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Pop Lit

Tragic families and turbulent love

By Diane White
Globe Correspondent / April 11, 2010

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It’s exciting to read a first novel as captivating as Michele Young-Stone’s. Stephanie Cowell is nothing short of masterful in writing about Claude Monet’s life and love. Dianne Dixon’s suspenseful first novel involves secrets and repressed memories.

The title hints at something unusual: “The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors.” And Young-Stone’s novel is indeed eccentric. The story follows, in alternating chapters, the separate lives of two emotionally fragile young people who don’t meet until the novel is well advanced. When they do, events do not unfold predictably. But nothing in this novel is predictable, which is one of many reasons that it’s a delight. Young-Stone has written an exceptionally rich and sure-handed debut, full of complex characters, brilliantly described.

Becca Burke’s alcoholic mother and self-absorbed, philandering father don’t believe their daughter has been struck by lightning — not just once, but twice. The Burkes live in Charlotte, N.C. Becca’s father, Rowan, a snob who believes he married beneath him, is falling off the tenure track. Her mother, Mary, drinks to forget her husband’s emotional abuse and infidelities. In rural Mont Blanc, Ark., young Buckley R. Pitank’s life lurches from one disappointment to the next. Buckley is a magnet for bullies — his schoolmates, his mean grandmother, his cruel fundamentalist preacher stepfather. Buckley’s mother, Abigail, is the only loving presence in his life, as he is in hers. When Buckley is 13, he and his mother run away to Galveston, where their lives take a turn for the better. Then Abigail is struck by lightning and dies.

Some years later, Buckley drops out of college, moves to New York, and works as a dishwasher. Haunted by his mother’s death, he writes “The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors,” a compendium of lightning-related facts, testimony from survivors and witnesses, warnings, and advice. Becca becomes an artist and moves to New York. Her paintings, suffused by the intensity of her lightning strike experiences, attract Buckley’s attention, as his book has attracted hers. The dust jacket notes that Young-Stone was struck by lightning years ago. It’s impossible to know how much the experience influenced her writing, but her style certainly has an electric immediacy.

Stephanie Cowell’s “Claude & Camille” is both a historical novel and a romance, but Cowell’s graceful, moving treatment of Claude and Camille Monet’s turbulent love defies categorization. It’s an enthralling story, beautifully told. Reading novels about historical figures sometimes requires a particular kind of suspension of disbelief, but Cowell’s glimpse into Monet’s life and art is convincing and intimate. The novel begins with a prelude, the familiar image of the elderly painter in his garden at Giverny. In the first chapter, Cowell introduces the passionate young genius determined to capture light and life in a new style of painting.

Camille Doncieux, his great love, left her bourgeois family and abandoned her stuffy fiancé to live with the struggling young painter. Monet had renounced a financially secure future managing his father’s nautical supply business to follow his vision. Their life together was far from easy. Poverty, long separations, family pressure, and infidelity chipped away at their relationship. Camille endured it all, living in miserable Paris lodgings and run-down, rodent-infested country houses. She was his muse, his lover, the mother of his two children, his support in everything, the one person who best understood his unpredictable emotions and intense longings. And yet Monet never felt he understood her. She remained a mystery.

Cowell vividly portrays not just the couple and their life together, but their time and place, their world. She writes in language that is simple, elegant, and extraordinarily evocative. This is a novel of friendship as well as love. Cowell depicts Monet’s bond with his fellow artists, a revolutionary group who would be known, collectively, as the Impressionists — Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Bazille.

Justin Fisher, the lead character in Dianne Dixon’s first novel, “The Language of Secrets,” appears to have a full life. He has a loving wife, Amy, a young son, Zack, and a successful career as the manager of luxury hotels. But Justin has a problem. Large chunks of his past are missing. He can’t remember his childhood in any coherent way. And he can’t recall why he has lost touch with his family.

After living and working in London for a decade, Justin accepts a job in Santa Monica. He decides to visit the family home in Sierra Madre. After learning that his father has died recently, Justin visits the cemetery where he finds, next to his parents’ graves, a tombstone with his name on it and a date indicating that he died at age 3. He searches for and finds his sister, who is unaccountably hostile. She refuses to believe he is her brother and abruptly orders him off her property.

Alone at first, then with the help of a psychiatrist, Justin searches his memory for fragments and clues to the missing parts of his own life. The story skips back and forth in time to Justin’s early childhood, to his mother, Caroline, an insecure young woman who married the wrong man. Dixon’s portrayal of Caroline is complex and sympathetic. In many ways, she is the central character. It would be unfair to potential readers of “The Language of Secrets” to reveal much more about the plot except to say that Justin’s lost years turn out to have been traumatic. Dixon is an experienced screenwriter who knows how to create suspense and move the story along, although certain plot elements seem torturous and unnecessary.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS

By Michele Young-Stone

Shaye Areheart, 384 pp., $24

CLAUDE & CAMILLE

By Stephanie Cowell

Crown, 352 pp., $25

THE LANGUAGE OF SECRETS

By Dianne Dixon

Doubleday, 272 pp., $24.95