Thursday, January 24, 2013

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

Isabel is a single, twentysomething thrift-store shopper and collector of remnants, things cast off or left behind by others. [This book] follows Isabel through a day in her life in which work with damaged books in the basement of a library, unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer, and dreams of the perfect vintage dress move over a backdrop of deteriorating urban architecture and the imminent loss of the glaciers she knew as a girl in Alaska.

Alexis Smith's debut novel unfolds internally, the action shaped by Isabel's sense of history, memory, and place. For Isabel, the fleeting moments of one day can reveal an entire life. While she contemplates loss and the intricate fissures it creates in our lives, she accumulates the stories - the remnants - of those around her, and she begins to tell her own story.

There's really not much I can say about the plot of this book, as it's pretty much exactly what the dust jacket states: a day in the life of Isabel. So I'll talk more about my overall impressions of this very slim work, if that's OK with you, dear reader.

The author has a nice way with words. For example, when describing Isabel's parents' impending divorce, the author writes: "When her parents were together, they had little to say to each other. The fissures in their family grew until the most important parts broke free and began to float away." When Isabel ruminates about her childhood dream of becoming a writer, the author tells us that her grandmother talked her out of it, saying "there was no market for being in love with words." It comes as no coincidence that our main character ends up working in preservation at a library, as it gives her a chance to save those very words that others write.

There are few characters here, and none of them are what I would call overly developed. There's Spoke, the war vet that Isabel crushes on at work (his real name is Thomas, and trust me when I tell you that even I had forgotten reading it the first and only time it appears - I had to skim back over the book to find it). His nickname does involve a bicycle, albeit in a round-about way, although it was a book that almost saved his life.

Isabel's older sister, Agnes, is mentioned but only in the flashbacks. Agnes is, of course, pretty and popular. Isabel describes herself as overweight, bordering on fat, but as a reader, I never really got that impression of her. Of course, many women think of themselves as "fat" when they're really just at a healthy weight, so perhaps that's the case here. My biggest reason for doubting Isabel's adult plumpness is that she shops in vintage shops, and as someone who has tried to do the same, I can't imagine her being able to buy anything is she was really that heavy. I'm not grossly obese or anything, but I have never been able to find a dress to fit me as such a shop. I see her as possibly curvy, but not fat.

This is a nice book with good writing, but ultimately it's not satisfying. Much like the postcard Isabel finds in first chapter of the book, the one of Amsterdam that has the message from M- to L- written on it, there's just enough to let the reader come up with some scenarios of his or her own. But not enough to know the whole story. Also, it's awfully short for a novel, especially as it's a smallish trade paperback with lots of white space on each page. If I had done a word count on it, I'm guessing it would come closer to being a novella. I will keep my eyes out for Smith's next work, though, as I think she shows real promise.

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