I have been an Isabel Gillies fangirl for a long time. When I was separating from my husband a few years ago, I discovered her memoir, Happens Every Day. Even though the circumstances were very different, I took solace in her words. Even though I knew I was doing the right thing, she too had felt that odd heartbreak and grief in saying goodbye to what she believed her life would be and greeting something very different. She felt like the much cooler older sister that I never had, whose wisdom and pain I could learn from. I reread Happens Every Day earlier this year, because I had just read her newer piece, A Year and Six Seconds. I put them on hold at our library, and it was then that I discovered that she had just published a young adult novel. I put that book on hold immediately, hoping I would love it just as much.
When it came in, I started it right away. I quickly realized that I had another problem. I couldn't stop reading it, yet didn't want it to end. It has some of my favorite elements of young adult fiction in its pages - romance and school - along with fascinating characters, an amazing setting, and parents who are cool but also know how to set boundaries with their children. It feels like a big, giddy whoosh of a book, but it also has the pinprick of real emotions. I couldn't get enough!
The story centers on Wren Noorlander. At 15, she seems to be sailing through life on the outside. She has a very tight-knit group of friends - Vati, Reagan, Farah, and Charlie. Wren is an amazing artist with a blossoming talent. She is secure in her place at her private girls' school, knowing she has a great talent, but still having to work very hard in other subjects. Wren has an older brother, Oliver, who is a senior in high school. Despite the fact that he is getting older, and beginning to become slightly unknowable, he still has a strong relationship with Wren. And their younger sister, Dinah, is a pre-teen with a cooking show on Food TV. But all three siblings are also quite normal. The next quote is a little out of context, but it illustrates Wren and Dinah perfectly: "...then the door at the top of the stairs flung open to reveal Dinah, still in her uniform, hand on her hip, head cocked to the side. 'You are going down!' she announced, not looking surprised at all that Nolan was standing there. I glared at her. 'Is Mom home?' I whispered loudly as I trotted up. 'Oh yeah, she is, and she's on fire. She had to start knitting because you are so late! It's a total ten.'" (p. 157) This sample is so big sister-little sister that it still makes me laugh.
And then there are Wren's parents. They have interesting jobs to start with - Wren's mom has a pottery studio, Wren's dad is the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. No big deal, just the Metropolitan Museum of Art! They are sophisticated, live in a large brownstone in New York City. But here's what I love about the Noorlanders: they don't take all the opportunities they are afforded for granted. They see all the amazing things they are lucky enough to give their children and they are clear about what those opportunities require of all of them. Wren tells readers about how Dinah gets her own cooking show: "...Bravo called to say they were interested in having Dinah host a thirty minute cooking show. Mom was repelled, but Dad, who is more relaxed about publicity and media and sort of everything, convinced Mom that it would only be good for Dinah. I remember him saying at dinner, 'Nan, love, it's a wonderful life experience for her. I don't see how we can stand in her way.' My mother protested, 'I can stand directly in her way, David. She is only NINE!'" (p. 27). I read quite a bit of young adult fiction, and the parents are primarily absent, physically or emotionally. Wren's parents may not know every single thing their children do, but they have a pretty good idea of what's happening in their lives. I really like how connected Wren's parents are to Wren. They may not always make the easiest or most popular choice for their children, and they are okay with it. They are always there to supervise what's happening and support their children when they need it. As a parent, I love their example. It's a hard road to follow, but they put in the effort.
It's funny to me that I have gotten this far in my review without summarizing the plot. One of Oliver's newer friends, Nolan, comes over to the Noorlander house after school one day. Oliver, Nolan, Wren and her friends (Vati, Reagan, Farah and Charlie) have all been invited to their first Metropolitan Museum of Art opening. It is a huge deal and the girls are besides themselves with excitement. Then Wren meets Nolan, and things shift dramatically. "' Who are you?' Now this might sound weird, but Nolan's 'who are you?' did not come out badly...it was more like he was asking because he was enchanted with me, so that was wild - and nobody had ever asked me who I was before, so I was way into it." (p. 88) And she's off, muddling through her first love. Wren and Nolan make some bad choices in their longing to be together, but those choices aren't totally terrible. The night of the opening, Nolan talks Wren into ditching the party (and her parents) to go to a club and go dancing. The consequences of that impetuous decision leaves Wren grounded and without a phone for weeks. But it also leads to sweet scenes like this: "'Isn't it weird, how yesterday we didn't know each other, and now we are each other's person?' Nolan mused as he walked through the gates into Central Park." (p. 154).
One character I haven't yet mentioned in this post so far is the city of New York. It is so interwoven into the story that it feels like another person. After the above scene, Nolan and Wren stand under the echo bridge in Central Park and share their experiences of the bridge. It bonds them - one of those initial moments in a relationship when everything seems to be identical in your lives up until you met. But Nolan and Wren's relationship takes place in front of the city's backdrop: "We rode the 1 train up Broadway and he told me about his parents' divorce as the train rocked and screeched into station after station all the way to Eighty-Sixth Street." (p. 116) "The air felt loaded in New York City. It was one of those days that you feel not only that the temperature will drop but that something tremendous is going to happen. It was a Monday in November and the sky was so blue it was violet, uninterrupted by clouds." (p. 4) It's an amazing setting for me, living in a small(ish) Montana town with not a subway in sight. For readers in most of the country, the teens' lives feel a little glamorous, full of a different sort of freedom that we ever taste as Wren and her friends casually move about the city. For readers from New York City, I suspect it feels very accurate and real.
One of Gillies' strengths as a writer is her knack for the small details that make up our lives. Wren describes her home like this: "There are Persian rugs running down the halls, and under those rugs the beaten-up floors are made from smooth, wide wooden planks. Photographs and paintings hang on the walls from the floor to the ceiling, all mixed up." (p. 50) Their home is eclectic yet cozy and you can feel its essence through Gillies' description. Her writing is very concrete and real.
What I also love is how strong Wren's voice is throughout this novel. Wren is often wrong about things, but she commits to a plan of action wholeheartedly. "I spent the next long time lost, feverishly drawing a barn owl rocketing into the night sky, shooting up, wings spread wide, soaring up up up and off the paper with one hundred of her feathers fluttering in the headwind. If Oliver came upstairs, I didn't know it. He might have come up and decided not to bother me. I was somewhere far away." (p. 170-1) Wren is full of giddy love, excitement, strongly held beliefs and emotions. She is so endearing, and as the story unfolds, my heart broke for her in several different circumstances.
There is one other thing about Wren that I wanted to call attention to in this review. In the beginning of the novel, while talking with her friends, Wren notes "I can never get names until at least ten minutes after I need them. It's one strain of my other learning disorder: dysnomia. I have that along with the dyslexia, dysgraphia, and a dollop of ADD." (p. 31). Wren's learning disorders are definitely not the focus of this novel, but they are part of her too. She has strategies to help her manage these: "...trying to zip up my backpack and go through the mental list that I am supposed to go through every time I leave the school so I don't space on anything." (p. 146). Wren is matter of fact about the side effects of these - her impulsivity and her ability to focus on just one thing like her art are two sides of the same coin. This story isn't about that struggle for Wren, but I like how it is presented here - as one small part of the whole.
I haven't even scratched the surface of the events of this novel, or the emotions contained within it. But I'll encourage you to read this, to hear more about the Noorlander family and Wren's group of friends. And I'll beg Isabel Gillies to keep writing about Wren and her friends, because I never want to leave their world.
Starry Night. Isabel Gillies. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2014.
Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark library