April and Oliver
Tess Callahan’s debut novel, April and Oliver, begins with the death of April’s beloved younger brother, Buddy, in a car accident on a snowy winter afternoon. As Buddy takes his last breaths, he recalls a childhood memory of being lost in the woods with April and her friend, Oliver, and the reassurance of holding both of their hands. This brief prologue, like the next 300-plus pages of this novel, is beautifully rendered and sets the tone for the rest of the book.
In many ways, April and Oliver is a novel about loss. Both April and Oliver (who has recently returned to his home town with the woman he plans to marry after a long absence) have lost someone they cared for deeply in Buddy. And April’s grief in particular permeates the whole book.
In addition to losing Buddy, these former childhood friends have also lost significant parts of themselves now that they are adults. While April bears the scars of the sexual abuse she experienced as a teen and continues to choose older men who mistreat her, Oliver has given up the music he felt passionate about in his youth for a more practical career in law. April, wracked by shame, would prefer to forget the past, while Oliver insists on digging into it in order to discover the truth about what he considers to be some important events. During this process, these two complex characters must each confront their long-held feelings for one another. And over the course of the book they must decide what these feelings mean and whether they should be acted upon.
Tess Callahan is a talented writer whose prose is precise, evocative and, at times, simply exquisite. She paints vivid characters and has a particular gift for creating compelling scenes. Her talent falters a little, however, when it comes giving the reader an entirely satisfying story. In one instance, a key scene between April and an abusive boyfriend is played almost entirely off-camera. And the boyfriend is subsequently conveniently (and a little unconvincingly) disposed of, abruptly ending this story thread. In addition, it was also hard not to feel a little cheated by the novel’s climactic scene, which seemed a little heavy-handed. Still, I have to admit that I was left guessing about how the story would conclude until the very end.
Despite its flaws, April and Oliver is an extremely pleasurable read since Callahan weaves such shimmering and delightful prose, and explores some compelling and universal themes. Callahan is clearly a novelist who has much to offer. I look forward to her next book.