Monday, July 14, 2008

Book Review: No One You Know by Michelle Richmond

Over at the Barnes & Noble First Look Book Club discussion of Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing, quite a few people, including me, said they would have liked to have seen the book written from the first person perspective of the younger daughter Lindsay. I had that in mind when I read No One You Know because both books deal with a family coming to terms with the loss of an elder daughter. In the case of No One You Know, the elder daughter is Lila, a math genius, and the story is told by her sister Ellie 20 years after the tragic event.

“A story has no beginning or end. Arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead,” Author Richmond writes. Ellie’s life has been shaped by her sister’s unsolved murder, and the “true crime” account of it written by a professor, Andrew Thorpe, she once intimately trusted. That book revealed Lila’s math professor and secret married lover as the perp. But Ellie begins to question everything she thought was true when a chance meeting in an unlikely place yields Lila’s notebook that she used to jot down mathematical equations, leading her on a search to discover what really happened that fateful night.

I read an ARC of this novel which describes the book like this: “A riveting family drama about the stories we tell – a novel of astonishing depth and beauty, at once heartbreaking, provocative, and impossible to put down.” Jacket copy often exaggerates, but in this case I wholeheartedly agree with it. I will go out and buy a copy of this for my “keeper” bookshelf and I fully expect that this will appear on my year-end best list. Let me tell you why.

The narrative is very much about how little twists of fate can alter our life stories. For example, if Ellie had let Lila take the car that Wednesday, she might still be alive, Ellie’s parents might still be together, Ellie might be married and have kids by now. Stories and the endless variations of storytelling are themes in counterpoint with the very strict and exact nature of mathematics. I loved how all the pieces of the story fit together in the end like a perfect mathematical proof.

Thorpe once said in one of the classes Ellie attended that “in order for a book to be really good, it’s not enough to develop the major characters. The minor ones, too, have to be distinct. When readers close the book, they should remember everyone who walks across the page.” I do.

There is a smattering of mathematical talk that went way over my head, but I still found it fascinating. Ellie also has a very interesting job. Due to her great sense of smell, she works as a coffee cupper, looking for great coffee beans all over the world. Having learned a lot about fruit (thanks to a job I did for Passina) and pistachios (thanks to a lobbyist I met at a party on Capitol Hill last week), I really enjoyed learning more about coffee.

Extremely highly recommended!
"A story does not only belong to the person who was telling it. It belongs, in equal measure, to the one who was listening."


Darlene said...

Wow, this really does sound good. I read Year of Fog and it was good. I'll definiely be putting this on my TBR list. Thanks for the great review!

Anonymous said...

Just added this to my wishlist (you get the credit!). I often make a mental wishlist, but this one is added to the tabbed page on my blog. "one of the year's best" -wow, such billing!

Linda said...

I had read another review about this book (can't remember where) so I put it on my list of books to get at the library. I've got to quit buying so many books!

Kathleen Gilligan said...

As somebody who read "Songs for the missing", this sounds interesting... I'll add it to my TBR list, thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Lenore. I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed NO ONE YOU KNOW...thanks for your very thoughtful review, and thanks for spreading the word!

avisannschild said...

I'm so looking forward to reading this book! (I'm part of the book ring at LT, so will actually be reading the same copy you read.) I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it so much.

avisannschild said...

Great review, Lenore! I finally posted my review (and linked to yours) here.