If you are an Iowan and love literature, chances are you experience a thrill when you come across a book written by a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While its alumni are numerous and diverse, I would argue that over the years the Workshop has developed a distinctive brand. That of meticulously-crafted literature and authors who seek out material that is fresh and unique in its presentation. Just such a book has been added to the collection at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
Some Other Town is the debut novel of Elizabeth Collison, a Workshop grad, raised in Marshalltown, Iowa. To further compound the Iowa-ness of it all, the book is set in an unnamed Midwestern community with enough clues to suggest, to the reader in the know, that it is Iowa City.
Collison’s protagonist is Margaret Lydia Benning, an art school grad now in her late twenties whose life has come to a definitive halt in the town where she graduated. Trapped by her own inertia, she lives alone next door to an eccentric woman who thrives on antagonizing her. Once a bright light in the art community, she is now an assistant editor of design at a dying publishing company known as the Project, aptly housed in a haunted former sanatorium. Margaret’s life has been reduced to a bus ride back and forth between the two locations.
Enter Ben Adams. A visiting professor at the University, Ben and Margaret meet at an art exhibition and a romance quickly develops. The question becomes, “Will this relationship be the catalyst to a better and bolder future? Will she reach up and grab the proverbial ring and move forward in her life?” Unfortunately for Margaret this is a story filled with secrets. Ben has a past that could threaten their future. And Margaret herself harbors a secret that could take down the organization where she works. Nothing is easy.
While this book addresses some of the very basic questions of life – how should I live, where should I live, with whom should I live, what is my purpose? – it does so in an atypical way. This isn’t a Robert Frost poem or a Danielle Steel novel. It is a Salvador Dali painting.
Several of the characters are ghosts, and yet it isn’t a ghost story. There are numerous plot twists that you’d never see coming, and yet it isn’t a potboiler. This is a piece of literature that strives to be something altogether different. It is a Mozart sonata with half the notes taken out and replaced with animal calls.
My favorite part of the book is the excellent use of foreshadowing. Everything about the book points toward the future – and the possibility of an ominous future. Runes, visions, prophetic dreams, how to deal with the dead. I had to read the book a second time to enjoy those juicy a-ha moments as I discovered bits of symbolism and clues to the ending that I had missed the first time around.
The ultimate takeaway from this book is that time is finite. You don’t have forever to change your life or take advantage of opportunities that are put before you. There just isn’t time to be stuck in a rut for years or decades. Today might be the last day to take advantage of something great. Or maybe it was yesterday? And if so, unlucky you!
This isn’t a beach read. This isn’t a feel-good novel to take on the plane on the way to Disney World. This is a book for a dark November day, when the landscape is barren and you’re questioning your place in the universe. You just might find some answers here.
~a review from Lisa