Friday Reads: “The Excellent Lombards” by Jane Hamilton

Every time I think about this book, I have to smile. That must be why I decided to review it for this edition of Friday Reads. It certainly wasn’t because everyone I know that read it loved it. Quite the contrary, most of my book group was indifferent or somewhat negative. But it’s a book that really got a lot of conversation going. And since I’m not the writer of the book, I prefer that to overwhelming acclaim.

The story is told in the voice of Mary Frances Lombard, who at the beginning of the book is twelve years old and growing up on a family apple orchard. As the narrator, her voice rings loud and true for a precocious teen growing up in an increasingly endangered, changing rural area. Since she speaks in the voice of a teenage girl—not an adult looking back on her teenage self—she isn’t always the most pleasant character. But what teenager is? Mary Frances is full of ideas and plans. And for a young person, she is inordinately concerned about her future. Will she be able to stay on the farm? Will her brother be her business partner? Will a host of relatives and interlopers take over and push them out? And in the short term, will she win the Geography Bee and travel to Washington, DC to represent the state and bring glory to her family and her beloved teacher?

Since Mary Frances’ mom is the town librarian, librarian readers of this book will find that some of it is quite familiar. There’s plenty of realistic library customers, circulation desk kibitzing, and even a library book cart drill team drama in the story.

The land is a real character in this book—beautifully drawn and complicated, described as stunning and romantic yet brutally conflicted. In this book, the characters take center stage. I loved watching them grow and change over time. If you want a hard-driving storyline and plot, this might not be the book for you. If you can sit in a foreign film and just watch the visual beauty unfold on the screen, forgetting to read the subtitles, then you might like this book. One thing is certain, the writing is so good that you might just be stopped in the middle of the page to ponder what you just read (e.g., p. 46: “Time, we could see, was beginning to run as if it were leading somewhere, as it had not exactly done when we were very small, time occurring back then only in bursts.”). I highly recommend this book, especially if you want lots of discussion at your book club.

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton, Grand Central Publishing, 2016

Review by Mary Jo Ryan

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