Nicole Seitz's latest novel traces a Southern family's journey through a maze of unlikely circumstances, both externally on an unplanned vacation and internally as various family members express their private thoughts to the reader. It's a complicated novel that takes the reader on a trip that is at times bewildering, frustrating and endearing, and, in the end, mind-bending. Along the way, don't be surprised if your wrist gets a workout as you give the book a thumbs-up on one page and a thumbs-down on the next --- and you continue that pattern throughout the novel.
To Seitz's credit, she chose not to play it safe with SAVING CICADAS, and venturing into challenging territory means taking risks that don't always work out the way you hoped they would. In this case, the main story line is not what it appears to be, but you don't know that until you're well into the book. That's as it should be, because if you knew what was going on, you wouldn't experience that delicious "aha!" moment that comes when the dramatic twist is revealed, and suddenly everything --- or nearly everything --- makes sense.
So take everything that follows with a grain of salt; what I'm about to describe may or may not be what really happens. For the most part, the story is told from the perspective of eight-year-old Janie Macy, whose single mother, Priscilla, suddenly quits her job and goes in search of the father of the baby she's carrying. He's also the deadbeat, absentee father of Janie and her 17-year-old sister, Rainey, who has Down syndrome. Accompanying the Macys on the search are Priscilla's grandparents, whom Janie knows as Grandma Mona and Poppy. Sounds clear-cut, doesn't it? But things aren't what they seem in SAVING CICADAS.
The search takes a significant turn when Priscilla finds herself at the family home where she had grown up, a house rumored to be haunted by at least one ghost. There, she is reunited with her brother, who is a minister and the uncle who Janie never knew. Priscilla is considering having an abortion, and the debate that ensues, mostly in private thoughts, provides the material for the book's overall pro-life message. Family secrets and dysfunctional interactions surface throughout, but it isn't until the major twist is revealed that you begin to assemble the puzzle, whose pieces Seitz has scattered along the way. That makes for a very uneven reading experience.
Early on, Janie appears to be much too smart, wise and literate for a girl her age, using the vocabulary of a mature adult to express her interior thoughts and feelings. At the same time, she seems amazingly naïve --- so much so that I had to skim the book at one point to see if I had missed something. Did the story take place in the 1940s, or was this actually a contemporary story? Surely an eight-year-old today would be familiar with certain things that Janie was ignorant about. And when she lapsed into rural Southern dialect, after seeming to have such a mainstream speaking style, her whole character became a paradox.
Throughout most of the book, Grandma Mona was so surly and unlikable that it was hard to figure out why anyone, much less the lovable Poppy, would have anything to do with her. After the big reveal, her behavior was supposed to be understandable, but really, not even the plot twist provided a satisfactory explanation for why she was so mean, grumpy, critical and judgmental in the first half of the book.
And then there's Priscilla, who was so unresponsive, clueless and uncaring toward Janie that it's nearly impossible to develop any sympathy for her. Granted, these characters' actions make sense, to some extent, once the reality of the situation is revealed, but it's hard to stick with a book when some of the main characters, and the plotline itself, are so unbalanced and downright maddening.
The thing is, Nicole Seitz is a very good writer. Her beautiful prose borders on the literary at times, and that is as good a reason as any to persevere through a plot you don't understand all the time. And knowing that she seldom disappoints, you can be confident that she's going somewhere with an at-times exasperating cast of characters. The payoff in SAVING CICADAS will likely satisfy most readers, but getting to that payoff may be the biggest challenge.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on December 1, 2009