Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What I Read: Foxlowe

Image courtesy Fourth Estate

I finished Eleanor Wasserberg's Foxlowe in September 2017 but somehow failed to write about it here until now. This is not because Foxlowe is a forgettable or unremarkable book; far from it. The lack speaks more to how busy I was (or how poorly I managed my time) and to the backlog of reviews I had to plow through.

I might have seen Foxlowe appear on other book blogs here and there, but the one that tipped me to really wanting to read it was Juli's review at A Universe in Words. The best way to get me interested in a book is to give me a little taste test of it; if the best idea in the world is executed poorly, I won't be bothered, but if I like what I read I won't let it go until I find it. So to that end, I appreciate that Juli always includes a little blurb from the novels she reviewed.

Foxlowe is the name of a rambling old estate where Green has grown up as part of a back-to-nature hippie-style commune that has since become a full-on cult, headed by the tyrannical Freya. We learn about its decline and fall through Green, a woman who grew up at Foxlowe and then was subsequently thrust into modern society for reasons that remain unclear until the very end of the book.

I cannot emphasize enough how amazing Wasserberg's prose is. How do you write someone who grew up removed from society, who doesn't have the same cultural frame of reference as everyone else, who lives in a world with Solstices and The Bad and no schooling and Spike Walks? How will they sound when they finally have to join the rest of the world? The voice that Wasserberg gives Green is a perfect balance of cultural ignorance and personal insight. Green might be uneducated and only semi-literate, but she expresses herself precisely and eloquently (if, sometimes, somewhat disconcertingly).
At Foxlowe everyone has two names. One is a secret, meant to be lost. For most, it worked like this: first they had the one they came to Foxlowe with peeled away like sunburnt skin. Then a new name, for a new life. 
I used to get jealous of the Family with their secret outside names, while I only had the one, like half a person. Sometimes an old name would slip, strangled at a syllable with a blush. This was a sign to watch for, in case someone might wish to be become a Leaver. 
Now I am doubled that way, named twice, but for me, it's worked in reverse: my new name came later, on the outside, like putting on that crusty old skin that should be lying on the floor.
Wasserberg speaks openly about her love of gothic literature and its influence on Foxlowe, but what I immediately connected it with was Gwyneth Paltrow and The Food Babe and Jenny McCarthy and Kevin Trudeau and Dr. Oz. This is, admittedly, more about me than about the book, especially since Foxlowe's heyday is implicitly in the 90s, before any of these scandals really came to a head. But with Freya's inherent distrust of The Outside, her obvious fear of a vague, formless "Bad," and her adherence to living directly off the land, it's not hard to imagine a version of her in the 2000s or 2010s reading books and blog posts about "eating clean" and how Big Pharma is poisoning everything. (Naturally she would almost certainly be sneaking these reads in on trips to the Outside, maybe at libraries, or maybe on the few scraps of data she would allow on a cell phone plan for herself and the adults "in case of emergency"; there's no way free, unfettered computer and Internet access would ever be acceptable at Foxlowe.)

After spending years working through the TIME Top 100 Novels list (which I finished last year, finally, but more on that later), it's been weird to occasionally dip my toes into contemporary fiction and find something good, something really good. Foxlowe is definitely one of those finds. 

What makes it weird is that by bookstore definitions, Foxlowe could well be considered Young Adult. As per bookstore shelving philosophies, Young Adult is "any book with a protagonist from 14 to 18," which Green most certainly is throughout the bulk of the story, if not the entire book. But this is obviously not the usual YA novel language, as perfectly encapsulated by Postgrad Problems in their advice about how to write a shitty YA novel:
Simple sentence structure with SAT words. Readers will use context clues to figure out what big words mean, and it’ll convince them they’re reading something “smart.” They will not forgive you for making them think too hard, though.  

This was one of the better novels I read in 2017, and I can't wait to see what Wasserberg will do next.

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