Walt Whitman once said "you must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life." It's advice that the sprightly Flan Parker, the central protagonist of Self Storage,
doesn't take lightly as she goes about her business, trying to wrest a living for herself and her family from the detritus of other people's possessions.
Flan lives with her lethargic husband, Shae, and her two young children, Nori and Noodle, in a student family housing estate in Riverside, California. Shae is a bit of a dead-beat husband, and although he's loyal, sexy and loveable, he spends most of his days curled up stoned on the sofa, watching soap operas on television while purportedly working on his university thesis.
In order to find someway to pay their bills, Flan bids on the leftovers from local area self-storage units, which are full of stuff and more stuff, and then places some of the more vintage items of
eBay and holds regular yard sales with the leftovers.
Flan is also able to split childcare duties and participate in richly laden cookouts with some like-minded multi-ethnic student neighbors. But Flan is facing a recognizable mid-life crisis; always stretched but forever resourceful, she's begun to feel that her life is slightly shabby.
Lately she has just been wanting more.
Seeking inspiration from the poetry of Walt Whitman, Flan is charmed along by a sense that real life is perhaps waiting for her somewhere else. When she bids on an empty box, the lone item in a storage unit, she sets in motion a series of events
that make her question life and her approach to the daily dilemmas that come with marriage and raising children.
Contained within the box is a folded scrap of blue paper, a single word written on it, in gold ink, in thick swoopy letters: YES – "if found please return to the blue house on Mount Baldy, thanks Julia." Although Flan manages to indeed find Julia, in this post 9/11 world, it is Flan's curiosity over her Afghan neighbor Sodaba Suleiman that really forces her to really say "yes."
When Sodaba's husband is branded as a terrorist and imprisoned, the burka-covered Sodaba ends up coming to Flan for help. As their lives collide, curiosity acts like a magnet and Flan is inevitably pulled into Sodaba's orbit. When a tragic accident threatens to derail Flan's family, Flan's compassion and empathy for this woman is tested to the very limits.
Perceptively written with a light and breezy quality, Self Storage is a charming story of regular people who one way or another have gone off track.
The promises of youth discarded, the world is now worn in - a little ragged but not without its charms, just like the abandoned items that Flan so readily coverts.
Author Gayle Brandeis' characters are somewhat luckless and humble but also brimming with life, especially Flan, as she tries to navigate the treacherous waters of marriage and family. Part of the attraction of the novel is seeing how Flan gets through these challenges as she slips into a type of "holding pattern."
Self Storage is filled with a number of exciting plot twists as Flan anxiously tries to smuggle Sodaba out of danger, away from her neighborhood and post-9/11 paranoia. The novel is basically about how astonishingly quickly something can become your life even when you resist it, and how easily you can slide into a rhythm of self-denial.
Like her beloved Whitman, Flan often imagines herself in other skins - "I am large, I contain multitudes"
- yet to her vexation, she always feels stuck in her own body, her own point of view.
In the end, despite her struggles and insecurities, there is a strong undercurrent of optimism as Flan, together with her "yapping kids and sighing husband," realizes that no matter what choices they may make or what direction they may choose to travel in, things will all eventually work out for the best.