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March 21, 2013

Roost by Ali Bryan

roostThe first thing you need to know about this book whose blurb promises “laugh out loud funny” is that I really did. The first time it happened, I was in the bathtub (where I am often found these days), where the acoustics amplified my hysterics in a fashion most disturbing for the rest of my household. The triggering line was, “I even tried to remind her that you borrowed her pants.”

The second thing is that once I’d finished reading this book, I wasn’t done with it yet. It’s a light and funny read, not necessarily what you’d imagine might resonate, but then I found I kept bringing it up in conversation. “That happened in Roost!” I’d exclaim. My kid would do something funny and I’d shake my head: “Just like Roost!” I’d say.

And the third thing was that when my husband finished reading Fahrenheit 451 the other day and didn’t know what to read next, I put Roost into his hands, that book I kept talking about. He started laughing out loud way earlier on than I did, and I’m enjoying that he’s enjoying it so much.

It’s a hard (and rare) balance to strike, a book that is as funny as it is smart, and I find this can be particularly the case with books by and about women, partly because critics tend to judge the concerns of womanhood as insubstantial anyway and also because writers do have a tendency to bring forth humour at the expense of their female protagonist’s strength and intelligence–see “And the trouble(?) with comic heroines”.

But Ali Byran gets it right in Roost, her first novel, the story of of Claudia who would have failed as a domestic goddess, if she’d ever thought about being a contender. She works full time, is the single mom of two kids whose irrepressible spirits are exhausting to behold, and has the example of her brother’s perfect family to compare her own to whenever she’s required to feel inadequate, which is often.

The dynamics shift though when Claudia’s mother suddenly dies, and the hapless Claudia is left to pick up the pieces of her extended family by sole virtue of being the daughter. Her father as a widow is faring disastrously, her brother is consumed by his wife’s own problems (post-partum depression, for which he has zero understanding or sensitivity), and things around her own home are as chaotic as ever. Moreover, her ex-partner is beginning to resist being at Claudia’s beck and call, and she sees that her reliance upon him for support is going to have to change.

Roost is funny for its frank portrayal of domestic life, in the tradition of Erma Bombeck or Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections. Claudia’s kids are wonderfully realized and irritatingly present in true toddler fashion, nonsensical, so weird, sticky and lovable. But this novel is more than that: Claudia herself is fantastically real as well, and fittingly,  “mother” is only one dimension of her identity. Bryan is in command of her material, sometimes unbelievably–I loved when Claudia on a business trip ends up with someone else’s suitcase, ends up wearing the clothes inside out of desperation, except they’re maternity clothes. This all could been gone terribly wrong, been much more silly than meaningful, but Bryan makes it work, and the scene where Claudia and the suitcase owner finally connect, the ever-awesome Claudia stepping up with emergency lactation consulting, was incredibly moving (and funny, of course).

What I love best about this novel is that nobody ever changes. There is no great revelations. Claudia’s brother is still the jerk he was when the novel began, there is no fix for her father’s heartache, and even Claudia begins to see that her ex is moving away into a life of his own. But all the same, it’s okay, or it’s going to be. This is not a How the Failed Housewife Learned to Get Along With the Vacuum kind of tale, but instead it’s about how Claudia learns to draw on her reserves, that herself exactly as she is has the capacity to roll with the punches better than anyone else. When life is messy, bumpy and hard, it’s because that’s what life is, and not because you’re doing it wrong.

3 thoughts on “Roost by Ali Bryan”

  1. Melwyk says:

    Such a great review. This book sounds funny and fascinating, and then your last line just got me. Such a perfect summation of everything.

  2. I’m so glad I read your review and picked up this book, because it is delighting me. Thanks!

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