You know the backstory. Harding graduated from the Iowa Writer's Workshop and sent the book out to numerous agents and editors, with no takers. Erika Goldman picked up the book for Bellevue Literary Press, the book publishing arm of a hospital, no less. The publisher had a distribution deal with Consortium, which has good indie bookstore reach, and Michele Filgate, from RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth talked up the book at a book review workshop to Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, who also happened to be chairwoman of the Pulitzer jury. I can imagine that "You have to read this" conversation as I've been on the giving and receiving end. You can read the rest of the story in this story from The New York Times.
George Washington Crosby is on his deathbed, family gathered. He's got everything--Parkinson's, diabetes, cancer. It starts as a classic deathbed lookback to his childhood, where his father Howard was a tinker, selling pots and soaps and jewelry (well, no one bought the jewelry) to the local women. But then the narrative jumps and we're in Howard's childhood, the son of a Methodist minister. Usually this kind of story jumps back and forth between past and present, with the past being in the protagonist's memory. Once Howard's voice comes out, it's more of a split narrative, making the whole story more of a tryptich. This is a particularly hard structure to pull off, and when it's done well (as in Danielle Trussoni's Falling through the Earth), you get bonus points for keeping it all together. Just to put this in perspective, Tinkers was our bestselling trade paperback fiction book of the Christmas season, beating out Cutting for Stone by seven copies.
We started on a high note. For our first participant, Tinkers was one of her favorite books of the year. She found herself rereading passages over and over, and did wind up reading the book twice. There was a sense of connection to the book, and some of the parts reminded her of her own family. Our counterpoint reader enjoyed the writing, but needed a stronger plot to keep her interested. The women characters were rather weak (admitted, much of the story is about a father-son relationship) and she found the ode to earlier times and simple living uncomfortable. It kept reminding her of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which was another book that didn't work for her. (I'm not saying this quite right, which is why I'm not using names).
Back to the pro-Tinkers contingent. We didn't think that the book was particularly whistful about the old times, and even played with that notion, such as when we learned that George's boyhood friend continued to drink rotgut whiskey through his adulthood, reminding him of his childhood friendship. That's nostalgia? I agreed that at first there doesn't seem to be much of a plot, but when you start seeing the connections between the generations and realizing that there is a bit of a mystery involved--just what happened to Howard?--the story starts coming together.
And the Robinson conection? Totally fair, as Harding was her student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and she offered this lovely recommendation: "Tinkers is truly remarkable... It confers on the reader the best privilege fiction can afford, the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls." Once I finished, I was surprised I haven't seen more comparisons to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteredge, another award-winner that was a huge hit for us in 2009. Different, of course (I haven't read it yet, actually) but still New England, character driven, problematic marriages, generational misgivings and regrets, that sort of thing.
Oh, and everyone liked the clock stuff. Turned out to be a really great book club evening. Enthusiastic conversation back and forth, with a book that could be read in an evening's time. Many people will want to read it twice. Even two of our three naysayers saw many positives in the story.
I wasn't beaten down by the quibblers. I thought the book was beautiful, delicately structured (much like a clock's insides), and filled with bold imagery and characters that have stuck with me long after I closed the pages.
Here are our next three in-store lit group selections. Meetings are open to everyone, and if you tell the bookseller at the register that you are planning to attend the group, you get the book club discount. All discussions are at 7 pm.
Monday, February 7th, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Winner of the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Mantel's most recent is a historical novel set during Henry VIII's life through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.
Monday, March 7th, The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas. Winner of the Australian Commonwealth Writers Prize, this is the story of an extended Greek-Australian family and the how a family incident resonates outwards. I've seen the book compared to The Corrections and The Sopranos. Intriguiging, huh? This novel was recommended to me by the editor, Alexis Washam, back when she was driving the Penguin Mini. See, I don't forget these things. Of course, she is now at Crown Trade Paperbacks. Perhaps she will drive through town in a refurbished Crown Vic.
Monday, April 4, The Girl who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow. A biracial child moves from her European mother to the family of her father, an African-American solider. Many booksellers have read and loved this book, and it was also recommended to me by Lori Tharps, and sort of by Barbara Kingsolver, as it was awarded her Bellwether Prize.
Note that in both cases, I chose our selection on several factors, but the strongest was the "what are you reading?" recommendation, just like the one Filgate probably had with Sinkler. And don't forget the big day for Harding is Thursday, February 17, at 7 PM, when we will be hosting Paul Harding, acclaimed author of Tinkers.