Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: Casebook by Mona Simpson

We learn to be adults through our observations, learning from our parents and the other adults in our lives. Most children want to be grown-up long before they are and so they scrutinize their parents' lives. They listen in on phone conversations. They eavesdrop. They sit at the top of the stairs or by a vent where voices carry to try and overhear what to children is information about the unknown landscape of adulthood. In Mona Simpson's newest novel, Casebook, her main character Miles Adler-Hart and his best friend Hector spy on adults, like all children do, but they hear and uncover things they shouldn't with unintentional results.

Miles is not yet a teenager when he starts eavesdropping on his mother. He starts because he wants to watch Survivor and hopes to hear his mother discussing the forbidden show with one of her friends. But he and his walkie talkie, with the transmit button taped down for extended listening, get trapped in his parents' room where he overhears the information that his parents are separating. Slow to learn that no good ever comes of listening in to others' conversations, Miles continues to listen to things he was never intended to hear on an extra phone extension specially rigged for surveillance. And eventually, after his parents' divorce and even after he comes to like his mother's long term boyfriend, he can't break the habit, an inability that has the power to ultimately destroy the things that make his mother the happiest.

The novel opens with a note about the book being a prequel to a popular comic, noting that it was written by one of the authors and annotated by the other. This opening seems rather out of place and only ties into the story itself at the tag end of the novel. The structure does set the reader up for the few, scattered footnotes to be found in the text but the notes are so few and far between that they are unnecessary, or on the flip side, there should have been more to make them more effective.

The characters are well drawn and appealing, especially Miles. He starts as a typical, slightly nerdy pre-teen, chubby, and unsure of himself. He is generally a loving older brother to his younger twin sisters, nicknamed the Boops, and is pretty accepting of what he admits is his parents' "good" divorce. He struggles with his mother's geeky new boyfriend Eli at first but eventually comes to welcome him as a part of their lives, until his suspicions get the better of him. Miles is a caring son, concerned with his mother, whom he calls the Mims, her happiness, and the hope that her romantic fantasy of happy families comes true.

As the novel progresses and the year pass, Miles' interests and actions change and broaden beyond the domestic drama. He harbors a long unrequited love for a girl in his class and kindly holds back from hurting another who is interested in him. He develops an interest in sex (but please not when concerned with his mother!) just like any other normal teenaged boy. He internalizes a need for security and financial stability learned from his mother and some of the funniest moments in the book occur when he and Hector flex their entrepreneurial muscles, reselling soup at school and rehoming vicious pets.

Although this was not the boy version of Harriet the Spy that I might have expected when I first picked it up, it is a satisfying read. Although very different books, Harriet learned a lot about people through her spying and Miles does too. How do we learn about love and relationship? By watching (and listening to) our elders, of course. And this is just what Miles learns: the ins and outs, successes and failures of love and relationship, the importance of truth and the destructive power of lies, and the ways in which happiness grows more complicated and sometimes more fragile in adulthood. Simpson has written an engaging coming of age tale that easily reminds readers of their own innocent childhoods before they understood heartbreak, sadness, and loss and how they felt when they discovered that this trio is forever a part of life.

For more information about Mona Simpson and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, or take a look at the Good Reads page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

1 comment:

  1. It is hard to pinpoint when exactly we each lost that childish perspective on the world but once it is gone it is impossible to get it completely back. Sounds like this book captures that perspective very well.

    Thanks for being on the tour!


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