My Funny Valentine
In her debut novel, Eliza Minot delves into the minutiae of eight-year-old Via Revere's world on the day her mother dies in a car accident. Told almost entirely from Via's point of view in simple yet compelling language, The Tiny One takes place in Masconomo, Massachusetts, on Valentine's Day in the late 1970s.
Early on, Via says, "I can't stop thinking about the day that it happened.... I want to think about as much as I can that's happened. I think of the day and go over it in my mind. The day was like other days and then it happened. I want to think about it so much that I also don't want to think about it. But I want to think about it so I don't forget it.... Mum's dead, that was the day. I was in recess. I was at lunch. I listened to Miss Hunt in class. Lulu bugged me but she made me laugh too. Then Dad told me."
And so Via's reverie begins; the book's chapters mirror Via's schedule, from "The Breakfast," "The Bath" and "History with Mr. Waring" in the morning to "Lunch" and "A Special Assembly" before receiving "The News" in the afternoon. In each chapter, Via's narrative starts with a recounting of the scene she's inher fourth-grade classroom, the lunchroom, outside at recessthen jumps to stream-of-consciousness observations and memories of her early years with her mother and father and three older siblingsMarly, Pete, and Cy.
More a medley of vignettes than a structured novel, The Tiny One details the full range of childhood's small pleasures and minor catastrophes: Via collecting objects from around the househer father's belt, a glass figurineand wrapping them up as Christmas presents; an older girl at school squeezing a baby chick to death while Via watches; Via sitting in the audience at her aunt's graduation and wondering why people clap; her parents carrying Via to safety and bandaging her up when she cuts her leg playing in the water at their summer home in Maine; Via overhearing her parents fighting from a hiding place in the kitchen.
Tragedy lurks at the heart of the story, but the novel isn't morbid or depressing. Minot focuses primarily on happy times, the laughter and wonder of early childhood. Some of the book's most memorable moments are those in which Via and her mother cuddle and giggle: "She squeezes my hips and the warm wind is blowing at us. 'And I love you,' she says. I nuzzle in. 'Mmmmm,' she says, hugging me, and I say it too. I get my nose close into her neck. I hear the waves from in there. I want to get inside her neck. I feel glad and like the glowy bugs are squirmy inside of me and it will all last forever."
Though the exclusive use of the child's voice is sometimes limiting, Minot authentically captures the thinking and meandering of an eight-year-old's mind. In Via's eyes, everything in her insular world takes on great importance. Lunch in the cafeteria with "mint green colored" trays provides Via with the opportunity to supply a treatise on school lunch: "The best sandwich is grilled cheese but we always have it with tomato soup and I don't like tomato soup.... On Fridays we don't have meat ever so we have fish sticks or pizza since Bernice doesn't cook meat on Friday. You can't eat meat on Friday if you're Catholic. I know that's why because of Mum and us but other people probably don't know why. Everyone always wants pizza. I like fish sticks better but I pretend I like pizza as much as everyone else does." Such reminiscencesoften funnymake it easy to remember one's own childhood obsessions and phobias.
It's hard not to compare The Tiny One to Monkeys, a 1986 collection of connected short stories by Minot's older sister, Susan. Both books draw their inspiration from the sisters' large New England family and their mother's early death, though the family in Monkeys contains seven siblings, and Via's counterpart, Minnie, appears in only about half of the stories. Monkeys is a strong and more straightforward book; unlike The Tiny One, it includes an episode that takes place after the mother's death, when the siblings and their father scatter her ashes at sea.
Eliza Minot doesn't show us the aftermath of the tragedy beyond the day of the funeral. She doesn't need to: Her recapitulation of the day Via can't forget expresses the complete devastation of the loss. In the last few pages, though, Viawise and without self-pityclearly articulates what's become abundantly clear over 250 pages: that the love she received from her mother in those eight rich and nurturing years will always be with her.
About the Author
Eliza Minot was born in Beverly, Massachusetts. She lives in New York with her husband.
"Children can feel, but they cannot analyze their feelings," Charlotte Bronte wrote. Eliza Minot would have to agree, but in her first novel, The Tiny One, she's chosen an awkward way around it.
When the book opens, 8-year-old Via Revere has just lost her mother in a car accident. She's in shock, understandably, and instead of trying to process the event -- how could she? -- Via retreats in her mind to the day of the accident, looking to "find something in that day to hold on to like a rope swing, to swing with." It's a poignant and comprehensible desire, but what follows is a 200-plus-page dissection of Via's day -- recess, morning snack, social studies class -- interspersed with memories of time spent with her family and friends.
After pages and pages of clamming with Via's Mum and vacationing with Aunt Nellie in Bermuda, I was desperate for something, anything, that would drive this day toward the book's central event, the accident. But there isn't anything. The novel is simply a study of an innocent youth on the verge of a life-changing occurrence she doesn't even know is coming. While there are a few beautiful and true moments, they have to compete with a clutter of period details and cliches. (Remember Bonne Bell lip gloss, playing Marco Polo in the pool, touching your tongue to your nose, or trying to?) The Tiny One reads like an excellent expanded writing exercise. It's barely a novel, and it's certainly not an investigation of consequential topics such as loss and grief.
It's also worth pointing out that there are more than a few similarities between The Tiny One and the work of the author’s sister, Susan Minot, especially Monkeys. In fact, for anyone who's read Monkeys, the similarities are downright unsettling. Both books are written in spare prose and rely on a child's point of view. Both describe the experience of growing up in a Catholic 1970s New England household, and both center on the untimely death of the mother. More disquieting, some of the same images are found in both books. In Monkeys, Sophie describes her father ice skating:
He can go really fast. He takes off -- whoosh --
whizzing, circling at the edge of the pond, taking
long strides, then gliding. His hands behind him in a
tight clasp, his face as calm as if he were just
walking along, only slightly forward.
In The Tiny One, Via describes her neighbor ice skating:
When he's skating he looks like he's going slowly
because he looks so relaxed. But really he's going
fast. He glides. He clasps his hands behind his back.
He digs in with bent knees so his body's tipped
forward just a little bit.
In some ways, though, the likeness between the Minot sisters bodes well for The Tiny One. Eliza Minot is every bit as good as her sister at capturing intimate details, particularly physical sensations. The mud that feels like warm cream around Via's toes, the way grape soda tastes like hot bubbles in her mouth -- these are lovely, visceral images. But they are the only anchors in a book that otherwise misses its mark. Eliza Minot clearly has talent and promise as a writer, but I hope she'll cast a wider net next time.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Chronicling the same family dynamics and pivotal events as her sister Susan Minot in Monkeys, Eliza Minot makes an impressive debut with this moving novel of a close-knit family disrupted by a sudden, tragic death. The remarkably true voice of eight-year-old Via Mahoney Revere is Minot's triumph here, as the stunned child tries to absorb the fact that her beloved mother has died in a car accident. In a trance of disjointed sorrow, Via retraces the fateful day, recalling the routine progression of her fourth grade classes to the moment when she hears the news. One memory triggers another, flooding her mind with incidents ranging through her secure and protected childhood. Through the layers of episodic recollection emerges a clear and textured picture of a comfortable upper-middle-class Catholic family living in a Massachusetts coastal town, spending summers on an island in Maine, skiing in New Hampshire and sunning in Bermuda. Mum is vibrantly present in all of Via's memories, a tender and actively affectionate maternal figure who jokes with her kids in easy vernacular. Via is the last born of four siblings, and the smallest. Still young enough for kisses and squeezes, she is enveloped in a warm cocoon of loving care; "small fry," her mother calls her fondly, and "pint-sized." The bedrock of credibility here, and the source of the book's emotional truth, is Minot's ability to recall a child's fresh sensory perceptions. Abundant humor suffuses the mixture of wonder and bewilderment with which Via tries to interpret the world, and her childish opinions about cereal box prizes and TV cartoons and why she loves pickles. Yet we never forget that a child awakened to grief is summoning these comforting memories as solace. Minot's prose pulses with similes and graceful images. To Via, the ocean on a hot day "looks like dried paint that a ball would bounce on." The reader's emotional response rises as the chapters progress toward the moment when Via's life will suffer the irrevocable blow. In its poignant denouement, this narrative of domestic happiness and heartrending grief culminates in a radiant vision of eternal love. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Minot's powerful first novel introduces Via Revere, a plucky and adored third grader, the youngest child of a wealthy Massachusetts couple who is forced to come to terms with grief, loss, and a rapidly shifting family dynamic when her mother is killed in a car wreck. Via, who narrates her own story, is by turns whiny and articulate, future-focused and reflective, accepting and full of questions. As with all children, there are times you want Via to go away and leave you alone; at other times, however, she will enchant you and move you to tears; for better or for worse, Minot writes this young life with amazing authenticity. And although several story lines go nowhere and appear as loose threads in an otherwise well-woven tale, the book nonetheless resonates and shines. Recommended for all public libraries.--Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In this luminous debut novel, 8-year old Via re-creates the February day her mother died in a car crash, from the bowl of Sugar Snaps she ate for breakfast, to the giddy anticipation she felt when her father appeared in the middle of math class to take her home...details like these, along with funny warm memories of the Revere family's life together in small-town Massachussets, leaven the book's heartbreaking, but unflinching, look at death. Minot has written an achingly beautiful tale of loss and redemption.
First time novelist Eliza Minot deserves acclaim for her complete and unique depiction of an eight-year-old's voice and vision.
Time Out New York
In her nicely observed and sharply written debut novel, Minot, with generally satisfying results, offers the biography of an eight-year-old girl on the occasion of her mother's death. Via Revere, who as the story opens has just learned of her Mum's death, intends to catalogue the day of her dying, frightened she will lose her mother if she forgets it. The novel is actually Via's vivid recounting of her own biography through a string of anecdotes, told in the present tense, gathered around the theme of her perfect family happiness. Living in Massachusetts, the Reveres spend summers at Sky Island in Maine and winters skiing in New Hampshire. Mum and Dad are uniformly gentle, sensitive, and admirably parental, and Via's brothers Cy and Pete and her sister Marly are happily teasing, intelligent, and humane (uniformity of character in the novel, if a flaw, is still true to the vision of the eight-year-old we're reading). Via herself is of course precocious, as is evident not only from her high standing in math, but from the deft perceptions and agility of her narrative. Hovering over these simple, innocent, and extended sketches of snuggles in bed, clam digs, and childish irritations is the reader's knowledge of Via's mother's impending death. The day in question isn't much: waking up, taking a bath, waiting for the bus, going to school. At school, there's history, art, math, and Via's father's arrival with the news. Via's own voice is Minot's signal achievement. A distant cousin of Nicholson Baker's fastidious adult itemizers, Via presents a persuasive child's point of view, but, given the dewy golden glow of the story until the news is broken to Via, her mother's death does not seemcrushing. Minot, as though, understanding this, intervenes with brief, vaguely philosophical remarks about loss and childhood innocence. An adeptly textured first novel, in all. Minot shows skill in a story flush with detail but not overburdened by significance.
Read an Excerpt
ONE: Staying with Puddle
Via Revere. She's just a kid in the morning except that she's sitting still on her bed in the thick of far-gone winter with her mouth parted open like a grown woman's in thought. Life's got her for the first time pinned up against a wall, openmouthed. But other than her mouth, and her stillness, the rest of her's pure kid, but stunned. She's slouched and static, puffy-eyed, staring at the rug where it meets the wood floor. She's sitting waiting, lopsided, dumbstruck, not even thinking yet what to think.
Her mother would have put her in the gray flannel or Black Watch plaid dress. Instead Via's wearing an Easter dress that curdles, but nicely, with the raw winter surrounding her. Its white cotton is springlike, clean and pleated, cool over her dark wool tights. Lavender smocking is embroidered across her chest, and her young fresh head grows up out of the starched scalloped collar that petals at the neck. Her hair's got so much static that she can feel it clinging silky to her cheek, buzzing, tickling at the side of her chapped mouth.
One of the cats jumps up beside her and arches to rub along her arm. She pats it without looking at it and with her electricity gives it a little shock so the kitty twitches its whiskers but keeps purring. Via twitches too, her eye, but keeps staring.
She's just a kid and it's morning but nothing's the same. Everything's different now. She's at the beginning of a new chapter. She's perched at the edge of a new era. Grief has been born boring into her soft ripe life full of cartwheels and digging with sticks, leaves and laughter, sky and light, her mother's face and jumps in the air. Grief's been injected like a strange sedative that has the opposite effect -- it wakes you up. It's jarred her like shaking her shoulders. It has her. The grizzle of life has rattled her numb. It's like she's been whacked in the head out of laughter and now she sits alone on her bed, looking out, in awe at anything, in awe at everything, stunned.
Hearing the news is like this: The day was like other days and then it happened. Then the news came like those film clips where huge buildings sway gracefully to the ground like someone's sucking them down with a vacuum. It's a whirl of air. It's a night of movement with billowing as the darkness is go everything go, everything moves, disheveled and alive, rushing with sound. Then suddenly it is silent. It's like the sound has been turned off but you're watching a storm. The trees bend like slingshots and the leaves tornado up into the air. Where is the sound? And then it is over.
Then it is over and it's morning. You've heard the news. You'd almost rather hear it again -- fresh -- than begin a life with what you know now. It is morning. It is a morning when everything is hit white-yellow and windows of buildings shine in dull flashes. The windshields of slowly moving cars turn weak sun in your eyes. You wince. You feel like a fever that's petrified.
It's her older sister Marly's voice in the door behind her. "You ready?"
Then it's her father. "All set?"
They're in the door together but Via doesn't want to turn around to see.
Marly comes and sits beside her. "All set?" she says, like her father just did.
Via nods. She pats the cat Puddle and listens to the purring. "She's purring," Via says.
"Come on," says Marly, nudging her. Marly heads toward the bureau. "I'll get you a sweater."
"No," says Via.
"You'll freeze, V."
"I don't think I will."
"Well you think wrong," says Marly. "Look at it out there."
Via looks up from the floor to look out the window. She doesn't remember yesterday. Today looks like it's trying to snow.
"I want to stay here with Puddle," Via says.
Marly goes over to her. Marly squats down and looks at her little sister in the eye. "You want to stay with Puddle?" Marly asks her.
"It's not time to go yet," says Marly. "Want me to come get you when it's time to go?"
Via nods again. "Yeah," she says. She's patting Puddle.
Marly kisses Via's forehead as she's standing up. "We'll all be right downstairs if you want to come down," Marly tells her. "Okay?"
" 'Kay," says Via.
When Marly leaves, Via looks back up out the window while she listens to Puddle purr. It's as white as can be out there. Only the rattly knuckled trees are dark and still against the icy snow that's beneath them and behind them. Above the world is the long white sky, open and bare.
From the Trade Paperback edition.