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This is one of the few books that I’ve purchased in a long time. I bought it because Patty Yumi Cottrell won a 2018 Whiting Award for fiction, which is basically a fancy grant telling her and everyone else that she’s talented. And she definitely is.

This book is really cool. Really intense. Strangely funny. Depressing. Disgusting. Awesome.

When I started this book, only a hundred pages in, someone asked me if my book was good and I said “Yes, it’s very good, but I think I might hate it.” But despite the fact that I thought that I hated it, I kept wanting to read more.

Here’s the thing: this is not a book for everyone. It is a spectacular piece of writing for people that can really relish in that part of it— the writing. This is not a book that you would buy for your Catholic grandmother, for your new neighbor, for your fragile-hearted best friend. They will probably not like it and they will tell you so and then once again your English major depreciates in value in the eyes of those around you.

The story follows Helen Moran, a thirty-something Korean woman with adult acne scraping out a nearly homeless existence in New York. She works as a supervisor at a center for troubled youths. She believes that the way to help these youths is by buying them weed and toiletries and giving them her personal contact information. One day, after waiting for her roommates couch to be delivered, she receives a call that her adopted younger brother has committed suicide. She decides to fly to Milwaukee where he lived with their adoptive parents, and conduct an investigation of what caused him to take his life.

Helen’s voice drives the novel, the way its paced, some parts buzzing with her erratic, manic energy, other parts thick and depressing. It’s not clear if she has a mental illness, as is suggested in her brother’s suicide letter— he suspects that she might be undiagnosed bipolar or schizophrenic— or if she’s just kinda weird. Kinda weird and grieving. Maybe really weird. There’s the scene when she first enters her childhood home to the shock and surprise of her adoptive parents and then proceeds to mop up the rainwater that has brought in, yelling “I could kill a dog with a brick!” when she is finished even though no one is around. That level of weird.

There’s many parts where Helen makes others uncomfortable, behaves inappropriately, or carries out actions that seem so careless that it’s hard to think that they’re not intentional. She kills the funeral flowers, eats a whole cake, harasses her brothers friends and her own family. The book is full of shit, vomit, masturbation, and Fiona Apple, who Helen once followed for a summer tour. As I said before, not the most pleasant reading recommendation.

For a book so messy, my main criticism would be is that the suicide letter makes her brother’s death so neat. I won’t go into the specifics of the letter, but it seems to not fit in this novel that is all over the place and meaningless in the most human way. Helen’s task of conducting an official investigation into the matter seems like a coping mechanism, so why can she come to such a concrete result?

The only way that I can reconcile this easy grab is that the whole novel kinda focuses on how we handle terrible things in the world and how we keep on living by comparing Helen to the people around her. The letter and her brother’s way of making his death tidy is just another way that he is different from Helen. Helen, though she too admits to looking into the abyss and sometimes wanting to die, has something inside of her that makes her want to stay alive. Her brother never had that.

As much as it’s about grief and death, it also hits on family, race, mental health, poverty, and charity in a ton of interesting ways. I think a lot of books and movies paint adoptive parents in a totally positive or totally negative light, and this was an interesting mix of both. Helen’s problems with her, as she always refers to them, adoptive parents didn’t come from wanting to know about her birth mother and there wasn’t any sort of abuse, but she wasn’t eternally grateful to them for having adopted her either. At the heart of it, Helen knows that her adoptive parents didn’t understand her or her brother, and didn’t really try. She angrily writes to them once while she’s in college: “There is a world and history of nonwhite culture.” She reflects on how she and her brother both prayed to wake up white.

But as much as Helen thinks she has grown up misunderstood, which she undoubtedly has, it’s not like this has given her any sort of insight in understanding others. It’s pushed her to be less understandable, maybe; she lives a fringe lifestyle while not actually living on the fringes of society. Briefly, she’s a bizarre performance artist in Milwaukee, and then she’s living a weird almost homeless existence in New York by just finding all of her clothes and belongings on the street. She thinks that she understands her troubled youths, but really she just gets them high and behaves inappropriately with them. She shows them The Red Balloon because she thinks they are so troubled that they have never seen a balloon before. She acts like she knows so much about her brother and her parents and her family, when in reality there are so many points in the novel where she is so far off the mark that you want to slap her and tell her to look at what’s happening around her.

Her dad gets one really redeeming moment, when he’s talking about his last night with her brother and then even expressing some emotion to her about how it makes him feel and how he blames himself and, where it could be a redeeming moment for Helen too, she barely notices it. But maybe that’s a testimony to how many times there are chances at redemption around us that we don’t even realize.

It’s honestly a completely wild ride for a plot that only spans over four days and it’s definitely worth checking out. If you immediately hate it, don’t stop because it gets better. The things you hate about it don’t go away, but you start to like them. In the end, this book, while thoroughly sad, leaves you with a feeling that there are reasons to stay alive. Helen comes to this conclusion and drags the reader there with her.

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