The Mundane, Vital Details of Life
A Review of
Whiskey & Ribbons:
Hardback: Hub City Press, 2017
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Meghan Florian
Whiskey & Ribbons, Leesa Cross-Smith’s first novel, is a love story folded inside of a love story. It is a novel about grief, about family, about how we hold one another together when everything falls apart.
The character at the heart of the novel, by my reading, is Evangeline, who goes by Evi, but the story is told in three voices – Evi herself, her deceased husband Eamon, and Eamon’s best friend Dalton. In the hands of a less skilled storyteller, the book’s multivocal structure might be unwieldy or confusing, but Cross-Smith deftly moves from present to past and back again, from voice to voice, inhabiting and revealing each character with melodic grace. She begins the book with these definitions, framing the narrative:
Fugue: Late 16th century: from French, or from Italian fuga, from Latin
fuga ‘flight’, related to fugere ‘flee’ and fugare ‘to chase.’
Fugue: [music] a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or
phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up
by others and developed by interweaving the parts.
Fugue: [psychiatry] a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity.
Indeed, the book delivers on all of these meanings – characters alternately fleeing and chasing after one another and their own feelings, an interwoven melody, a meditation on loss, love, and life. Cross-Smith’s novel shows that who we are is inseparable from the lives we build together, from the loves and losses that make us and break us.
“I was a widow,” Evi says in the opening chapter, “a word so ghostly and hollow, a word that should’ve been a palindrome but wasn’t, those w’s with their arms stretched wide, begging for mercy.” This line was the first in the novel to move me to tears, and not the last – not nearly. Evi begins to narrate her life in present day Louisville, Kentucky, where she lives on without Eamon, raising their baby boy Noah with Dalton’s help, with this image, this metaphor that isn’t, of a palindrome, the same forward and backward, as if she’s stuck inside. And she is stuck, stuck in her grief, in a life she didn’t plan for, inside the house on the snowy weekend when the book’s present unfolds.
We go back, then, and meet Eamon, meeting Evi: “When I met Evangeline worked security at the megachurch, and yes, it was as glamorous as it sounded,” he tells us. He’s a police officer; he has a girlfriend. But he meets Evi, and everything shifts, love at first site. As the story unfolds, Eamon shows us the past, Evi the present, and Dalton the in-between, until gradually his inbetween catches up to Evi in the present, as the book moves toward its emotional conclusion – Eamon’s death, which we know is coming, Evi and Dalton learning whether and how one can ever “move on” from such heartbreaking loss, their shared love for Eamon bonding them in complicated, blessed ways.
Cross-Smith is brilliant from a craft perspective — structurally, the book is artfully built and moves with ease from voice to voice, carrying the reader deep into the emotional lives of the characters. They say that easy reading is difficult writing, and there’s no doubt that the story that flows so seamlessly from the page has been labored over and perfected. On the sentence level, Cross-Smith’s turns of phrase and unexpected descriptions feel like little presents, perfectly captured moments unwrapped chapter by chapter, keenly felt and generously shared. “I was nine months pregnant with our son Noah,” Evi says, relaying the events of the day Eamon died, “Me, a full-bellied cashew in our windows-open bedroom, our summer bed,” and I don’t know what strikes me more, the intensity of the story of loss I am sinking into, or the clearness with which I can see that cashew shaped pregnant belly. I love a good sentence, and Cross-Smith is a wordsmith.
In addition to the technical skills the book exhibits, though, I found myself amazed by the ways Whisky & Ribbons is so lovingly wrought. The details, the finely crafted sentences, bring to life a world that I cared for more that I have cared for a fictional world in quite some time. I came to know Evi, Eamon, and Dalton and their interrelated lives. When Dalton scoops Evi up off the floor where he finds her, collapsed after the news of Eamon’s death, and describes her keening, my entire body reacted. I felt that grief, thought of my own moments of loss, as well. Yet even when the book moved me to tears (often), I loved being in the world Cross-Smith has created, loved these characters she brought into my world, wanted the best for them, longed for their healing and joy. “I was one person before all of this and now that person is gone” Evi thinks. “Grief is horrifyingly personal. Grief is horrifyingly generic.” And perhaps that is what Cross-Smith has rendered so clearly, that particular, personal experience that so many of us somehow share. The way grief changes us, and the truth that you can’t go back to who you were before no matter how much you miss that person and that life.
The heart of the book is in the way Cross-Smith expresses the mundane, vital details of life; the intimacy with which we come to know Evi and Dalton, especially, conveyed through whiskey and ribbons, drinking and dancing, playing and weeping their way through their days. I want to be their friend; I want to stroll into B’s, Dalton’s bike shop, to pick up some spare parts, and ask how Evi is doing. I want to swing by and take Noah for a walk so Evi can have a moment to herself. I want to believe with them that they can survive this loss, and Leesa Cross-Smith shows me that they can.