Saturday, June 28

Coming of Age

I've read two books that are loosely associated by being about "coming of age": Madapple by Christina Meldrum, and Fun Home; a family tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. In some respects, the two books could hardly be more different. Madapple is poetic tale that comes close to magical realism, Fun Home is a graphic-novel memoir composed of small real moments based on Bechdel's childhood diary. However, both weigh the cost of an absent or unresponsive father, and both contain challenging scientific and literary references.

Fun Home is an award-winning graphic-novel memoir of Alison Bechdel's complex relationship with her father, a distant and obsessive closeted gay man in the 60's and 70's, and her own coming out as a lesbian.

Bechdel immediately pulled me in with tale of her father's obsession with renovating and redecorating their house, and I never lost interest as her story unfolded. Partly because of the graphic format, she builds the story with carefully chosen anectodes, often excerpts from the diary she started in childhood. The truth of these small real episodes accumulate to tell a powerful story.

Bechdel is the creator of the long-running comic strip, "Dykes to Watch Out For."

Madapple is teen fiction where much is hidden. You must suspend disbelief from the start of the novel, but toward the end the universe the author has created collapses under the weight of too many unlikely plot turns.

That being said, it is an evocative, enjoyable novel, and is currently madly popular with the teen set. It has a cold and mysterious mother, an unknown father, newly discovered relatives, unrequited love, teen pregnancy, and and a happy ending, as well as herbal lore galore, and many fascinating asides into early Christianity, which drive one of the plot strands.

The story begins in a courtroom: Aslaug is on trial for double homicide. The events that led to the trial are told in a series of flashbacks. The author does a great job of hiding the real story behind the deaths until the end of the book. Chapters are titled with the name of a plant, and the uses, mythology, and properties of the plant move the action forward in the chapter. Aslaug and her mother have an extensive knowledge of local plants, and use them for food, tea, and medicine. "Madapple" is another name for the poisonous jimsonweed plant.

At this stage of my life, I'm more interested in what happens after "happily ever after," but the book pulled me in. As an older-than-teen reader, I particularly enjoyed the herbal lore and discussion of early Christianity.

People who liked "Madapple" more than I did:

"In debut novelist Christina Meldrum's mesmerizing literary mystery, Madapple (Knopf), the worlds of science and faith collide." —Vanity Fair

Madapple has been nominated for the ALA's Best Book for Young Adults (BBYA) list.
Meldrum provides a bibliography of books she used for research. Included are

The Jesus mysteries : was the "original Jesus" a pagan god? / Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

The elegant universe : superstrings, hidden dimensions, and the quest for the ultimate theory / Brian Greene.

An obsession with butterflies : our long love affair with a singular insect / Sharman Apt Russell.

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