In an industry that probably presses out a book (or two) a minute, so-called "new voices" are a dime a dozen. New voices with original, well-written stories are not nearly as abundant. And that's why STONE GARDEN by Molly Moynahan is such a literary treat. Moynahan is a new voice that knows how to tell a story.
STONE GARDEN is the poignant tale of not just the untimely death of a life only begun, but also the unsettling effect that death has on the fragile life left behind. At book's start, 17-year-old Matthew Swan is dead. Alice, his best friend for over a decade and once-believed future partner, is left behind to mourn, grieve and adjust to the loss. She seeks mindless, disconnected connections in a few physical encounters that leave her, and this reader, asking the unanswerable question of what it would have been like with Matthew, her silenced soul mate, her dead destiny. She seeks solace in conversations and interactions with her parents, her teachers, her friends, and even the inmates at Rahway prison, where she is teaching writing as a school project. But she doesn't find release and her pain of separation is as palpable as Romeo and Juliet's collective pain. Excuse the comparison to that most famous of first-love couples, but it was unavoidable --- it's there on every page of Moynahan's doomed romance.
STONE GARDEN is ripe with surprisingly true teenage dialogue that straddles the worlds of inquisitive childhood and knowing adulthood, stepping back and forth between the two as only adolescents finding maturity and reluctantly shedding innocence can, and as only a very good writer can capture. Screaming she's "not a baby anymore," Alice mounts her pink three-speed Schwinn decorated with pink plastic streamers and takes off down the road to face solo her demons of lost love. "…Matthew Swan had held my face in his hands and told me that he loved me with every part of himself, that he had loved me from the moment he saw me trip over my shoe laces, and while it had taken a while for us to grow up and get it right, we would get it so right that never in the history of love affairs and marriages and big families with beautiful children and grandchildren would anyone get it more right," she reflected with the naïve idealism of a young person struggling with love and death for the first time.
Moynahan knows teenagers, their desires and their hauntings --- and she delivers them in STONE GARDEN. But more importantly, she knows people. STONE GARDEN is more that just Alice's story. A strong cast of well-drawn characters lends even more realism to the story. Matthew's mother and siblings for that matter are 'alternative' in their thinking and appearance; their scenes are hippy-dippy, artsy-fartsy, and would be laughable if not so sad in their efforts to deal with Matthew's demise. Alice's younger brother, Alf, designs clothes for fun. A teacher by trade, Moynahan's book could even be called a valentine to educators; a particularly appealing character is the able teacher Alice and Matthew had befriended, whom Alice calls on in her times of need.
The universal issues of death, love and growing up have always been fodder for good books. But few, in my opinion, have crafted the combination so masterfully as Molly Moynahan in STONE GARDEN.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on September 2, 2003