Nesting patterns of African swallows (which are not migratory, and therefore, couldn't carry a coconut to Britain)

Sorry if you were expecting a Monty Python writeup of some sort.  None of the members have released a memoir recently (that I know of).  I'm talking about a middle grade book called simply, Nest.  If it had stayed as simple and true as its title, I think it would have been a lot more successful.

Nest is the story of Chirp (Naomi), a young girl fascinated with birds, living on Cape Cod in the 1970s.  It is a Problem Story, one in which the main character Confronts Adversity, Learns Life Truths, and Cries A Lot.  Bonus points if the main character a) runs away from home, b) engages in a reckless relationship, or c) physically alters him/herself in order to visually express some sort of trauma.  There are extremely good examples of problem books: Mockingbird, Sure Signs of Crazy, Wonder, The Higher Power of Lucky--all of these talk about real life problems without going completely over the top.  In writing Nest, I think the author got a little too excited with the Causes of Major Life Problems and tossed most of them in.

From here on out this review will become quite spoiler-ridden, so proceed at your own risk.


This is not a poorly-written book.  Some of the scenes are extremely powerful and well-done--like when the heat is overpowering in Chirp's classroom and she just has to get some air.  Or her rock, meet glass catharsis.  Whenever Ehrlich gets into descriptions of dance, it's wonderful.  You can feel the movement she's describing.  However, other aspects of the story don't work as well.  Even Chirp's namesake interest, birding, feels tacked-on.  She'll go for chapters without talking about birds and then suddenly we're slammed with a full-on paragraph of facts about wood ducks.

The plot catalyst for Nest is that Chirp's mother, a dancer, suddenly gets tired and cranky, and one of her legs drags behind her.  Chirp's father, the world's most clueless and insensitive psychiatrist ever written, takes her to the doctor and the family finds out that mom has MS (multiple sclerosis).  Treatment for MS did exist in the 70s.  It's not like it was the Dark Ages.  Chirp's mother would have had a CAT scan and an MRI to help the doctors better understand the progression of the disease, and then therapy (pharmacological and physical) should have been prescribed (note, I am neither a doctor nor a medical historian, so please don't hold me to this as a matter of life and death).  Instead, it sounds like the doctors just handed Chirp's mother a bunch of painkillers and said, "See you later!  Good luck with that!"

Suddenly, Chirp's mom develops acute onset depression.  Then she checks herself into a mental hospital.  Then she and dad decide that the best course of action is electroconvulsive therapy, which I think the author chose to put in there solely because it sounds Really Scary to the kids who would be reading this.  I don't think ECT is inhumane, and it really does help some people, but it's not a panacea, either.  I've never had ECT, but there was a point in my struggle with depression where I did seriously consider it.

Then Chirp's mom comes home, and a few weeks later commits suicide à la Woolf (she drowns herself in a pond).

Wait, what?  I can't find the exact quote right now to save my life, but the doctors tell the family that, in fact, Mom had always been depressed, but it just flared up when she received her diagnosis.  All of the descriptions of Naomi's mom paint an artistic soul, but a vibrant and generally happy one (as all humans are both happy and sad normally).  It was almost like the author decided that MS wasn't a "good enough" problem, so then we had to add depression, but that wasn't stressful enough either, so how about suicide?  "Gratuitous" was the word that came to my mind.

Chirp's older sister, Rachel, really isn't much help with this, because her reaction to everything is to sass everybody about everything.  I realize that most middle-schoolers do this (I did it a lot, with foot-stomping to boot), but she's so staunchly nasty sometimes that I couldn't like her.  At all.  Even when the author decided that it was time to take things down a notch and make Rachel the comforter for Naomi.  There was also this really weird line that doesn't reflect on Rachel at all, but it relates to her, and it's strange: "For the first time, I get it.  Mom was her mom, too.  'You're tired,' I [Chirp] say. She nods her head.  I wrap my arms around my sister's waist and squeeze.  She's not as thin as she used to be."

She's not as thin as she used to be.  SO WHAT?  Big deal!  You've just come to the genius conclusion that your older sister is mourning your mother because you're not the only special snowflake in the world and all you can comment on is how her waist is bigger?  What does that have to do with anything?

In order to get away from the emotional void that is her family, Chirp strikes up a relationship with Joey, the neighbor boy who is routinely beaten by his father (stop me if you've read this plot line a million times before).  One time Joey gets mad at Chirp because she runs home when she sees her mother has returned.  He puts a rotten clam strip in her desk.  Captain Sensitive, this one is.  They go on sleepovers where Naomi intimately details how they sleep next to each other and how warm he is and it gets kind of weirdly sexual.  Once they're run away (of course they have to run away; it's so dramatic) and they're on the bus, this relationship gets even more uncomfortable.  "When I wake up, my face is pressed against Joey's neck.  It's soft and warm and smells like hay.  I keep my eyes closed an extra minute so I can keep sniffing, and then I sit up."  Later, they pet each other in the park: "His hair is soft and beautiful.  I don't even try to get the tangles out.  I just run my hand over it really slowly, because it feels so good, and Joey closes his eyes and smiles."  And the coup de grâce: " 'Someday I'm going to kiss you,' I say, before I even realize it.  'Someday I'm going to let you,' Joey says."

Yet another problem in the novel (how many am I up to now?) is religion.  Naomi's family is Jewish, which only crops up at points in the novel where it might cause some drama, which is mostly around the time of her mother's funeral.  Then it turns into bubke-and-kugel-fest, and Chirp casually drops a line about not having to sit shiva for seven days because her family isn't orthodox.  For younger kids reading this, I think they'd be really confused.  During the Thanksgiving play, Chirp's role is to say grace, and she isn't sure if she should or not, but then the play happens and we hear no more about her unease.

I know I'm making this novel sound really problematic, and it is problematic, but it also has decent prose and the beginnings of good characters.  I have a feeling that critics will swing the opposite direction of me and proclaim this "luminous" and "transcendent" and all those other frou-frou words they like to use in their reviews.


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