Friday, March 30, 2018

Thinking Out Loud on the Homefront: The Whole Greater Than the Parts

Sorry to do this to you again, our devoted Watercooler readers, but it seems this is going to become a regular thing. It's almost as if I've transported myself back to late middle and early high school English classes, but I actually am voluntarily writing - frequently - about "what this book means to me."
Yup, this is another column about a book. I've told you a few times I'm reading more this year. Most of what I have finished to this point has been something that I have both wanted to read and anticipated being good. For the most part, I've enjoyed the stories by various authors in various genres.

Whereas last time I graced this space with a fast-paced, mind-bending, science fiction action story, I will be slowing it down a bit this time with my thoughts on Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, a new novel by Sue Halpern. (It has been on shelves less than two months...I don't know if I've ever read a book that new before, let alone from the library. This whole exercise for me has been exciting in some way - reading something new that may not have made it to the masses yet is one such way.)
The premise of this novel seemed pretty simple on the surface: Teen steals a book, judge sentences teen to community service at the local library, Wall Street washout shows up at the library a bit mysteriously, and a confluence of believable, albeit somewhat far-fetched, circumstances draws them together, along with the head librarian and a handful of library regulars.
The primary story took a little while to get going. In fact, it took nearly a third of the book for Rusty, the Wall Street guy, to fully show up in the story in any significant way. Up to that point, Kit and Sunny had already been established as main focal points: Kit, the librarian with the past, and Sunny, the teen with the off-the-grid hippie parents. Sunny had been sentenced to a summer working at the Riverton (New Hampshire) library because she had been caught shoplifting. That a seemingly troubled teen had stolen was not a shock to the sentencing judge. Oh no. It was the "what" that got his attention: Sunny had swiped a dictionary. In her mind, dictionaries housed every word in the English language. Therefore, according to her, dictionaries housed every book ever written.
(Upon getting to this part early in the book, I sent a tweet out to Ms. Halpern, letting her know that writing such a theory made me jealous that I hadn't thought of it myself.)
Slowly, almost methodically, Sunny and Kit get to know each other. Eventually Rusty finds his way into their lives, making the three somewhat broken individuals whole again. Rusty, who had fallen on hard times, had come to the community seeking an old fortune. As the story wears on, he begins to wonder whether such incredible wealth would even be necessary. Though it may sound cliche, the idea that "money doesn't equal wealth" was portrayed in such a deft way that the author could leave a thoughtful reader wondering, "Do I really need this?" or "Do I really need that?" Slowing things down, sometimes, can make a world of difference, and Halpern presents that well with Rusty.
Perhaps the character I related to the most was Kit, the reference librarian who is promoted to head librarian during the story. We both enjoy a good book, obviously. But where I really connected with the character was in her backstory, where we learn she spent many years as the spouse of a doctor.
I have read just a handful of novels that try to describe doctors either in training or in practice. This is the first book I have found where the spouse's life is highlighted. My wife and I met when we were both undergrads at Syracuse. My career followed her medical path to Iowa, then to Ohio, and then here, to Western New York. Working in the newspaper industry, there was (up until a few years ago anyway) always an opportunity to at least do some freelance work, to stay in the business. But in the end, as the "other half" of a medical professional in training, Halpern hits the nail squarely on its head.
Residents are frequently exhausted because they are always learning how to be around all people from all walks of life. By the time their days come to an end, if they are married, they have little energy left for the one person they have chosen to be with. In Summer Hours at the Robbers Library we learn that Kit's experience as a doctor's wife was, to put it bluntly, mediocre at best. Her husband was a shooting star in the medical field, while she was, as she put it, a "box he checked" in his life. It wasn't always that way, but to explain why would be to spoil too much of the story.
My own experiences differed from Kit's. Sure, there would be days after a lengthy shift at the hospital when my wife would come home and I'd know it would be a good idea to take our young son out for a few hours. The same idea held true a couple years later when we added to our family and our first daughter was born. The "unseen work" of a medical spouse was what Kit did, and it was portrayed well in this story. However, my own story has a much happier ending.
Part of the reason for the happier ending in my own life could be illustrated by Halpern's use of "The Velveteen Rabbit" as a storytelling tool in her work. By the end of that children's classic, the rabbit has been loved so deeply that it has become real. In life, Kit explains late in the story, we must be careful not to let the inverse be true. "If you're not loved for who you are, you cease to be real," she says. "Definitely for the other person, and maybe for yourself, too."
In short, strive to reach your goals, whatever they are. If you can share your goals with another person, even better. But don't let achieving your goals cause you to lose sight of the person who is there to share in that success with you, especially if that person has been with you every step of the way.
Overall there were many messages a person could take from this book. Don't let your past define who you are is perhaps the most poignant. But perhaps the most thought-provoking was this wonderment by Rusty, while he was considering, "What's next?"
"It wasn't true that you could do whatever you set your mind to do. That was just something people said. But if your mind was not set on doing something, and you had no idea what you wanted to do, you could do anything - anything at all, Rusty told himself - so why panic?"
Quite the interesting way to look at the world, right?
Howie Balaban has moved on to book no. 15 of the calendar year. He remains open to book suggestions, and his thoughts on what he reads will continue to appear in this space. Hopefully all this reading helps him find his own literary voice.