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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review of "We Are Called to Rise" by Laura McBride

3 Stars

This multi-perspective novel is set in Las Vegas.  There are four narrators:  eight-year-old Bashkim whose father, a former political prisoner in Albania, and mother own an ice-cream truck; Avis, a middle-aged woman whose 29-year-old marriage is in upheaval and whose son, a wannabe policeman, seems to suffer from PTSD after three tours of duty in Iraq; Luis, a young soldier who was raised by his abuela but is now injured and traumatized by his tours of duty; and Roberta, a children’s advocate who works with at-risk children.  The lives of all four characters converge after a tragedy.

All of the characters, except Roberta, are interesting.  The inclusion of Roberta
is questionable.  Unlike for the others, there is little background given for her and her role could easily have been assumed by another minor character.  Another difficulty is Bashkim; he is such a sweet and innocent and likeable child yet at times seems too mature for his age.  There is also the problem with the prevalence of so many caring, almost too-good-to-be-true people:  Mrs. Monoghan, Dr. Moore, Dr. Ghosh, Mrs. Delain, Mrs. Reyes, Mrs. Stoddard, Mrs. Weiss.  Maybe I’m too much of a cynic?

The ending is problematic.  The solution to the problem is totally unrealistic given the age and circumstances of the person who comes to the rescue.  It’s a heart-warming ending which is necessary for thematic development but suffers because it seems forced. 

The book is an easy read because of its conversational writing style.  However, I think that the author attempted to cover too many issues.  Avis, Baba, Luis, Nate, and Bashkim could each have their own novels.   The novel examines the difficulties of the immigrant experience, how a person’s childhood affects one’s adulthood, the consequences war and of untreated PTSD, the interconnectedness of people, and how “the tiniest act, the smallest space of time, the most inconsequential of decisions, changes a life” (213).

Thematic development is sometimes rather heavy-handed.  The title immediately suggests an upbeat ending, as does the book jacket’s description:  “how ordinary strangers can rise to the extraordinary challenge of caring for each other.”  The importance of doing good is stressed since “this one small life is all we have for whatever it is that we are going to do” (186).  The significance of small deeds is certainly emphasized:  “It all matters.  That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the wind-blown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, fold the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, make the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing” (197).  The theme is hardly original; we have all heard of pay-it-forward acts of kindness. 

Sometimes, the novel reads like a self-help book intended to make the reader feel good about his/her life.  For example, Avis talks about building a community with her friends:  “And what we built did matter.  Even if it didn’t last.  Even if it didn’t change the world.  Even if lots of families were doing the very same thing in lots of other communities.  It still mattered.  For a little while, a man and a woman fell in love and did the best they could for their children.  For a little while, a neighborhood of families helped each other out, and loved each other’s kids, and tried to make the world better.  And some of those kids will do the same thing.  And some of those kids will have a hard time.  And some of those marriages will last.  And some won’t.  And it all still mattered” (199 – 200). 

This novel has some interesting characters, but its theme could be developed with more subtlety.   And an unrealistic ending does little to convince one of a theme’s validity.