A Darkly Entertaining Tale of Faith Gone Too Far

Coming of Age at the End of Days, by Alice La Plante

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

If, like me, you were raised on a steady diet of Rapture sermons, you’ll find much to relate to in Coming of Age at the End of Days, the darkly entertaining novel of faith gone awry by Alice LaPlante, the bestselling author of Circle of Wives.

Sixteen year old Anna, unpopular at school and searching for something to hold on to, falls under the spell of her new neighbors, the Goldshmidts. The Goldshmidt parents and their teenaged son, Lars, belong to a cult whose mission is to speed up the coming of the Tribulation–the dark period of hell on earth that fundamentalist Christians believe will follow the second coming of Christ. When she is suddenly orphaned, Anna’s grief over her parents’ death is muted by her belief in their spiritual shortcomings. As a concerned teacher tries to guide her back to reality, Anna becomes ever more obsessed with the Tribulation and her role in making it happen.

The cult’s mission centers on the breeding of pure red heifers; Orthodox Judaism holds that Jews must be purified by the ashes of a red heifer in order to rebuild the Third Temple. Evangelical Christians have long been on this bandwagon, as they believe that the rebuilding of the Third Temple is a prerequisite for the coming of Christ. This is great stuff, and it’s not even made up. (For a fascinating, in-depth explanation of the red heifer mythology and a profile of the Mississippi preacher named Clyde Lott and the Orthodox Rabbi who are in cahoots to breed cattle to get things rolling, read the excellent PBS Frontline report, Forcing the End: Why Do a Pentecostal Preacher from Mississippi and an Orthodox Rabbi from Jerusalem Believe That a Red Heifer Can Bring Change?)

In the background of LaPlante’s novel is a far-away figure who is working to breed the heifers–a character who seems to be based to large extent on Lott. For readers who didn’t grow up with the terrifying Left Behind series (we watched them at church lock-ins) and with the Rapture in the background as a constant threat, LaPlante’s novel may seem delightfully far-fetched. As someone who believed all this stuff hook, line, and sinker until I left high school, it’s far more relaxing to return to the subject in fictional form as an adult, when I am able to see it as a dark fairy tale instead of a terrifying inevitability.

Anna is an interesting character, and I easily found myself rooting for her. The only bit that didn’t quite ring true was Anna’s initial fascination with Lars. When he utters a few words to her at a bus stop, she falls instantly under his spell. I would have liked to see her more gradually sucked in; a deeper exploration of why she fell for Lars’s story, and for his outsized view of his own elevated place in the world, would have made for a more nuanced character.

What I find most interesting about the Tribulation is its potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evangelical American presidents have made monumentally dangerous decisions based upon the belief that it is their duty to move the world in the direction of the Second Coming. As I write this, ISIS too is attempting to bring on the Apocalypse. With three distinctly different groups–evangelical Christians, Islamic extremists, and Orthodox Jews–moving toward three very different versions of the end of days, a man-made version of the Tribulation may very well come to pass.

In Coming of Age at the End of Days, LaPlante has crafted a darkly entertaining and often enlightening cautionary tale about what happens when youth and faith collide. Highly recommended for fans of psychologically complex fiction, as well as for reformed Evangelicals.

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ISBN 9780802121653

Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2015

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, including Golden State and The Year of Fog, and two award-winning story collections, including Hum.

A review copy of this book was provided by Netgalley.

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Reviewed by Mia Lipman 

In her dark and deft fourth novel, the much lauded Claire Messud pulls no punches with the voice of Nora Eldridge, a beloved schoolteacher wound up explosively tight. “How angry am I? You don’t want to know,” she notes by way of introduction, and it’s fair to say things go downhill from there—but Messud’s vivid writing woos us into keeping this bitter pill of a lady company. (The author came by her PEN/Faulkner Award and Booker Prize nominations honestly.)

Having played the “straitlaced” good girl for all of her fortysomething years, Nora anchors her ferocity just beneath the surface, and it takes a family of three to unleash it: the Shahids, whose luminous young son, Reza, “a canonical boy,” captures Nora’s imagination when he enters her third-grade classroom. Reza’s foreignness and poor English charm his teacher, but the other students peg him as a target, and a playground scuffle connects Nora with his mother, Sirena. The two women share an interest in art—Sirena’s professional and thriving, Nora’s amateur and unfulfilled—and soon they also share a studio that becomes Nora’s refuge from everything she resents: failed relationships, dead mother and hypochondriac father, no art degree, no children. Sirena’s academic husband, Skandar, welcomes his wife’s new friend and his son’s “institutrice” with polite intimacy, and the Shahids quickly absorb Nora into their worldly, accomplished family.

But on Messud’s watch, it’s never as easy as all that. Familiarity can breed obsession, and Nora finds herself teetering on the hairline crack between trust and distrust as she digs deeper into her new relationships. Messud is comfortable in claustrophobic spaces, and it’s hard not to follow her into them, flinching, even when we ought to know better.

This sharp, empathetic portrait of a broken woman demands a second glance, then a third, then an entire afternoon. The payoff will leave you reeling.

Knopf, April 2013

ISBN-10: 0307596907

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Mia LipmanMia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

 

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

unchangeable spots of leopards

by Kristopher Jansma

Reviewed by Susanna Daniel 

At the start of Kristopher Jansma’s slippery and energetic debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, the unnamed narrator tells about his childhood spent in Terminal B of an American airport, making up stories — he will be a writer, of course — about passengers and the shop people who oversee him while he waits for his flight attendant mother, whose questionable parenting choices are almost all we ever learn about her.

Like most literary orphans, the boy is plucky and precocious, and one dramatic afternoon he learns that the grownups who have been distractedly looking out for him regard him less with affection and amusement than annoyance and pity. It’s an experience the narrator will continue to have throughout the the book: first he sees himself through one funhouse mirror, then through a different and equally distorted one. And the reader never knows which perspective to believe.

The twists and turns of the novel’s plot, which spans three decades, veer confidently into familiar literary territory, jockeying nimbly between bildungsroman and rags-to-riches and love triangle and caper. The setting jumps just as agilely — New York, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Iceland — as does the narrative style: one chapter is an unbroken monologue told to a couple of tourists in a hotel.

Before he is thirty-five, the narrator has remade himself half a dozen times. He is a liar of many stripes: identity thief, plagiarist, heartbreaker, and author. Like many authors, however, he’s far more enchanted with the notion of having written a book than the act of actually writing one, and therein lies the rub. On one of its many levels, this is a book about how to avoid writing a book.

The novel is rapid in pace, the language and details tightly controlled. Each time the story swerves into well-trod literary territory, the swerve is embraced fully. (Waiting on a train platform, the narrator not only invokes Hemingway, but also shares a local liquor with another American tourist who, to take it all the way, quotes from “Hills Like White Elephants.”) The few characters who break into the narrator’s self-involved bubble are quirky and colorful without ever becoming entirely of-the-flesh; this is more a story of hijinks than of hearts. Even this reader, who admittedly prefers a more reliable narrator, found myself rooting for the storyteller. He’s a liar and a thief, sure, but he’s also an underdog with more nerve than he’s earned.

At the center of the ever-shifting story is the question of truth — slanted, as the narrator professes to prefer it, or altogether disassembled. Each chapter spins a more outlandish yarn that the last, leaving the reader with the sense that the truth is sliding around even as the book sits closed on the shelf.

It’s tremendous fun, this book. One might wish for a little more of a typical debut’s raw, hard-beating heart, but what the book lacks in heart it makes up for in exuberance.

Viking Adult, March 2013  ISBN 9780670026005

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Susanna Daniel is the author of STILTSVILLE, winner of the PEN/Bingham Prize for debut fiction, and SEA CREATURES, forthcoming in July 2013 from HarperCollins. Visit her website at http://www.susannadaniel.com.