IMPROVEMENT, by Joan Silber. Counterpoint, 227 pp., $26.
What is this elusive thing, improvement, which gives Joan Silber’s new novel its title? For the many characters in these pages — variously interconnected by blood, love, money and fate — the word has different meanings; the longed-for improvement may be financial, domestic, professional or romantic. Everyone is a seeker.
“Improvement” opens with Kiki, who, as a young woman in the early 1970s, seeks adventure in Istanbul and marries a carpet merchant. “People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there,” reports Kiki’s niece, Reyna, who narrates this section. “[My] aunt was such a person.” Kiki and her new husband leave Istanbul to live and work on his family farm in rural Turkey. The marriage doesn’t work out; Kiki returns to New York and eventually becomes a sort of godmother — part role model, part scold — to Reyna.
Reyna, a tattooed single mom with a 4-year-old son, has troubles of her own. Reyna’s current boyfriend, Boyd, is serving a three-month sentence at Rikers Island for selling 5 ounces of pot. (“Who thinks that should even be a crime?” opines Reyna.) He is a gentle, sweet boyfriend and a good soul, but Reyna is “perfectly aware,” she says, “that some part of my life with Boyd was not entirely real, that if you pushed it too hard a whole other feeling would show itself.”
When he gets out of Rikers, Boyd, along with his cousin Maxwell and their friend Claude, cook up a scheme to smuggle cigarettes from Virginia to New York, cashing in on the tax difference. Reyna thinks it’s a terrible…