PRETEND WE ARE LOVELY
By Noley Reid
300 pp. Tin House Books. Paper, $15.95.
In Noley Reid’s debut novel, “Pretend We Are Lovely,” a family struggles to come to grips with the sudden death of one of its young members. Set in the town of Blacksburg, Va., in the summer of 1982 and seven years after the incident, the story is told from the alternating perspectives of Francie, the dead boy’s mother, her two daughters and her estranged husband. Francie channels her grief and depression by starving herself, and sets off a spiral of further loss, desire and longing amid her family.
Although central to the plot, Francie and her son, Sheldon, remain shadowy and one-dimensional, symbols of extreme sadness and loss. As a character, Francie is an especially missed opportunity, all roiling emotion and obsession, too ethereal to ground the novel’s storytelling. Her husband, a philosophy professor, loses himself in an affair with a young female student, an odd decision given his feminist curriculum. Francie’s daughters find themselves stumbling toward sexuality and, in the process, negotiate a triangulated relationship with a neighbor boy. The husband and daughters are more fully drawn than Francie and Sheldon. The daughters’ rapidly cycling tension, their love for and anger toward each other, are compelling and believable, particularly as the elder daughter begins to understand her own hunger and exploit her own powers.
The young Sheldon is remembered largely for his insatiable appetite. To his surviving family members, food is everything: nourishment, love, comfort, pleasure. Much attention is paid to cataloging who is eating or not eating what, and when and why. “The butter is now deep in my stomach, churning, aching. I mitigate and moderate. I eat cheesy Triscuit, shortbread,…