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Like Normal People Hardcover – April 14, 2000
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Like Normal People is the story of Ella Rose and her family, a blue-collar clan living in Los Angeles. Ella is old and her mind is going. Ella's youngest daughter, Vivien, is exhausted and harried, full of concerns about her own family. Her oldest girl, Lena, is developmentally disabled and lives in a residential home called Panorama City. As the novel begins, Lena sets her room on fire and almost gets kicked out. When Ella drives over to try to resolve the situation, she takes her granddaughter with her, and while her back is turned Lena and the child take off. For a brief afternoon they are fugitives, riding the Los Angeles bus system, shoplifting--they call it "borrowing"--from drugstores, fantasizing about the house they want to live in on the edge of the sea.
In her first novel, Karen E. Bender skillfully renders mood with a few salient details. Here Ella and her husband Lou are depicted in flashback, moving to Los Angeles as newlyweds: "They began armed with a crooked, raw arrogance. Unpracticed, Ella copied Lou. It made them sleepless, talkative. She, too, threw trash out the car window, and the rhythm of her speech began to match his." Yet her writing can also fall into short, laboring metaphors that never quite gel: "Ella was waiting to understand the emotion within her, for her heart was restless, trying hard to beat with a feeling that she did not yet understand." Like unskilled actors who disrupt a film, such rough sentences pull us away from the lives Bender has created. --Emily White
From Publishers Weekly
Some first novelists arrive on the literary scene already so proficient it's hard to believe that we are reading their debut effort. This is true of Bender, whose remarkable narrative of three generations of women has the wisdom of mature insight and the grace of empathy and understanding. Bender sets the scene, establishes salient relationships and indicates the personalities of her protagonists in the first few pages, in a marvel of economy and poetic prose. In the space of one day in 1978, with layers of flashbacks, California widow Ella Rose will persist in her four-decades-long attempt to micromanage the life of her retarded 45-year-old daughter, Lena; Ella's granddaughter, 12-year-old Shelley, will succumb to Lena's capricious personality and elude the protective custody of family and caretakers for a flight into the unknown; and Vivien, Ella's second daughter, will assume a new level of responsibility. From the moment she understood that her firstborn daughter was not "normal," Ella has made Lena the center of her life, devoting herself to protecting Lena from the disasters that might befall a headstrong but childlike and vulnerable young woman. Despite her mother's misgivings, Lena at 34 marries 42-year-old Bob, a driver for Good Will whose mental development is comparable to hers, as are his sexual needs. For Ella, the marriage is a new responsibility, and she continues to monitor the couple's daily lives. Meanwhile, preadolescent Shelley, na?ve for her age, is shunned by her more sophisticated friends, and in her fear that she is not a "normal person," begins to develop a phobic habit. Shelley, Lena and Bob, all equally limited in their understanding of the world but eager for experience, encounter tragedy, which Lena cannot comprehend and Shelley cannot move beyond. Bender captivates readers with a freshness of observation and arresting imagery. A surreal scene of an "anniversary party" under a beach pier is a model of poignant irony. Bender's subtle humor, her understanding of a parent's need to offer protective love and her tolerant view of human nature infuse the story with universality. In the end, this heartwarming novel dealing with societal misfits, family relationships and loss is about all flawed human beings, "normal" and not. Agent, Eric Simonoff. First serial to the New Yorker; rights sold in the U.K. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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I found the prose at times to be intrusively poetic, as some others have said, but if that is the writer's self-indulgence, I don't mind it because the rewards of the character studies are so great. Imagine someone talented enough to be inside the head of a 12-year-old and an 80-year-old and realistically yet lovingly portray mentally challenged people in their daily lives. I hope Karen Bender's next book brings us back into the lives of the Rose family. I miss them already.
Yes - this is clearly a first novel - some of the subsidiary characters, such as Lou (Ella's husband) and Vivian, her "normal" daughter, never quite come to life the way the three main characters do. Indeed, one gets the feeling that the book could have easily been longer -- Bender had more stories to tell about this family, but the structuring device (flashbacks within a single day of "real time") limited her ability to quite tell the story.
Still, one of the most engaging books I've read in a long time.
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written. It covers an area that I have been interested in, namely in
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