Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down
By Anne Valente
370 pages, $25.99
By Stephanie Gangi
St. Martin’s Press
312 pages, $26.99
By Fiona Davis
289 pages, $26
Life serves up the unspeakable, the inevitable and the irretrievable in three new first novels – one of which is so disturbingly real that a reader may want to turn away, but won’t.
This is Anne Valente’s “Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down,” the tale of a Columbine-like school shooting through the eyes of four surviving students, all of them shattered and utterly unprepared both for survival and for the further atrocities heading their way.
Stephanie Gangi’s “The Next,” by contrast, is a romp through Manhattan and the near afterlife as the late mother of two 20-something daughters (and a dog named Tom) seeks to avenge the betrayal of her young lover, Ned.
Fiona Davis’ “The Dollhouse,” like “The Next,” is an addition to the ever-burgeoning canon
of books set in New York City, this one paying tribute to the historic Barbizon Hotel for Women, today the site of condominiums and, in Davis’ fictional telling, still harboring the secret
behind a mysterious death at the Barbizon in the early 1950s.
But it is Valente’s “Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down,” that has the staying power -- although reading it requires a decision: Do we want to immerse ourselves in a mass tragedy at a fictional St. Louis high school? Do we need the dark thoughts and graphic images of such barbarity (and its aftermath), thoughts and images we may never be able to erase?
Valente takes us straight to the heart of the horror in this shocking (but tender and cerebral) book – one far less interested in discovering why a 16-year-old would kill scores of classmates and staff at his school than in probing the inner and outer responses of four sensitive Lewis and Clark High School juniors over the days and weeks following the initial disaster.
It is they who tell us of finally leaving school on that awful first day, many stained with the blood of fallen classmates: “We carried them with us upon our jeans, upon our sweaters and T-shirts and sneakers. We carried this answer, what remained. We gave them to police officers, to investigators, what evidence was left of them upon our clothes. As if splatters could speak. As if clothing bore a voice.
“We left them in the parking lot with police, and we also carried them home. On socks, on the tips of shoes. On the edges of belt buckles and earrings and upon the knees of our jeans. We wanted to wash them away, a swirling of pink down the drain…And we wanted to keep them, this stain. A mark that they were here, that all of us were…”
This is but the tip of the iceberg. Only three days later, another great sadness overtakes the town: A fire at the home of Caroline Black, who had died in the rampage, just as suddenly kills her parents. It will be the first of many such fires, each annihilating the families of students slain at St. Louis’ Lewis and Clark High School and leaving fire investigators with a further enigma: At none of the burned homes can any trace of human remains be found.
Even at a crematorium there are “recognizable fragments of human bones,” one of the surviving juniors determines as the suggestion of something supernatural dawns, something at least allegorical as if a grief that is too much to bear can erase all trace of one’s mourners.
Valente writes without quotation marks, intensifying her book’s impact. She also fares well in a world of traumatized teens and – even if we realize at some point just who set the post-shooting fires – she is right not to tie up such loose ends. Life doesn’t work that way, and, in the end, her “Burn” title is all about glimpsing something so awful and so viscerally rendered that we become a part of it.
Stephanie Gangi’s debut novel, “The Next,” deals with death as well – but on an easier if sometimes poignant plane. Plus, her attentions to the neighborhoods that comprise Manhattan’s Upper West Side are often brilliant, particularly those portraying places like Sonny’s, a weathered pub catering to regulars and to Columbia University students.
Sonny’s is the spot where doctoral student and adjunct professor Ned McGowan meets, courts and falls in love with Joanna DeAngelis, a talented editor 15 years his senior who will shape and re-name his dissertation and see it through to a book… Sonny’s will also be the site of Joanna’s wake as well as a phenomenal ensuing event that will cause Ned’s professional and personal downfall.
Call it revenge – for Ned doesn’t stay with Joanna, opting instead for the celebrated Dr. Trudi Mink, wealthy skin doctor to the stars of America’s stage and screen – and Joanna, in death, is bent on getting back at him.
“I wanted a fling but it was never a fling,” she confides. “I sucked up a grad student – and spit out a minor celebrity. He snagged Dr. Trudi. That’s how well I did my job.”
Now it’s time for payback, something Gangi handles deftly starting with the weeks before Joanna’s death – which she devotes not to her beloved daughters, or trusted poodle Tom, but to tracking Ned and Trudi on her phone.
“Is it even possible to die wrong?” wonders her younger daughter, Laney – and it is a good question: Gangi tells a funny story here but often crosses that thin line between comedy and tragedy, setting us up for some necessary suspension of disbelief.
It should be noted that, high up in her acknowledgments at the end of “The Next,” she pays homage to “the memory of writing teachers” including Robert Creeley and Leslie Fiedler – with whom she studied during her years at the University at Buffalo.
In all, “The Next” is a satisfying book, a whim with a serious side, told in alternating voices, that will tug at the heart strings of readers who are also dog lovers. There is a small misnomer here (that we will chalk up to poetic license): Ned is idolized by freshmen at the Columbia Journalism School – which has no freshmen, being a graduate school.
Davis, author of “The Dollhouse,” is an alumna of that very Columbia Journalism School – and, whether she meant to or not, has recreated the good old-fashioned “dime-store romance” of my grandmothers’ day. She has also researched her real subject – the Barbizon – to a fare-thee-well, giving us both the old and the current versions of the once-exclusive residence for women only that once housed Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath (for a month) and Candace Bergen.
Two-pronged, and a page-turner, “The Dollhouse” depicts 1952’s secretarial student Darby McLaughlin and 2016’s media writer Rose Lewin during each woman’s early days at the Barbizon – parallel tales that meet as Rose tries to unearth the secret behind the now-elderly Darby McLaughlin’s hermit-like existence and always-veiled face.
“Darby’s story is part of the fabric of the city, one we don’t want to forget,” Rose tells her editor. “What did she do with her life that makes her so unforgettable?”
Enough, it turns out, to fill a charming debut novel!
Karen Brady is a former News columnist and a frequent News book reviewer.