A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson
Brief Synopsis: The Slocumb family is no stranger to a vengeful God. Ginny "Big" Slocumb fetched up pregnant with her headstrong daughter, "Little" Liza, at the age of fifteen and was promptly booted out of her Southern Baptist home to fend for herself. Another fifteen years later, Liza showed up pregnant herself and left home shortly after the baby's birth, only to show back up on her mother's doorstep two hard-lived years later. Now her daughter, Mosey, is fifteen, and the Slocumbs are dead in the middle of another "trouble year." Liza, at a too-close-to-home thirty years old, has suffered a stroke that they chalk up to her rough past and methamphetamine use. Mosey is shrugging around in her skin, trying to figure out if she's sharing it with a sex-maniac who could take over any minute and repeat Slocumb history. When Big has Liza's favorite willow tree pulled up by the roots to make room for a therapeutic swimming pool, a box of tiny bones rips out what seams are left holding all of their lives together.
Format read: Hardcover, until Husband caught me reading my signed first edition and made me buy the e-book to finish. Meanie.
Comparison: It is hard to compare this book directly to any other book because I haven't read anything else quite like it. Joshilyn Jackson's writing is whip-smart and tangy a la Haven Kimmel, but there's depth there, too. In this book, especially with Liza, she yet again shows off her unique skill in capturing the tangled-up complexity of the human spirit held in bondage that I've only seen done half as well in A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. In this work and all her others, she writes about poverty with a truthful, almost journalistic eye which reminds me of John Steinbeck. Her voice is so very different, but the heart is the same. She tells the worst of it like it is without pointing a single, judgmental fingernail. It is just how Steinbeck used the hard-luck Joads not only to break our hearts in The Grapes of Wrath, but to underline the tenacity of the human spirit, the universal worth of mankind, and hope which keeps right on springing up, even from nothing but salted earth. She does that so well that it squeezes my heart to pieces and I can taste sweat and dirt on my tongue.
Review: I have been a devoted fan of Joshilyn Jackson's work since I first read gods in Alabama as an ARC (Advance Readers Copy) when I was a wide-eyed, story-starved bookseller. I got the book off the freebie shelf in the back room of the store where it was mixed in with a pile of this and that. I picked it for the simple reason that it was the only book on that particular shelf that didn't have a black and white spine. Dumb way to pick a book, I know, but it worked out for me. I read that book in one voracious setting and have been an advocate for Ms. Jackson's books ever since. I've read everything she has put out to the public, including her wonderful blog, Faster Than Kudzu, and so should you.
If Joshilyn Jackson has a mid-life crisis and gives up fiction writing to spend the rest of her life writing the backs of cereal boxes, I will throw out all my Honey Nut Cheerios and read on.
So should you.
What I'm saying is that her books are good. Very.
A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty does not disappoint. It has the same salty southern women running down its spine, this time three generations deep. The POV shifts between the characters, with Big and Mosey in first person (a feat in itself given the gap in their ages and personalities), and third person limited for Liza. In all of them, Jackson manages to keep in her signature playful style without sacrificing the individual voices of the characters. I have yet to figure out how she does it, turning nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns and basically batting around syntax like a cat with a ball of yarn, and somehow it makes things more clear. Maybe that's why her work feels so heartfelt. She says things the way we mean them, not the way we're told to say them.
I will admit that I had some trouble with this one when I started reading it. It was Liza. Right off the bat, we're told that she was a hellion from the womb, yet when we first meet her, she is a raisin-soft shadow of her former self. I had trouble picturing her young. My age. It was too wrong, too wasteful and unfair. Reading her chapters was hard going. I couldn't be in her head like I could be in Big's and Mosey's. I had to work my way in from a distance. Like Mosey and Big interpreting her "Mosey-baby" noise, or her "yes" and "no" signals, there was a tendency for me to throw my hands up and say it was too hard, too sad to look at her with her scrambled eggs trailing down the bad side of her face. I was feeling what Big and Mosey must have felt, and the frustration was almost unbearable.
Having read all of Ms. Jackson's work, I should have known better.
She does not write weak characters.
Even when they're broken. Even when they think they're used up and spent. Even when they're captive in their own bodies. Even when she lets you pity them, it will only be for a flash, because she does not write weak characters.
Eventually, Liza's chapters became my favorites. There was so much complexity to her character, this woman who did all the things we're told makes someone "bad" but she is so very, very good, so truly herself even when she is lost inside of her own broken body. A firecracker forced underwater is no less a firecracker at its core.
The book weaves in and out of their three lives, and eventually you come to see that there is far less truthful communication between the characters who can talk to each other than there is with poor damaged Liza. Big is tormented by loss and responsibility, and bursting with love for her family--and for what her family should be. Mosey is such an engaging character, wise for her years, but not so much that she's not a believable fifteen-year-old. She and her best friend Roger have a great, three-dimensional relationship that earns Roger his place as the Encyclopedia Brown clue-finder to assist with furthering the plot. There is enough mystery and puzzle-solving to keep the pages turning, but as I went, I realized that I wasn't just reading for the answers like the back of a crossword puzzle book (as I'm apt to do with many mysteries/thrillers. I'm looking at you, Dan Brown). I cared about the answers because I cared about the characters and all their jagged pieces. I wanted them to fit together, somehow, so that they could finally be whole.
That's the mark of a good literary fiction novel--you don't just want to know what happens/happened, you just want to know. Anything. Everything.
I would also throw in a mention that I wish more men would pick up books like this one. Yes, the cover is feminine, it has "pretty" in the title, and it doesn't just have a woman protagonist, it has THREE of them. However, I think if more men read books like this one, they would understand women so much more--what maternal instinct looks like from the inside, how fiercely we can love, how fiercely we can fight, and not to count us out, not even in what looks like the end of days. Strong women are not to be feared or reviled or ignored, but should be seen for their truth. We are allies, and when necessary, warriors.
"You have to hold these things and strive, always, for one more word and one more step. You push forward and you fight, for as long as ever you can, until the black world spins and the moon pulls the tide and the water rises up and takes you." --A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, by Joshilyn Jackson.