love is the higher law, david levithan (knopf)
this one came out in australia a year ago, apparently, as a hardback. i completely missed it, but now it's back and in paperback and only $14.95.
love is the higher law has one of the most spectacular first chapters of any book i have read in recent times. what comes after is also excellent, classic levithan and very, very moving. but the first chapter is magnificent and if i could give it a prize, i would. the story begins on september 11, 2001 and spans the entire year that follows. claire, jasper and peter are the protagonists and reveal the story in alternating chapters; the three characters all have a mutual acquaintance but before now have not been friends, really - jasper and peter were supposed to go on a date the night of september 11, peter and claire go to school together.
claire starts this story, with the planes hitting the world trade centre as she sits in homeroom. claire's thoughts are on her mother - what if she had headed home to their apartment ten blocks from the towers instead of going uptown to work? she is also thinking about her little brother sammy; and so, with another girl from her class, goes across the road to the primary school to collect him.
people are arriving from downtown by this stage, people covered in chalky dust, ragged from their escapes; the towers are burning above the city. levithan's descriptions are understated but still somehow loaded with imagery. it's clear that claire's life has changed when she realises that she can't take sammy back to their apartment. she says: "i've never in my life said those words before. there's nowhere for us to go. I feel it." there's the craziness of not knowing what's going on, and trying to keep calm for the little kids in the classroom, waiting for their parents to come and pick them up. shop keepers are handing out free water and free shoes; people are pulling together and respecting one another in a way that claire has never experienced before.
these descriptions are the descriptions of one who was there, most definitely. the scene where jasper goes to give blood is another highlight. claire's vigil in union square is moving, but is one of the times when i think it was laid on a little thick for me (though i admit to crying) and i felt less like i was part of the story and more like a voyeur, exploiting the grief of these new yorkers from afar. the strongest thing about this book is the authenticity of the experiences of this event and its aftermath. so often i read books about calamitous events, serious and awful happenings and while they are good, they don't have the impact that this had - i think due to the author's own experience of 9/11, as well as his brilliant prose here which is (mostly) so careful and restrained. it would appear he took chekhov's "be cold" advice.
love is the higher law is a story full of hope and sadness and kindness...and some regret. as claire says: "i thought we were going to be better...after what happened. as a country."