How long does it take to recover from the death of a loved one? What if that loved one is a parent – a single parent – and you’re a confused and vulnerable teenager who has enough problems without being an orphan, too? Worse yet, what if the death was a suicide, and you can’t shake the feeling that it was, on some level, an escape from the burden of caring for you? Add a hearty helping of small-town nosiness in the repressed Midwest, and you’ve got the setting for Leslie Pietrzyk’s A Year and a Day.
Alice Martin is a 15-year-old girl in a tiny town in 1970s Iowa, where “nice girls don’t” and mothers are supposed to wear pearls and belong to the PTA. But Alice’s mother is different: a single parent with no hint of a husband, an unapologetic nonconformist who encourages her kids to stand out from the crowd, too. She’s a great cook, a stylish beauty, and a free spirit; but she’s also severely depressed, prone to screaming nightmares and long days of silent, chain-smoking malaise. When Alice’s mother commits suicide – parking her car across the train tracks and throwing the keys out the window – Alice struggles to reconcile these radically different aspects, and blend them into a more complete picture of the woman her mother was. As she mourns, Alice begins to hear her mother’s voice, offering advice and insight and, sometimes, hints of information about her own mysterious past. Over the year-and-a-day following the suicide, Alice comes to understand her mother better, even as she learns what it is to be a young woman herself.
Pietrzyk writes convincingly and affectingly from the teenage perspective in this coming-of-age novel. She conveys the conflicting, intense emotions of adolescence, and the devastating grief of losing a parent, with sensitivity and understanding. Alice is a believably prickly teen, lashing out at others because she can’t make sense of her own emotional tumult, and trying hopelessly and belatedly to understand her mother’s life and death. Also well done are Will, Alice’s moody older brother who seems determined to squander his promising future; and Mrs. Johnson, the mother of one of Alice’s best friends, whose affluent, picture-perfect life doesn’t quite conceal her inner despair.
As you might expect, sex is a major theme – specifically, the sexual awakening of adolescence and its dangerous double edge: both creating a feeling of independence and autonomy, and carrying consequences that can lead to the total loss of personal freedom. Pietrzyk’s characters are all in thrall to their sexual desires, and the intertwining stories of their individual choices are a subtle but effective reminder of the passions and longings that remain the same from generation to generation; indeed, these desires are what create each succeeding generation. We are mothers, daughters, lovers, and wives, but Pietrzyk’s point is that we are more than that, too, and any attempt to understand us solely through our relationship to another is doomed to failure.
The book is divided into thirteen chapters, each covering roughly a month of the titular timeframe; however, the divisions frequently feel somewhat arbitrary, and the chapters function more like a linked series of short stories than a smooth and cohesive novel. Her subplots often venture into cliche – a scandalous teen pregnancy, a classroom love affair – but, for the most part, are handled well enough to be forgiven their unoriginality. Thoughtful and genuine, A Year And a Day is a likable, if sometimes slow, journey through the treacherous terrain of grief and loss, and the equally mysterious realm of human desire.