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Book Review

Tale of love and loss marks a solid debut

By Heller McAlpin
September 19, 2009

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Some people are forced to grow up too soon. When just 9, April Simone, the self-destructive but sympathetic heroine of Tess Callahan’s assured first novel, uncomplainingly assumes responsibility for her baby brother, Buddy, after their mother dies. She also absorbs her father’s drunken blows and, from her early teens, works in his bar, where she is sexually abused by his partner for years. Yet she thinks her misfortunes are all her fault.

“April & Oliver’’ opens with Buddy’s death at 18 in a Maine snowstorm. With a few evocative lines describing Buddy’s last moments, Callahan distills the unusual connection between these two siblings: “she hated when he got hurt. He wishes he could let her know that what’s happening now doesn’t hurt at all. He’s fine.’’

April blames herself because she loaned him her car, which had faulty brakes. Her brother, who, unlike her, made it to college, was her one success, the light of her life, “the one who could take her mind off herself.’’

Not that April is selfish. Far from it. She is nearly saintlike in her acceptance of the hair shirt that is her life. She tends her aging grandmother with the same warm selflessness with which she raised Buddy and nursed the mother of Oliver Night, her childhood best friend and step-cousin, through late-stage cancer.

But 28-year-old April’s sense of self-worth is in the basement. After multiple trips to the ER, she gets a restraining order against her abusive boyfriend, only to rescind it later. She lives in a seedy, dangerous apartment near a Long Island Rail Road station and still works in a bar, where, after closing, she cleans the urine-splattered bathrooms for extra money. “She’s been doing this job so long, it feels like who she is.’’

When Buddy dies, April hasn’t seen Oliver in years. He missed her father’s funeral the year before, having moved to California for college and stayed. Now he’s back in New York for law school with a sweet, blonde fiancee, Bernadette, who works with disabled children and is studying for a doctorate.

But everyone, including the beloved, increasingly frail grandmother they dote upon - not to mention the reader - sees that April and Oliver have “unfinished business’’ to work out. Oliver is overcome by April’s “bone-crushing grief; she has been carved out, marauded from within.’’ He doesn’t understand her attraction to “monstrous men,’’ and he becomes increasingly unhinged by feelings of guilt, grief, and nostalgia for her, which he can’t explain to his sunny fiancee.

For her part, April is distressed that Oliver’s passion for life seems deadened. Not only does he no longer play the piano, he’s never told Bernadette he ever did, never mind about the Juilliard scholarship he turned down at his dying mother’s behest. “It wouldn’t matter what profession you went into if you would just live the way you play,’’ April says.

In the delicious tradition of Jane Austen, Callahan deftly choreographs an elaborate mating dance between two resistant, feisty, blinded protagonists who have to figure out how to save themselves before they can save each other. The sexual electricity between April and Oliver sets off sparks even as they spar with the intensity of Hepburn and Tracy.

With the exception of some melodramatic lines and less than subtle allegories, Callahan’s prose - and especially her dialogue - is admirably taut. It is also flexible enough to maneuver expertly between the past and present and capture both the terrifying menace of April’s violent boyfriends and the easygoing warmth between April and Oliver’s families. The result is a moving story and an impressive debut.

Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for newspapers.

APRIL & OLIVER By Tess Callahan

Grand Central, 326 pp., $23.99

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