Make It Stay, by Joan Frank.
But Tilda's smile would always -- as long as we were to know her -- be broken, distant, holding to itself some gritty knowledge, something we could not then guess at, however much we tried. There was mockery in it. There was hatred in it. These were not observations you could prove, or defend. - from Make It Stay -
Rachel (Rae) and Neil live in the small Northern California town of Mira Flores. Rae is a writer, a bit unsocial, and enjoys her "me" time ... whereas Neil (a Scottish immigrant) is vivacious and a gourmet cook who revels in his friendships.
Neil was born to draw people together. He loves nurseries, hardware stores. Buys paint and floor mats and ravioli-cutters. Plants impatiens and geraniums, rhododendrons, anything on sale. Brews his own limoncello (and it tastes better than store-bought). Invites folks round for no reason. Bon vivant-ism is a currency, a mandate, a motif -- one of the million reasons he and Mike adored each other. Whereas I obey some equally ancient but opposing imprint, huddled in a ditch somewhere, shivering. - from Make it Stay -
Neil's longtime friend, Mike is married to the hard-edged Tilda who Rae suspects is responsible not only for the demise of Mike's fish store, but possibly his disability. These four characters, along with Mike and Tilda's beautiful daughter, Addie, weave in and out of each others' lives over the course of many years. Their secrets, marriages, and uneasy relationship with each other make up Joan Frank's introspective novel, Make It Stay.
Frank's prose is spare, reflective and sublime as she unearths the peculiar friendships within her story. Thematically, Frank examines the tenuous balance in a marriage, especially when external forces act upon it. In Make it Stay, Mike and Neil have a history together which reaches way back to a time when Mike not only fished the oceans, but pulled in his share of women. The two seem to share a camaraderie which is hard to explain. When Rae's cynicism and critical nature play out against Tilda and catastrophe befalls Mike, Neil and Rae's marriage is threatened.
Anytime, anytime you named nowadays, I would gladly unzip his skin and climb inside and start sweeping and washing and dusting if it would plump him up again. Give us back our unthinking ease. Restore that thing we've so long been, part him, part me. - from Make it Stay -
Frank has the rare ability to evoke a sense of time and place gone by. Her descriptions of leaves flushing "crimson, wine, umber; days filled with a warm-sugar smell" catapult the reader into a small town in autumn. Likewise, she is able to transform the lives of four aging adults by reminding the reader of their more carefree, sunlit days.
None of the characters are wholly likable in Frank's slim novel -- and yet I found myself wanting to understand them, take their journey with them, find out who they were beneath their thin skins. Perhaps the most interesting character is Tilda whose nature is caustic and wary and whose personality is brought to light through Rae's scornful, if not somewhat unreliable, narration. Tilda is a character who is universally misunderstood by all who share her life, a woman whose tears are surprising because on the surface she appears hard and rough as nails.
I found myself fully engrossed in this novel about the slow unwinding of the lives of its characters. Their challenges, faults and ultimately their desire to "make it stay" are what drives the narrative and keeps the pages turning.
Readers who love literary fiction will love Frank's engaging prose and be haunted by the bittersweet wisdom she imparts.
- Quality of Writing: Five stars
- Characters: Four and a half stars
- Plot: Four stars
Overall Rating: Four and a half stars out of five
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog in association with TLC Book Tours.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".