cover image Hold Still

Hold Still

Lynn Steger Strong. Norton/Liveright, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-63149-168-9

Strong’s debut novel features some familiar elements—an unhappy academic family (in Park Slope), children flailing, one spouse emotionally distant, the other tempted by a student—but it is saved by the convincing emotional gymnastics of Maya Taylor. An English professor and overbearing mother, Maya tumbles fully-clothed into the ocean to rescue her young daughter, Ellie, from a wave in the foreshadowing first chapter. “I’m fine,” her daughter says, although the reader always suspects this isn’t true. From then on, the chapters shift between present and past: a present where Ellie is away from home, recovering from a vaguely alluded-to tragedy, and the past, where Ellie has begun to spiral out of control toward the mistake that will unravel her and her family. Meanwhile, her brother flounders through his freshman year, and her parents drift further apart. Ellie’s instability is the narrative locus, and the portrayal of teenage addiction occasionally feels unconvincing and melodramatic, as does the puppy-dog rendering of Charles, Maya’s adoring and one-dimensional TA. What keeps the pages turning is the desperate, botched attempts at familial love between family members, none of whom seem to know quite what they want, bringing to mind the Tolstoy quote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Here, the mercurial rendering of this particular unhappy family makes it a heart-wrenching read in its very own way. Agent: Amelia Atlas, ICM Partners. (Mar.)