It is rare these days to be propelled through a novel by the sheer force of wanting to know what will happen next. A young writer who can, through both style and subject, achieve that kind of urgency is a rare find indeed. With his debut novel MAYBE A MIRACLE, Brian Strause proves to be just such a stroke of literary luck. He has developed a plot that is compulsively readable, while also achieving nuanced character development, wit and honesty in his prose.
Strause is a refreshing new voice in the female-dominated world of nuanced and quirky family dramas; tales that are deceptively small-scale --- depicting one family's very unique story --- but nevertheless have resounding impact. Nestled between the lines of this deceptively sweet, fable-esque story, fundamental issues of faith, family, life, death, voyeurism and the media play themselves out. Unlike many a modern novelist, Strause never makes the self-aggrandizing declaration that he will tackle these "big ideas" --- he is never politically preachy or socially smug.
Crucial to this novel's disarming nature --- and one of the key ways to Strause's tackling of grander themes without coming off as pompous or pretentious --- is its narrator, Monroe Anderson. Monroe is an exceptional voice, wry and cynical --- a perfectly believable teenage boy --- but with an innate sweetness that shines through despite his own best intentions. Monroe himself would loathe to be labeled as sweet, to be called optimistic or engaging, and yet readers will find themselves fully devoted to him, allowing him to paint the story as it unfolds. The story starts on the night of his senior prom as Monroe goes into his backyard to smoke a joint before he meets his girlfriend and finds his younger sister floating facedown in the pool. Readers are thrust with Monroe into the spiral of events that unfold around him.
It is to Strause's credit that Monroe is such a nuanced and subtle character, one that feels so deeply realized and honest. One can't help but imagine that Strause culled much of Monroe from his own experience as a teenage boy. There is a palpable sense of the writer's duty to paint a ruefully honest portrait of a teenage boy who is both sweetly flawed yet deeply compassionate. In the wake of all the aspiring Holden Caulfields, contemptuous of the flawed adults around them and sneering their way through bumpy adolescence, Monroe is a revelatory creation.
The other members of Monroe's family are similarly well-drawn, each reacting to Annika's accident and the events that follow in unique and believable, yet unexpected, fashions. The rose petals that fall from the sky outside Annika's hospital room and her tendency to spontaneously bleed from her hands only complicate matters, as the masses flock to see this "Miracle," and each of them --- Monroe, his mother, his father, his grandfather and his older brother --- must somehow contend with the very bizarre nature of this young girl's celebrity. Monroe's mother descends into a kind of faith-based delusion, imagining Annika is a conduit for the pain and suffering of the masses and encouraging both the media attention and the pilgrimage of the sick to her bedside. Monroe's father withdraws both emotionally and physically from the family, burying himself in work and dulling the reality of his situation with alcohol. The descent of both of these characters is gradual, convincing and, as rendered through Monroe's clear-eyed gaze, heartbreaking.
Weeks after finishing the novel, long after they have turned the last page, readers will find themselves drifting back to the story of Monroe and Annika, mulling over the outcome --- the fate of the characters --- pondering the weight of the last scene, and perhaps flipping back to take in that last line. It is in the staying power of the characters, the stickiness of the morality at work here, and the weight of the themes that play themselves out, that the novel reveals its importance. Finally, MAYBE A MIRACLE is doubly satisfying, both as a compulsively readable, deeply felt work of literature and as the harbinger of an important and vital new voice in contemporary literature.
Reviewed by Jennifer Krieger on October 11, 2005
Maybe a Miracle