A Lovely, Indecent Departure by Steven Lee Gilbert

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Leaving may be lovely ... but not any easier. 

The book in one sentence: A woman flees an abusive husband to protect her child.   

Synopsis: A Lovely, Indecent Departure is the riveting and emotionally-charged debut from a promising new voice in literary thrillers, and a captivating story about a mother’s love and desperation set amidst the heart wrenching landscape of child custody. Anna Miller wants only one thing, her son, and she will do anything to keep him. When a district court awards custody of Oliver to his father, she abducts the five year old and flees to Italy where with her family’s help they disappear into the fabric of her native homeland.

Told in prose that is both stripped-down and overpowering, Gilbert shapes the everyday conflict of child custody into a stunning search for sense of worth. Standing in the young woman’s way is Evan Meade, the boy’s guileful and mean-spirited father, who hires a private investigator when the efforts of the embattled local sheriff, Monroe Rossi, fail to track them down. But as the investigation draws them all closer to Anna, Evan’s true nature betrays itself and the question of what’s in the child’s best interest becomes not so clear anymore.

Objectively detailed, in a voice that refuses to intrude on the minds of its characters, A Lovely, Indecent Departure, captures in stark detail a world in which modern archetypes are turned upside down and shows what an extraordinary splash Steven Lee Gilbert has made with his first novel.

My two cents

The juxtaposition of the words in the title sort of prepared me for the unusual way this seemingly straightforward story was written. Lovely yet indecent. How aptly true for Anna, our main character. And how aptly true for this book overall, which is a lovely departure from the predictable good guy-bad guy story.

The book opens with Anna described thus: "... she is not one of them, and never has been." It is a  foreshadowing of events to come and the discovery of why "she is not one of them."

We are introduced to the family: Anna, the mother; Evan, the father; Oliver, their five-year-old-son. We learn that she and her husband are divorced, Oliver is in his father's custody and Anna having only visitation rights. Right off, I ask myself, why? Typically custody is awarded to the mother. Hmmm ... is there something wrong with Anna?

The story starts off quietly and slowly, with Anna coming to pick up Oliver for her regular visit. We are rewarded with small glimpses into Anna's and Evan's strained relationship, and how loving Anna is to Oliver. Then the rather offputting cruelty of Evan in his small gesture of shredding Oliver's  handmade birthday card to is mother.

That is the last time Evan sees Oliver and then a wild search for the kidnapped and the kidnapper ensues. The tension is built up slowly, and with the introduction of new characters and the unfolding of events, we learn the "facts" of the story and the back stories of the characters ... sort of like peeling back the skins of an onion, or putting together the pieces of the puzzle. Yes, there is a bigger picture ... but Gilbert masterfully only lets us in when he feels we must.

I really liked these elements of the book:
  • The title which is unusual and jarring in its juxtaposition. 
  • The cover which captures both the richness of Italy, where Anna flees; as well as the relationship between mother and child in classic and elegant sculpture no less.     
  • How the characters are multi-dimensioned so that I kept flip-flopping trying to make out who the good guy - bad guy was. Conclusion: there is no good guy or bad guy; it is not as simple as that. Anna: bad because she kidnapped her son? Evan: bad because he has a horrible temper? Anna: good ... because she kidnapped her son? People have their motivations, their personalities, their strengths, their flaws. In fact, Gilbert described Anna as an "anti-hero" which seems to better capture the complexity of people. 
  • An appreciation for just how complicated child custody cases are! This story humanizes one case but it does raise many questions in my mind about Anna and Evan, and of how custody cases are decided. Up until the end of the book, I kept wondering why custody was awarded to Evan in the first place. 
  • The quietness and elegance of the language. I felt like that this story grew on me, like someone whispering a story to me in the dead of the night. It is so quietly told that there were times when the shouting would start. Completing the book, I realize that the tension was so well built up that no shouting was required. 
  • The first thing that bothered me was that there were no quotation marks as soon a dialogue kicked in. I first thought it was a typo ... until I realized maybe a few chapters in that it was intentional! (How could an author do this to their readers? Flout all conventions for the heck of it?!) However, as I kept reading I got used to it and feel that this device (or lack thereof) dispensed of how "cluttered" the page would look and provided for a seamlessness of action and dialogue. 
  • A warning that there are Italian phrases peppered throughout, initially confusing but got me looking thing up. For the most part I could figure things out based on context. 
  • There are some side stories (particularly that of the personal life of detective Monroe) that I felt could have been tightened up a bit as they distracted from the main storyline. 
Verdict: A quietly and elegantly told story, highly recommended for those looking for an insightful probe into the emotional and legal complexities of child custody.  

First line: Look, here comes the girl. She is treading alone up the sidewalk. Looking like everyone else of the noontime crowd blissfully strolling the strip mall. But she is not one of them, and never has been.

Last Line: Then he turned back and stood with his feet wide apart to steady himself against the tide's current and he reached his arms out to the boy.

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I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I have also hosted Steven Lee Gilbert's guest post "A Lovely Anti-Hero" and a giveaway of this book. Check out my Friday 56/Book Beginnings post.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall