Friday, October 4, 2013

Sidewalk Dancing - Letitia Moffitt

"The house looked like a starfish. One particular starfish, in fact -- the stumpy-armed one Grace had seen in a tidepool back in Monterrey. The creature had been battered, barely looked alive... and George had nudged her and said, 'You think he looks bad, you should've seen the other guy.' They had known each other for only about two months then, and she'd been speaking English for only three years; even though she didn't understand what he meant, she at least perceived that he was making some kind of joke. She smiled at him. She wondered fleetingly if starfish were edible."

And so George and Grace McGee embark upon married life with the construction of a house - a quirky, starfish shaped house - in Kaneohe, Hawaii. It's a house built of dreams, its quirky character only enhanced by contractor error and shortcuts. It's the kind of house which, in its troubled construction, calls attention to the unlikely pairing of its builders: one an idealist raised on the mainland, one a pragmatic and determined recent immigrant from China. Like many houses, it is the kind that doesn't always fit its inhabitants exactly right, but which is home nonetheless.

In this autobiographical novel-in-stories, author Letitia Moffitt explores the life of a family within and beyond the walls of the McGee's idiosyncratic house. Sidewalk Dancing (Atticus Books 2013) follows George, Grace, and their daughter Miranda through marriage, child- and parent- hood, coming of age and fleeing the nest, their relationships characterized by deep bonds and the sometimes profound divides of generation, culture, and personality. The members of the family know each other intimately, and yet in some ways not at all. The fascination lies in the real and perceived gaps between them.

I loved these stories, which are poignant, funny, nuanced and engaging. Moffitt creates complicated, interesting relationships between her characters, whom one can't help but like and admire, flaws and all. George's constant scheming is frustrating, but we respect his dogged integrity. Grace may strike those around her as brusque or aloof, but we are intrigued by the worlds of stories hidden behind a quiet facade. Miranda, in typical young adult fashion, goes to great lengths to distance herself from her family, but she is maybe not as unlike them as she might think. There is wonderful humor, for example, in "Only Say True," Miranda playfully blames Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club for setting unattainably high expectations for mother-daughter relationships. In a few of her stories, Moffitt goes darker and writes with an exciting edge - the suspenseful "Knives" introduces us to a more dangerous side of Grace; "Living Dead" to a more fragile side of Miranda. The author's clear, consistent voice holds the stories beautifully together, though, living up to their billing as a "novel in stories."

Above all, Sidewalk Dancing leads us to consider what makes up "home" - is it in our similarities to the people to whom we're related, or is it defined by our differences? Is home the geographic location in which we exist, or the one for which our heart yearns? Is home a building, or the rituals that take place inside, or is home all of the above? We contemplate all these possibilities, seeking evidence in the lovely details: "I woke up remembering that this house was full of little sounds. Little creaks in the floorboards and in the furniture as bodies moved through rooms in the morning." In these fine observations - the sounds of the household in motion, George hearing Grace in the next room and knowing exactly what she is doing, the familiar shape and weight of a coffee mug wrapped in newspaper and ready to pack in a moving box - we, too, are brought close into the fold of the McGee family. A highly recommended read for fans of literary short fiction.

Many thanks to Atticus Books for a complimentary review copy of Sidewalk Dancing. Ms. Moffitt was kind enough to answer my questions about her book - read our conversation here.

Happy reading!

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