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The Strays: A Novel

The Strays: A Novel

by Emily Bitto

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A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

"Disturbing and magical....with a grace and eloquence." - NPR Books "

Full of lush, mesmerizing detail and keen insight into the easy intimacy between young girls which disappears with adulthood." - The New Yorker "

THE STRAYS is a knowing novel, and beautifully done." - Meg Wolitzer,


A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

"Disturbing and magical....with a grace and eloquence." - NPR Books "

Full of lush, mesmerizing detail and keen insight into the easy intimacy between young girls which disappears with adulthood." - The New Yorker "

THE STRAYS is a knowing novel, and beautifully done." - Meg Wolitzer, New York Times bestselling author of The Interestings

For readers of Atonement, a hauntingly powerful story about the fierce friendship between three sisters and their friend as they grow up on the outskirts of their parents' wild and bohemian artistic lives.

On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends Eva and her sisters Beatrice and Heloise, daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. An only child from an unremarkable, working-class family, Lily has never experienced a household like the Trenthams'—a community of like-minded artists Evan and his wife have created, all living and working together to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930's Australia. And Lily has never met anyone like Eva, whose unabashed confidence and worldly knowledge immediately draw her in.

Infatuated by the creative chaos of the Trenthams and the artists who orbit them, Lily aches to fully belong in their world, craving something beyond her own ordinary life. She becomes a fixture in their home, where she and Eva spend their days lounging in the garden, filching cigarettes and wine, and skirting the fringes of the adults' glamorous lives, who create scandalous art during the day and host lavish, debauched parties by night. But as seductive as the artists' utopian vision appears, behind it lies both darkness and dysfunction. And the further the girls are pulled in, the greater the consequences become.

With elegance and vibrancy, THE STRAYS evokes the intense bonds of girlhood friendships, the volatile undercurrents of a damaged family, and the yearning felt by an outsider looking in.

*Includes Reading Group Guide*

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Sophie Gilbert
…[a] remarkable first novel…Bitto's scenes of the Trentham commune are vividly written, almost painterly…Methodically, a sense of impending catastrophe is woven into the narrative, making it seem inevitable, given the egos of the painters and their deliberate disruptions.
Publishers Weekly
The lyrical first novel by Australian Bitto observes the life of a bohemian household in 1930s Melbourne from the point of view of one of the “strays” the artistic Trenthams take in. Narrator Lily, an only child, is eight when she meets Eva, who will be her best friend for years. Bored with her conventional parents, whose idea of a good time is a jigsaw puzzle and a cup of cocoa, she begins to spend weekends with Eva, who lives with her controversial painter father; Eva’s mother, whose inherited wealth supports the household; Eva’s mature older sister, Bea; and her troubled younger sister, Heloise. As the years go by, other artists and their partners join the household. Eva’s father’s status is threatened by a young artist whose works sell better than his, and the parents’ neglect of the children leads to a horrific outcome. Lily, in 1985 a professor of art history, is a thoughtful and articulate observer, aware of her own emotional investment in the family as well as of the many fractures within its seemingly structure. By placing her so firmly in a comfortable future, however, the core story loses much of its suspense, and too many of the novel’s crucial events take place offstage, described rather than depicted. (Jan.)
Library Journal
★ 02/01/2017
In 1930, eight-year-old Lily becomes instant best friends with Eva Trentham when they enter third grade in Melbourne, Australia. An only child, Lily is delighted to spend every spare moment at the sprawling Trentham enclave, a bohemian household headed by Eva's vulgar, self-centered, brilliant artist father, Evan, and his vigilant wife, Helena, a hot-and-cold maternal presence. Several young artists are drawn to the Trenthams' aura and eventually move in, and Lily herself is absorbed into the household. For a few years, the creative endeavors of the adults around her power an astonishing output of work, but as Lily, Eva, and her two equally beautiful sisters grow into adolescence, sexual tensions and artistic jealousies among the residents lead to a shocking scandal that shreds the household's fragile balance of talent and self-absorption and leads to the implosion of Lily's and Eva's friendship. VERDICT Published in Australia in 2014, this debut novel is a layered tapestry of family half-truths, deceit, and desire stretching across five decades, with blurred lines tangling the lives of Lily and Eva and thwarting Lily's quest for resolution and redemption. Reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Atonement yet uniquely, gorgeously Bitto's own. [See Prepub Alert, 7/1/16.]—Beth Andersen, formerly with Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
A first novel from Australia about an artist and his wealthy wife living with their three daughters on the creative edge in hidebound 1930s Melbourne.Narrator Lily is the 8-year-old only child of overprotective parents struggling their way through the Depression when she meets Eva Trentham and her two sisters, Bea and Heloise, at her new school. Entranced by Eva but also her glamorous mother, Helena, and painter father, Evan, who don’t mind flouting convention, Lily is soon spending as much time as she can at their estatelike home, which has belonged to Helena’s family for generations. Soon other young artists move in as the Trenthams experiment in creating a free-spirited bohemian utopia. Meanwhile Lily and Eva develop an intensely close friendship; author Bitto is particularly strong at portraying “the depth of intimacy in that first chaste trial marriage between girls.” Drawn to the atmosphere of “carefree detachment” in which Helena and Evan raise their children—Evan unselfconsciously naked much of the time, Helena paying erratic attention to basic needs like food on the table—Lily yearns to be part of the family, not just a friend or guest. But what seems Edenic to Lily becomes increasingly problematic for the Trentham daughters, particularly the youngest, Heloise, whose emotional struggles no one takes seriously until too late. The dangers of the Trentham's creative neglect come to fruition when the girls blossom into puberty in close proximity to attractive male artists in their 20s. From the first page, a middle-aged Lily lets the reader know “it all fell apart.” The novel is framed within Lily’s preparations to attend a 1985 museum retrospective of a now-revered Evan’s work, her visit to the now-elderly Trenthams, her first conversation with Eva since their relationship ruptured decades earlier, and her growing if conflicted desire to write a memoir about them all. Bitto adapts a leisurely storytelling pace that matches the period as she explores with quiet passion both the cost of creative life on family and the definition of family itself.
From the Publisher
"Remarkable...Bitto's scenes of the Trentham commune are vividly written, almost painterly."—New York Times Book Review

"Emily Bitto writes so well about art, childhood, infatuation, loneliness—you name it. THE STRAYS is a knowing novel, and beautifully done."—Meg Wolitzer, New York Times bestselling author of The Interestings

"Showcases a dazzling, gabby and ultimately doomed collection of stray human beings...THE STRAYS invites readers into a world that is by turns disturbing and magical....Word pictures which elevate the ordinary to exquisite appear throughout Bitto's novel..With precise and graceful turns of phrase, Bitto reveals the bond of passion between the two girls, which seems unbreakable but inevitably snaps under all that can't be said. And she delivers all of this with a grace and eloquence."—NPR Books

"Full of lush, mesmerizing detail and keen insight into the easy intimacy between young girls which disappears with adulthood."—The New Yorker

"Riveting, captivating, with a sense of foreboding threaded throughout. THE STRAYS is such a daring look at art and love and family that you'll want to clear your calendar: you'll be reading it in a day."—Whitney Otto, New York Times bestselling author of How to Make an American Quilt and Eight Girls Taking Pictures

"Reading this novel, I realized that this is the kind of book I love best: the young girl narrating a story she feels she cannot understand. Because of the precision of the prose, however, the reader perfectly understands the folly of the adult world and the perilous life the children must somehow try to survive. Thank you to Emily Bitto!"—Jane Hamilton, New York Times bestselling author of The Excellent Lombards

"Emily Bitto's THE STRAYS is a powerful and precisely imagined journey into the lives of two girls growing up in the avant-garde artistic milieu of post-war Australia. Like Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan novels, Bitto entices and enthralls, probing the pathos of the heart and the unpredictable volatility of friendships and family. But above all, it is the writing itself that delights the reader: vivid, tactile, perfectly wrought, this is prose that weaves a lasting spell."—Paul Kane, award-winning author of Welcome Light

"Reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Atonement, Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw, or A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book...THE STRAYS is like a gemstone: polished and multifaceted, reflecting illuminations back to the reader and holding rich colour in its depths."—Stella Prize Judges' Report

"[A] sparkling debut."—The National Book Review, "5 Hot Books"

"A haunting evocation of life-changing friendship...THE STRAYS is a marvel of setting and characterization, re-creating a time of artistic revolution and personal revelation. Memorable and moving, this is a novel not to be missed."—Booklist (starred review)

"Told in both the breathless voice of an easily infatuated child and the more measured tones of a wiser adult, THE STRAYS is a powerful tale of the consequences of creativity."—BookPage

"You could lift out any sentence in THE STRAYS and admire the sheer artistry of its melody and composition. What's especially wonderful about Bitto's literary novel is the story never feels weighed down by style. It's an immensely pleasurable read."—Bookseller + Publisher 4.5 stars

"Lyrical."—Publishers Weekly

"Explores with quiet passion both the cost of creative life on family and the definition of family itself."—Kirkus Reviews

"Its themes and characters provide universal resonance... THE STRAYS is a thoughtful exploration of what happens when artistic genius and family life collide, and how a relatively short period in one's youth can shape personal and professional choices for a lifetime."—BookReporter

"THE STRAYS is a marvellously accomplished and assured debut, announcing a major new talent. Rich in atmosphere and beautifully observed."—Booktopia

Product Details

Grand Central Publishing
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Emily Bitto has a Masters in Literary Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she also co-owns the Carlton wine bar, Heartattack and Vine.

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