by Sue Halpern (2018)
As you stand amid the rubble that was once your perfect life, what you always wanted and worked hard for, you wonder: what just happened here? Do I cry? Scream? Drown my sorrows in wine or Haagen-Dazs, or both? Leave the country? None of the above. YOU GO TO THE LIBRARY!
(Before I tell you the rest of the story, you need to be assured that the “Robbers” Library was not named for people who are criminals. It’s located in the town of Riverton, New Hampshire in what was once a place thriving with mills and industrial success thanks to a Canadian named Albert Robers. The Robers Library was a Carnegie library built largely with his money, and over the years the name became corrupted to the Robbers Library. Townspeople felt that was a more appropriate name after the mills closed and jobs no longer existed.)
This library became a haven for a motley group of people, as many do. The reasons these particular people gravitated to this one are as varied as they are, but mostly it was by accident. We meet them early in the book, but as we revisit them throughout it, we learn more each time. It’s the piecemeal way in which the author divulges little tidbits over time that lets readers get to know each character better first and sometimes shocks us…and keeps us reading.
The book focuses on 3 main characters with a supporting cast of minor ones.
Kit–now named Katherine Jarvis—has been the 44-year-old reference librarian for 4 years, later becoming the head librarian. We learn it’s a complete fluke she ended up in Riverton. She’s an enigma to those around her. They know nothing of her past, she’s not friendly or sociable, just does her job well and goes home after hours.
She also sees a therapist, Dr. Bondi, in relation to the doubly traumatic past she’s left behind. I encourage readers to pay good attention to his comments to Kit and the ways in which he tries to help her through her difficulty. Some of his advice is helpful to all of us.
Sunny, whose birth name is Solstice Arkinsky (that should give you an idea of what her parents are like), is a 15-year-old girl who was caught trying to steal a dictionary. The judge has sentenced her to work at the library for the entire summer. She’s intelligent, curious, an avid reader, but “no-schooled,” as she describes it. Her entire education has been informal, occurred as things came up, but there was no lack of learning in her background.
She is also aware that her parents avoid any contact with authorities, have made odd behaviors into games to play with her, and in short, never acted like the parents of other children her age. But they make everything fun. She almost certainly reads more, and more widely, than other children her age, and she knows she has a more interesting life than most for whatever reason (which we learn later in the book). She’s the one who cracks through Kit’s hard “loner” shell.
Sunny becomes the storyteller for children at the library, expanding both the number of days she reads to them as well as increasing the number of children participating in what becomes a very popular program. She also pushes Kit to be more open to her, “invading” the sanctuary of Kit’s home, and her life. Kit responds slowly, but being childless herself (have patience—we learn why) does gradually open more to Sunny.
Rusty finds his way to Riverton in a completely different way. His is a success story beyond his wildest dreams. He had all the perks and gear that go with it, too…until the business failed. He had spent most of what he’d earned, lived a “high life,” and found himself approaching destitution. He didn’t mind losing most of it, but he was determined to keep the Mercedes. He job-searched along with hordes of others in the same industry, and like them, found nothing in his field.
One day he found an old bank book in a drawer showing a $5000 deposit made decades ago. It wasn’t easy to determine the institution’s name now or where it might be, and he ends up in Riverton—by chance at the library, of course. The other characters notice him because he spends so much time using the computers for research. Someone else sees his Mercedes at the Tip-Top Motor Inn, which plays its own part in this story. New people in a small town are always noticed.
Rusty soon becomes friendly with Kit and Sunny, as well as 4 elderly men who meet daily at the library: Rich, the “business guy;” Rich the taxi driver; Patrick, who delivered the babies; and Carl the barber. They act almost as a Greek chorus, but their importance is as town historians who are able to help Rusty in his search. Carl plays an additional important part in the story later.
As the summer progresses, these characters grow closer and become something akin to a family. That means they care about each other and help if needed and if they can. Even Kit begins to blossom in these unpressurized conditions.
Of course the shocks don’t stop, and readers can see how they are handled differently within this group of people. The difference is how they handle each one: is it a setback, or is it growth? THAT is an important question with a more important answer.
Kit has experienced so much drama in earlier years that she tells Dr. Bondi “she liked her life better when it was routine and predictable…because that life was easier.” [p. 323] He asks her if that life was better, a good life, and she insists that’s not the point. He says:
“Everyone’s life is an unfolding story…and all stories have conflicts and resolutions, and all stories—if they are interesting—have drama.” Kit replies that she’d prefer her story to be “way less interesting.”
Dr. Bondi: “Somewhere in the unfolding story, something is going to happen that will change everything that happens after it. In a sense it’s happening all the time, but it’s visible only at those dramatic times…What you’re thinking of as the end of the story now, Kit, is only the end of a chapter. And there are many more to come.” [p. 324]
THAT should keep you thinking for a few years!
I like this book very much; like the perspective from which we can all benefit. I do have one problem with it, however. The whole plot line of Kit’s husband and the au pair seems lifted from the Dreiser novel we (and perhaps many of you) had to read in high school. I’ve worked hard to minimize spoilers about this book, so I won’t name it, but I’m sure some of you will know the one I mean and recognize it when you read THIS book. I didn’t like it then, don’t like it now.
I can’t tell if the author used it for a reason, or if she’s not read the Dreiser book and doesn’t know about it. I understand she was showing that this person led a near perfect life until that one turning point, but I really think she could have selected a better breach of exceptional behavior. Let me be clear: the book is not harmed in any way by her choice. This is just my reaction to her choice of that particular story.
I strongly recommend this book otherwise. There is much that we can each apply to our own lives. I was surprised—pleasantly so–by its depth in certain places and hope it will resonate with each of you readers.
This book is enriched by quotes from famous poets and writers at the beginning of chapters.
It will be available at the GBCL soon.