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Make It Stay – Book Review

But Tilda’s smile would always – as long as we were to know her – be broken, distant, holding to itself some gritty knowledge, something we could not then guess at, however much we tried. There was mockery in it. There was hatred in it. These were not observations you could prove, or defend. – from Make It Stay –

Rachel (Rae) and Neil live in the small Northern California town of Mira Flores. Rae is a writer, a bit unsocial, and enjoys her “me” time … whereas Neil (a Scottish immigrant) is vivacious and a gourmet cook who revels in his friendships.

Neil was born to draw people together. He loves nurseries, hardware stores. Buys paint and floor mats and ravioli-cutters. Plants impatiens and geraniums, rhododendrons, anything on sale. Brews his own limoncello (and it tastes better than store-bought). Invites folks round for no reason. Bon vivant-ism is a currency, a mandate, a motif – one of the million reasons he and Mike adored each other. Whereas I obey some equally ancient but opposing imprint, huddled in a ditch somewhere, shivering.  – from Make it Stay –

Neil’s longtime friend, Mike is married to the hard-edged Tilda who Rae suspects is responsible not only for the demise of Mike’s fish store, but possibly his disability. These four characters, along with Mike and Tilda’s beautiful daughter, Addie, weave in and out of each others’ lives over the course of many years. Their secrets, marriages, and uneasy relationship with each other make up Joan Frank’s introspective novel, Make It Stay.

Frank’s prose is spare, reflective and sublime as she unearths the peculiar friendships within her story. Thematically, Frank examines the tenuous balance in a marriage, especially when external forces act upon it. In Make it Stay, Mike and Neil have a history together which reaches way back to a time when Mike not only fished the oceans, but pulled in his share of women. The two seem to share a camaraderie which is hard to explain. When Rae’s cynicism and critical nature play out against Tilda and catastrophe befalls Mike, Neil and Rae’s marriage is threatened.

Anytime, anytime you named nowadays, I would gladly unzip his skin and climb inside and start sweeping and washing and dusting if it would plump him up again. Give us back our unthinking ease. Restore that thing we’ve so long been, part him, part me. – from Make it Stay –

Frank has the rare ability to evoke a sense of time and place gone by. Her descriptions of leaves flushing “crimson, wine, umber; days filled with a warm-sugar smell” catapult the reader into a small town in autumn. Likewise, she is able to transform the lives of four aging adults by reminding the reader of their more carefree, sunlit days.

None of the characters are wholly likable in Frank’s slim novel – and yet I found myself wanting to understand them, take their journey with them, find out who they were beneath their thin skins. Perhaps the most interesting character is Tilda whose nature is caustic and wary and whose personality is brought to light through Rae’s scornful, if not somewhat unreliable, narration. Tilda is a character who is universally misunderstood by all who share her life, a woman whose tears are surprising because on the surface she appears hard and rough as nails.

I found myself fully engrossed in this novel about the slow unwinding of the lives of its characters. Their challenges, faults and ultimately their desire to “make it stay” are what drives the narrative and keeps the pages turning.

Readers who love literary fiction will love Frank’s engaging prose and be haunted by the bittersweet wisdom she imparts.

Highly recommended.

  • Quality of Writing:
  • Characters:
  • Plot:

Overall Rating:

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog in association with TLC Book Tours.

Read more reviews by visiting the TLC Book Tour page and following the links.

About The Author:

Joan Frank was born to New Yorkers in Phoenix, Arizona, and grew up in Sacramento, Hawaii, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of four books of fiction—a fifth, her new novel Make It Stay, was published by The Permanent Press in April. A book of collected essays, Because You Have To: A Writing Life, will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in Fall of 2012.

Her recent story collection, In Envy Country, won the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year award and the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction; it was also named a finalist for the California Book Award.

Frank is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, winner of the Dana Literary Award, Michigan Literary Fiction Award, Emrys Fiction Award and Iowa Writing Award; a Pushcart Prize nominee, two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction, San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, and recipient of grants from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and Sonoma Arts Council. She has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. She lives in Northern California. Learn more about Frank and her work by visiting the author’s website.

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12 Comments

  1. May 24, 2012    

    Wow, you enjoyed this one much more than I did. It’s funny how two different people can read the same book and have such opposite reactions! I’m glad it worked so well for you. 🙂

    • May 28, 2012    

      Heather: Well, that is the beauty of literature – what floats one person’s boat, sinks another 🙂

  2. May 24, 2012    

    Isn’t that how it is with our friends – we weave in and out of each other’s lives. This book sounds interesting.

    • May 28, 2012    

      Kathy:It is interesting….and maybe that is part of it, it reflects reality somewhat.

  3. May 24, 2012    

    This sounds like such an interesting read, and one that seems to evoke strong reactions in all the reviewers who have read it. I do want to read this at some point, but I am feeling the crush of heavy books at the moment, and need something lighter right now. Still, this one will end up in my cart in any case! Great review today!

    • May 28, 2012    

      Heather: I’ve seen reviews on both sides…and this is a rather heavy, thin book 🙂

  4. May 25, 2012    

    Sounds like there is a great deal of gorgeous writing in this little book! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

    Thanks for being on the tour Wendy. I’m featuring your review on TLC’s Facebook page today.

    • May 28, 2012    

      Heather J @ TLC: The writing is really what impacted me. My pleasure being on the tour…and thanks for the feature on FB 🙂

  5. May 25, 2012    

    I’m so glad that you loved this one as much as I did. I thought it was very well-written and the characters really well-etched.

    • May 28, 2012    

      Athira: I’m glad you loved it too!

  6. May 27, 2012    

    I agree that it takes a talented writer to keep you interested in characters who aren’t all that likable. A common complaint I see is a book has no likable characters, so the reader wasn’t invested in it at all. As a side note, I like it when a book has a really awful character that I’m fully invested in learning more about! 🙂

    • May 28, 2012    

      Trish: I hear that a lot – about readers not liking a book because they didn’t love the characters. I don’t necessarily have to love them, but I have to believe them and I have to find something about them unique enough to keep me reading. I thought Frank did a great job on both those counts in this book. Thanks for asking me to be on the tour 🙂

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