Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst

I found The Nobodies Album on the Mystery shelf at the library, but that classification doesn't really capture what is most interesting about this book. Yes, there is a mystery--narrator Octavia Frost, a bestselling author, sees her son's name on the news crawl in Times Square as she sits in a cab on her way to deliver her latest manuscript to her editor. Milo, a rock star, has been arrested for the murder of his live-in girlfriend. Despite a four-year estrangement from her son, Octavia decides to fly to California to see if she can help. But the mystery is not very interesting (I knew as soon as Octavia met the person who would ultimately prove to be guilty that that person was the culprit--and I'm not especially good at ferreting out "whodunit"), and it's not Parkhurst's main focus.

The mystery and the opportunity to reconcile with Milo are essentially context for Octavia's reflections on her life and on writing. When Milo was nine, his father and sister died in an accident for which Octavia blamed him (at least in part). How she dealt with their deaths, how she mothered Milo in the aftermath of their deaths, and how her emotions and experiences were and were not reflected in her writing are the real subject matter of the book. The manuscript Octavia was about to deliver when she saw the news about her son was a collection of new endings to her seven previously published books, a concept she felt was "nothing short of revolutionary." The new and old endings of several of the books are included in The Nobodies Album, and how Parkhurst uses them to give us insight and raise questions about Octavia and about writing fiction is interesting.

Like the mystery plot, the ending of the book feels contrived. Nonetheless, I enjoyed both the unusual way in which Parkhurst put this novel together and her exploration of ideas about writing and living.

Favorite passages:
For all the energy I've spent in my writing life considering the taxonomy of human pain, for all the times I've told students that the key to creating a sympathetic and three-dimensional character is compassion, I turned out to be spectacularly unsympathetic when it actually mattered. My grief was proprietary. I wanted it all to myself.

Of the many gifts parents receive from their children, this is one of the best: the way they give us a new way of seeing, even after they've lost the thread of it themselves.

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