Gem & Dixie

I had originally paired this read with another book (one that is now to be reviewed later) which happened to include sisters, but it was too fanciful and too light of a connection. I had even mentally titled that post “Hello, seestra,”  which delighted me, but as this week’s schedule fell apart, that title just […]

gem&dixieI had originally paired this read with another book (one that is now to be reviewed later) which happened to include sisters, but it was too fanciful and too light of a connection. I had even mentally titled that post “Hello, seestra,”  which delighted me, but as this week’s schedule fell apart, that title just seemed too flip, too light for this thoughtful read. So  instead we have a single book to examine, one with three starred reviews, and a place on the PW year-end list. This is absolutely and centrally a book about sisters, about how sisters sometimes can complete each other and still grow apart. It’s also about how families give us a place, and that place shapes our very selves. And it’s also a book that, despite being about the hard and harrowing ways our families can fail us, is a tender read.

Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr
April 2017, HarperCollins
Reviewed from an ARC

This is such an interesting mix of elements in a read — slow, all about a delicate growing and developing private character, who has to navigate a complicated web of relationships. Gem is perceptive, quiet, and careful — and absolutely angry. Zarr is that detailed and that respectful with all of her characterization here. The entire True family, as seen through Gem’s observant eyes, are intricate, thorny people, all reacting to each other in ways that have solidified into harmful patterns. Everyone in this small apartment is wrestling with internal, invisible pain, and that pain bleeds out onto the rest of the family. When we see Gem shut down with Mr Bergstrom, or Adria lash out at Dixie, or watch Gem struggle with mistrusting Russell as he walks back into her life, we can understand how her life has been shaped by abandonment and poverty. Gem’s situation is specific, and her journey to a better support system and more stability is tough. We are seeing a family in crisis, but it’s a quiet sort of crisis that could just keep on going without community intervention. Gem’s mixed core — of strengths and vulnerabilities, of independence and need — result in a heroine who pushes and pulls, who wants to do both, sometimes at the same time.

The relationship between the sisters is at the heart of the novel, and it’s a thorny one; the memories and flashbacks included often highlight how fraught and knotty their current connection is. Gem’s ability to see her family and understand her parents is a hard-won sort of maturity, while her struggle socially reveals that in many other ways, she’s still learning and developing — she’s still kidlike in her way. Dixie’s almost the opposite; on the surface, she’s more adept socially (but with so many red lights and warning signs that she, Dixie, just doesn’t even notice yet). Additionally, she hasn’t had to realize that her wishes for a simpler family life are just that — wishes.

The parents and other adults generally have their own strong characterization. Russell and Adria, particularly, are realistically flawed individuals who still manage to elicit our sympathy as readers. Knowing that Zarr managed to make that clear through a daughter’s first person narration is pretty extraordinary. In particular, chapter 8, where Adria impulsively and furiously throws away the groceries, then shrinks into herself to go and use is just gripping.

Gem’s narration takes us through the novel, and her first person perspective is subtly done. Through her eyes, we see her mother struggle, her father breeze into town, Mr Bergstrom fully catch on to what’s going on in the True household. The adults are well rounded characters that we’re able to get to know through Gem’s perspective. Zarr usually manages to use Gem’s POV to show rather than tell. And as we get to know the people surrounding her, we are able to relate to Gem, too. She gives us an outsider’s perspective, both in her family and at school. And yet we can relate to her as a daughter and a sister as well. She’s a stoic narrator, not one to make jokes or go on flights of fancy, but her vulnerable core, her worry, her care, is always on display for the reader, so it’s easy to connect with her.

With all these stars, will such strong characterization and storytelling, what could keep this out of the final five at the table? The Kip character comes on the scene and moves the plot along, but doesn’t really get involved for the entire length of the novel; it feels like she gets dropped as the story progresses. There’s some authorial intrusion, especially in the “family history” sections (perhaps in part because they contrast so heavily with the nuance and elegance of Gem’s narration). And there are some pacing issues as well: there’s a slow build at the start of the novel; the plot proper doesn’t really begin until Russell shows up and the girls take the money and run — nearly the halfway point. All of that shoves Gem’s outward growth and newly flexing strength to the very last few parts of the novel. So even though Gem’s moves to independence are hard-won, they can feel a little too simple and a little too easy. Additionally, the very last chapter takes a really sudden leap about one and a half years into the future — which adds to the impression of a too-neat and too-easy wrap up.

So what will happen in January? Zarr is an important YA author, and has had previous nods from the NBA and other awards, so I suspect RealCommittee will be taking a long look at Gem & Dixie. Despite the strong reviews and many graceful elements included, I don’t think we’ll see a medal here. But…I’ve been wrong before. What do you think?


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