Sometimes you want a big, fat novel; sometimes you want a small, quiet one. Only 112 short pages, Smith’s novel follows a young woman during a single day. Twenty-something Isabel is many things: a thrift-store aficionado, a librarian who repairs damaged books, a child of divorced parents, a resident of Portland, Oregon. But most of all she is a person whose imagination is both deep and wide.
She collects postcards of cities around the world. Having grown up in an isolated cabin in Alaska, she is fascinated by cities. The one which has most captured her fancy is of Amsterdam. Unlike the others,that postcard actually carries a message, was actually delivered. She turns over the thought of the sender and recipient, rolling it about in her mind, considering possibilities under the golden gingko trees.
She also has a tin of photos that she has collected over the years from second-hand shops, inventing stories for the people in them until “the people in the photographs came to mean as much to her as her own relatives.”
Smith’s lovely prose encouraged me to slow down and savor each page. She lightly turns over the cards for Isabel, carrying the same gentle mood through the day as Isabel visits a thrift store to buy a dress for a party that night and navigates the office where, in the mornings, she joins Spoke, a slightly older co-worker in the kitchen, where they drink their hot beverages—Earl Grey for her, black coffee in a mason jar for him—in silence. “It is as close as she has been to waking up with him.”
The small happenings of the day send her thoughts back to the past, including Alaska, her parents’ divorce, and her longtime friend Leo whom she calls Loon.
Each short chapter reads like an essay, a richly colored bit of glass to fit into the picture. Like a poem, this story condenses the enormity of Isabel’s day—encompassing not just the present, but the influences of the past and the dreams of the future—and presents them as a series of images and actions and symbols that collectively take us deep into her world.
I enjoyed this book tremendously. I picked it up on a recommendation from http://offtheshelf.com. I’d probably never have chosen it in a bookstore because the unattractive cover does not convey the most important qualities of the story inside.
What novel have you liked in spite of the cover?