Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Wednesday, November 4, 2015: YA Maximum Shelf: This Raging Light

Harcourt Brace: This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

Harcourt Brace: This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

Harcourt Brace: This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

Harcourt Brace: This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

This Raging Light

by Estelle Laure

High school senior Lucille Bennett mothers her nine-year-old sister, Wren, because she has no choice--her parents are AWOL. Her mom "needed a break from everything," and said she'd be back in two weeks, but it's Day 14 and there's no sign of her. And as readers learn in bits and pieces, Lucille's too-cool rock 'n' roll father was checked into a mental facility after choking her mother; she doesn't even know if he's still in New Jersey.

Lucille braids her sister's hair and pretends everything is normal as she walks Wren to her first day of fourth grade, before reporting to her high school English class. Fortunately, because she and Wren have eaten nothing but frozen pizza for days, her best friend Eden Jones invites her over that night for family-style meatballs. Less fortunately, visiting Eden's family has become a bit awkward since Lucille has fallen "desperately, never-to-recover, twisted-up sick" in love with Eden's handsome, sonnet-worthy, taken twin brother, Digby, a boy she's known since she was seven but who lately makes "a fumbling moronic moron out of me, a full-on half-wit." More awkward still, it's become increasingly difficult to hide the fact that she and Wren are living on their own.

Chillingly, the next chapter is entitled "Day 27." Lucille and Wren are almost out of food and money--Lucille has even checked under the sofa cushions for change--and the bills are going unpaid. Lucille doesn't want the authorities involved, so the only person in the world she can confide in about her dire straits is Eden, and even that isn't easy for her: "Trust. What does it even mean? You hand somebody the knife to stab you with when you trust them." One night, Lucille asks Eden a hard question.

"Do you think my mom loves us?" I ask.
She watches me for too long, chooses her words so carefully. "It doesn't matter if she loves you or not." She tucks long fingers inside her sleeves, lets them dangle.
"Really?" I say.
"All feeling has an equivalent in action or is useless."
"Did you say that?"
"Of course not," she says. "Virginia Woolf."

By Day 28, Lucille has landed a job at Fred's ("part performance art, part Mexican restaurant, all wild") where the "special-ops force is a bunch of badass chicks with taco guns." She doesn't know how she'll work four nights a week with Wren to take care of; Eden can only cover her for two. Days turn into months, all punctuated by mysterious kindnesses, the agony of forbidden love, a little sister who's trying to be brave and, eventually, a trip to the halfway house to visit her "selfish shell" of a dad who can't seem to grow up.

Lucille's fresh, first-person voice spills over with metaphor, poetically capturing her emotional landscape with force and fury, frantic love and absolute exhaustion. When Lucille first sees her father, her head feels empty, or "made up of ten thousand balloons." She sees him "trying to smooth his fiery parts." When Lucille kisses Digby, "it's like we are the hungriest people on earth and someone has just served us to each other for dinner, for dessert." From Lucille's point of view, Wren "laughs like she's ten billion years old" or looks like "some kind of really festive Viking attacking a feasting table."

Lucille needs to keep it together for Wren, and represses her emotions to such a degree that they occasionally erupt in the wild colors of her paintings, in her passion for Digby and in angry outbursts that only serve to alienate the ones she loves. Wren is a nuanced character, full of surprises and wiser than Lucille realizes. She puts on a happy face for her older sister, not because she doesn't know what's going on but because she knows her sister needs her to be happy. Wren is a good sport, but her anxiety about missing her mother and having to lie about their home situation comes out sideways with jarring "your mama's so..." jokes, and in her endearing, poignant obsession with the Barefoot Contessa she idolizes.

As horrifically irresponsible as Lucille's parents are ("I got double douched in the parent department," she tells Eden), her friends stretch their ability to help Lucille to their very limits and beyond. When Lucille realizes that Eden's ballet is suffering because she's babysitting Wren, she says, "That's the trouble with letting people help. It always costs somebody something."

Debut author Estelle Laure's This Raging Light starts with abandonment but ends with people caring for people, and the voice is tough and tender in equal measure. Eden reminds her fierce and capable friend Lucille of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's powerful line in "Do not go gentle into that good night:" "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Rage she does, in so many ways, and readers will be rooting for her the whole way. --Karin Snelson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 14-up, 9780544534292, December 22, 2015

Harcourt Brace: This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

Estelle Laure: On Rage and Light

photo: Zoe Zimmerman

Estelle Laure makes her authorial debut with This Raging Light (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, December 22, 2015), a YA novel about 17-year-old Lucille Bennett of Cherryville, N.J., who struggles to take care of her nine-year-old sister when they are abandoned by their parents--all the while making sure no one discovers their secret. Laure--who has a BA in Theatre Arts and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults--is a lifelong reader who devoured Little Women when she was seven, and who panics when she thinks she may not be able to read all the books she wants to in her lifetime: "Your reading life is a whole other life that's happening within your life." She lives in Taos, N.Mex., with her two children.

How did you land on Dylan Thomas's poem for your novel's title?

I think I've known that poem since I was about 15. Even though the poem is about other things, I sort of appropriated it. Whenever I was in a difficult position, I would just think, "You have to rage, you have to rage, you have to rage through." I like the juxtaposition of rage and light. Even though they aren't words you put in the same sentence very often. Now it's been used to death. In Interstellar I was sliding off my seat because they quoted that poem so many times. I was thinking, "You're killing my title and the book's not even out yet!"

Lucille rallies to take care of her little sister, Wren, in the absence of their parents. It's refreshing to have a real heroine to admire. Where did this story come from?

Probably from my experience as a mother. Also as a sibling, though, I was the oldest of six siblings. When you're the oldest you always have that feeling of protectiveness, that feeling of… you mess with my siblings, I will have to kill you. Wren was one of those characters that came through really clearly for me. I didn't think her up, she just came in. But her relationship with Lucille came from my visceral knowledge of what it's like to feel protective. I don't mean for Lucille to be black-and-white, stoic and enduring. I like that she's nuanced. She's in love with somebody who's not available, so she's in a moral gray area. If you're doing something that is morally questionable, does that make you a person who can't do great good?

With all the serious problems Lucille faces--running out of money, running out of food--often what is most consuming to her is the overwhelming, forbidden love she has for Digby, her best friend's twin brother.

That's how it was for me as a teenager. If I had fallen for somebody, that was my major concern, even if my household was unstable or if I had no money. I think a lot of teenagers are like that. Not all of them. I was talking to my daughter today about crushes and she said, "I just don't feel that way" and I said, "Then you're lucky."

How did you decide to set your story in Cherryville, N.J.? Is that a real place?

No, but I lived in Lambertville, N.J., for 10 years. In Lambertville you were in a fish bowl. I lived in a house that was connected to another house, and I could hear the kids next door taking their baths when I was giving my children their baths, and I liked to imagine what would happen if there was a big crisis. How would you keep that to yourself? How would people react? It was the type of place where people would bring baskets when you moved into the neighborhood, which I found to be very interesting considering where I come from.

Where do you come from?

I was born in France, actually, and moved to the U.S. when I was nearly seven. I went to nine schools in 11 years, and I skipped a grade, so I had this very hodgepodge-y kind of childhood. A lot of it was spent in VW buses. My mother moved to Taos when I was 14 so I went to high school in New Mexico. We had neighbors where if you drove on their road they would pull out a gun. There was a Wild West aspect to being here. Taos has incredible community, but just not the same as Lucille's. No baskets of muffins on porches. People band together when there's trauma, but it's different.

Community seems to be at the core of your novel.

Lucille has a lot of support, whether she knows it or not. She is being looked after to a certain degree. I've been thinking lately about immigrants and refugees, everything that's happening on a global level. The face of the earth is really changing, and I feel like we are going to be called upon. We dismiss hopefulness as being naïve or unintelligent, and that gets my hackles up because I think we have to expand beyond our cynicism and care for each other as human beings.

It's a powerful moment of what Digby calls "kamikaze generosity" when Lucille finds all that food in her house from a mysterious benefactor.

It's a little bit scary. I wanted it to be a little bit scary.

Lucille's best friend Eden tells her that it doesn't matter if her mother loves her or not… if the mother leaves and never comes back. Do you think it's true: if someone doesn't show you they love you, then it doesn't matter if they do or not?

Yeah, I do feel that way. I do believe that Virginia Woolf quote: "[A]ll feeling has an equivalent in action or is useless." People say "I love you" instead of doing things, instead of taking action. And I just don't think that's good enough. On the other hand, I feel like as you get older and wiser you realize that some people don't have the capacity to express love the way we wish they could. And you have to be forgiving of that. But I think it's okay, especially for a teenage girl, to have the expectation of love. This is what happens to Lucille in her relationship with Digby, too. I mean, you can say "I love you" all day, but it doesn't matter if you don't show up.

Lucille's thoughts are so rich in metaphor. Do you write poetry?

Sometimes I write poetry when I'm in a really bad state, so it's not very often. I love poetry. I love Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. When it comes to Lucille, I'm writing a continuation of This Raging Light from a different character's point of view, and I'm very mindful of the metaphors because Lucille is an artist and sees the world in a certain way. I'm trying to respect that the metaphors would be different--or not be there at all--for another character. It's interesting trying to find that balance between the character's voice and how you write. I'm constantly repositioning myself so the voice is not me.

What sort of books did you like to read as a child?

I loved books that either depicted found families, like the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice, where their rules made sense, or books with a lot of fantasy and magic, where anything was possible. Narnia was the first series that I just loved-loved-loved. I loved Pride and Prejudice, which is why Lucille's last name is Bennett. I was obsessed with Jo, I wanted to be Jo in Little Women, which isn't original at all. I loved The Borrowers. And all the Brownies, anything with fairies. I was obsessed with Peter Pan and Wuthering Heights. I also really loved Lois Duncan--she wrote those creepy horror books, and then I jumped to Stephen King.

On page 191, Eden says, "Most people totter their whole lives. They never let themselves fall, never take the hit.... They never try to find out what's true for them, because that would mean being brave in a way people aren't." Have you found what's true for you?

Yeah. My life broke down, and I wasn't sure what I wanted. I had two options, one safe and one terrifying. I took the risk and feel like it's paid off every day since. Something has my back. I really honestly believe every person comes to that crossroad at some point.

The crossroad of finding one's truth?

Yes. I don't think that means everyone has to set their life on fire. But I think there's this point at which your insides are talking to you and telling you something and if you don't listen it's soul-crushing. You have to be brave. --Karin Snelson

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