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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The motivations that lie behind the weaving and the unraveling of the family mosaic are central to Leah Hager Cohen's first novel, Heat Lightning. Cohen, the author of two assured works of nonfiction, Train Go Sorry: Inside A Deaf World and Glass, Paper, Beans, here explores the relationships between three strong women over the course of one remarkable summer. Through the finely nuanced narrative voice of 11-year-old "Mole" Grummer, we learn that she and her older sister, Tilly, have been raised from infancy by their Aunt Hy after their parents drowned during a storm on the Kittiwake River. Caring but remote, Hy has never been very forthcoming about their parents' death, supplying only meager and, from the sisters' point of view, impractical scraps of information: Violet liked peanuts, pretzels, "anything with salt." "David was handy." Nevertheless, Mole and Tilly hoard these infrequent utterances, memorizing them and adding them to their precious store of knowledge. The only tangible keepsake they have is a stack of black and white snapshots that they keep enshrined in a battered cookie tin:
For years, one of Tilly's and my favorite games involved arranging these snapshots on her bedroom floor and making up stories and dialogue to animate the images, the way other children might have done with dolls. These twelve pictures afforded us such latitude in constructing an idea of our parents that we learned not to mind the paucity of Hy's reminiscences; her story we appropriated as well, and privately embellished. Thus, the storm, in mymind,comprised hail, gales of wind, thunder and lightning. The sky was gray-green, the color of the place between yolk and albumen in a hard-boiled egg. The rowboat was read. Our parents wore rain slickers: hers yellow, his navy blue. They washed up on the sand clean and pale, their mouths and eyes closed, their fingers interlaced.
As we got older, our need to flesh out the story grew — not just the costumes, props and blockings, but things we couldn't name, temperament and motivation and, in a way, a moral — and bit by bit, we supplied these elements, too, so seamlessly that they appeared to have been spawned by the story itself....
Eventually all the details we contrived, singly or jointly, mundane or ethereal, combined in a sort of life-giving alchemical reaction so that as the story increased in size it increased in legitimacy. Our own contributions took on such steadfast authority that they melded with fact. It became our own private gospel.
As sole custodians of this latter-day concordance, the sisters have long shared an unchallenged intimacy. But when Hy begins to spruce up the abandoned bungalow the girls think of as "the dead house" with the idea of renting it out for the summer, they recognize the threat to their cherished privacy and voice a united chorus of disapproval. Their attempts to change Hy's mind only serve to introduce the first notes of familial discord, and Mole notices, not for the first time, that Hy has "gone off," put a mental distance between herself and the girls.
The Rouen family arrives with the summer, and reluctantly the sisters begin to take an interest in the new occupants of the dead house. Mole is secretly thrilled to discover a "mussel connection": Bill and Delia Rouen are a husband-and-wife scientific team making a study the local mussel population, and she has long maintained a half-hidden dollhouse of moss and mussel shells on the banks of the Kittiwake. The Rouens explain that they are looking for patterns, hidden, undescribed truths, the "many, many small things" that may one day "become part of the bigger picture." This, too, strikes a chord with Mole: Isn't this what she and Tilly have been doing all these years, trying to complete an elaborate jigsaw puzzle from the flotsam and jetsam of their parents' lives? But when she tries to express her excitement, she finds that Tilly has gone off in her own way, assuming subtle affectations and enforcing a new separateness between them. Worse, in flirting with Walter, the oldest of the four Rouen children, Tilly has blithely offered up the jealously guarded story of their parents' death and, unthinkably, changed the holy writ. Tilly hints darkly of an unsolved mystery, "something fishy" about the affair, in order to catch Walter's interest. And as a variety of excuses to investigate with Walter are contrived — a trip to the library to pore over ten-year-old microfiche, a graveyard excursion to search for their parents' headstones — Mole finds herself gently but unmistakably excluded.
Ultimately, the only mystery revealed is the age-old mystery of coming of age, and the only thing fishy going on is in the dead house itself. Growing up in small-town isolation, neither Mole nor Tilly has ever known a family "in the middle of trouble," and the warning signs — arguments, drinking, and the underlying sexuality of Bill Rouen's banter — while obvious to the reader, are missed by the girls. Cohen parses out hints of the Rouens' troubles over the course of her story, generating a tension that propels it to its denouement. But Heat Lightning's real triumph is the exquisite realization of the intricate dynamic between Mole, Tilly, and Hy, and the achingly real portrayal of that age when the certainties of childhood are replaced by the questions of adolescence.