REVIEW: Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

REVIEW: Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton BarnhardtLookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt
Published: St. Martin's Press (2013), ARC, 368pg
Source: BEA 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, GLBTQ

Jerene Jarvis Johnston and her husband Duke are exemplars of Charlotte, North Carolina’s high society, where old Southern money—and older Southern secrets—meet the new wealth of bankers, boom-era speculators, and carpetbagging social climbers. Steely and implacable, Jerene presides over her family’s legacy of paintings at the Mint Museum; Duke, the one-time college golden boy and descendant of a Confederate general, whose promising political career was mysteriously short-circuited, has settled into a comfortable semi-senescence as a Civil War re-enactor. Jerene’s brother Gaston is an infamously dissolute bestselling historical novelist who has never managed to begin his long-dreamed-of literary masterpiece, while their sister Dillard is a prisoner of unfortunate life decisions that have made her a near-recluse.

As the four Johnston children wander perpetually toward scandal and mishap. Annie, the smart but matrimonially reckless real estate maven; Bo, a minister at war with his congregation; Joshua, prone to a series of gay misadventures, and Jerilyn, damaged but dutiful to her expected role as debutante and eventual society bride. Jerene must prove tireless in preserving the family's legacy, Duke’s fragile honor, and what's left of the dwindling family fortune. She will stop at nothing to keep what she has—but is it too much to ask for one ounce of cooperation from her heedless family? (from Goodreads)

The thing about books starring messed-up families is that the families tend to be a) wealthy b) white c) successful by the standards of most of Western society. Their story is all about that being stripped away from them until what’s left is exposed like a recently-sheared sheep in the rain. And some books make it so the families see that and accept their flaws and then maybe they’ll move on, and some books have everyone die or go into denial or just end up staring at each other across the dinner table. All these books tend to be depressing to me, if only because the focus is on flaws and lies and terror and loss. The building-back-up part never happens, because it’s not in the narrative of the messed-up family.

But some books do what Lookaway, Lookaway did, which is expose the raw nerve of each individual and then go away to another time and POV, and so the raw nerve that was exposed in a previous chapter has now been scabbed over with something else. It’s almost healed, but not quite; either way, though, the wave of terrible things never becomes a tsunami that threatens to drown the reader (e.g. me) so I never got TOO upset about anything because, well, I wasn’t allowed to, almost.

The ending is still depressing and final, but it’s not TERRIBLE. Like, everyone’s (probably) going to keep on living. They lose things that were important to them, but they still have each other. They’re still a family. So is it such a depressing ending after all?

And, basically, that’s why I really liked Lookaway, Lookaway, despite my general bleh-ness towards messed-up family stories. It has the same basic structure and the same sorts of characters as every other book starring a family of liars and deniers, but it doesn’t let them(/us) wallow in that. Things move on. Things get better. Nothing’s final, not even loss. For a book that felt so familiar I started compiling “similar books” lists within the first 20 pages, it was also refreshingly different in small but significant ways.

Read: August 10-12, 2013

What else is in this book? Southern stuff. Race stuff. GLBTQ stuff. Misogyny and secrets and liars and alcoholism and questionable dating practices and guns.

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