I was fortunate enough to hear Nan Cuba speak about her new book, Body and Bread, which came out Tuesday, May 7th, at the San Antonio edition of the Texas Book Festival, and also at a recent meeting of the San Antonio Writers Guild. What intrigued me most about her book was that it takes place in a small west Texas town called Nugent, and that it dealt with the idea of family secrets. Having grown up with a mother who is a chronic road-tripper, and is herself from a small Texas town, I have always been slightly fascinated by them in a way that a lot of people are fascinated by train wrecks: you don't ever want to be a part of one, but they are fascinating to observe.
The Situation: Dr. Sarah Pelton is now a professor living in Austin, Texas, and has become somewhat removed from her remaining brothers, Kurt and Hugh. On the very first page of the book, we learn that her second-oldest brother, Sam, committed suicide years ago, and Sarah asserts that his death marked a sort of end to her life as well. Now Sarah is cranky and somewhat of a recluse, and likes it that way. She then proceeds to tell the story of her upbringing, starting in 1958 and moving up until Sam's death. In this narrative, the reader meets Sarah's parents and grandparents, Sam, Sam's girlfriend and eventual wife, and a range of other characters that make up the story of Sarah's childhood.
The Problem: These memories come up because Sarah and her brothers are attempting to sell their parent's place in Nugent, as well as their beach property on the coast. But that isn't the real issue though. The real issue is that the daughter of Sam's widow needs a kidney transplant, and while the kidney has been located and secured, the money has not. On a shaky suicide note, Sam had left everything he had to his widow, which would include his share from the sell of their parent's property, but his brothers aren't willing to give it all up. Without the surgery, the girl will most definitely die, and while Sarah may be cranky and not care much for people, this development causes her to dig deep into her families past, but mostly Sam's life. She has always attributed Sam to being the one who turned her into a truth finder, but the more she goes over her family's history, the more truth she realizes she somehow missed along the way.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a contemporary fiction book that felt to me like a coming of age story. It is very much about the idea of family, what makes a family, family secrets, identity, Texas history, Native American history, and the idea of the truth and its place in our lives. At the Texas book festival, Cuba shared that she also had a brother who committed suicide, and much like Sarah, it took her some time to heal from that. The book has a 20-year publication history. And while the story leads up to this final reveal of Sam's secret, Cuba admits that this wasn't the initial intention, and when she decided that it would be, a few of the clues the reader finds along the way were already written in.
My Verdict: This is a complex, well-written story that isn't just about family secrets and growing up in small-town Texas. This story shows the complex issues and trials that can come out of any family, dysfunctional or otherwise, and how the ideals of different generations can rub each other the wrong way. Having said that, I enjoyed the majority of the book a great deal, but there were some parts that just got weird. At a few points, the discussion of Native American tribes and their history just became too much and too over my head for the story to be enjoyable. And some of the interactions between modern-day Sarah and her would-be niece weren't quite believable. And while the secret doesn't exactly come easily, its reveal seems disconnected from the rest of the story. It is an excellent study on small town Texas life from the middle of the 20th century through today, but some parts felt alienating and were hard to relate to.
Favorite Moment: When present-day Sarah expresses her disgust with the festivities of Spirit Day at the college she teaches and explains her method for being seen by the administrators as quickly as possibly so she can leave. Since they saw her for that brief moment, they'll think she attended, when really she spent almost the whole time in her office, avoiding it.
Favorite Character: Even though he is a minor character at best, I have chosen Sarah's younger brother Hugh. For most of the stories about their childhood, he is attempting to remain unseen while everyone else has their problems and conflicts around him. And as he gets older, not much has changed, even though he has become a key player in selling his parent's estate and dealing with Sam's widow. He seems to be an advocate of the keep-your-mouth-shut method, and that is a method I can get behind.
Recommended Reading: I will recommend an actual study about small-town Texas living, Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby. Valby is a journalist who spends a significant amount of time in Utopia, Texas, getting to know the residents and history of this tiny community. It is incredibly interesting how it isn't necessary to go half-way around the world in order to find people completely different from yourself.