Wednesday, September 7, 2011
REVIEW: The Talk-Funny Girl, by Roland Merullo
Roland Merullo is probably the best writer you've never read. The author of ten novels and three works of nonfiction, he's both a writer's writer and a reader's reader. He's a writer's writer for his deftness with language and his attention to the craft of writing. He's a reader's writer for the compassion, empathy and respect he has for his characters- all of them, and nowhere in the books I've read of his (several) is that more in evidence than in his latest, luminous novel, The Talk-Funny Girl.
A resident of rural Massachusetts for the past twenty-odd years, Merullo usually writes about urban folk, like the North Shore denizens of his Revere Beach Trilogy or the earnest Bostonians and New Yorkers in books like A Little Love Story and Breakfast with Buddha. The Talk-Funny Girl marks the first time he's ventured to write about rural life. Seventeen-year-old Marjorie Richards is the only child of two New Hampshire isolates who eschew other people and even speak in a dialect peculiar to themselves. This dialect is what has given Marjorie her moniker, "the talk-funny girl." It also forms a crucial piece of her identity, the way she thinks about herself in relation to the world.
When the story opens, her parents are urging her to get a job. Her parents are out of work, permanently, and rely on government subsidies and help from Marjorie's aunt Elaine. Her parents, members of a small religious cult that encourages parents to punish their children with bizarre, humiliating penances, send her to school only reluctantly but otherwise keep her penned in. Now, desperate for money and seeing that their daughter is nearly an adult, they've made her the family breadwinner and Marjorie, dutiful and fearful, finds a job learning masonry with a community outsider who is building, of all things, a cathedral.
This job and the friendship she strikes up with her boss, Sands, is her lifeline and her salvation. Sands is close to Elaine and the two of them work together to help Marjorie expand her horizons, learn skills and build a nest egg of money apart from her parents' scrounging hands. At the same time, Marjorie hesitates to accept Sands' friendship, wary as she is of strangers and the disturbing disappearances of several young woman in the local area. But their friendship grows, and as he and Elaine nurture her independence, a crisis forms in the Richards household and soon Marjorie's resolve is tested.
I loved this book. I think I was still in tears an hour after I finished it. Merullo's descriptions of the heartbreaking abuse that Marjorie endures were incredibly difficult to read but her strength and resilience are beautifully illustrated, too. The shock of her parents' fate and the fallout on the whole family brought the story to a tragic climax that nonetheless offers some measure of hope. But hope is really what the book is about, and even though it's clear that the road ahead will be a difficult one for this young woman, it's also clear that she's on her way to making things right for herself and for the future.
RATING: Buy, please?
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.