Saturday, June 27, 2015

Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia

I know a book and I are going to get along when it references The Shining three pages in. The story opens in 1982 when twelve-year-old Minnie Graves slips away from her sister's wedding and witnesses a horrifying crime that will leave her scarred into adulthood.

This book is my first introduction to Kate Racculia and I loved it. Her writing reminds me of Maggie Shipstead's in that throws a huge cast of characters at us and then proceeds to form them all into living, breathing people. Just when we think we've got someone figured out we're popped into their head and realize that we didn't really have a clue.

After the shocking start of the first chapter, we're rocketed fifteen years in the future for the remainder of the book, though we get to see the ways the past has affected every character. We see Minnie Graves again the first time she returns to the site of her trauma, the Bellweather Hotel. The anniversary of that day coincides with the Statewide festival for the best teenaged musicians and singers in New York. These include Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker in their senior year of high school. Alice is reeling from a break-up and terrified that all signs point to her twin brother choosing a different college from her. Rabbit is steeling himself to finally admit to Alice that he's gay. Their chaperone and teacher, Natalie Wilson, seems like a nasty piece of work, but we gradually learn her history of abuse and guilt and rage. She comes literally face-to-face with a demon from her past in the form of Viola Fabian, who's running the festival. We also get Viola's daughter Jill, whose dramatic disappearance sets an insane series of events in motion.

Let's be clear--there are some hijinks in this book. There are some wacky turns. There are lots and lots of Teachers Behaving Badly. There are some capital-C Coincidences. In the hands of a lesser writer, this book could have come off silly, ridiculous, even. But Racculia has so much compassion for her characters, you get the sense that she understands them so well, that even when they do things that seem frankly insane, she manages to show her work so the actions become understandable. (There is a notable exception; I can't quite decide how I feel about the villain of the book, who is so irredeemably evil as to feel out of place among so many characters who defy simple descriptors. This character could have been cartoonish or the type you love to hate, but her actions towards others did such real damage that she really was frightening.)

I don't want to get into too much detail about the plot because it unspools so gleefully, but I did want to say how much I appreciate what a questioning novel this is. It asks whether we can move on after trauma, and how. It asks how and if we can be forgiven for the damage we do to other people along the way. This is a story with lots of talented teenagers and it asks how they can ever possibly live up to all the potential they're supposed to have. How can the world ever live up to that early promise to them? Are they actually special, like they've been told, and if so, what does that even mean? For me, I find it's the questions a character grapples with that helps me identify with them the most, even when I first thought them unlikeable. I guess I'm such a questioner myself that any character who does the same feels like a kindred spirit. This isn't a book with a lot of answers, but it's still a hopeful one that I can tell I'll be thinking about for a long time.

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