Some Things That Stay

Sarah Willis, Author
Sarah Willis, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $24 (272p) ISBN 978-0-374-10580-8
Reviewed on: 01/31/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
Prebound-Sewn - 978-1-4176-1814-9
Paperback - 275 pages - 978-0-425-17960-4
Open Ebook - 272 pages - 978-1-4668-2169-9
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The deceptively quiet voice that inhabits this intelligent and moving first novel belongs to Tamara Anderson, 15 years old in 1954, who comes of age within an unconventional family that's struggling in an era of social conformity. Her father is a landscape painter, so the family (including Tamara's younger siblings, Robert, 11, and Megan, seven) moves every year, living in furnished houses from Georgia to Idaho to Maine, owning only what can fit in a trailer. Stuart and Liz, Tamara's parents, met when Liz modeled nude for art classes, with Stuart defying his family to marry the woman who had flirted with the Communist Party. Now they are determined to bring up their children as atheists, teaching them evolution and carefully explaining sexuality and reproduction. The '50s era, with its shadow of Moral Rearmament, is vividly evoked with references to Davy Crockett hats, the generalized fear of a Communist conspiracy and the atom bomb, as Tamara's perceptions of her new home in upstate rural New York drive the narrative. She explores her new school, and religion and sexuality with the boy across the street, juxtaposing her need for stability against her family's transient life. When Liz becomes seriously ill with tuberculosis, the Anderson family is weighted with fear, sadness and uncertainty of a kind entirely new to them. Willis deftly balances her depiction of the domestic unit: vulnerable Tamara correctly believes no one is listening to her, and knows that in Stuart's life, art ranks above his children. Liz and Stuart are devoted to each other, and are alternately selfish and caring parents; their idiosyncrasies, such as overrationalized reckless styles of driving the family car, suggest larger problems. Not a seamless tale, the narrative is hampered by a few stale patches of exposition, but overall, Tamara's uncommonly lucid, honest and expansive view marks this as a luminous, impressive debut. (Feb.)
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