Tommy Orange, There There

It's so strange when someone else in the book club chooses a book that's almost exactly up my alley.

Our method is that we try not to influence each other's selections very much. Every so often, we choose a new roster of titles, one from each club member, and the only real criteria is that you can't have read it yourself yet. Ideally no one else has read it either, and only in special circumstances should you be prevailed upon not to choose what you want, and the result is that over any eight-month period, I get to read six or seven books that I wouldn't have chosen.

And then there was Tommy Orange's There There. According to the back-cover blurb, "Tommy Orange's wondrous and shattering novel follows twelve characters from Native communities: all travelling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to each other in ways they may not realize." If you're thinking there's tons of potential there, you're exactly right, and by and large, Orange delivers extraordinarily well on that potential.

The novel is told through multiple voices, with each section being spoken by a particular character. Excluding the prologue (powerful and necessary, not just background), the opening and closing chapters are in the hands of Tony Loneman, and so it makes sense to think of this as his novel even though he's central to the novel's crisis but not to all its interwoven components that make There There so gripping. Tony has what he calls "the Drone," or fetal alcohol syndrome, and his complicated strategies for surviving with it (not all of them successful, or even healthy) are emblematic of the strategies deployed by all the other characters for all the various challenges facing them. Everyone struggles in this novel, most of them in different ways, and so Tony's drome isn't repeated and definitely isn't central to Orange's characters. All of them are marked, though, all are outsiders in one way or another, and just as with Tony, violence is rarely far from each person's imagination or experience.

Relationships in this book are complicated, and I appreciated that Orange provides a character list at the beginning that's incomplete and by book's end not that helpful. (Some realities can't be readily documented!) I don't want to say much more, because the details make this book, and the plot itself isn't all that complicated. As hyperbolic as the book's climax was, and it's over the top enough that I lost some connection with Orange and his characters there, I thought this was a terrific novel.

Highly recommended.


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