Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Thirty: Assembling Georgia by Beth Carpel

Moving back into the world of book reviews this week I approached this novel with a bit of skepticism. A debut novel with little publicity swirling around it and clearly published by a small publisher (self publisher?) with little publicity. Like the big companies know what they are doing?

Beth Carpel's debut novel reminds us of what so many authors today seem to lack -- the gift of storytelling. Why is literary fiction afraid of the mysteries we encounter in life, instead engaging in the backward recitation of a plot we later piece together. Few writers can handle that style with success. Carpel apparently missed the class on how a novel is supposed to work and instead turned out a novel which runs as smoothly as the motorcycle around which the story centers.

Like the motorcycle, this book has some crashes and parts which need to be repaired, but overall Carpel has turned about a well-oiled story. Georgia is the central character and her life of underachievement is interrupted by the weekly arrival of motorcycle parts to her home. With no clue as to who is sending her the parts or why, Georgia's final package includes an instruction manual and the next step is obvious. Not a mechanically inclined person (or so she thinks) she gets the help of her Uncle Emery, one of more interesting characters to show up in a novel in recent memory. Emery lives up north in the woods of Minnesota digesting a range of books and fixing things up in return for what he needs. He takes Georgia in and together they work on building the motorcycle and rebuilding Georgia's life, or as Carpel puts it "Assembling Georgia."

Carpel holds the mystery of who sent the parts hidden for quite some time, although in the end the discovery is as anti-climatic as life usually is -- some poetic license here would be allowed. Along the way we meet Georgia's good friend Corrine, which shows that level of friendship in which the relationship is always strong no matter what the distance between times connecting with each other may be. A childhood acquaintance, Frank, also gets a starring role as we get caught up on his past troubles and current struggles, all of which are encased in a likable man who seems to be as adrift as Georgia.

Once the bike is built Georgia does the quintessential road trip, giving her time to learn more about herself than she realized she was missing. Characters come in and out and Carpel manages to create strong characters with a few deft strokes. Once the ride is done she is again faced with life, but we now see a woman who is ready for future challenges. The readiness is good as Carpel is not done throwing challenges at her, but at the risk of spoiling the plot we leave that to the reader.

Carpel is not subtle about her intentions, and whether that is the result of a first novel writer trying to make a point or simply an honest writer, the result is a story which invites the reader along rather than daring them to continue. In fact, the unanswered questions in this novel keep the reader moving quickly since the element of suspense works well. We want to know how Georgia turns out. We want to know who sent the motorcycle. We want to know what demons Frank is facing but will not share with anyone. Carpel tells a good story and we keep wanting the story to go on. She recognizes this by giving us an epilogue, which fast forwards us seven years, but she could have left it out because we knew where her characters were going.

Even when the story stutters, as with some faltering dialogue and a few too many touching moments, the result is still endearing in its open attempt to draw the reader in to another person's life. Carpel's characters are real and easy for readers to relate to. They are complex people who make good decisions and bad decisions and sometimes no decisions at all. At times you want to yell at them, and at other times you want to be on the back of their motorcycle. There are no angels or demons here, just ordinary people not only making the best of what life offers them, but learning to create something when they do not like what they have been handed. Call it a coming of age story for the middle aged -- or for people of any age who need renewal. How many novels can you say that about?

Carpel's website is worth checking out, especially after reading the book since she gives the photo version of Georgia's motorcycle trip.

Reading Challenges
I really thought his book was going to be a challenge, but it was a fast and enjoyable read. Whenever I look forward to getting some time to read I know I'm on the right track. Now next week...

Coming Up
I wanted to get in the Christmas spirit with A Christmas Carol, but cannot find the edition I have that I really want to read. Plus, I get to read 17 research papers in the next week. Yikes! I forgot about that challenge when coming up with this book a week idea. This could be tough! But I'm choosing a shorter book which has just a bit of praise (including a Pulitzer), Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" -- a collection of short stories. I already read and really liked the first story so it should all work out.

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