Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to Rise
From We Are Called to Rise, by Laura McBride:
Open quote 

There was a year of no desire. I don't know why. Margo said I was depressed; Jill thought it was 'the change.' That phrase made me laugh. I didn't think I was depressed. I still grinned when I saw the roadrunner waiting to join me on my morning walk. I still stopped to look at the sky when fat clouds piled up against the blue, or in the evenings when it streaked orange and purple in the west. Those moments did not feel like depression."

We Are Called to Rise is this year's selection for "Richardson Reads One Book." Above is the very first paragraph. For me, it almost turned the book into "Richardson Reads One Paragraph."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C+

That first paragraph reads like a romance novel targeted at a middle-aged female audience. But that's not entirely fair to the novel as a whole. Just a few pages later, McBride writes a first-rate paragraph, a lure she should have used to open her novel:
I was wondering why the gun was in the drawer. I was thinking that I would have to turn around. I was acutely aware of being naked. I didn't know which one of those problems to address first. Turning around. Being naked. Figuring out how the gun got in the drawer. And, of course, none of those were the real problem.
Source: We Are Called to Rise.
Now that's a paragraph to hook a reader. That's how to start a novel. But by the time we get to it, McBride has already laid out everything we need to know of Avis, one of the four characters whose stories are told in We Are Called to Rise. Avis is a middle-aged woman living in sun-baked, suburban Las Vegas whose marriage is unraveling and whose son is an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. Bashkim is an eight year old, a son of refugees from Albania who can't return home and don't fit into the land that gave them refuge. Luis is a soldier wounded in Iraq and suffering from his own PTSD. Bashkim and Luis become unlikely pen pals. Finally, Roberta is a social worker whose job brings her into contact with all of the characters, after the tragic event at the heart of the story shatters everyone's lives.

By the way, I don't think it would be a spoiler to tell you that the title of the novel itself telegraphs much of what you need to know about the story. In order to rise, you first have to fall. And all four characters fall victim to various tragedies, some earned, some not. The basic plot reads like a script for a movie of the week, a Hallmark Presents emotional drama with at least a somewhat hopeful ending.

The writing doesn't rise above the simple plot. The novel is structured with interleaved chapters told in the first person by the four main characters. All sound roughly alike, perhaps because they all sound more or less like Laura McBride herself. It's apparently too great a challenge for this author to write both in the voice of a middle-aged woman afraid for her marriage and in the voice of a twenty-something soldier in Iraq afraid for his life. And in the voice of Bashkim, the eight year old, who speaks like an adult trying to sound like an eight year old.

Wow. The farther I get into this review, the more I wonder why I didn't give it an even lower grade than a C+. Maybe it's because We Are Called to Rise can serve as a useful stimulus for book club discussion groups on the topics of divorce, PTSD, immigration, even policing and domestic abuse, which also play a role in the novel. Laura McBride asks her novel to carry a heavy load. If it prompts some heartfelt dialog on some important topics, then We Are Called to Rise itself rises to a passing grade. As a selection for "Richardson Reads One Book," We Are Called to Rise just might turn out to be inspired.

We Are Called to Rise is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library. :-)

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