Light From a Distant Star

  • Mary McGarry Morris
  • Crown
  • 336 pp.
  • October 11, 2011

In this coming of age novel, a clairvoyant teen attempts to set things straight, yet life still spirals out of control.

Reviewed by Claire Rivero

“Nellie was beginning to see just how complicated life could be. Nothing stood alone. Every action had a reaction, and every reaction had multiple reactions, on and on, in a chain of insidious combustion they couldn’t quite pin down, much less prevent, and now was everywhere.”

How quickly our world can spiral out of control. One minute everything is normal, and the next it is chaos. Mary McGarry Morris’ Light from a Distant Star chronicles how quickly the descent can be. The novel follows 13-year-old Nellie, a girl blessed (or cursed as the novel demonstrates) with unclouded insight into people’s true motives and characters. Burdened with adult-like maturity, she often feels isolated from family and friends, who, if not blind to reality, steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it.

The book is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, as readers watch with an increasing sense of dread as Nellie’s once proud, respected family becomes an object of pity and a quagmire of dysfunction. The Pecks were once a mainstay in their small community, owning the town’s bustling hardware store. But Nellie’s father, Benjamin, has no talent for sales and even if he did, the big box stores like Home Depot (where Nellie’s mother, Sandy, continually begs Benjamin to apply for a job) have firmly taken over. While Benjamin hides away, both physically and mentally, struggling to write a town history that no one will ever want to publish, Sandy becomes increasingly frustrated and angry at her husband’s lack of familiarity with reality. Not that her view is any better. Convinced that all her family’s problems will be solved once the hardware store is sold, Sandy refuses to deal with her out-of-control eldest daughter, Ruth, her perpetually petrified son, Henry, or the rapidly escalating consequences of shutting Nellie and her observations out.

With the store failing, the family’s main source of income is a small apartment in the back of the house. Desperate for a paying tenant, Sandy rents the room to Dolly Bedalia, a “dancer” at a local club. Ruth takes to her instantly, Sandy takes to the cash flow instantly, and even Nellie is appreciative that someone finally pays her some attention, until she realizes that Dolly’s arrival may bring more trouble than relief. However, every attempt of Nellie’s to sound the alarm is firmly silenced by her family.

One of Nellie’s favorite pastimes is hanging out at her grandfather’s junkyard (a cesspool of environmental waste and another source of embarrassment to Sandy). Though Nellie’s grandfather is distant and terse to the point of downright cruelty to his grandchildren, his constant negativity and hurtful words are counteracted by the presence of Max and his dog, Boone. Max, Nellie’s grandfather’s handyman, is a man with a past and no one forgets it. Nellie’s instinct tells her he’s a good man, though, no matter what anyone says, and more importantly he lets Nellie talk unchecked. Nellie can relate to him because she too is misunderstood. The awkwardness of adolescence, augmented by her unusual maturity and uncanny intellect, places her firmly in the category of “pest” when she least expects it. Whether it’s offering advice to her parents, making friendly conversation with strangers or attempting to bond with Ruth over the escapades of her social life, no one ever seems to want Nellie around.

Boone is Nellie’s doppelganger in animal form. Constantly ignored and mistreated, he desperately wants a little affection. No one seems willing to engage him though. Even Max insists sternly that “Obeying, that’s the most important thing. Only thing’ll keep him safe.” That phrase, though directed at Boone, is tacitly and audibly repeated to Nellie over and over throughout the book. When tragedy strikes, only Nellie knows the truth yet no one will let her say it. When she seeks refuge in her parents’ confidence, telling them what she knows, they insist that she keep quiet, implying that speaking those words will ruin her entire family. They tell her that parents know best.

The story is a representation of the age-old metaphor of the butterfly flapping its wings. Everything in Nellie’s world seems connected; every action has a reaction, often of the most unexpected variety. While the novel is a coming of age story, it demonstrates that none of us is ever truly grown up. Adults struggle with the same dilemmas, encounter the same embarrassments and face the same stumbling blocks to success. Who among us hasn’t had an acquaintance, someone we detest, who we must tolerate because they have the power to control our destiny (or so we think)? Who hasn’t questioned whether just staying silent and letting the chips fall where they may isn’t preferable to upturning the apple cart and making people uncomfortable with the truth?

The book is a page-turner despite the fact that each new page seems to reveal a new blow for poor Nellie. Mary McGarry Morris does a wonderful job of painting the overall tone of the novel — one of mounting dread and anticipation as events spiral more and more out of control. The reader can feel Nellie’s stress and share her burden of truth and insight, and he is frustrated every time the chance to set things right is missed. When the dust settles, the characters and the reader realize that sometimes our gut knows more than we give it credit for.

Claire Rivero is a graduate of Duke University with degrees in English and Public Policy and is currently a writer for the American Red Cross.

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