A Year and a Day: A Novel

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9780060554651: A Year and a Day: A Novel

Fifteen-year-old Alice dreams of her first kiss, goes to sleepovers, makes prank calls, auditions for Our Town, and tries to pass high school biology. It's 1975, and at first look her life would seem to be normal ... and unexceptional. But in the world that "genuine and fully developed talent" (Washington Post) Leslie Pietrzyk paints, every moment she chronicles is revealed through the kaleidoscope of loss, stained by the fact that Alice's mother, Annette, without warning, apology, explanation, or note, deliberately parks her car on the railroad tracks, in the path of an oncoming train.

In the emotional year that follows, Alice and her older brother find themselves in the care of their great-aunt, forced to cope and move forward after their catastrophic loss. Lonely and confused, Alice absorbs herself in her mother's familiar rituals, trying to recapture their connection -- only to be stunned by the sound of her mother's voice speaking to her clear as day as she flips Sunday-morning pancakes. Driven to understand who her mother was, Alice distances herself from her girlfriends and brother as she engages in "conversations" with Annette. As Alice works through her grief, she slowly begins to see Annette as an individual -- separate from simply "my mother" -- and ultimately embraces the bittersweet knowledge that the lives to which we are most intimately connected often remain the most mysterious of all.

Taking its title from the pop-psychology idea that it should only take a year to get over the death of a loved one, A Year and a Day is an intense and deeply affecting portrait of how the human heart counters tragedy and can spin hard-won triumph out of the deepest despair. A redemptive, often humorous meditation on growing up and growing into oneself, this is an intimate and heartwarming novel to curl up with and savor.

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About the Author:

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Pears on a Willow Tree. Her short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, and The Iowa Review. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

From The Washington Post:

Annette kills herself, and no one knows why, not the aunt she had lived with, not the two teenage children she leaves behind. There is no note, no sudden revelation that the doctor had diagnosed a painful and deadly disease. For the family there is just the unalterable knowledge that the woman at the center of their lives drove her car onto the railroad track, lowered the window and tossed away the keys.

Alice, Annette's 15-year-old daughter and the narrator of A Year and a Day, is determined to uncover the mystery behind her mother's abrupt departure. Her grief-stricken efforts are at the center of the novel, Leslie Pietrzyk's second.

The high school principal calls to comfort Alice. He tells her, "The guidance counselor showed me in a book that after someone dies, you go through stages: denial, anger, depression, acceptance. . . . But once you get through this first year, you're fine. Mrs. Flesner photocopied the chapter." In addition to photocopied reassurances of the duration of grief, Annette's sudden absence is marked by neighborly offerings of Jell-O -- green with canned pear halves, pineapple chunks and marshmallows, orange with mandarin oranges, yellow with pineapple and walnuts. " 'Now it's official. We have a death in the family,' " says Aunt Aggy, entering the kitchen with yet another dish. Aunt Aggy, who had been threatening for years to fall apart, does. "No one could compete with Aunt Aggy on being the Crazy One," Alice thinks. "If I said I was hearing voices, she'd hear more voices, louder voices, voices offering stock-market tips, whatever it took. So who was I supposed to be?"

Aunt Aggy may act crazy, announce she's become an artist and wander around town wearing a beret, but Alice is the one who hears a voice no one else can hear. It belongs to Mama and it is constantly in her ear, offering a stream of advice. In the bedroom it's cosmetic: "I've worn a lot of mascara and this is one thing I know. Stroke upward; take your time. Lower lashes are harder. Gently draw the brush across them like you're holding a feather. . . . Women who take care of their eyelashes are noticed." In the kitchen it's culinary: "Never wash a sifter. It will rust." But the information it delivers is never what Alice wants to know: What happened to the man who fathered her and her brother, what happened to the folder of special recipes her mother had used each Thanksgiving? And it never provides an answer to Alice's biggest question: If you loved us, why did you leave us?

With impressive attention to detail, Pietrzyk successfully recreates life in the '70s in a small Iowa town. These include summer jobs de-tasseling the corn and the radio advice of "Dotty King's Neighborly Visit," "coming at you live on KXIC-800" with tips on ridding the garden of slugs or a listener's request for "beef stew made with Coca-Cola." There is even a school square dance, "such an organized dance, with the rules and calls and the right way to do things," a progression so delicately balanced that one mistake, "one tiny thing messed up the whole dance until we were just a tangle of partners looking at each other across the square instead of promenading home." The square dance, like life, has rules. And Alice knows without a doubt that one of life's first rules has to be that a mother doesn't kill herself.

Writing about a child's attempt to cope with the ultimate betrayal would have produced a sensitive and moving book if Pietrzyk had provided some ballast for all that grief. There is nothing solid at the center of her novel to put things in perspective, only a variety of wobbling characters, all defined and directed by sadness. Because Pietrzyk relies on a single emotion to tell us who people are and why they do what they do, what they feel never seems real. Will, Alice's older brother, is good at sports, a responsible and respected young man who is sent off track not by lust or liquor but by grief. Alice is a good student, willing to memorize the periodic table of the elements for extra credit, but grief sends her into the arms of the school's sexiest bad boy. The most potentially interesting character, Aunt Aggy, with her history of dead-end romances and her monochromatic paintings of "the feelings I don't understand, the thoughts I didn't know I had," only occasionally pops out from under her beret to become a real person.

Gradually, the voice that haunts Alice reveals a past of lost love and betrayal. Unfortunately, the facts emerge encased in the kind of advice found in glossy magazines for teenage girls. It's not just that they seem an inadequate explanation of why Alice's mother chose to take her life; they contradict the image that Alice has of her as a dramatic and charismatic person. To the reader, Annette seems a little bit whiny, a bit of a bore.

One strong character standing above the flood of grief might have given the novel some valuable perspective. Alice, not ready for the role, ultimately proves the guidance counselor wrong. The alchemy that turns pain into wisdom takes more than a year and a day.

Reviewed by Susan Dooley


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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