|A Review byRebecca James
|A Seahorse Year (2004) by Stacey D'Erasmo Houghton Mifflin, 360 pages, $24.00
The drawing sixteen-year-old Christopher finally relinquished (rather easily, given his earlier peculiar attachment to it) mesmerized his parents and Marina. An intricate and strangely twisting design covered the surface of the tattered and now dirty paper, serving as the only clue to what rested inside his troubled adolescent mind. His return from an unannounced, unlikely, and seemingly purposeless sojourn to Arizona was quickly followed by an episode so frightening to his mother that Chris found himself, sans drawing, bloating slowly and medicinally under the guidance of doctors at the area's best mental treatment facility.
When I was fifteen years old, I ran away from home for two weeks. We had just moved from a bustling middle-class suburb (following a series of private and public schools that only increased my anxiety and self-consciousness) to a slow-moving working-class southern Maryland town. I quickly made the most questionable friends I could, any fifteen-year with a parole record or twenty-year-old pot smoker that needed company. Within a few weeks, I had established myself as recklessly naive and had gained an outlet for my waves of depression and stomach-churning anxiety I had struggled silently with for years. One night, a new friend stayed over. We shared many of the same symptoms and behaviors, including, unfortunately, impulsivity. By three a.m. I was wrapped around the back of a man in his early thirties, speeding on the back of his motorcycle towards the state line, a heavy-lidded buzz numbing any fears I had. I think I fell asleep at about 65 miles per hour. Once I put myself in that situation, it was difficult to locate the appropriate way back to my life. It was like dreaming in the third-person point of view, a limited ability to narrate, but not to physically control.
My mother must have been a mess. I can imagine now how she must have felt, or at least how I would have felt. Guilty, helpless, angry, confused. Nan, the character Chris's mother, offers much of her perspective as she struggles with the disappearance and subsequent treatment of her son. Readers witness her oddly calm reunion with Chris, where she forces her exterior self to remain controlled and non-threatening. Unlike my situation, Chris's return amplifies his need for help. His physical appearance is not simply rebellious, it is stagnant, unwashed, and sour.
Stacey D'Erasmo's latest novel, The Seahorse Year, follows an impressive debut. Her first novel, Tea, was a New York Times' Notable Book of the Year for the former Village Voice writer. D'Erasmo's book does not rely on dialogue for most of its exploration of the inherently human non-traditional family. Instead, she allows the actions, self-doubt, and descriptions to form the simple imagery that graces her pages.
Other reviewers have described the San Francisco family in Seahorse as one that struggles with its flaws. I disagree. I'm not even fond of using the "non-traditional" label, although, I suppose, to many people it is. Nan and Hal are Chris's parents, two gay acquaintances who decided in the wake of a mutual friend's death sixteen years before to have a child. It was an act more earthy and spiritual than physical. Hal is convinced that Nan's sheer will allowed the conception to take place with no hesitation or difficulties. In comparison to modern accounts of shared parenting, their spontaneous, easygoing approach was either extremely lucky or indicative of a less
complicated relationship. There was no passion, even platonic, between Nan and Hal. They weren't even that close at the conception. Their relationship as parents grew over time with each accepting an appropriate amount of responsibility, blending efficiently. Unfortunately, no family can prepare for a child with schizophrenia.
After Chris's diagnosis, the family that Nan and Hal had created, with the more recent addition of Marina, Nan's partner of seven years, began to fray. Small infidelities and imperfections in the bonds that held them together are amplified under the microscope that stress can impose on a family.
"Marina, [reflects Hal] by contrast, seems as if she's always half in a trance or half out of one, a quality Nan never fails to find massively alluring. Nan likes to get lost in these elusive women even while pretending that she's marching straight ahead. [...] He wishes Nan's lover were a big, warm gal kind of person, like Fannie Flagg. If he were sitting in the garden with Fannie Flagg, he'd feel safer. As it is, he's sitting in the garden waiting for his runaway son with a silver-haired riddle."
Each person is forced to reexamine his or her own priorities, strengths, and weaknesses as a person, partner, and parent, with surprising growth and decisions ricocheting throughout the novel and the family. D'Erasmo's writing is absorbing and thought-provoking, a pleasure to read. I found myself wanting to return to the story, despite my own inexperience (non-experience?) as a parent. The characters are much larger than that of mother or father or son. The complexities of their relationships are familiar enough to make them readable and relevant, yet complicated enough to be believable. Overall, the success of this novel may likely rival that of Tea.
Rebecca James is an English teacher in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She divides her time between Pennsylvania and Rehoboth Beach.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 7 June 17, 2005