A Book Review: "The Local News" by Miriam Gershow
The Local News (2009) is Miriam Gershow's first novel, a story of a family and a town dealing with the aftermath of a teen gone missing. Lydia Pasternak is fifteen when her older, popular football star brother disappears without a trace one afternoon after a basketball game in the park. Her small suburban community is mobilized into action, taking part in weekly searches, even as Lydia's family life disintegrates after months of no sign from Danny.
Lydia's story would be tough if she were merely devastated over the loss of her brother. What makes it harder for her is that she and Danny no longer got along. He was an athletic king of the school, with a consistent retinue of girlfriends and admiring pals. Lydia was in his shadow, the less-favored child, on the fringes of the high school social scene. As they grew older, Danny either ignored her or subjected her to mindless cruelties: calling her the "titless wonder," ripping up her National Honors Society certificate, "accidentally" choking her in a wrestling match. Lydia wrestles with guilt and confusion as she faces the truth that she really didn't like Danny very much, and maybe some parts of her life have gotten easier since he disappeared.
She describes her parents as "drifters," floating without purpose through life after Danny. Her father sits on the couch all day, watching the local news for any hint of his missing son. Her mother's only drive comes from organizing searches, sifting through the letters from strangers for clues, and writing a desperate plea to Unsolved Mysteries to include Danny's story. Lydia seems to exist at the peripheries of their lives, and she takes advantage of their lack of attention--aimlessly driving through town with just her permit, going to parties.
As much as The Local News is about a family dealing with tragedy, it's also about high school. Lydia was always the bookish type, exchanging debates about the politics of small, obscure countries with her friend David Nelson. With the disappearance of her brother, she becomes an awkward, unwilling celebrity at school, the object of well-meaning or voyeuristic sympathy and attention. With her dry, often funny wit, she observes the idiosyncrasies of adolescent behavior. Going to parties for the first time, Lydia also reflects on the effects of alcohol:
Lola lay across the den coffee table late in the night and let a freshman drink tequila out of her belly button. The freshman followed her around for what seemed like hours after that. A war movie played on the huge TV and everyone cheered whenever someone got blown up. And it all made sense to me in the sloppy, hazy way alcohol made sense of things. I could see why Danny loved this life, why this or a rough equivalent of this in some other parentless house was where Franklin students flocked every weekend (p. 90-91).
Gershow captures the spirit, behavior, and speech of teenagers scarily well. The characters that Lydia interact with are well-drawn. It's believable that Lydia drifts away from her parents, whom she sees as weakened and distracted by sadness, and seeks the attention of a variety of friends. Lola Pepper, the peppy, Danny-obsessed flag girl who alternately annoys and amuses Lydia, acting like they were friends all along. David Nelson, Lydia's nerdy study buddy and guy friend who secretly wants more out of their friendship. Tip Reynolds, one of Danny's jock friends, who develops protective, possibly romantic feelings for Lydia after years of teasing her. And Denis Jimenez, the family's private investigator that Lydia avidly tries to help because of her burgeoning crush on him. The ways that Lydia hurts or is hurt by these people add to the unflinching sadness of the novel, but also reflect the complicated nature of friendships and relationships.
Lydia herself is an engaging, memorable narrator: too smart for her own good, perhaps, a fact that often alienates her from her peers. She at once craves attention--from her parents, from various boys--and admits to herself that she's not good at loving people. In addition to her high intelligence, Lydia is self-conscious (like most teenagers), over analyzing every gesture and utterance she and her friends make. It's during one of her drunken ramblings, when she's spouting out facts at a party, that one of the jocks says in bewilderment: "You're crazy, Pasternak. You're one of those people who knows so much stuff, it makes them crazy" (p. 89).
The Local News explores the ties between friends, parents and children, and brother and sister. Both Lydia and the reader have to wonder how much of her life has been shaped by Danny, before and after his disappearance. The novel is a realistic portrait of grief, depressing despite the sprinkling instances of humor and hope, and it takes its time, illustrating the characters and plot in sharp detail. Don't read The Local News for mind-bending plot twists, mystery, or suspense. The answers to Danny's disappearance are there. Read it for Lydia Pasternak's story of growing up and surviving in spite of tragedy and pain.
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