Leah Hager Cohen has produced a slim little book that proves a point: in the novel, milieu is everything. Heart, You Bully, You Punk
(and what a title it is) tells the story of Ann, a math whiz at a private high school in Brooklyn, and two people who loom large in her life: her father, Wally, who owns a restaurant called Game in Manhattan, and her teacher, a quietly mysterious woman named Esker. When Esker and Wally begin to fall in love, Cohen gives us a story that's immediate and elegant, characters who are lovable and maddening, dialogue that's silly and serious and wonderfully human. But what makes this small novel really terrific is its choice of venues: the school and the restaurant. Both locales are wonderfully novelistic, crowded with characters and lousy with rituals recognizable to anyone who has haunted such joints. Ann quizzes her classmate Denise on whether or not she thinks Esker is poignant. "Denise remained unconvinced. 'She's just eerie.' 'Eerie' is a big word this year at The Prospect School, where its connotation is not derogatory; it's a catch-all for anything enigmatic or unplumbed." Likewise, Cohen nails nice little details of the emotional life of a restaurant, like Wally's ritual of having a nightly cocoa with his maitre d', Nuncio. "They've had little manly crushes on each other for seven years; they always will." Cohen launches her characters into the waters of heartbreak, but these small noticings keep the book grounded, funny, and always very alive. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
"Prickly" Iphegenia Julia Esker, a math teacher at a private Brooklyn high school, is the guarded figure at the heart of this accomplished, lovingly crafted and somewhat suffocating novel by Cohen, whose previous books include the novel Heat Lightning and the poignant memoir Train Go Sorry. Esker (she goes by her last name) begins tutoring a brilliant and potentially troubled math student at home after Ann James's fall from school bleachers ("I was kind of nudged from the inside") leaves her wheelchair-bound with two broken heels. Ann adores her teacher and wants her father, the kindly, semimarried restaurant owner, Wally James, and Esker to get acquainted. Though Esker has lived a hermitlike existence for nine years, ever since her beloved Albert Rose, then 22, married the girl his family expected him to, Wally is able to get past Esker's defenses and make her, momentarily anyway, "baskingly, destabilizingly happy" in this odd tale of love and loneliness. As if Esker's natural resistance to happiness weren't enough, the Prospect School frowns on her nascent relationship with Wally, and Wally's wife (and Ann's mother), who left three years ago to act in independent films, visits at Christmas. But this slim novel is short on plot, which leaves Cohen room for enchantingly poetic observations and romantic similes, a sustained metaphor of physical injury, and characters who compulsively take their own emotional temperature. Small gestures carry great weight, and images and details reverberate throughout, as tension builds, not organically from situations, but from Cohen's descriptive layering. One wishes her characters-especially Esker-would stop thinking so much about how to live and just start doing it.
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