Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, April 24, 2023

Monday, April 24, 2023: Maximum Shelf: Little Monsters

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Little Monsters by Adrienne Brodeur

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Little Monsters by Adrienne Brodeur

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Little Monsters by Adrienne Brodeur

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Little Monsters by Adrienne Brodeur

Little Monsters

by Adrienne Brodeur

The epicenter of Adrienne Brodeur's Little Monsters--a compelling, earnest portrait of a family more fractured than its members realize--is one aging white man, jostling for purchase in the percolating tensions of pre-election 2016. He refuses to be left behind in the assumed wave of liberalism, for reasons both personal and professional. He still has genius in him. He is not, perhaps, a character that's easy to love. But he is easy to recognize. Adam Gardner, this patriarch speeding toward septuagenarian status, is a brilliant scientist, a charming conversationalist (if not always a politically correct one), a widower since his children were small, and a single father, confident that he was also a good one. His children, Ken and Abby, love him dearly, but they're less convinced.

Real estate mogul-turned-conservative politician Ken has done his best to slough off the loneliness and embarrassment of his childhood, choosing to relegate the fallout of Adam's manic-depressive episodes to a dark corner of his mind. Artist Abby confronts these same confusing emotions more directly, as symbols and glyphs in her latest spate of buzzy paintings. As Adam's 70th birthday party approaches, both children hatch secret plans to win over their difficult-to-impress father, while Adam himself quietly swears off his bipolar medication in pursuit of one final Nobel Prize-worthy breakthrough. At the fringes of this patchwork quilt of relationships is Steph, a cop who becomes interested in the Gardner family when she realizes they're capable of illuminating a long-buried secret of her own.

Through shifting points of view in each chapter, Brodeur explores the voices of the Gardners and their circle: envious and disciplined Ken; perceptive but distant Abby; sharp and demanding Steph; and grandiose but erratic Adam. It is Adam, above all, who speaks to the themes of the tension in Little Monsters: he's a man who thinks himself king, and fails to understand why that mentality might sow anything but worship in those around him. "How was it possible that all these people--'extras,' as it were, on the set of his life--believed they had experiences and emotions as rich and complex as his own?"

Thankfully, Brodeur--back with her first book since her 2019 memoir, Wild Game, and her first novel since her debut, Man Camp--absolutely does believe that every "extra" has a place on the stage, and she does not short-change readers on the complexities of these characters' emotions. Even Ken, in all his Angry White Man glory, is rendered through a compassionate lens; his complaints and excuses rankle, but bent through a ray of therapy, they almost start to make sense. To be sure, the cast of Gardners in Little Monsters don't all share equal legitimacy in their frustrations. But as the conflicts balloon ahead of Adam's big party, readers will know they have all sides of the story.

Another character lurks in the background of Brodeur's novel, and that is the Cape Cod setting itself. Each protagonist shares a profound connection to the shoreline, whether intimate or adversarial, and Brodeur pauses often to describe wisteria blooms and whale blows, the habits of snapper turtles and seals, with an Edenic reverence. These descriptions can feel tangential until readers recognize how naturally each Gardner aligns with nature itself. That Garden of Eden comparison is no throwaway: Ken and Abby mirror the ancient siblings Cain and Abel in more ways than one. (At one point, Ken's therapist even recommends he pick up John Steinbeck's East of Eden for insight.)

Throughout Little Monsters, art and nature mirror each other, symbiotic and inextricable. Abby paints her family as a new life grows inside her. Ken builds a tiny home replica as the coast of his real home gives way to erosion. Adam studies the musical language between whales as he struggles to recognize the cries of his own children. Steph nurses her baby as she demands answers from her own parents. The parallels, and their respective ironies, are beautiful and heart-breaking.

In one scene, Ken's wife, Jenny, peers at a fresh painting of Abby's, one she intends to give Adam for his birthday. "Each time she blinked," Brodeur writes, "lines would recede and advance, creating images that would mutate like shapes in clouds: a tiny being blossoming in a torso; an iris-like aperture overlaying the whole; two children tangled in a curious knot." All of the characters in Little Monsters are mutating in this manner, grappling to understand the twisting political landscape and how it will define their lives in the months and years to come. But they are also each tangled with one another, and the true pleasure of Brodeur's novel is in watching some--though not all--of them get unstuck. The greatest relief comes in witnessing the women and the men eventually assessing one another from a distance, so that both groups, at last, can heal. --Lauren Puckett-Pope

Avid Reader Press, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9781982198107, June 27, 2023

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Little Monsters by Adrienne Brodeur

Adrienne Brodeur: Family Ties

(photo: Tony Luong)

Adrienne Brodeur was editor and founder of the fiction magazine Zoetrope: All-Story, and serves as executive director of Aspen Words, a literary arts nonprofit within the Aspen Institute. She is the author of the memoir Wild Game and the novel Man Camp. Her second novel, Little Monsters, a compelling, earnest portrait of a fractured family on Cape Cod, is due from Avid Reader Press on June 27, 2023.

This is your first book since your beloved memoir, Wild Game, and your first novel in almost two decades. Why did now feel like the right time for another work of fiction?

While I'm a planner in many aspects of my life, that doesn't hold true when it comes to writing. My move from memoir to fiction was less a deliberate choice than a reaction to the idea that my subconscious delivered, which presented itself as fiction. It's hard to explain the creative process--let alone understand its mysteries--but I tend to find my ideas by paying close attention to where my mind goes. I've learned that if I act like a divining rod and notice my internal vibrations, I'll often find a subterranean spring.

How did this book come together? Did these characters seem to come to you fully developed, or was it a long trial and error?

Writing a book is a bit like holding something delicate and stealthy in your hands--if you hold too tight, you risk crushing it; too loose, and it might get away. Little Monsters started with a persistent curiosity about the often-fraught nature of sibling relationships, which led me to reflect upon the biblical story of Cain and Abel. That was the foundation. From there, the process is all about patience and discipline. I wake up around 5 a.m., get a big mug of coffee, go straight to my desk, and write. While it is a cliché, writing a novel is like building the plane as you fly it. I must write to get to know my characters and figure out the narrative. Aside from Adam, the patriarch, who arrived fully developed on page one, it was only through writing that the characters revealed themselves. By the end of the first draft, I knew who they were enough to go back and revise, which of course, is the process: write, edit, repeat.

We're a few years out from the time period in which this book takes place. Did you start writing it during 2016, or did you need the distance of a few years to be able to address it properly?

I didn't start writing Little Monsters until the spring of 2020, but I always knew I would set the book in the months leading up to the 2016 election, as I found the uneasy mood of the country fascinating. It was a time when you could practically feel the ground shifting beneath your feet, although most people I know, me included, did not correctly anticipate how. I also love the subversive idea that the readers know more about what will happen next than the characters.

Tell us about the men in this story. They often think or outright say some truly awful things, and yet it's difficult not to feel a sort of affection for them. Why was that important to you, and did you ever worry you wouldn't find the right balance: not too endearing, not too monstrous?

Obviously, there are some truly evil people in the world, but for the most part I think humans are like any other animal--at their most aggressive when they're wounded. Who hasn't said something horrible to someone they love? As a writer, I want to portray the complex gray areas in character. I'm far less interested in heroes and villains than what's courageous and corrupt in all of us.

There's one line about midway through the book that I love, delivered by Ken's therapist: "Hiding your feelings doesn't signify a mastery of them." There's a lot of hiding in this book, a theme that is also central to your memoir. Do you find that 2016 was a season that forced many people, like your characters, to stop "hiding"? Or do you feel it pushed some of us to hide even more?

There are many reasons people hide their feelings--shame and fear come to mind--and equally as many that determine why some people can stop hiding, while others go deeper underground. I'm no political historian or sociologist, but I feel sure that 2016 was a global inflection point, marking the collapsing of established social orders, and creating a perfect storm of sorts, enabling some people to reckon with their history and privilege, and forcing others into deeper denial.

Which of the characters in Little Monsters did you find easiest to write? Which were the most difficult?

That's easy: Adam. Adam popped into my head pretty much fully formed, demanding that he be a point-of-view character. He was sarcastic and funny, and always said things that surprised me. I pretty much just held my hands over the keyboard and let him rip. It's something I've never experienced as a writer before (and my fingers are crossed that it will happen again). The rest of the characters took their sweet time in revealing themselves on the page, which is more typically the way it works for me.

You've become known for your skill in writing about family dynamics, both in nonfiction and fiction. Has writing these stories helped you better understand what "family" is, or is the perpetual mystery part of what keeps drawing you back to the theme?

I'm drawn to family dynamics because childhood experiences so clearly inform who people become as adults. That said, there are so many complex factors that affect families--from individual personalities to external forces like birth, death, marriage, divorce, and time--that I'm not sure it would ever be possible to unpack them. So, yes, writing helps me understand the dynamics of the particular family I'm writing about, but it's the perpetual mystery part that keeps drawing me back to the theme.

You have spent a lot of time on Cape Cod, and your intimate familiarity with the area is obvious. What about Cape Cod do you love so deeply, and what makes it such a perfect setting for this book?

As soon as I approach the Sagamore Bridge and smell the brackish air, my heart rate slows, and my body relaxes. Cape Cod is where I feel most at home. From its kettle ponds to its sand dunes and cranberry bogs, from its shorebirds to its migrating marine life, there is simply no place that captures my imagination quite like it. Cape Cod is essentially a large and fragile sand bar--a landscape that changes by the season but also by the hour from weather and tide, and one that is destined someday to be swallowed back into the ocean.

What was it about the biblical tale of Cain and Abel that spoke to you, and how did it inspire some of the rhythms of this book?

I looked to the archetypal story of Cain and Abel, hoping for answers about sibling rivalry and was left wanting. It is truly a bare-bones story. That said, the tale informed the structure of the book in as much as Cain and Abel made offerings to God, and God favored Abel's gift. In Little Monsters, the narrative structure builds toward the patriarch's 70th birthday where his children present him with gifts of great personal importance and the father clearly favors one gift over the other.

Do you have another book on the horizon?

I haven't yet written a word, but there is an idea that my mind keeps presenting, which includes a misguided romantic connection between octogenarians, a daughter's desire to understand her mother, and two generations of female friendship. --Lauren Puckett-Pope

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