For a first novel, this is a darned good one. And yet, we almost got off on the wrong foot. The first chapter, the email that the father sends to his three daughters and ex-wife, it almost put me off. It seemed a little too much like the introduction to Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, in which it's one long joke about how the narrator doesn't speak English very well. But where Foer's was something like 40 damned pages long and caused me to abandon the book, this was only a couple of pages, and so I stuck with it.
I'm very glad I did.
The rest of the book makes that first email make sense, and you're supposed to find it a bit irritating, a bit presumptuous and controlling. The rest of the story gives it meat, makes you not necessarily agree with the father, but understand the complex web of relationships that led to it.
Two things grabbed me about this book. One was the characters and how badly they wanted things. Liontas does a really excellent job of giving us vivid people who bull through the world with more or less success. Pretty much everyone here wants things so very badly that they're willing to push through just about anything in their way. Of course, that's not always the way to get anything, but the straight-line thinking in trying to get from here to there was strong and compelling.
The other was a theme that fell into place with me when I was reading an entirely unrelated online blog post about how people understand their own stories, and got frustrated when other people didn't want to slot themselves into the supporting roles. It was about the context of breakups specifically, but it really resonated, and then when I got back to this book, it made everything make so very much sense.
Two characters in this book, in particular, are so angry at the world and their family members because they just damned well won't fit the stories they have in their heads. And they don't understand why, and get frustrated and lash out because they are the centers of their own stories and don't understand why other people refuse to accommodate that. The self-centered absorption and pain that comes from wanting something other people can't ever give you I found really intriguing. Hence, the title becomes more poignant - ostensibly referring to an idiom, it ends up being about wanting to be able to explain other people, to have them fall into line with your desires.
So, the plot? A Greek immigrant to the United States, and restaurant owner, Stavros Stavros Mavrakis, sends an email to his three daughters and ex-wife, telling them that he's going to die in 10 days, and here are all the things they're doing wrong with their lives. His eldest daughter, Stavroula, is a chef in love with her boss' daughter. Second is Litza, who blazes through life angry at everyone - she and Stavros himself are the ones who are angriest when others won't follow their scripts.
There is also his daughter Ruby and ex-wife Carol. I think those are the names, and therein lies my main quibble with the book. I don't actually remember their names. While the three characters mentioned in the previous paragraph are vivid and strong, two of the four women addressed in the email make much less of an impact. They're present a bit, but while the email addresses them all equally, they're not all equal characters, and it feels odd to have the focus tilted in exactly that way.
It makes me wonder if there were sections that ended up under the editor's pen, that were more balanced. It just feels like a spot where the structure of the novel got away from Liontas a little bit. Again, first novel. Forgivable offence, but definitely something I noticed.
As a whole, though this was very enjoyable, if a little unevenly focused. The strong characters and that theme of wanting control of other people's stories, that's what really got me. I hope Liontas' next book is as strong.
(An ARC of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review from Simon & Schuster Canada)