Madapple. By Christina Meldrum. Knopf. $16.99.
Love Me Tender. By Audrey Couloumbis. Random House. $16.99.
An unusually well-written first novel whose complexities and peculiar structure will likely be off-putting to some of the teenagers at whom it is aimed – although they may well attract those teens’ parents – Christina Meldrum’s Madapple forces readers to confront questions about the meaning of family, the meaning of religion, and even (it is not too sweeping to say) the meaning of life. Told partly in the voice of Aslaug, heroine of the novel, and partly in the more mundane voices of other characters, the book is part murder mystery, part birth mystery, part courtroom drama, part exposition of the plant world, and part religious exploration. Meldrum’s background helps explain the odd mixture of elements: she received a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and political science, then went to Harvard Law School and became involved in international legal affairs before becoming a litigator. Still, her background could not have predicted how well she would weave together the threads of this decidedly unusual novel. Even the plot is difficult to describe. The book opens 20 years before the story’s main events, as a pregnant young Danish woman named Maren Hellig flees her family to live in the wilds of Maine. The thing is, Maren tells her older sister that, despite her pregnancy, she never had a lover – raising immediate and obvious issues of an Immaculate Conception, real or imagined, and Christ figures. But Meldrum does not take the book along an easy road. She has Maren raise her daughter, Aslaug, in isolation, teaching her ancient languages and explaining about the ins and outs of botany (the chapters’ titles are plant names). Then Maren suddenly dies; and Aslaug comes to live with her aunt, a preacher named Sara, and her cousins, facing predictable (and some unpredictable) difficulties of fitting in and familial ties. Then there is more death – and Aslaug is put on trial for murder, including an accusation of matricide. The story structure is intricate, and some readers will find its switching among time periods choppy; nor will the plant lore be universally appealing. The style can take some getting used to: “The preacher’s [eyes] are the yellow-green of wild leek – a color pearls would be if God were a child.” And Meldrum does construct a conclusion focusing directly on the book’s target age range, creating a sweetness-and-light ending that belies (and demeans) the seriousness of the discussions of major religious and philosophical questions throughout the rest of the book. Still, parents who like a challenging read, and advanced teenagers seeking something decidedly out of the ordinary, will find Madapple a sensitive puzzler of a tale and a book that is very difficult to put down.
Love Me Tender also addresses the question of what makes a family, but Audrey Couloumbis’ quirkiness here is more conventional – and more humorous – than Meldrum’s deeper but dourer look at big questions. Couloumbis, whose Getting Near to Baby was a Newbury Honor book in 2000, writes breezily and with a sure hand, in a style that will appeal to the preteens at whom Love Me Tender is targeted. The book’s plot is of the almost-madcap type that conceals bigger issues. Thirteen-year-old Elvira lives in a family that bickers constantly; Elvira herself can’t stand her little sister, Kerrie, and often fights with her mother, Mel. Then Mel gets pregnant again – leading Elvira’s dad, a part-time Elvis impersonator, to storm off to Las Vegas and (Elvira fears) never come back. And then Mel gets a call telling her that her own mother, from whom she has long been estranged, is ill; and so the unlikely trio of Elvira, Mel and Kerrie finds itself on the road to Memphis, where Elvira will discover still more dysfunction – involving her grandmother and her Aunt Clare. Couloumbis manages to make the characters attractive if never really endearing, and she keeps the book tottering on the edge of both silliness and hyperemotionalism without having it fall into either. The balancing act is not completely successful – there are times when a reader may well think “enough already!” as yet another emotional upheaval occurs – but the underlying message about family love does come through the offbeat trappings of the story; and although it is not really a surprise when Elvira’s father does eventually rejoin the family, it is a welcome affirmation of the idea that love, even when it does not conquer all, makes up for quite a lot.