FRAGILE by Lisa Unger

Book Quote:

“It didn’t take long for tensions to build. The three of them – the pretty cheerleader, the sexy burnout too old, too knowing for her age, the geek with gothic leanings – they were all there, these representative of the perennial high school subcultures. Squirming and pink beneath the shells of their adulthoods. Maggie thought that childhood things would be left behind, these silly groupings would fade and become meaningless, but they never were. Not in a town like this. Those teenage girls, each awkward and unsure in her own way, never left the Hollows.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster (JAN 08, 2011)

Fragile is set in a small town 100 miles from New York City, called “The Hollows.” The dynamics between family clusters, over the generations within the sometimes stifling small-town boundaries, form the emotional backbone of this well-crafted thriller.

The central group is the Cooper family. With Jones (the father) being the chief detective in the Hollows police force and Maggie (the mother) being a psychologist, they are strategically placed to know what’s going on in town when something out of the ordinary happens. Their son Ricky is a high school student, and the disappearance of his girlfriend Charlene is the signal for the mystery to begin in earnest.

There are two other main family groups. The first group is that of the Murrays: with moody Melody the mother, Charlene the disappearing would-be rock star, and Graham the stepfather with dubious intentions. The second is the Crosbys: the family with a strong current of violence and intimidation, which includes the mostly absent mother Angie, Travis the bully policeman father, and Marshall their deeply troubled son.

The childhood histories of the generation now in their prime are insolubly linked. As their past actions seem to have become part of the silent fabric of the Hollows, a unique dread, like a recurring nightmare, stalks the story as the plot unfolds. Unspoken terror of retributive karma lends the narrative a tinge of ghost-like fear.

Two entwined themes weave through the novel with the intensity of obsession. The first of these is the theme of the lost girl.

No fewer than three lost girls wander through the pages of Fragile. Charlene Murray, the current missing girl, is the novel’s immediate raison d’être. Sarah Myer, from a generation back, brings the weight of the past to the narrative. Charlie the pest-control guy’s Lily brings a resonating chord from the world outside the Hollows.

As Unger states in a note on the text, the core idea for the narrative evolved from an incident in her childhood, where a student went missing from her own high-school. One is left with a distinct impression that the distance of the memory, its initial emotional impact and the diverse aspects in which it has reflected on in the author’s own life have a strong bearing on the general tone of the novel. How memory both changes the future and shapes our perception of what we now are is the subject of the other main theme of the novel: change.

In the most concrete sense, change and the lack of it are built up through family portrayals, in shards of continuity or broken lines. Maggie would like to paint but she’s too busy – meanwhile her mother’s attic is full of her father’s old paintings. Charlie would like to write, and eventually finds out that his father used to write. Charlie’s colleague Wanda knows all about cars because her daddy worked for Ford. The Crosby family are all policemen and bullies– “the gene gets stronger every generation.” Jones hates his mother for dominating his life, but dominates his son and disbelieves him in turn, reflecting his own fears onto Ricky without bothering to think about who the new generation really is.

Which links can or should be broken? What kind of change is possible? Through exploration of these relationships, so circumscribed by location and custom, the novel eventually posits that only by admitting the past – both our own deeds and those of our forbears – and incorporating it into our existence, can we “grow up.”  The crystallisation that hidden fear forces onto a character is a type of stagnation, a decomposition.

Through the pages of carefully-constructed prose one clearly sees a diligent writer taking enviable care in their craft: a writer who hates sloppiness and unintentional ambiguity. This preciseness for a long time seemed to sit at odds with a certain out-of-focus quality to the tenor of the narrative.

Initially I put this characteristic down to lack of immediate “need to write;”  it seemed to suggest meticulous but slightly mechanical work without a great deal of emotional force behind it. This conclusion was somewhat spurred on by the fact that character portrayal in Fragile is extremely female-heavy, and empathy for any character is late in coming. Not to say that we don’t know how the male characters look, behave or think – it’s that we don’t feel what it’s like to be inside them. Not even Jones, who is heavily analysed.

However, as the story progressed it started to become apparent that the emotional freeze imposed on the writing was precisely mirroring that which the characters suffered from. The thaw descends on the structure of the language, the plot, and the characters simultaneously. Such a demonstration of union between language, emotion and story is truly impressive.

I went in a sceptic, and came out a fan. Unger’s Beautiful Lies is already sitting on my shelf, waiting.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 86 readers
PUBLISHER: Crown; 1 edition (August 3, 2010)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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January 8, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Family Matters, Mystery/Suspense, NE & New York, Reading Guide, Theme driven

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