pieces that fill every room of her mansion. Margaret communes with these pieces, imparting personalities and relationships to soup tureens, tea cups and saucers. Margaret has a brain tumor and expects to die soon. She is divorced, her ex-husband has remarried, and their only child died many years ago in a car accident that her husband survived. Now she has retired to her house where she cares for all the antiques she inherited from her father.

Margaret's ad is answered by a young woman named Wanda Schultz, who is in Seattle searching for her boyfriend, who had announced he was leaving her in New York. She sold everything and uprooted herself to find him again. She believes she will find him in Seattle. Wanda is a stage manager who works most evenings. She and Margaret slowly begin to thaw toward each other, yet keep their own secrets close.

Wanda continues to look for her lost boyfriend while finding herself attracted to a stagehand who is really too good to be true. Margaret starts to go out of the house and finds herself a boyfriend. Margaret carries a secret--the porcelains were bought from Europe during World War II--likely stolen from Jewish families by Nazis. One day, Margaret looks at her wedding china, and realizes it means nothing to her but weighs her down. She bullies Wanda into helping her smash the entire set. Margaret begins to free herself from her guilt and shyness as she frees herself from her inheritance. The shattered fragment become the basis for Wanda's mosaic art, which drives the last third of the novel.

Wanda finds her boyfriend, and sees him with new eyes, and just as she finds herself free from him, she is hit by a car and sustains serious injuries. She has to give up her work as a stage manager, and she finds her way into doing mosaicsc.

About halfway through the book, we meet the man who is Wanda's father--who left her with his sister while he went to look for his wife, who left him. Wanda's father manages a bowling alley and becomes friends with an elderly Jewish lady who bowls twice a week. She brings him out of his shell, and he brings her out of her grief after her husband dies.

By the end of the book, Margaret has died, but her house by this time is full of people she has collected who now work to make Wanda's art possible. Wanda's father comes on as handyman, and they open an art school to teach mosaic techniques.

There is a great deal of writerly effort in this book. For example, Margaret's tumor is an "astroblastoma," which she calls "the star." One of Wanda's first mosaics is of Jewish children wearing the Nazi-required star on their coats. The china breaks into star patterns--we see repeating stars throughout the book. Similarly, many things are broken: china, bones, families, marriages. Throughout the book, the characters take the broken parts of their lives and put them together in new ways, just as the china is broken into tesserae and made into new art with a different meaning and use than before.

This was a well written book, with some engaging characters, but not an unqualified success. Wanda didn't come together as a character for me; alternately obsessed, whiny and cold, it was never believable to me why she persisted in persuing her ex-boyfriend, especially when she worked with a warm and wonderful man who cared for her and treated her with respect. There was never enough information for the reader to understand why Wanda spurned Troy throughout the book, even after she met up with her old boyfriend again. Nor is it clear why Troy loved her so much.

Margaret's childhood is portrayed: she was the adored daughter of a doting and genial father, with a distant and aloof mother. The father we see with young Margaret shares no characteristics with the avaricious Jew-hater he is painted to be in the latter half of the book. The story is also saddled with the ghost of Margaret's mother, which is inconsistent with the rest of the book, which operates without any other supernatural elements. Margaret never knew her mother, and the ghost that appears in her old age is just not consistent with what she would have known of her mother earlier.

There are some rapid and successful characterizations: Susan, the nurse who becomes a boarder in Margaret's house, is presented beautifully in her interactions with the children to whom she is the nanny. Within a few pages, I loved her and wanted her to live with me--even if she didn't take care of my kids. There is some very good prose about the nature of porcelain and the emotional attachements we make with inanimate things.

So, while I didn't fall completely into its spell, Broken For You was a book I found myself longing to return to. It's a satisfying read, and I'd look forward to more work by this author.

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