Title: April and Oliver
Author: Tess Callahan
Publisher: Grand Central (Hachette)
Release Date: June 3, 2009
I had mixed feelings while I read this book. I went into it hopeful -- I had heard great things about this debut novel by Tess Callahan which I thought was a sweet love story about two long lost loves. And in some sense, that's what it was. Callahan tells the story of April and Oliver, two childhood friends who have lost touch through the years. They are brought back together after the untimely death of April's younger brother. Both characters have changed. Oliver has done well for himself, is in law school, and is engaged to the ever sophisticated Bernadette. April has continued to work in her late father's bar and is in an abusive relationship. At some points I enjoyed the story and at some I didn't, but in the end April and Oliver left a lasting impression.
The main reason, I believe, for the high acclaim over April and Oliver is the lyrical prose in which Callahan constructed her novel -- writing that is fairly atypical of an author's first work. It flowed so beautifully (much like the cover illustration) and kept me engaged, even through scenes where the plot movement slowed its pace.
I failed to realize before picking up this book that the tone would be as somber as it was. Maybe I should have picked up on Publishers Weekly's description of it as a "uniquely funereal love story". There were also times when I felt the characters (mainly April) and the tone were almost too melodramatic. I wanted to scream at everyone to lighten up! I was not a fan of April's character, but I have to note this was not a negative reflection on the writing. One other thing I did not care for in the storyline was the origin of April and Oliver's relationship. Rather than being "childhood friends" (this is not a spoiler, as we learn this up front) they are actually "family". Though they are not blood-related, they initially thought they were and, therefore, were raised as cousins. I had a difficult time getting over the fact that they were "cousins" and had the same relatives, and yet, had a sexual tension between them. But there were times when I was able to forget this minute detail and appreciate the nuances of their relationship.
Callahan utilized an interesting technique in combining the current storyline with flashbacks from the past. The main portion of the novel is written in present tense. I generally don't care for this tense, but find that talented authors can ingeniously engage the reader and make them forget -- Callahan mastered this. The flashbacks, however, were written in past tense, and rather than separating these thoughts by paragraph breaks, the author went directly from one line to the next. One second Oliver might be completing a specific action, and the next line would state "Oliver remembered" and then continue on with a memory. The juxtaposition of the tenses was, in my opinion, a risky method of narration, but worked surprisingly well.
During some brief moments, I felt somewhat bored with the slow plot movement. This novel is truly more of a character study and, therefore, lacked continual movement. However, the characters were beautifully developed. Over the course of the book I felt as though I genuinely got to know the characters who were real and complex. Surprisingly, I think my favorite character may have been Oliver's fiance, Bernadette. She was a wise and self-less character whom I would have liked to learn more about. I often wondered what the story would have been like from her point of view. These characters have stayed with me much longer than when I turned the last page of the book. I think this is one of the true talents of an author -- the ability to combine beautiful writing with character development so the reader continues to think about the characters for long after.
One last thing I want to point out is the beautiful cover. I am drawn to this cover every time I see this book in the store. (There are some scenes that take place at the beach and it does have significance to the story). But what I see is that it's gorgeous, yet dark and intense. In that way it is the perfect visual representation of this novel. I definitely recommend this title and look forward to reading Tess Callahan's future works.
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