Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: A Place for Us by Liza Gyllenhaal

As I started to read this novel about consequences, poor decisions and impulse control, I wanted to reach into the book and smack the characters. Instead I was reduced to muttering under my breath about the ridiculous, self-centered stupidity of teenagers. Liza Gyllenhaal's novel A Place for Us tackles a difficult time in parents' lives and an equally emotionally fraught time in kids' lives and explores what happens when things careen out of control.

Brook and Michael Bostock appear to have it all. Brook is an heiress so money is no problem for their family but she also runs the very successful event planning business RSVP with an old college friend. Michael makes exquisite custom wood furniture that commands top dollar. They chose to move their family back to the small Massachusetts town where Michael grew up after 9/11 and they built a gorgeous showpiece of a home there. But there are small cracks under the surface. Brook finds out that Michael knew about her money right from their first meeting, leading her to wonder if he only married her for the security of it rather than for herself. Michael's family and almost all of the townspeople have continued to hold the Bostock family at arm's length. And son Liam, who feels this outsider status most of all, started drinking and smoking pot to cope with his loneliness.  So Brook and Michael pulled him from the local public school and sent him to a private boarding school in hopes of removing him from his troubles.

At the start of the book, he is coming home from school with his roommate Carey and Carey's older brother, the school hockey star, Brandon. Brook and Michael have hired local teenager Phoebe to babysit daughter Tilly until the boys arrive because they plan on being at a party overnight an hour away. But when the boys come through the door, Brandon and Liam are already drunk and high and when Phoebe, who has long been Liam's only friend and confidante in town and who is secretly in love with him, discovers that he's told Brandon and Carey that they have been having sex for years, she is crushed and angry enough to take the bottle they offer her and get herself drunk too. As if this isn't bad enough, Brandon, who has been given a pass on his behaviour for years and feels entitled to take whatever he wants, tries to rape Phoebe. She escapes him but when her father sees the bruises on her and hears about the sexual assault, he vows to take Liam and the Bostocks to court. Still desperately hurt and angry at Liam, Phoebe doesn't correct her father's impression that it was Liam who attacked her. And when her father Troy, who already has a long and troubled history with Michael Bostock, confronts Michael and Liam, Michael gives Liam the impression that he believes his son capable of this terrible and brutal act so Liam doesn't bother to explain that it wasn't him. And then as things snowball, Liam realizes that protecting Brandon could in fact give him an in and acceptance at school and so he makes the ridiculous conscious decision to protect Brandon.

But Phoebe and Liam aren't the only two who have shown a lapse in judgment over the events this night, Brook and Michael made the mistake of leaving these teenagers at their home without supervision, opening themselves up to the recriminations of the town that has never fully accepted them and to prosecution under the Social Host Liability Statute that holds parents responsible for what happens at their home even when they are not there. As they themselves question their actions, they also second guess their previous decisions, choosing to come back to this town to live, sending Liam away to boarding school, and the way they have ceded control of so much to Brook's disapproving half sisters. They have suffered a fatal lack of confidence in their choices and that, coupled with them feeling isolated from each other and the very family and acquaintances who should have made them feel connected, is as troubling as the law suit threatening the Bostocks. Both Brook and Liam struggle with loneliness and their desire to fit in and Liam faces that most potentially devastating of teenaged problems, peer pressure. A missing sense of belonging and connection not only leads Liam to accept and even embrace the false charges but it makes the isolation Brook feels and tries to ignore that much more difficult to overcome, with her having faked happiness and unconcern for so many years now. It is only through finding out the truth and recognizing the value and importance of a place where they are at home as well as the right way to achieve that place that will give these characters any hope of a happy future.

The novel touches on quite a few issues so terrifying to a parent: underage drinking, sexual assault, depression and suicidal thoughts, and more. The teen years are so chock full of angst, real and manufactured, and it's hard not to want to want to haul both Phoebe and Liam over your knee and spank them for being so willfully stupid. What they each suffer is incredibly real but their lack of emotional control and immaturity is absolutely infuriating. The issues of truth and honesty weave throughout the narrative here. Without the cover-ups and lies and the tacit and outright stated collusion by the adults in their lives, the story would not exist. The inclusion of the controversial but very real Social Host Liability statute makes the legal ramifications of the attack on Phoebe that much more important, regardless of whether Liam is at fault or not. It also makes the ease of the resolution of the story not quite work as the truth of the events of that night (which the reader has known all along) should have no bearing on a court case based on this law. So that was a frustrating and unexplained piece of the plot for me.

Liam and Phoebe as characters are very definitely alternately completely self-absorbed and aware of the damage they are causing. But honestly, they are still more over the top than any of the teenagers I know or have living with me currently. And I had a hard time feeling much sympathy for Brook and Michael, who seemed less interested in getting to the root of Liam's problems than they did about appearances and their own angst and history. As for bad guy Brandon, he's a completely cardboard character although clearly necessary for the pivotal moment in the plot. The narrative pacing waxes and wanes through the storytelling of several of the major characters: Michael, Brook, Liam, and Phoebe, but it does allow the reader to see each of their motivations and the secrets they keep even from those to whom they are closest. There is never any doubt that the truth will out here but the ending came about a bit abruptly and felt summed up rather than brought to a fully realized conclusion. Despite my feelings about the main characters and a major unexplained plot resolution, I found this a speedy read. It had a bit of the same feel of after school special for adults that Jodi Picoult's books have and will definitely appeal to her fans and to those who like those legal grey area stories that inspire such judgment and discussion, both pro and con. A good thought provoking book for book clubs to discuss.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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