The premise of Vendela Vida's terrific debut novel, And Now You Can Go
, seems at first a tad depressing, in a Bernard Goetz, New-York-in-the-1980s kind of way. The narrator, a young woman named Ellis, is walking in Riverside Park when she is held up at gunpoint. The man assures her he doesn't want her money, and he doesn't push her into the bushes to rape her. Ellis notices the designer name on his glasses: Giorgio Armani; she begins to obsess on this detail. Then she starts to recite poetry to him to cheer him up about life. The encounter ends as abruptly as it began, when the man simply runs away down the street. Even though no blood has been shed, Ellis's life is utterly changed.
In fast, clean, funny prose, we find Ellis slipping adrift from her routine as a Columbia grad student and falling into a series of mini-romances. When she goes home to San Francisco for winter break, her mom suggests Ellis join her on a medical mission to the Philippines. The work and the heat and the exhaustion settle her down for the first time since the attack, and she returns to New York a little refreshed. There's one more encounter with the gunman, which Vida plays more comic than tragic. In fact, the strength of this novel is in the way Vida toys with her priorities. The scenes that ought to be fraught and suspenseful have a goofy kind of oh-well voice to them; the scenes that ought to be dull--like Ellis's run-ins with her annoying roommate--exert a weirdly compelling narrative drive. Both the author and her protagonist charm us utterly. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
Ellis, the 21-year-old narrator of Vida's lean, absorbing first novel, is forced at gunpoint to sit and talk with a man in a New York City park as he contemplates a murder/suicide. Like Scheherazade, she reels off half-remembered poems to try to distract the man and keep herself alive. Though nothing more happens on that park bench, she carries on as if treading water in an emotional whirlpool, waiting to get sucked under. A grad student at Columbia, Ellis goes through the various routines expected of the victim of violent crime: reporting the event to the campus police, seeking succor from friends, going to a therapist. But the problem of how to define herself-as a victim or not-lingers and begins to seep into other parts of her life. She ricochets among a handful of men: Tom, her well-meaning but needy boyfriend; the nameless "representative of the world," an enigmatic grad student; a rich, suicidal ex; and her only potential savior, a colorful, if chauvinistic, ROTC recruit full of chivalric gestures and inappropriate comments. Frustrated, Ellis returns to her home in San Francisco and then accompanies her mother on a charitable trip to the Philippines, where, in a series of surreal vignettes, she assists doctors giving eye surgery to the poor. While a more conventional novel would use this trip as a denouement-a kind of reconciliation with her own privilege-here it merely underscores the narrator's dreamlike detachment. Despite the high drama of the start, this is an unsentimental tale, in which the classic brush with death elicits a sense of awe as well as anger, and conventional notions of therapy and reconciliation are overturned. The end, unfortunately, arrives just as the book began-abruptly-and the reader longs for something more. Nevertheless, this remains an intriguing and auspicious debut.
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