I just read April & Oliver, by Tess Callahan, for the January Manic Mommies Book Club. I had wanted to read it for a while, so I jumped at the chance to participate in the book club. And (hi FTC!) thanks very much to Grand Central/Hachette for providing the review copy.
April & Oliver is the story of two childhood friends – basically cousins, but not blood related – who have been out of each other's lives for many years but reconnect after the death of April's younger brother Buddy. There is a lot unresolved between them – not just sexual tension, but also secrets that they kept from each other and discussions that they never had. When they meet again, Oliver is engaged, and April has hit rock bottom, in an abusive relationship and a dead-end career.
While I do not think April & Oliver is a perfect book, I did enjoy it a lot. Callahan is a spare, conservative writer who doles out her story parsimoniously – a bit at a time, never more than is needed. This leaves her readers hooked and eager for more. Like the layers of an onion, each peel of the skin reveals another layer of April and Oliver's pasts, which are complicated and troubling each in their own ways. I admired Callahan's ability to create a relationship that I ended up feeling quite invested in and eager to see to its resolution.
My problems with the book mostly revolved around the character of April. She is cold and almost monosyllabic through the first half of the book, yet later, there are chapters that reveal a great intellectual depth that seemed out of sync with her earlier persona. I read an interview with the author in which she said that she had written the book over several years and I wonder if that might explain the inconsistency in April's character development. [OK, I just read another interview with Callahan on A Novel Menagerie, and learned that she had twins during those years! As a mother of twins myself, I totally understand, and sympathize with, the gaps in writing. I am very impressed that she churned this book out when her kids were little.]
I also found at times that Callahan spent more time telling, or suggesting, that April and Oliver's relationship was akin to that of soul mates, while their actions suggested an awkwardness and distance between them that belied their purported closeness.
Yet, despite what I consider to be somewhat fundamental flaws, I read this book eagerly, and the characters will stay with me for a long time. I cared about what happened to them, and the ambiguous yet vaguely hopeful ending allows me to play out many scenarios in my mind.
I recommend April & Oliver for Callahan's strong narrative skill and the sheer enjoyment of reading a story that grabs you and doesn't let go until it finishes.