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Customer Review

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book So Haunting I Had to Experience it More than Once., August 23, 2006
This review is from: Black Mountain Breakdown (Paperback)
Smith's character Crystal Spangler is many things, but boring is not one of them. My first reading of this story, I felt a lot like the reviewers here who didn't like the book. The strange thing was that, try as I might, I couldn't forget about it, and went back to it again in the last few days. What is this story about, besides life in the Appalachians and the locals who inhabit it? It's about a circle that's sometimes clear and sometimes fuzzy that is nevertheless complete.

Agnes and Crystal are best friends for life, but we see from the very beginning that big, frumpy Agnes is more well grounded and stronger than her pretty blond, blue-eyed friend who is given to overreacting to her father's dark poetry readings and need to be taken care of by others. Early on, Agnes is a sort of surrogate mother for her. Crystal's father is a heavy smoking alcoholic who has withdrawn into his own space, dependent on both Crystal and his wife Lorena's attention as he slowly chooses to slip away from life. The three Spangler children are effected by him and Lorena's co-dependant enabling in different ways. Jules is bitter, angry, and prefers men to women, ashamed of his family and home. Sykes is flighty and given to following any direction the wind blows in, but he calms down eventually. Crystal is a lot like Sykes, but she isn't as strong because she is raped by an uncle in her junior year of high school, and then, having blocked the entire incident from her mind, goes home to find her father dead.

Crystal will become a floater: months after the blocked out assault and Grant Spangler's death, Crystal will break up with her steady boyfriend Roger Lee, but doesn't know just why. My guess is that she feels he's too closely tied with both the conscious and unconscious incidents. She will begin a somewhat remote and intimately charged relationship with a local bad boy who eventually leaves her for country stardom in Nashville. Constantly needing something to hold onto (like she held onto her daddy's robe upon finding him dead and having a nervous breakdown), she discovers Jesus, then she discovers random male partners. Crystal is empty and just doesn't care. She drifts like a leaf on the wind, always desperate for something to hold onto, constantly anxiety ridden and sometimes lost in a world of hallucinations. She takes up with a hippie radical who ends up hanging himself and has another nervous breakdown.

She returns to the Appalachians and becomes a school teacher, one of the few times she is finally together and admirable, because she genuinely cares about her students. There's just one problem with Crystal; every time things are going half-well, she finds a way to screw it up. A phone call from Jules, her hippie brother boyfriend telling her she's doomed. These things all stick in her mind. We also see Agnes's point of view through this all, sometimes jealous, but mostly knowing all along that Crystal lets other people put ideas in her head that harm her. Crystal is always way too vulnerable despite her strengths.

What goes around comes around full circle. Roger Lee still loves her and dumps his family for her. For a while she is happy with him, but eventually things happen similar to their high school years. Once again, a chain of events makes her overly anxious, and then she recalls the forgotten incidents...

This book is an eery and painful portrait of a young girl who came from a highly effected, dysfunctional home and, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, can never quite take control of her own life, always needing someone else to take care of her. If you are uncomfortable with this story, perhaps it's because you see elements of yourself in Crystal. All too often, I admit I do. What gets me most is how she always ends up talking like her father, beginning sentences with "Listen...," how she never outgrows the need to have men tell her stories, and how Agnes is the one who ends up taking more care of her in the end than her mother. Full circle, and a sad one at that. More disturbing is how nothing, save for the heat of the moment, ever seems to fulfill her for long. People like this are more real than we want to believe, and Lee Smith has brought this home in a bittersweet and unforgettably prosaic style. If you like books that don't end with a glass slipper and a prince, I urge you to give this one a try. Crystal Spangler is not always likeable, but she definitely isn't forgettable.
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