Sunday, July 5, 2009

Review: Every Last Cuckoo

Summary: Sarah Lucas imagined the rest of her days would be spent living peacefully in her rural Vermont home in the steadfast company of her husband. But now, with Charles's sudden passing, seventy-five-year-old Sarah is left inconsolably alone.

As grief settles in, Sarah's mind lingers on her past: her imperfect but devoted fifty-year marriage to Charles; the years they spent raising their three very different children; and her childhood during the Great Depression, when her parents opened their home to countless relatives and neighbors. So, when a variety of wayward souls come seeking shelter in Sarah's own big, empty home, her past comes full circle. As this unruly flock forms a family of sorts, they—with Sarah—nurture and protect one another, all the while discovering their unsuspected strengths and courage.

In the tradition of Jane Smiley and Sue Miller, Kate Maloy has crafted a wise and gratifying novel about a woman who gracefully accepts a surprising new role just when she though her best years were behind her. -- Algonquin

This month, my on-line book group decided to read EVERY LAST CUCKOO by Kate Maloy. I remember receiving this book a few months ago and just loving the cover -- all the bright colors of dishes and mugs with bird patterns. I know it's a little bit shallow but I really wanted to read this book just based on that alone. And then when I read the description, I really, really wanted to read it. It just sounded so good to me and I thought it had the potential to be a very powerful novel. After reading it, I can now say that I was right (oh how I love saying that!) -- this book really caused me to think about my life and what's important.

I want to say right upfront that I thought this title was perfect for this novel! Not having any knowledge of cuckoos (or any birds for that matter), the title didn't make a lot of sense to me when I first started reading this novel. It wasn't until the book explained that cuckoo birds lay their eggs in other birds' nests did I truly appreciate what a terrific title it is. After Sarah's husband's death, she begins taking in a strange hodge podge of family and friends to live with her in her house. One of these people is her granddaughter, but there are also other teenagers, an elderly friend, a mother and son who have no where else to turn, and an abused woman and her baby. These people are in essence the "cuckoos" because they are "nesting" in another "bird's" place.

I think EVERY LAST CUCKOO is just a wonderful debut novel for Ms. Maloy; and it's apparent that I'm not alone. This book has already won awards including the ALA Reading List Award for Women's Fiction and it was a top five Book Sense Picks for January 2008. I thought EVERY LAST CUCKOO was such a good book on so many different levels. One of things that I will remember the most from this novel is Ms. Maloy's writing. I certainly appreciated her descriptions of the Vermont country; however, I was blown away at times by her ability to express the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Many times, I felt as if I were inside the characters' minds and actually feeling their fears, insecurities, and even their joy!

Another thing that I enjoyed about this book was that it delved into topics and issues that can be very complex and sometimes even uncomfortable. Through the character of Sarah, the reader gets an idea of what it's like to grow older and lose your loved ones. Not only do we get insight into Sarah's loss and her grief (which, by the way, is so real), but we also get to see how Sarah feels about the changes that are happening to both her mind and body. The author also did an excellent job of showing that older people are still very human -- they have the same needs and desires as they did when they were young. I think all too often society doesn't think of older men and women as being as vital as they are.

This book also addressed a lot of family dynamics -- both the good and the bad. Through the various characters, the reader experiences love and loss; but they also get insight into some more complex issues such as the ups and downs of marriage, father/son relationships, mother/daughter relationships, the effects of depression on loved ones, and even spousal abuse. To me, the relationships in this story are a microcosm of all the complex relationships in today's society. This book also explores some basic ideas about human nature. A few of the characters experienced war and other violent actions, and this book really asks: are humans inherently destined to fight with other and commit acts of violence against each other?

There are a few really powerful themes in this book that I can't stop thinking about. The first one is about the seasons of our life and how we change with each one. The author did a wonderful job of juxtaposing the various seasons in Vermont with the various seasons in the characters' lives. I really appreciated seeing how all of the characters changed throughout the novel; and I liked that almost all the characters showed some sort of growth and maturity. In addition, there was the theme that "things aren't always what they seem"; and that one also had a major impact on me. The idea was most obvious through the photographs that Sarah began taking of strange things that appear in nature -- it was sometimes very difficult to tell what objects were in the picture. However, this theme also crossed over into the lives of the characters. I think it's pretty safe to say that even those people we feel the closest to can still surprise us. And I also think it's an important lesson to see things through others' eyes and not just our own. As a little subset from this theme, I also got the message that life isn't always clear cut -- things that happen aren't black and white. Rather, life is filled with lots of shades of grey (and different people can see those greys differently.)

As you can see, I definitely appreciated EVERY LAST CUCKOO, and I can't wait to discuss it later today with my friends. I think this novel is an excellent book club pick because I found it to be very insightful and I'm pretty sure that we'll have a lot to talk about. This book really caused me to think about life in general and especially evaluate my own; and I'll be anxious to see if anyone else had the same reactions that I did. There is a reading guide available on the author's website which has some terrific questions so our discussion should be a lot of fun!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.


Anonymous said...

LOL.. I just did a double take, literally, on my Google Reader. You and Bermudaonion posted a review of the same book at the same time. :-)

My mom has been the Sarah type in my life. She's taken in her children, grandchildren, friends of her kids and grands, friends from work... she hasn't gone to complete strangers yet, that I know of, but she definitely takes care of all the Cuckoos!

Right now, my brother and his two sons and my deceased grandma's cat (grandma's deceased, the cat is very much alive and ornery) live with my mom. She's had all of maybe 6 months of her life to herself, not taking care of someone else. She just about lost it!

Yvette Kelly said...

This book sounds so nice.I quickly went over and checked and it is available on Kindle.Just wanted to make sure about somethig though.Is it the type of book that can be read electronically?You know some books you page back a lot and check out the front cover to keep the mood going?Please let me know.I really want to read it.

Yvette Kelly said...

please delete this message.I forgot to tick e mail follow up comments

bermudaonion said...

Whew, I think we're going to have a lot to talk about today!

Kim said...

I do judge a book by its cover -- or at least to first capture my interest. Thanks for this review!

Jenna said...

I can't wait to read this book... like you, I picked it up because of the flashy cover (sometimes the pretties win) and bought it after reading the blurb on the back. It is on my list to read next.

Also, got my copy of Secrets to Happiness- can't wait to dive in to that too... thanks!! :)

Jenn's Bookshelves said...

I, too, love the cover of this book. It's very striking and attractive! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Beth F said...

Ok, now that I've written my review and we've had our meeting, I can come read your post. Wow. Julie, you wrote a great review and I agree with absolutely everything you said. The book is amazingly powerful and it gave me so many things to thing about and discuss. Maloy's writing is so clear and beautiful. The characters were very real to me. Super review. I don't think my review (up on Wed) comes close.

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

I read this book about a month before the paperback came out. It came on a snowy Saturday and I sat and read it straight through that afternoon. It held my attention so fully with the various themes and layers you mention here.

Wonderful review for a wonderful book.