Clever, original and written with brio and eloquence, Bender's first novel (after the praised short story collection The Girl with the Flammable Skirt) may not appeal to every taste, but those who respond to its depressed, quirky heroine in her anguished search for safety from life's disasters will feel instant love. At 20, Mona Gray has deliberately made herself as colorless as her name. A decade ago, when her adored father fell victim to a mysterious illness that has left him drained of energy, hope and desire for human contact, Mona too retreated from life and deliberately stopped aspiring for success or happiness. Having turned her back on achievement as a track star and on sharing love, Mona still nourishes one source of happiness: the world of mathematics. Numbers, being clear and immutable, are Mona's salvation, as well as her job. She teaches arithmetic to second graders, having invented a zany curriculum in which her students find numbers everywhere in the environment. Kids love Mona, although she constantly and compulsively knocks on wood to keep disaster at bay. Everyone else seems unaware of her emotional isolation--but everyone else in this novel is also pretty strange. Mr. Jones, Mona's former high school math teacher, wears numbers around his neck to indicate his daily mood. Mona wears ""an invisible sign of my own'' that denotes her fear and vulnerability. Then awkward, unsociable science teacher Michael Smith, who shares Mona's morbid imagination, breaks through her emotional reserve. Meanwhile, she has developed a particular fondness for seven-year-old Lisa Venus, who is actually experiencing the real terror of loss and abandonment that Mona fears: her mother is dying of cancer. In a satisfying denouement in which Bender brings the narrative full circle with astonishing dexterity, Mona discovers how to connect and live fully, and helps Lisa to navigate her own way through a frightening world. Readers may find the narrative too schematic and the characters exceptionally odd. On the other hand, Bender writes like an angel, with images that strike resonant chords, and her sly humor pervades every page. And those who are initially put off by the bizarre fairy tale that opens the narrative will be touched almost to tears when it comes full circle. Author tour. (July) FYI: Bender is the sister of Karen Bender, author of Like Normal People (Forecasts, Feb. 21).
Reviewed on: 07/03/2000 Release date: 07/01/2000 Genre: Fiction
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