Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

3.8 22
by Vendela Vida

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On the day of her father's funeral, twenty-eight-year-old Clarissa Iver­ton discovers that he wasn't her biological father after all. Her mother disappeared fourteen years earlier, and her fiancé has just revealed a life-changing secret to her. Alone and adrift, Clarissa travels to mystical Lapland, where she believes she'll meet her real father. There,


On the day of her father's funeral, twenty-eight-year-old Clarissa Iver­ton discovers that he wasn't her biological father after all. Her mother disappeared fourteen years earlier, and her fiancé has just revealed a life-changing secret to her. Alone and adrift, Clarissa travels to mystical Lapland, where she believes she'll meet her real father. There, at a hotel made of ice, Clarissa is confronted with the truth about her mother's his­tory, and must make a decision about how—and where—to live the rest of her life.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Far, far north, sitting above the Arctic Circle, Lapland is a world made of ice; a place both foreign and perilous that unexpectedly lures New Yorker Clarissa Iverton from what had finally become a comfortable life. At 14, her mother disappeared. Now 28, and just days after the death of her father, Clarissa discovers that he wasn't her father after all, and the only clues to her true heritage are a world away. Abandoning her fiancé, she flies to Helsinki, seeking to uncover the secrets her mother kept for so long. While piecing together the fragments of her mother's mysterious past, Clarissa is led to the Sami, Lapland's native "reindeer people," who dwell in a stark and frozen landscape, under the northern lights. It is there that she must summon the courage to confront an unbearable truth, and the violent act that ties her to this ancient people.

Vida's second novel is the riveting story of an unthinkable quest. Her indomitable heroine, Clarissa Iverton, slowly and painfully (but not without a sense of humor) peels away years of old lies in order to embrace a history she could never have imagined. Sharply focused and beautifully told, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is an ambitious and accomplished work of fiction that resonates with the themes of truth and forgiveness. (Spring 2007 Selection)
The New Yorker
In this slim, dour novel, a twenty-eight-year-old editor of film subtitles discovers on her father’s death that he is not her biological parent: her mother, who abandoned her as a teen-ager, had been married to another man. Feeling betrayed by her fiancé, who has known about the deception for years, she abruptly leaves him to search for her real father in the northern reaches of Finland. Vida gives the icy landscape an eerie, forbidding beauty, and her writing has moments of great emotional acuity. Her heroine is inexplicable and often unlikable, but Vida skillfully draws a parallel between her harsh and thoughtless behavior and that of her mother. Unfortunately, this makes the ending, which intimates that one’s problems may be easily shed, along with one’s past, seem both hurried and unearned.
Madison Smartt Bell
"I had hired the new Hungarian florist in town to do the flower arrangement,” the narrator of Vendela Vida’s new novel says of her father’s funeral. “A mistake. A ruby banner hung diagonally, like a beauty contestant’s sash, across a garish bouquet near the casket. In large silver lettering: BE LOVED.” This tone of dark whimsy suffuses the whole book and accounts for much of its peculiarly biting charm. You’ve seen it before, in movies like “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The Royal Tenenbaums” and in books like — well, maybe there aren’t any other books that walk this very fine line between high-camp comedy and the lyrical seriousness that Vida’s title portends: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Believer co-editor Vida again explores violence, its aftermath and the curative powers of travel in her bleak second novel. (Her debut, 2003's And Now You Can Go, sent a young woman to the Philippines after a traumatic event.) But this time readers are nearly a hundred pages in before the long-ago physical violence is revealed. Clarissa, home after her father's funeral, finds herself deeply alone. Her developmentally disabled brother has never spoken, and her mother walked out on them 14 years before. Digging through family papers, she finds her birth certificate, which lists a stranger as her father. The hunt for him and the resumption of a search for her mother lead Clarissa to far northern Europe, where the days are short, the reindeer are plentiful and her mother had once felt "connected." Clarissa's travels in her mother's steps seeking that connection, stumbling, finding it and finally severing it are bleak. Vida's fan base will welcome this novel, and the twin questions of what Clarissa's amateur sleuthing will turn up and how each discovery will affect her might draw a few new readers through this slim, austere work. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Vida follows up her debut, And Now You Can Go, with this glimpse of life among the native Sami people of Lapland. Clarissa Iverton is a young American woman whose mother abandoned her family years ago. Now Clarissa learns that her recently deceased father was not her real father and also that she is the last one among her family and close friends to know this. She leaves New York and the fianc she now considers duplicitous to go to Helsinki, then north to Lapland to search for her birth father. There she finds more than she anticipated. Novels about unhappy young people who seek to escape their dysfunctional families and find a new identity are almost a genre to themselves, but the vivid scenes of Lapland, with its reindeer, northern lights, and Ice Hotel, give this novel a unique twist. There is even a whirlwind happy ending of a sort. Recommended for most libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/06.]-Leslie Patterson, Brown Univ. Lib., Providence Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A young woman's sudden identity crisis propels her to the isolated reaches of Lapland in Vida's powerful second novel. Clarissa, a New Yorker in her late 20s, is hit by a pair of emotional shocks within the space of a week: Her father has died of a heart attack, and while rummaging through his possessions, she discovers that he was not her biological father. There's nobody close to comfort her in the midst of this crisis. She's deeply wounded that her fianc‚, Pankaj, knew and never told her, and her mother has been missing and presumed dead for years. There is nothing for Clarissa to do except fly to Helsinki, get to Lapland-a 21-hour trek by bus and train-and find Eero, the man her birth certificate says is her father. Lapland's austerity and distance from New York is a small comfort, but Clarissa's interactions with the locals reveal that her personal history is even more complicated than she had thought. That learning process unlocks a host of bad memories-being raped as a teenager, looking for her mother in Texas and later holding a funeral for her. This kind of material often gets shaped into a fish-out-of-water tale that closes with comforting reconciliations. But Vida (And Now You Can Go, 2003) is having none of that: This is a sharp, sometimes brutal, portrait of a woman who feels her persona has been wiped away and wants to start over, not heal. Her careful, unadorned prose neatly reveals Clarissa's mix of damage and resolve, echoing Raymond Carver's minimalism while retaining the warmth that so many Carver imitators lack. And Vida's evocative descriptions of life in Lapland-the reindeer herds, the slow pace of the locals, a hotel made of snow and ice-underscore the themes ofisolation and otherworldliness but never overwhelm the core story of Clarissa's despair. A luminescent and evocative tale of grief, free of the standard clich‚s. Agent: Mary Evans/Mary Evans Inc.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“[Vida’s] stripped-down, modern approach at its best applies a wash of freshness, even innocence to age-old questions.”
Chicago Tribune
“[A] stirring novel…as alive and fascinating as the brilliant atmospheric phenomenon of its title.”
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“Taut, understated, and compelling”
George Saunders
Reading this book reminded me...how rarely a writer as precise, artful, and passionate as Vendela Vida comes along.
Ann Packer
Searing and beautiful...[Clarissa] is funny and fearless and absolutely unforgettable—just like this marvelous book.
Michael Cunningham
“A taut, intricately layered page-turner that looks deeply and fearlessly into matters of profound human concern.”
Andrew Sean Greer
“A haunted, moving, gorgeous novel. It glows from within like a building made of snow.”
Sean Wilsey
“Intimate and sweeping, LET THE NORTHERN LIGHTS ERASE YOUR NAME dazzles like sun on snow.”

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Read an Excerpt

It was three in the afternoon when my plane landed at the Helsinki airport, but outside my window, dusk was already settling in like a bruise. I retrieved my suitcase, its handle cold, and stumbled to the tourist information desk, where a woman with good teeth and bad English helped me find a hotel near the train station. My plan was to take the first train north, to Lapland, after a night of sleep. She directed me toward the hotel's free shuttle bus waiting outside. Its doors opened just as I was preparing to knock.

The blond bus driver's nametag said Ari, but he told me, the only passenger on the bus, that his name was Kari. The nametag belonged to his twin brother, for whom he was filling in (would I please not tell anybody about that, he asked). When it was clear no one else would be boarding, Ari/Kari turned and spoke to the general area where I was sitting. "We go now," he said.

We trailed a snowplow on the road into Helsinki. On the radio a man's voice sang in English about the pleasures of driving home for Christmas. I asked Kari if he would mind turning it down, and he turned the radio off.

The hotel had three stars on the plaque beneath its name -- one star more than I was accustomed to -- and I experienced the vacuous pride travelers feel when a choice that's been made for them is a good one. Inside, Kari took my luggage upstairs to reception, at which point he moved behind the counter to check me in. No-smoking, one night, I told him.

Shortly after I settled into my room the phone stuttered a staccato cry, far from an American brrring. It was Kari telling me he'd be getting off work in an hour. "You like to join me in the lobby for a drink?" he asked.

I said yes, in part, out of relief that the call wasn't from Pankaj, my fiancé. My fiancé still? I was no longer sure. Recently, everything around me felt familiar yet amiss, like the first time you ride in the back seat of your own car.

Dad had died a week before I left for Lapland. He was sixty-eight, his death unexpected. A heart attack. Pankaj had answered the phone. I was in bed, paying bills, in the Morningside Heights apartment Pankaj and I had shared for nearly five years. He came into the bedroom, tentatively, and kneeled on the floor beside me. He did not pray.

"Your father," he said. "Your father."

We left that night for Rhinebeck, where I had grown up. Where Dad had grown up. Where my mother had lived for fifteen years before she disappeared.

I had hired the new Hungarian florist in town to do the flower arrangement. A mistake. A ruby banner hung diagonally, like a beauty contestant's sash, across a garish bouquet near the casket. In large silver lettering: "Be Loved."

The funeral was the first day I envied my brother's ignorance. Since birth Jeremy has never spoken, so it was unclear whether he understood Dad had died. My family would never acknowledge that Jeremy was retarded; my mother used to say he was slow. She vanished when I was fourteen, Jeremy six. In the hollow months that followed her disappearance I convinced myself our family was being punished for our silent shame about Jeremy. I said the forbidden word over and over -- retarded-retardedretarded -- as though I could undo what was fact: I could un-retard him, I could bring my mother home.

While I wiped my tears with my hair -- I had forgotten tissues -- Jeremy picked at the laces of his dress-up shoes. I bent over, pulled the laces out, and slipped them into my purse. Jeremy was accustomed to velcro.

A family friend held a reception. Unthawed strawberries, kosher wine though Dad wasn't Jewish, a woman I had never met sobbing in the corner. Friends and strangers hugged me so tight their chests pushed against mine, alluding to sex, and then vanished. As soon as the last guest had left, the hostess began vacuuming. "All those footprints in the carpet," she said. "They make me tense." I offered to help clean up. She accepted.

Pankaj and I dropped off Jeremy at the Home for Retarded Adults. The main hallway was lined with display cases of women's hats and men's ties. I didn't know why. As I stood below a beret, reporting to the nurse when and what Jeremy had last eaten, Pankaj handed Jeremy a paper bag filled with small plastic bags. The size that wouldn't fit over his head. Jeremy has a thing for plastic bags.

"That was sweet," I said, as we walked to the car. My words didn't match the intensity of my gratitude. From the start, Pankaj had looked out for Jeremy.

We drove back to Dad's house, where we had been staying since we got the phone call. We had left a few lights on and as we approached the front door I half-imagined it had been a hoax. Dad was alive and waiting to surprise us. I unlocked the door. "Hello," I called out. Pankaj started a fire in the living room. I stared at his large lips and his grey-black eyes, the color of papaya seeds. They were framed by long eyelashes, the kind that old ladies on trains made a fuss over. Pankaj could bat them like a flirtatious girl and somehow look virile, handsome, strong.

But tonight his eyes were tunnel-dark, his eyelashes fey. He was moving slowly, the way you would around a predator you didn't want to enrage. I escaped to my father's study.

The study had been my mother's. She claimed to be working on her dissertation on the environmental battles of indigenous peoples. It was her research that initially took her to Lapland in her late twenties. While there, she'd gotten sidetracked-that was her word, her explanation. She would sequester herself in the study for a few hours every afternoon, ostensibly writing, but there was a silent understanding in our house that her dissertation would never be finished.

I sat down in Dad's leather chair and opened the drawers of his desk, her desk. I found his address book. Inside, under our last name, Iverton, there were no entries. This was odd: Dad had written me once a month since I'd moved out. Scribbled in miniature handwriting, his letters had described landscaping projects he was working on, or summarized, in too much detail, a film he had recently seen.

I found myself in the "ABC" section, under "Clar." My mother had named me Clarissa, but Dad never called me by my full name. Penned into the book were four addresses for me: one P.O. box in college, one address in Lexington, Kentucky, two in Manhattan. He had entered my new address each time I'd moved and never crossed out the old one. I tired to imagine me living in each of these apartments, carrying on four different lives at once. In my Kentucky life, would my father be dead?

I didn't recognize the majority of names. I assumed these were the owners of homes he had helped landscape. Why hadn't more of his clients shown up for the funeral? The service had been small.

I sorted through the drawers -- old bills, letters postmarked in the early nineties, sea glass, owner's manuals to appliances we no longer owned. In the bottom drawer I found a large manila envelope that appeared not to have been opened more than once or twice. "Clarissa's" was written on the outside. She had been gone for fourteen years, but I immediately recognized my mother's handwriting. Her "S"s were exuberant, forward-leaning "8"s.

I shook the contents out onto the desk: grade-school report cards, notes from teachers commenting on my shyness in class. I didn't recall this about myself, and was surprised and strangely embarrassed -- we like to remember our childhoods a certain way. I sorted through watercolors -- "age 7" in one corner -- a note to the tooth fairy, a photo of me in front of the Washington Monument, wearing a dress patterned with keys.

Beneath a dried leaf, splitting at its stem, I found my birth certificate. I had never seen it before. I read it and read it again. I turned it over. With my forearm, I swept everything else on the desk into a far corner. Papers and a desk calendar dropped to the floor. I moved the certificate to the center of the desk and I read it again.

Pankaj found me sitting on the shower floor, still wearing my bra and black stockings. He stood, blurry, on the other side of the clear door. The birth certificate was in his hand. "Do you want to talk?" he said.

I shook my head. I was emptying the bottles of Dad's dandruff shampoo, like tar, down the drain. Pankaj carefully placed the birth certificate inside the cover of a book about Vargas girls; it had been sitting above the toilet since he had given it to Dad the previous Christmas. Inside, I knew the inscription read: "To Richard, my future father-in-law. With admiration, Pankaj." Pankaj took off his clothes, opened the shower door, and sat next to me on the tiled floor.

"The water's colder when you're sitting," he said, and reached up to adjust the temperature. He picked up the blue bar of soap, Dad's soap, and rubbed it under my armpits. He took my Dad's other, non-dandruff shampoo and washed my hair. We sat in the shower so long the water turned tepid. Pankaj stood up, stepped out, and held a towel open for me.

I crawled out of the shower and Pankaj bent over and rolled off my stockings and unhooked my bra. He wrapped me in the towel and picked me up. I couldn't raise my arms around his neck or help in any way.

He carried me into my childhood bedroom, which had not changed: twin beds, a Sears stereo, and a hundred tiny holes in the wall where I'd thumbtacked my album covers. Pankaj put a blanket over me, tucking it in like he was making a bed. Then he left the room.

I stared at a photo of my father on the bookshelf. His arms like a game-show host, displaying a washer and dryer he bought when I was fifteen. Laundry had been my mother's job, one that we both resisted taking on when she was gone. He had believed the new machines would make her absence less obvious. It had been my favorite picture of my father, but now it seemed to belong to some other teenager. Pankaj returned.

"He should have told me," I said to his silhouette.

"He was protecting you. He --"

"He was a liar."

Pankaj was holding a bowl and a spoon.

"Applesauce," he said. "It's all that was in the fridge."

"Didn't anyone bring anything over?" I asked. "Isn't that what people do?"

"Sorry," he said.

"Sorry?" I said. "What are you sorry about?" You're the only one who doesn't have anything to apologize for."

He didn't answer, and, at the time, I took this as a sign of modesty. We both twisted into the same twin bed.

A few hours later I learned why he was sorry.

"Are you awake?" he said.

I nodded and then said yes.

"I knew."

"You knew what?"

"I knew about Richard. That he wasn't your real dad."

In the dark, I tried to see Pankaj's mouth.

"How long have you known?" I said. I spoke slowly. I didn't want any room for misinterpretation.

"A long time."

"Like days?"

"Longer. Since we were --"

"Engaged?" I said.



He said nothing.


"Your mom told me."

"What? Why?"

"Well, let me think about what happened."

Pankaj was stalling, preparing a lie.

"Don't make me wait."

"Your mom told my mom."

"Fifteen years ago?"

"About that time."

"Fifteen years! Almost half my life. More than half my life." Pankaj exhaled.

"So everybody knows? Dad knew? My mom? You, Gita? Gita! Your fucking mom knows who my real fucking father is and I don't? What the fuck is this? Does the fucking florist who can't even fucking spell know?"


"Really, Pankaj. Was this posted at the train station?"

"I didn't want to know. I wish I didn't."

"Fuck you," I said. "And tonight was the right time to tell me?"

"I'm sorry," he said. "I guess I felt deceitful, with you in the shower like that. I thought it would make things easier if I told you I knew. Later, you would never forgive me."

I switched on the bedside lamp. I stood up, stared at the bookshelf, pulled at the spine of my first-year Russian textbook and threw it to the floor. The carpet absorbed its thud. I had wanted thunder.

"On all the days," I said, and threw down another book, this one a dictionary, unabridged.

"Stop saying that," Pankaj yelled, "and stop with the books."

"You and Dad are the same. When you don't tell someone something like that, you are fucking with their life."

"I understand how you must feel," he said. He was sitting up in bed. He was wearing one of Dad's old sweatshirts.

"Take that off," I said.

"I'm sorry. I didn't pack well." He removed the sweatshirt, folded it neatly, and placed it on the bedside table.

"First of all, you do not understand how I feel. So take that back."

"You're right. I don't know, but I can imagine…"

"Imagine! You can't imagine anything. Has every person you know been betraying you for fifteen years?"

"Not everyone knows --"

"Shut up. Has every one close to you -- your father, your fiancée, your who-the-fuck-knows been lying to you? Answer me."

"No," he said. He stood to comfort me.

"Stay away," I said. I pulled an old doll off the shelf and held it between us.

He stared at the doll, as though addressing her. "I know you're angry with me right now."

"You're a genius, really. Not only at philosophy, but at emotions. You know that I'm angry with you. Wow."

"What can I do for you?" he said. "I think you need some sleep. Everything will be better in the morning." He looked scared.

"Really? Will Dad not be dead in the morning? Will my fiancé not be a liar? Will it turn out tomorrow morning that not everyone betrayed me? Ah! Morning!"

"Please stop saying that word," Pankaj said.


"Stop saying betrayed. You make it sound like --"

"Like what? Like I was betrayed?"

"Please go to sleep. Everything will be better tomorrow. I promise."

"You promise?" I said. I was now holding the doll to my chest. It was an ugly doll. I didn't know where it had come from or why I had kept it. "I suppose I should be happy now that I know, right? Dad was a cuckold. And I have a fucking father in fucking Finland."

"He wasn't a cuckold," Pankaj said. "You were born before your mom met Richard."

I sat down on the floor.

"Where does the word cuckold come from, anyway?" Pankaj said.

"I don't know but I think you're right. This is a good time for an etymological discussion. While we're at it, why don't we figure out where asshole comes from? Where get out of my room comes from."

"I was trying to change the subject," he said. His voice cracked like a boy's. "Listen, I'm going to go downstairs for a little bit. I'll be there if you need anything." He headed toward the door. His chest looked hairier than usual, his legs skinnier.

"Is there anything else you have to tell me?" I said. "Any other surprises? If so, tell me now. I'm serious. I should know everything and get it over with."

"No," he said.

"No what?"

"No more surprises," Pankaj said. "I'm sorry."

"Please leave," I said.

"Do you care if I come back here to sleep, to check in on you? I don't want to sleep in your dad's room." He gestured toward the sweatshirt.

"I don't care what you do. Just leave. And don't sleep in my dad's bed. Or whoever the fuck he is."

Pankaj closed the door. I went to bed and took the ugly doll with me.

What People are saying about this

Andrew Sean Greer
“A haunted, moving, gorgeous novel. It glows from within like a building made of snow.”
Ann Packer
Searing and beautiful...[Clarissa] is funny and fearless and absolutely unforgettable—just like this marvelous book.
Michael Cunningham
“A taut, intricately layered page-turner that looks deeply and fearlessly into matters of profound human concern.”
Sean Wilsey
“Intimate and sweeping, LET THE NORTHERN LIGHTS ERASE YOUR NAME dazzles like sun on snow.”
George Saunders
Reading this book reminded me...how rarely a writer as precise, artful, and passionate as Vendela Vida comes along.

Meet the Author

Vendela Vida is the award-winning author of five books including And Now You Can Go, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, and The Lovers. A founding editor of The Believer magazine, she lives in Northern California with her husband and two children. 

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Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first learned of this book through Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers program. They rarely disappoint me, so I felt confident when I purchased Let the Lights. Immediately I was drawn into the story, and it was evident I had chosen wisely. Clarissa is a complex women who reacts to a crisis in her life by embarking on what would become a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment. What she will do with those newly gained insights is left for the lucky readers to learn for themselves. One last thing: there is an educational component not to be overlooked here: We are given an intimate glimpse into the lives of the indigenous peoples living in the far reaches of Lapland. And what incredible lives those people experience. Please do not miss Vida's exquisitely beautiful tale.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a glimpse not only into the mind, but into the soul of a woman of many tragedies. I couldn't put it down once I started. It opens yours eyes to the struggles of the indigenous people of Lapland which is not so different from the lives of America's natives. The parallels don't stop there everyone can relate to this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book in one sitting during a flight from Minnesota to Virginia. I was easily drawn into the twisting and turning story of Clarissa's struggle to discover her true identity. Her character is very human and believable, and I appreciated the way Vida conveyed the rawness of Clarissa's emotions and her reactions to the various revelations she continued to experience throughout her journey. The cold wintry darkness of Lapland is the perfect setting for this wonderful story about finding the light within.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to have intelligent people with a flaw or two and this one had excellent character development, fascinating plot, drawing me into the book so I hated to put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this unique book. It took me all the way to Finland. The author had excellent reading recommendations.
kmgmom More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. The mother daughter issues were complex and interesting. The father daughter issues were also complex and full of searching. I liked the setting as character in this novel. I look forward to more books by Vida.
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She walked in and sat down under a tree.