Book Reviews: Heartache and Grief Explored Novel Takes a Chance on a Difficult Homecoming

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Left to Chance

Amy Sue Nathan

$15.99, paperback, on sale Nov. 21

St. Martin’s Press

Have you ever wanted to just pack up your things and leave?

Teddi Lerner did. She left her hometown of Chance, Ohio (the title has layers) when her best friend Celia died, without looking back. In her wake, she left behind her friends and most importantly, Celia’s now 12-year-old daughter, Shayna (better known as just Shay).

When Shay’s father prepares to remarry, Shay asks “Aunt Tee,” now an acclaimed wedding photographer in San Francisco, to photograph her father’s wedding. Teddi would do anything for Shay, so she reluctantly returns to Chance after six years and has to face the people she left behind — and the grief she never truly came to terms with.

Philadelphia native Amy Sue Nathan’s Left to Chance paints a vivid portrait of what it feels like to experience heartache and grief as well as the awkward feeling of talking to people you haven’t seen in a long time, wondering if it’s still the same friendship.

Through the lens of Teddi’s camera, Nathan also provides a realistic backdrop of a small town that also has a shockingly high Jewish population, including Teddi and Shay’s family.

Nathan includes pseudo-historical tidbits that fill out the details of the fictional town, like the history of the 100-plus-year-old Chance Women’s Welcome Wagon, which started as an organization that welcomes new Jewish families to town. Or the background behind the town’s well-loved bed-and-breakfast Nettie’s on Lark (now an inn without the breakfast) where Teddi stays and where the current owner — no matter who it is — is always called Nettie.

Choosing a first-person narrator was a smart choice. By narrating the novel in Teddi’s voice, the reader can feel how vulnerable and nervous she is returning to the place where she hadn’t explained to anyone before why she left.

You feel the bond between Teddi and Shay, especially as she tries to help navigate Shay’s tween years and the ensuing drama, and the hurt Teddi realizes she’s caused by running away.

You feel her hope and timidity as she reconnects with old friends — and old flames — and seeks to somehow fit back into the town that isn’t the same as she left it.

The story flows well, with loose ends of Teddi’s past tied up but not too neatly that it feels unbelievable. After six years, you wouldn’t expect everything to just go back to normal after one day, which Teddi — realistically — doesn’t count on.

It also creates a believable account of loss, as Teddi walks through town, visiting her and Celia’s old homes and feeling overcome by memories and thoughts of her friend. Enough so that the reader can also feel the loss of the artist and mother who smelled like strawberry Chapstick and the friend on whom Teddi relied. Nathan successfully describes emotions like the nervous hesitation Teddi experiences as she goes to visit Celia’s grave or the memories of Celia triggered by passing a specific town site.

It’s a fast read but its characters draw you in, enough so that, like Teddi, you’ll soon be planning your next trip to Chance.

Marissa Stern

The Boat Runner

Devin Murphy

$15.99, paperback

Harper Perennial

Coming-of-age can be traumatic under even the best of circumstances — remember your anxiety-filled teen years which, looking back, often were much ado about nothing?

Take that drama, add in living in Nazi-occupied Holland and then having to deal with the losses of your brother and parents, and you get the idea of what life is like for young Jacob Koopman during World War II.

Debut novelist Devin Murphy deftly captures the feel of adolescence while weaving the horrors of wartime into The Boat Runner, which begins in 1939 and continues through 1943.

At that point, things actually are rather comfortable for Jacob and his older brother, Edwin. Their father owns a lightbulb factory, making them among the town’s most prosperous and prominent residents. Their mother plays piano and organ, both at home and at church, and the family dog Fergus roams the grounds.

It’s almost idyllic, and even as German ships are seen in the North Sea and the rumblings of war grow louder, the Koopmans and other residents don’t have any real fear. In fact, Jacob’s father sends his sons to a Hitler Youth Camp, thinking it will win him German business for his factory.

The boys, who are accompanied by a handicapped friend, actually enjoy the camp, which is depicted as a combination of adventure and propaganda.

War breaks out soon enough, however, with Holland overrun by the Nazis.

At that point, Jacob’s world begins to fall apart and, as the novel progresses, the Nazis take over his father’s factory — sending the father into hiding — and his brother meets an untimely demise.

Then there’s Uncle Martin, who quickly joins with the German effort — or has he? In fact, Martin is doing his part to sabotage the war effort, sometimes enlisting his nephew to assist with his violent schemes.

What really shatters Jacob’s world, however, is a Royal Air Force bombing run that kills his mother, prompting him to enlist in the German army as he seeks revenge on the Allies. Jacob trains in a program involving midget submarines that deploy single torpedoes.

Although Jacob and Martin have a falling out involving the burial of his mother at sea, Martin reappears later in the novel and acts as a conscience of sorts for his nephew.

By novel’s end, Jewish refugees figure heavily, as Jacobs sorts through assorted moral issues.

Author Murphy, who is an assistant professor of creative writing at Bradley University, employs a spare yet effective writing style that leaves little filler.

While not lighthearted reading by any stretch, Murphy’s prose never overshadows the magnitude of Jacob’s dilemmas and makes The Boat Runner an accessible look at lesser-explored aspects about war’s impacts and an overall quality read.

Andy Gotlieb