No Book but the World

The title of Leah Hager Cohen's novel is both a quote from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed in education through experience, and a nod to the long shadow cast by patriarch Neel Robbins. Neel, the charismatic founder of an experimental school inspired by Rousseau, insists that his own young children rely on their experiences for guidance, which has profound consequences in their lives. Ava was fiercely protective of her younger brother, Fred, whose difficult but undiagnosed behavior suggested autism. Fred's outbursts often mixed innocence with a calculated cruelty, and Ava's best friend, Kitty, frequently served as the catalyst. Years later, Ava married Kitty's brother, Dennis, and distanced herself from Fred to forge her own life. When she receives word that Fred has been arrested for the murder of a young boy, though, she sets out to discover what happened and, most of all, to defend him.

Ava, Kitty, Dennis and Fred alternate in telling the story, a technique that highlights the limitations of any one person's perspective, how little we know the interior world of even those closest to us and how our deepest beliefs offer truths beyond the realm of empirical knowledge. Cohen is an observant writer, and Ava's relationships with Dennis and Fred are especially sensitive. Kitty and Neel's self-involvement can seem at odds with Ava's loyalty, and Cohen's long descriptive flashbacks that foreshadow the present crisis sometimes dilute their emotional impact. But Ava's gentle introspection makes her a sympathetic guide to the novel's central questions, deserving of its suggestion of grace. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

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