You know you're listening to a great story when you're sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic during a Friday afternoon rush hour, during a downpour, knowing your commute home will be twice as long ... and you're thinking, "Awesome! Now I have twice as long to listen to The Center of Everything!"
And when, a couple days later, you find yourself thinking the same thing as you sit in a traffic jam, the audiobook captivating you again.
Yes. The Center of Everything is really that good.
I've had this on my TBR bookshelf for ... oh, quite awhile now, and a few weeks ago I saw the audio at the library. I picked up the audio, thinking that by listening to this I could knock one TBR book off my list. Anyway, none of that matters. What matters is that this coming-of-age story about Evelyn Bucknow and the people in her life is incredibly well-written and superbly layered - especially when one considers that it is Laura Moriarty's debut novel.
The Center of Everything is set, literally, in the middle of everything. Evelyn's small town of Kerrville, Kansas is 63 miles from Wichita, a town where I've had the chance to spend some time. (Our Kansas days add up to only a few weeks, but it was enough to give me an appreciation for that part of our country.) Passages like this brought the expansiveness of the landscape back immediately.
I look out my window, down at the yellow lines whizzing under us in the middle of the highway. There is nothing but fields of wheat on each side of the road, their feathery tops swirling in the heat. Last year, Ms. Fairchild read some of My Antonia to us. She said she wanted us to see Kansas and Nebraska the way it is in the book, beautiful, a breadbasket that feeds so many people. She said Kansas is beautiful if you look at it the right way, and that we shouldn't believe anything other people try to say about it. The abundance of it, she said, spreading her arms in her Wednesday dress, as if she were holding something large.
Almost immediately upon being meeting Evelyn, the reader knows that she is not your typical fourth grader. She's keenly observant and perceptive, wise well beyond her years, and academically smart (especially in science). I kept thinking she reminded me of someone, and the answer is provided in the book when at one point, Evelyn's mom compares her to the character of Darlene on Roseanne.
The Center of Everything is set in the Reagan years - an era of MTV, friendship pins on shoelaces, Ocean Pacific and Guess? sweatshirts, Nancy Reagan just saying no, the controversial teaching of evolution in the classroom, the must-see-TV Iran-Contra hearings starring Oliver North. Moriarty absolutely nails all of these cultural references. I found myself grinning at these 80s references, remembering all too well what it was like to be a pre-teen growing up in that decade.
Beginning when Evelyn is a fourth grader, the novel spans several years, ending with Evelyn bound for college. Time marches on, but the people in Evelyn's life - her mother, her grandmother, her friends Travis and Deena, her teachers and classmates - remain constant presences. One central relationship is that between Evelyn and her mother, who she loves while being fiercely determined to not make the same mistakes she made. Evelyn makes different choices; she walks the straight and narrow and you find yourself rooting for her time and time again.
I don't want to give too much away - and there is a lot going on in these 335 pages. There are multiple themes and storylines, but Moriarty is such a masterful writer that each of them tango and co-exist beautifully. Given the timespan that the story encompasses, this is necessary to advancing the plot and keeping the reader engaged, which The Center of Everything absolutely does. (It is a rare audiobook that keeps me listening for 2.5 hours straight while driving.)
There is one fairly predictable storyline, but for that one there are several others that completely surprised me, leaving me agape in the middle of the traffic jam, applauding to the car stereo when I was proven wrong.
The Center of Everything is a very, very strong novel. Everything comes together in this one. For starters, there are several key characters in this novel, and not a weak one in the bunch. By that I mean that Laura Moriarty gives the reader a strongly defined, well-identifed group of characters. Sure, some are more likable than others, but each one is memorable. This is a huge accomplishment for a writer, especially in a work that spans a long period of time and when the point of view is in the first person. Secondly, the prose is wonderful. Moriarty really captures the voice and emotions of a young girl in Evelyn. Regardless of the personal circumstances that a reader brings to this story, everyone will be able to identify with something in Evelyn.
There's only one thing that I didn't like about this book, and it's this: it ended.
On the cover of my copy, there's an endorsement by Anna Quindlen, who says, "One of those novels that makes you feel sad when its over." And that is so true. After 335 pages, I'm left wanting more - in a very, very good way.
Rating: 5 stars. Initially, I was thinking a 4 or 4.5 because of the one predictable storyline. But the more I thought about it, the more I realize that storyline is essential to the novel, so I bumped this up to a 5. This would be a great choice for a book club, and Julie Dretzin is fabulous as the narrator of the audiobook. Highly recommended.