Delilah Hannaford’s life is falling apart. When a compromising picture is put up on her school’s website, none of her friends will talk to her anymore. The boys at school are harassing her because she’s developed a reputation for being easy. Her grades are falling, and she’s been caught shoplifting. To top it off, her grandmother has just died, and her mother has announced that they will be spending the entire summer in Vermont fixing up the family home.
Like TWENTY BOY SUMMER, Sarah Ockler’s debut novel, FIXING DELILIAH revolves around the themes of secrets and lies. Delilah knows her mother is keeping something from her. First, there’s the identity of her father: a journalist and foreign correspondent who was killed pursuing a story abroad before she was even born. Why doesn’t her mother ever talk about him? Then there’s the family rift that occurred eight years ago at her grandfather’s funeral. No one has spoken to Delilah’s grandmother since that day. Why has it taken her grandmother’s death for the family to return to Vermont? Finally, there’s Delilah’s third aunt who died young. No one talks about her, either; in fact, Delilah’s executive mother seems to have very little time to talk to her at all, much less open up about the secrets buried in the family’s past.
Vermont seems like it has the potential to change all this. Returning to the place where Delilah spent her childhood summers is reviving long-forgotten memories. It’s also restoring old relationships --- people who remember Delilah when she was younger and might be willing to talk about the secrets her own family is determined to forget. Then there’s Patrick, the neighbor boy and Delilah’s childhood best friend, who’s been hired to help restore the family home. Can Delilah find the answers she’s looking for without repeating the mistakes of her family’s past? Uncovering her aunt’s journal and sorting through all the junk her grandmother has squirreled away, Delilah starts to piece together the family puzzle and her place in it.
In the opening to FIXING DELILAH, Ockler provides several definitions for the word “fix”: a position from which it is difficult to escape; to repair something broken, damaged, or spoiled; to make amends for something wrong; to restore a relationship by resolving a disagreement or rift. Delilah’s problems at the beginning of the novel --- sinking grades, sexual promiscuity, shoplifting --- are shorthand for a teen in trouble. Even the title suggests that something about Delilah is broken. But these problems seem largely circumstantial, abandoned as soon as Delilah reaches Vermont and starts rummaging through her family’s secrets. The answers she uncovers aren’t earth shattering, and I was a little surprised about her family’s unwillingness to talk about them. The problem that emerges here is not so much the secrets in the family’s past, but the unwillingness of the family to communicate in the present. Delilah isn’t broken, though her family is --- particularly her mother, who uses her work as an excuse to avoid talking to, or even seeing, her daughter.
Both depression and suicide emerge as things haunting Delilah’s family, but Ockler does not really address the inheritable aspects of this trait. Instead, Delilah seems on the path to repeat her mother’s avoidance issues through various forms of acting out. When Patrick calls her on this, the sweetness of their summer romance nearly veers into heartbreak, until a well-meaning friend intervenes. FIXING DELILAH ends on a high note, but one of the surprises it contains --- involving a decision her mother makes that will impact the whole family --- suggests less a solution to the Hannafords’ problems than a continuation of the family’s pathology: the inability to communicate or consult one another about things that impact the whole family.
Ockler shows a deft touch for dealing with the topic of grief. There are several lovely scenes in FIXING DELILAH involving the ways in which grief brings the Hannaford women together. First, there’s a visit to Aunt Stephanie’s grave when they are all able to discuss the circumstances surrounding her early death. Then there’s a tiny box in her grandmother’s things that finally restores Delilah’s ability to remember the woman: a tiny, velvet-lined “box of tears.” “Whenever I’m feeling sad, I open it up and cry, cry, cry till I can’t anymore,” her grandmother once told her. Delilah ends up taking the “box of tears” to the memorial service, reclaiming something comforting from a family legacy marred by sadness. Finally, there’s a marvelous scene in which Delilah, her mother, and her Aunt Rachel start smashing all the ugly ceramic collectibles that have accumulated in the house. I found this to be very satisfying, a release of all the pent-up tension the book contains.
The power struggles of adolescence are often about a child coming into his or her own identity as separate from parents. The child begins to see the parents’ limitations, while still being subject to their rules. Throughout the course of the book, Delilah comes to see her mother not just as a parent, but as a person. After finishing FIXING DELILAH, I couldn’t help but wonder if the same understanding had been granted Delilah by her mother, or if there was anything about Delilah that really needed to be fixed.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on December 1, 2010