Monday

Book review: "Falling Under" by Danielle Younge-Ullman


I have been so fortunate during this year of binge-reading to find books that make me go, "Wow. THAT is the best book I've read this year. That may be one of the best books I've EVER read." I may be a woman made of bad choices, but I make excellent choices about books.

Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman was an excellent choice about a woman who makes bad choices. It may be one of the best books I've ever read. In fact, I'd go as far as calling it my soulmate book. So many of its themes speak to me personally, and so much of its structure and execution speak to what I want to accomplish as a writer.

Mara Foster is a painter who is dealing with some seriously heavy shit:

1. There are broken homes, and then there's Mara's insane childhood, with her cold, demanding mother and her mentally ill, irresponsible and hard-drinking father, who even after divorce manage to constantly rip each other apart at Mara's expense.

2. She loves bad-for-her dudes, and that's a problem.

3. One of those problems is Erik. He's not her boyfriend. He's a friend with benefits, but without the friendship, and with a whole lot of shared baggage.

4. Hooking up with Erik is pretty much one of the only times Mara leaves her apartment. She's agoraphobic. But she doesn't want to admit it.

5. She's got so much talent, but every time she paints the good stuff, she goes nuts, so she makes her living selling geometric paintings that appeal to lowest common denominator clientele, aka furniture stores, through her patron and former lover. It's a pretty meaningless, empty waste of her talent.

6. One of the conditions of her employment is that she not touch alcohol, because when she drinks, things get messy.

7. Her (wonderful, amazing, vivacious) best friend is a lesbian in love with a closeted women whose mother is a super-conservative, super-religious lawmaker.

8. Oh, and her college boyfriend died, and she's really messed up about it years later.

The book is mostly in present tense, around the time when Mara meets Hugo, a sweet, normal guy who may be her chance for stability and happiness. Hugo is adorable and funny and rolls with the punches of Mara's eccentricity, but it doesn't matter that he could be good for her. Because in Mara's experience, love is very bad for her:

"Oh boy, I should not be kissing this man. ... I should not be pulling him closer and letting myself feel that crazy stupid thing people call love. I should not be falling in love, because love will pull me under."

Then there are many chapters told in second-person that flash back to Mara's profoundly unstable childhood, the teenage beginnings of her still strong friendship with Bernadette (who wins the awards for Favorite Best Friend in A Book AND Favorite Lesbian) and her past love affairs. One thing that's so refreshing and different about this book is that even though there's a current, core romantic relationship explored, it dives so deep into every relationship that has shaped Mara. It makes her that much more real as a character that we know her history with the much-older Caleb, her mentor who she desperately wanted to stay with her; Lucas the romanticized, posthumous ideal, and Lucas, the reality; the deep, disturbing yet in a weird way sweet connection with Erik; and the laughs and romps she shared with Sal.

I love that her past is such a part of her. None of it just resets because she's met someone. My heart broke the further she got into what really happened with her and Lucas before his death.

"I wonder whether I will ever breathe air that is clear of his ghost." 

I loved being in Mara's head. I loved that the book was unrelenting and raw, that it depicted sex and love so honestly, that it had so much pain and even the laughs hurt because they came from a place of coping with pain. I understood so intimately how Mara's life is like this spinning teacup ride through states of some semblance of OK and sickening spirals of agony.

Mara is pushed to the edge by what's in her head and in her past. I feel like I sit here and write book reviews and try to be really confident about the words I put down, to not make any apologies about what I write and just hope I'm making myself as clear as possible. But I know I'm failing in explaining what this book meant to me. I want to reread it right now and come back and try again — that's how badly I want to get it right.

Falling Under is a beautiful book about what it means to save yourself, about what you can't run away from and what you should run toward, about the darkness and the light of love and how either can wreck you.

"Love digs you out, pulls you out and up with your bare skin and soul open to the world, to the harsh everything."

But it isn't a depressing book. There's bold hope throughout its pages. Hope that doesn't rise from naivete or unfounded optimism, but from slow, against-all-odds striving up and away from the claws dragging you under.

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