Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Wednesday, September 25, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Dear Edward

Dial Press: Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Dial Press: Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano Dial Press: Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano Dial Press: Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward

by Ann Napolitano

A plane crashes over northern Colorado; all passengers and crew are believed dead. While searching the crash site, a volunteer paramedic hears a cry: "I'm here!" It's a boy, miraculously alive. But for this boy, being alive brings no joy--he wears his grief like a shroud. In Dear Edward, the story of his deep loss and rocky path to healing, Ann Napolitano (Within Arm's Reach; A Good Hard Look) poignantly explores a child coming of age in the aftermath of tragedy and trauma.

Eddie Adler is 12 years old when he sets off on a flight from Newark for Los Angeles with his parents and 15-year-old brother, Jordan. Through a series of flashbacks, readers learn about the brothers' unbreakable bond. They read each other effortlessly, although Jordan is beginning to differentiate himself: at the airport, he opts out of TSA screening, informing his father that a full-body backscatter is dangerous and ineffective.

Their father, Bruce, a mathematician, homeschools the boys. "Fatherhood is, for him, one jolt of terror after another." He used to carry them like live grenades; he adores them, yet thinks them capable of exploding in myriad ways for which he's not prepared. On the flight, their mother, Jane, a screenwriter, is seated in first class, feeling guilty, but needing the privacy to finish a script before they land.

Napolitano limns the other passengers, as she does the Adlers, with deft strokes. Linda is on the way to meet her boyfriend, Gary, who doesn't know she is pregnant. Benjamin, a black soldier, muscular and "wide as a chest of drawers," is recovering from a bullet wound. He's traumatized by both the injury and a self-revelation. Mark, with two Forbes profiles under his expensive belt, is on his way to California to close a major deal. Known around the office as The Hammer, Mark's entranced by chief flight attendant Veronica, "a Broadway musical made flesh." Veronica loves her job and enjoys gliding down the aisle--"She asks for every look then throws it like a coin into the till." We learn their thoughts, their fears, their expectations. As Napolitano weaves their stories throughout, even though we know their fate, we are still shocked at the loss of these vivid lives.

Early in his hospital stay, while Eddie is unconscious, his aunt and uncle decide that the press should use his given name, a minor attempt at privacy--"Eddie" is family, "Edward" is for strangers. But he stays Edward--a gravitas that seems fitting--and moves in with his anxious and grieving aunt and uncle. He feels smothered under their worried gaze, the watching eyes of the town and the students at school. Food is irrelevant. He can't tolerate anything that sloshes or melts. His life flat and gray, he seeks refuge with Shay, the girl next door; he sleeps on her bedroom floor. Edward finds solace with Shay and her mother. Shay, in turn, becomes his best friend and cohort. Together, they work to make sense of his new life.

One day, Edward and Shay discover a large cache of letters hidden in his uncle's workshop, letters from those who'd lost passengers on the plane, written to Edward after the tragedy. Most of the writers ask something of him: walk the Great Wall of China in honor of my child; tell my sons to keep reading; open a comedy club. Hundreds of requests, secrets, confessions. They break open something in him; while they are unbearable to read, he feels a relief of sorts: "Each letter feels like a page in a book that he won't fully understand until he reaches the end." The attention Edward brings to the letters is changing him, pulling strands together, allowing him to sleep and dream. He and Shay sort them in secret, and decide to reply to the ones they consider "letters on the edges."

Edward is "pulling 191 dead people, like a fallen parachute, in his wake." He imagines others' lives. He sees Gary, who lost Linda, with binoculars, watching blue whales. He thinks of Benjamin every day, and sees him in the weight room, working out. He sees himself and Jordan playing in the woods. He wants to adopt Jordan's "crinkly, excited energy;" he considers his brother's "F**k no" as an option. "F**k no" to the people telling him how to live. As he pulls the fallen, his burden lightens; as he considers the infinite ripple effects of lives and deaths, he sees possibilities.

Edward wrestles with profound questions that his living generates. Why did these people die? Why was he spared? What is a survivor's obligation to the dead? Or is there obligation? Ultimately, how do we connect with both the living and the dead? Edward's father used mathematics to "tie together pieces of the universe"; Ann Napolitano uses words to do the same in Dear Edward--a dazzling, tender novel about sorrow and despair, resilience and great love. --Marilyn Dahl

Dial Press, $27, hardcover, 352p., 9781984854780, January 14, 2020

Dial Press: Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Anne Napolitano: How to Live a Meaningful Life

(photo: Jake Chessum)

Anne Napolitano's novel Dear Edward will be published by Dial Press in January 2020. She is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look--which appeared on the Southern Independent bestseller list and NPR's Best of 2011 list, and was an Indie Next Pick and an Okra Pick--and Within Arm's Reach. She is also the associate editor of One Story literary magazine. She received an MFA from New York University, and has taught fiction writing for Brooklyn College's MFA program, New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers' Workshop. Napolitano lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and two children.

Your prose is a delight. I assume there is a progression in refining your craft. How do you experience that?

My hope and desire is for my writing to get better with each book. The plot and the characters and the structure remain a challenge in every book, of course, but the construction of sentences, and my control of language, should ideally improve. It took me eight years to write Dear Edward. I love re-writing--I honestly think my books are pretty bad for the first five years of the writing process, and then eventually get closer to what I hoped they might be.

I also have a writing group. I've been meeting with the writers Helen Ellis (Southern Lady Code and American Housewife) and Hannah Tinti (The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley and The Good Thief) for over 20 years. We met in graduate school, and we are one another's first readers. I would not be the writer I am, without them.

The characters in Dear Edward are carefully and lovingly drawn. Teenagers can be tough to write about convincingly, and your details about Edward "after" are so effective. How did you get into Edward's and his friend Shay's heads so well?

Edward was the starting place for me. I think I was helped by the fact that he was inspired by a real person--a Dutch boy named Ruben Van Assouw who was the sole survivor of a plane crash in 2010. My entry into the book was trying to imagine how this young boy would feel in this terrible situation, and how he could possibly go on and live a life. I spent a year taking notes, thinking and doing research before I started writing, and that gave me time to settle into Edward's point of view.

I don't know anyone who has experienced a tragedy like this. A lot of it was imagining myself into Edward's situation, but I was also helped by an experience I had when I was 20--I became sick with a powerful virus called Epstein-Barr and for over a year my immune system was wiped out (which meant I caught every illness around) and I was deeply fatigued. I felt 80 years old, even though I appeared to be 20. There was a terrible isolation in that period of my life, when I faked feeling normal with my friends, and faked being young. That sensation of isolation and the experience of that illness fed into my empathy for Edward.

And Shay really showed up as herself--I can take very little credit for her.

Jordan, Edward's older brother, is one of my favorite characters. His initial methods of separating into adulthood are believable (and often amusing). And his relationship with Edward is so dear.

When I started writing Dear Edward, my sons were one and three years old. At that age the only thing I could definitively say about them was that they were deeply in love with each other. This was a surprise to my husband and me--I have siblings, but we bickered a lot when we were young. We certainly never snuggled with each other for comfort, the way my boys have since the very beginning. They seem to be connected by a million invisible threads. When I started writing about Edward, my sons' devotion made its way into his and Jordan's relationship. It's hard for me to imagine something worse happening to one of my boys than losing their brother, and that was baked into my understanding of Edward's loss.

The other characters on the plane are fully formed, with minimal information. They have stayed with me. And one--Benjamin--stays with Edward. He thinks about the soldier every day.

Benjamin is the only passenger Edward has a conversation with on the plane, other than his family. He was a man who Edward knew, however fleetingly, and lost. Also, Edward feels so weak and vulnerable in the aftermath of the crash that the literal strength of Benjamin is appealing.

I spent a year thinking about who I wanted to write about on the plane, and I read books and did research on each of those characters before I started writing. For Benjamin, I spoke to a friend of mine who's in the army, and I read War by Sebastian Junger.

Edward is composed of everyone he's ever touched: "He has molecules inside him from his parents and Jordan and everyone else on that plane."

The idea that we're all truly interconnected fascinates me, and I was happy to be able to write my way into understanding the possibilities within that concept. I also felt like Edward needed to drop--or ignore--common boundaries in order for the world to feel survivable to him. The plane, and his family, needed to still be in the sky. He and his brother needed to still love each other. And he needed to carry everyone on the plane--their loss, their loves--inside him. The letters from the families of the other victims ultimately give him a sense of purpose and understanding. They had questions that they were asking of him, which makes no sense, but there was nowhere else for them to send their correspondence. Only when Edward allows for the possibility that connection is hopeful, and even necessary, does he begin to heal. --Marilyn Dahl

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