Review

The Outside of August

by Joanna Hershon

THE
OUTSIDE OF AUGUST by Joanna Hershon is the story of one woman's
search for the truth about her mother, a woman who was unavailable
emotionally and physically, yet had great influence on a family
that was being torn apart from within. The book is divided into two
sections and centers on Alice Green, the daughter. Told from her
point of view, the story line through the first half of the book
gives the reader a somewhat skewed picture of what was happening
with her family during her childhood years. The reader will find
that this was intentional on the author's part, as things come to
light in the second half of the novel when Alice goes in search of
answers.

The first part is comprised of several key events that take place
in Alice's youth, snapshots of what her life was like growing up.
In one scene, Alice describes a party she attended, where at one
point her mother and father seem to be subconsciously competing
against each other for the attentions of a man. Two people couldn't
be more different. Alice's mother is a free spirit who disappears
for weeks on end doing who knows what, coming home with interesting
souvenirs and claiming she was working or doing research for some
project, while her father is a scientist, buried in his work. Alice
never does accept that her mother Charlotte is taking these trips
for any legitimate reason, except to enjoy traveling and living the
life she can't experience at home with her family. There's a sense
that Charlotte needs to escape, and on each successive trip she
comes home looking older and more haggard. Sometimes she is found
in bed all day, unable to function, deep in a depression that Alice
does not understand.

On the other hand, Alice's father Alan is an enigma, often
withdrawn and not taking part emotionally with the family. He
buries himself in his work, his personality befitting that of the
neurobiologist that he is. His obsession with work makes it even
harder on the two children during those weeks when Charlotte is
away from home.

The book opens with a chapter in which an uncomfortable
confrontation between Alan and Alice's brother August occurs,
during one of Charlotte's absences. It is freezing cold in the
house because of unpaid bills, and August is wearing a parka at the
dinner table. The tension between father and son is a clue of
things to come, and representative of their relationship. Alice
looks on, always acting as the middleman, trying to make things
better for everyone as her brother and father yell back and forth
across the kitchen table. It becomes obvious in later chapters that
Alan prefers Alice over Gus, and is probably the parent who she
feels closest to, but it is her mother who Alice yearns for, a
mother who is often not there, physically or emotionally.

August's attitude about things in general is opposite to that of
Alice. While Alice is always the good child, August seems to be
looking for trouble, tempting fate with his wild behavior. His
anger rages inside him, and as he grows older the anger and
feelings of alienation is evidenced by his promiscuity and careless
attitudes toward sex, along with his desire to be as far away from
his family as possible. As the author paints a somewhat blurry
picture of what makes August tick, the reader is left with a
puzzle, knowing that there is something missing that Alice is not
aware of and therefore the reader is also left in the dark.

Their lives fall apart after Charlotte's sudden death in a house
fire, and August leaves home. He disappears from their lives, and
it is much later that Charlotte goes in search for him. What she
learns when she finally finds him shakes up her world, but it
ultimately explains her dysfunctional childhood, her parents'
relationship, and the reason why August left in such a rage.

THE OUTSIDE OF AUGUST was my introduction to the writing of Joanna
Hershon, and I was deeply impressed. Written in a very descriptive
style, she successfully creates a mood and atmosphere throughout
the book that matches the story line. Other words that could
describe this book are "haunting" and "dark." Her writing style
made this book a fast read, despite the difficult and somewhat
cryptic story. I highly recommend this novel, and will probably
count this as one of my favorite books of 2003.

Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton (Ratmammy@lofton.org) on January 22, 2011

The Outside of August
by Joanna Hershon

  • Publication Date: April 27, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345441834
  • ISBN-13: 9780345441836