The Plot: Yonkers, New York, the 1970s. Rogan and Madeline Tierney are first cousins, the youngest son and youngest daughter of twins. They are best friends, deeply connected and attuned to each other. Their great-grandmother was the famous actress Madeline Armin Tierney, who gave up the stage when she married and whose descendants embraced money making and business. The Tierney’s family only connection to their theatre legacy are faded playbills and moth-eaten costumes.
Until Rogan and Maddy. Rogan, with a stunning voice. Maddy, who is only now leaving behind braces, pimples, glasses, and parental imposed bad hair. As high school freshmen, they decide to try out for their school play, Twelfth Night, looking for an excuse to share a stage, share time, share space. Needed excuses because their families and friends suspect – rightfully – that the close cousins are too close. Both win roles; both excel; and for both, it is a life changing experience.
The Good: Elizabeth Hand is such a gifted writer that nothing I write here can do it any justice at all. Here, a scattering of the poetry of her work: “Rogan looked like he’d fallen from a painting.” “Everywhere I touched him was like finding myself in the dark.” “Someone had set fire to him and burned away all his youth.”
Rogan and Maddy are cousins born on the same day; children of twins, almost twins themselves, and they both mirror and complement each other. Complement: to complete each other. Together, they are almost a whole. They escape from prying, judgmental eyes in crawl spaces and secret rooms, first kissing and then making love. (If you still think of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now as the cousins having sex book, and if right now your biggest reaction is “ick”, and you’re off to Google just whether or not that counts as incest, then no, this book isn’t for you.)
Rogan has a relatively easy life; his gifts come with little or no work, his looks, his singing, his acting. He can drink, smoke, stay out late and still deliver a stunning performance. Maddy has to work for it. Aunt Kate, who carries on some of the original Madeline’s love of theatre, is a fairy godmother to both, bringing them to plays, encouraging their dreams.
In a secret room in Rogan’s house – the house built by their actress great grandmother – they find a miniature theatre hidden in the walls. Maddy hears rustles of the audience, sees magical snowfalls in the attic walls. The fantasy of Illyria is hints, shadows, whispers: the hidden theatre and its sounds, Rogan’s description as “fey” and his gifts that take no work to achieve or maintain; Aunt Kate’s own mystery connection to the past and her sense of looking out for something unknown and unknowable about the family.
Putting the plot of Illyria into words almost diminishes it. What happens next does not matter so much; what matters is Hand capturing Maddy’s falling in love with the theatre, as strongly as she has fallen in love with Rogan. What matters is the sweetness and heartache and bliss of Rogan’s and Maddy’s love. What matters is the capturing of place, of the 1970s, where parents drank their whiskey sours, children had freedom to roam and fight, teenagers discovered rock and roll when it was still raw and dangerous and not packaged and dressed up as a pretty boy band or poptart; and pot and hash were casual among teens. And Rogan, Rogan, Rogan. A character seen almost entirely through Maddy’s worshipful eyes; whose own path in life seems almost inevitable.
Illyria takes us through those decades after that one sweet fall of love and promise of a golden future. It captures the “after”, where not everyone who is gifted achieves; maybe the gift isn’t nourished, but maybe it’s just life happening and some of us become stars and some – don’t.
And after life has happened, after the miniature theatre is destroyed by hate and jealousy, can the magic ever be recaptured? Is golden promise only for teenage years?
One last bit of swooning over Hand’s writing. Illyria comes in at 135 pages; it is short, tight, beautifully crafted. Stunning to think of how much is put into so few words. And, in a way, I feel as if the story of Rogan and Maddy is part of a bigger picture. A short glimpse of a wider world. I’m not saying that I missed anything or felt that Hand left anything out; no, far from it. It’s just that Rogan and Maddy’s world is so complete, supporting characters are so full, even those who appear in memory, like Madeline and her husband Rosco, that you wonder to yourself, “what is the original Madeline’s story? What about Aunt Kate?” It’s a sign of how gifted Hand is, that so much is captured; and that she knows just how much to tell us and what not to. Because it is not original Madeline’s story; it is this Maddy, this Rogan.
Because I got to the end of this and was so blown away, wondering “what just happened to me?” from the reading experience, this is a favorite book read in 2010.
Bonus: I also want to touch on the meaning of rock and roll and music, without getting too spoilery about the plot. As I mentioned in the review, this captures that teens discovering their own music and creating a band. It also presents the adults in the world (and, possibly, Maddy) as viewing theatre as acceptable art and rock and roll as something less than. Seriously, an entire essay could have been written about the musical references in this book and their meanings.
Anyway, Hand refers to music, albums, song, but rarely mentions the albums or artists. I identified The Velvet Underground’s Loaded; and then yay, found this author interview that provided Hand’s songlist for the book (including more recent songs that influenced the writing): Large Hearted Boy blog.