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The Careful Undressing of Love

The Careful Undressing of Love, cover image

This book. THIS BOOK.

 

Sometimes you pick up a book because you should; it got some stars (or, in this case, failed to get some stars), some people liked the authors other books, you’re sitting around portioning out the books and it’s your turn to take something off the pile. I read a lot of should books — that’s being a youth services librarian, basically — and mostly I am glad, because it makes me better at my job, and mostly the books are good, because lots of books are good, if you give them chance, but mostly they aren’t great.

And then, every now and again, you read a should book and it knocks your socks off. Like, across town lines off. You’ll never see those socks again, and you don’t care, because you’ve just fallen a little bit in love and that’s all that matters.

The Careful Undressing of Love, Corey Ann Haydu
Dutton, January 2017
Reviewed from ARC

This is magic realism, in a slightly alternate New York. It’s like New York through the best Instagram filter; every color is a little brighter, every shadow a little deeper, every detail you wanted to highlight sparkles right off the page. It’s not a false image, but it’s heightened.

In this New York, there’s a street in Brooklyn with a curse; any man who loves a woman who lives on the street for more than a year will die. It’s a street of widows and sadness, a street of tradition and love. It’s a street where girls share birthdays and never cut their hair and wear skeleton keys around their necks. It’s a street with the kind of filter that makes it realer than real, and makes everyone who doesn’t live there seem faded and dull in comparison.

Don’t you have chills already?

The voice here is amazing. Lorna’s voice is a little quiet, a little formal. It’s like drops hitting water; it’s not exactly musical, but there’s music under it, in her cadences and slightly unexpected phrasings. The language is sensuous and descriptive, and there’s a stillness. These sentences aren’t Hemingway short, but they rarely have more than two clauses, often only one, so they aren’t long. When sentences are longer, Haydu uses commas less than I think most writers would, and I don’t know exactly how that works but it changes the rhythms in ways that make the language sing. It’s a little old fashioned, or maybe timeless would be a better word, and yet thoroughly now — sex, sexism, fame for fames sake, the lack of privacy in a a digital world are all present and openly referenced, but without being tied to specifics. Most of all, the voice is refreshingly honest, especially when Lorna talks about sex or the way she loves being near but not in love. It’s a voice that seems totally frank and open and yet is lying — Lorna is lying to the reader, and to herself, about how well she has coped with the losses in her life. That’s some virtuoso voice work, and Haydu pulls this off with a small page count and a first person narrator.

And let’s talk about the losses: Lorna has attended 18 funeral in 17 years; she was held up as a poster child after a 9/11-like attack that killed her father; and she’s been worked on by Angelika and the other widows, whose love for tradition and superstitious beliefs prevent the natural course of grief. Moving on is not allowed, and Lorna believes she has owned that. She loves being a Devonairre Street girl. You can tell because she tells you. She loves how they are special and how people notice them and how it gives her a place to feel at home, especially after her father’s death. She loves it until the Curse hits a little too close to home and suddenly it’s scary and terrible and it all hurts. It all adds up to a powerful meditation on grief and the nature of love, and whether loving and losing or never loving is better. Love and sacrifice and loss twine together, and the portrait that emerges — not just of Lorna but of LornaCruzCharlotteDelilahIsla, of Devonairre Street and its grieving widows, of a city that can’t quite move past a tragedy — manages to be complex without overburdening the reader with details. The details that do make it in are so specific (the taste of Jack’s whiskey, the thousands of traditions, Owen’s boxers) that the sense of reality is intense despite the near total lack of other details (school, for one, or any life outside Devonairre Street). Thematically this is tight; setting wise it might be even tighter.

I said at the start that this is magic realism, but honestly I’m not even sure that label fits. I can’t think of a genre label that fits better, but the magic realism, such as it is, is about as understated as can be; there is maybe no magic, but there maybe is. Certainly there’s a kind of magic in Angelika, with her inexplicable accent and her tragic past and the control — both benign and malign — she wields over the widows and children of Devonairre Street. And there’s a magic in Haydu’s imagined rituals and their genesis; the lemons, the keys, the uncut hair and shared birthday. Like Delilah’s “you are more wonderful than rain;” made up, seemingly universal but actually specific and personal. Which is what struck me so hard about this book; it’s a made up story in a made up New York, and yet it felt true and painful.

And yet, zero stars. As the daughter of a dead father, maybe this resonated for me because I can so easily see how Devonairre Street, with its answers its Curse, would be immensely comforting and immensely stifling in the face of tragedy. But I don’t think it’s just personal resonance that has me cheering this one on. I believe this deserves to be at the table, picked apart in excruciating detail. It stood up to two reads for me, and while there are other books I loved, this is right up there for best of the year. There are a few things about the pacing around Jack’s death and the final tragedy that a reader might quibble with (I would argue that these are clear stylistic choices, rather than lazy writing, but that doesn’t mean it will work for all readers). And the ending is weirdly unsatisfying and yet exactly perfect, but in a way that left me a little unsettled. But these are minor flaws.

So either I missed something significant, or all those positive but not starred reviews were the curse of the January pub date (when you haven’t seen any other 2017 books, how do you assess a star that indicates relative merit in the context of the year?). If we were at the RealPrintz table, I’d be nominating this. So, shadow committee, it’s your turn to argue for or against my (very long!) why statement.

 

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. On. Reading. List. Now.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more – I devoured & adored this book!! And I’m honestly shocked it hasn’t earned more accolades. It’s just a stunning novel.

  3. Dawn Abron says:

    I read this book in January and this was my review. Unless I missed some thing special about It…

    Unfortunately, Undressing was formulaic. I anticipated every turn.

    The characters were underdeveloped. Lorna was the main character and she was flat. She was mopey most of the time. Her best friend, Delilah, was only interesting because she was Black with an afro and dated a wealthy white guy. Isla was in the novel to make a point and I’ll explain below. Charlotte and Cruz were not special. The only round character was Angelika, the wise old Russian lady.

    Undressing had a lot to say about teen girls and love. The older ladies on the block didn’t like the way they dressed and their cavalier attitude about sex. Isla was the youngest but she also dressed provocatively and danced on the subway pole while men leered and women scoffed. This is why I felt Isla was just used to make a point and she didn’t drive the plot. I think Haydu’s message was clear and I liked it but it wasn’t enough to save this book.

    Haydu is a good writer and this is my first book by her. The language was beautiful and metaphorical and it’s clear she has a lot to say. She wrote about an interesting street with diverse characters but Undressing was a bit too didactic, formulaic, and it ne

  4. I am right there with you on this one Karyn. I take the lack of stars as a byproduct of the book’s release date and also the fact that, for whatever reason, Haydu’s books always seem to be greeted with a relatively quiet reception. Who can say why?

    I read this book near when it came out and it’s one I’m still thinking about now as I contemplate the ramifications of the ending and what might come next. As a reader I wish there had been that one more chapter to explain everything or at least hint at final outcomes but I also see the stylistic strength in ending things so abruptly–much the way Lorna and her mother do–to move away from their Brooklyn street.

    I love how you describe this book as “a made up story in a made up New York, and yet it felt true and painful.” The setting here amazed me. The details felt so real that I had to look up if there might really be a Devonnaire Street in Brooklyn after finishing it. I’ve been thinking of this one more as an alternate history than fantasy or magic realism.

    Really I can’t add anything to what you already said. In my own review I called this book “A quiet, wrenching story about the bonds of love and friendship and the ways in which they can break; a commentary on the stresses and pressures of being a girl in the modern world; and a story about self-preservation first.” And I love it because of those things.

    Stylistically (or maybe thematically? both?) this book also seems to have a lot in common with All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry a more recent read that knocked my socks off and still has me asking a lot of questions about the story and myself.

  5. I read this at the start of the year and it still stands out as one of the most powerful books I encountered this year. What amazing characters who really hold your attention and while the story is convoluted it is as you say satisfying. Could it be Printz? I don’t know, but as I still wait for something to blow me away this waits in the wings.

  6. I read this at least a month ago now, and feel like I needed that space to be able to parse whether it worked-for-me-but-was-too-painful-to-enjoy or didn’t-work-for-me, and I haven’t been thinking about it, which points me pretty strongly towards didn’t-work-for-me.

    I’m having a really, really hard time articulating why. My overwhelming sense is still one of “drowning in bleakness,” which is definitely not usually a dealbreaker for me (maybe I demand a tiny glimmer of light in my endings? maybe I couldn’t get over hating everyone and wanting them all the shut up already?) but obviously that’s an emotional reaction. And could I have hated all the characters if they weren’t well-drawn? Maybe? Maybe every single one was a manic pixie dreamchild, even the grownups. I definitely have trouble assigning any level of characterization on LornaCruzCharlotteDelilahIsla or Lorna’s mom or Lorna’s mom’s boyfriend, and even Angelika was more symbol and cardboard witch than interesting character. Or Jack or Lorna’s boyfriend, so, really, anyway. Short stories can sometimes work when peopled by symbols rather than characters, but this is trying to be a novel, and I don’t think it sustained itself.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I found LornaCruzetc became more and more individual as the novel went on, which makes total sense; Lorna WANTS them to be one thing, but Jack’s death breaks them apart and so her telling begins to reflect that. I see what you mean about Angelika, but I still see it as an asset; this is Lorna’s version of what happened and how people acted — so also all the manic pixie-ing I see as Lorna trying to hold on to magic that has probably been disappearing for a while; they have been keeping so many secrets from each other and their friendship is so false, but she’s been going along believing in it in the face of all evidence.

      Also, so interesting that this hit the bleak-odometer for you — it’s a year with way too many dark, depressing books, and I don’t know if it’s that I read this early on and when there was still sufficient daylight, but this wasn’t one that felt unbearable. The Librarian of Auschwitz, which I should be reading right now, or Too Shattered for Mending, which I started and felt bruised by, or Saint Death, which I already gave up on — those are the books I can’t take at the moment.

      • Wellllll, I also gave up on Saint Death and haven’t tried the other two you mentioned; I’m really, really, really picky about Holocaust lit at this point and hadn’t even heard of Too Shattered For Mending. Both are now on my library list, though, I’ll give them a try.

        I think part of it hitting the bleak-odometer for me might have something to do with my being a relatively plot-driven reader and this not being a plot book. Like, now that I’ve looked it up, Too Shattered For Mending looks bleak but also like it’s a mystery and mysteries can keep me reading through a lot, whereas there was nothing to hold onto in this case; if you’re going to throw me into a sea of bleak, I need a flotation device.

        • I can now report that this did, in fact, set off my bleak-o-meter waaaaaay more than Too Shattered For Mending. I think it has to do with voice; I never found being in Little’s head oppressive, which I did with Lorna. Little’s life was full of terrible things, but there was always a strand of hope, particularly in Little himself. It might have been a better book if it was bleaker–I think its major weakness is a too-tidy, too-easy ending, and as I was saying, a non-horrible ending balances out a lot for me–but even before that, I never found it draining to read.

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