Aimee Bender's funny, delicately shaded first novel is a constant delight, even at its most warped. An Invisible Sign of My Own
tells the story of Mona Gray, a math wiz and a high school track star, whose ordinary childhood comes to pieces when her father is stricken with a mysterious illness. There doesn't seem to be a name for it, but he looks sort of gray and seems frail and unhappy. Whether there's anything really wrong with Mona's dad is unclear, but her fear that he will die, as well as his withdrawal from family life--no more vacations, no running practice with his daughter, no unplanned outings--triggers a corresponding withdrawal in her. Whenever she does well at anything, or starts to enjoy herself, she quits: piano class, dancing lessons, her first boyfriend, running.
I quit dessert to see if I could do it; of course I could; I quit breathing one evening until my lungs overruled; I quit touching my skin, sleeping with both hands under the pillow. When no one was home, I tied ropes around the piano, so that it would take me thirty minutes with scissors to get back to that minuet. Then I hid all the scissors.
Instead of working out her problems, Mona develops a habit of knocking on wood, and sometimes knocks for an hour before getting to sleep. Eating soap is her other dark indulgence: a surefire anti-aphrodisiac that she calls on whenever she feels sexually attracted to a man.
At 20, Mona is recruited to teach math at the local elementary school. To her surprise, she is a brilliant teacher, making addition and subtraction tangible to second graders with a game called Numbers and Materials, in which the students bring in natural or man-made objects that take the form of numbers. When 7-year-old Lisa Venus brings in a zero made of IV tubing from her dying mother's hospital room, Mona recognizes a kindred spirit. But she will have to be healthy herself to help Lisa resist her urge to take on her mother's illness out of grief and loyalty. The complicated connection between children and adults is the underlying theme of this big-hearted novel. However quirky and alarming Bender's methods may seem, An Invisible Sign of My Own is no darker than a fairy tale, and the witch--even if it's the witch within--is reliably vanquished in the end. --Regina Marler
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From Publishers Weekly
Clever, original and written with brio and eloquence, Bender's first novel (after the praised short story collection The Girl with the Flammable Skirt) may not appeal to every taste, but those who respond to its depressed, quirky heroine in her anguished search for safety from life's disasters will feel instant love. At 20, Mona Gray has deliberately made herself as colorless as her name. A decade ago, when her adored father fell victim to a mysterious illness that has left him drained of energy, hope and desire for human contact, Mona too retreated from life and deliberately stopped aspiring for success or happiness. Having turned her back on achievement as a track star and on sharing love, Mona still nourishes one source of happiness: the world of mathematics. Numbers, being clear and immutable, are Mona's salvation, as well as her job. She teaches arithmetic to second graders, having invented a zany curriculum in which her students find numbers everywhere in the environment. Kids love Mona, although she constantly and compulsively knocks on wood to keep disaster at bay. Everyone else seems unaware of her emotional isolationAbut everyone else in this novel is also pretty strange. Mr. Jones, Mona's former high school math teacher, wears numbers around his neck to indicate his daily mood. Mona wears "an invisible sign of my own" that denotes her fear and vulnerability. Then awkward, unsociable science teacher Michael Smith, who shares Mona's morbid imagination, breaks through her emotional reserve. Meanwhile, she has developed a particular fondness for seven-year-old Lisa Venus, who is actually experiencing the real terror of loss and abandonment that Mona fears: her mother is dying of cancer. In a satisfying denouement in which Bender brings the narrative full circle with astonishing dexterity, Mona discovers how to connect and live fully, and helps Lisa to navigate her own way through a frightening world. Readers may find the narrative too schematic and the characters exceptionally odd. On the other hand, Bender writes like an angel, with images that strike resonant chords, and her sly humor pervades every page. And those who are initially put off by the bizarre fairy tale that opens the narrative will be touched almost to tears when it comes full circle. Author tour. (July) FYI: Bender is the sister of Karen Bender, author of Like Normal People (Forecasts, Feb. 21).
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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