March 15, 2009
BOOK REVIEW: Debut Novel 'Precious' Explores Complex Issues of Marriage, Children, Friends and Neighbors
By David M. Kinchen Book Critic
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. -- Leo Tolstoy, "Anna Karenina"
It's the summer of 1978 in a Pennsylvania manufacturing town not far from the New Jersey state line and everything is disintegrating in the family of Frank and Natalia Kisch in Sandra Novack's debut novel "Precious" (Random House, 288 pages, $25).
Natalia Kisch, 42, is about to run off to Italy with an older doctor, leaving her steelworker husband Frank to care for their daughters Eva, 17, and Sissy, 9. When Natalia leaves, he's devastated and finds it almost impossible to hold the family together. He delegates Eva to take care of Sissy, a role she's not ready or willing to assume.
Add in Eva's affair with married high school teacher Peter Fulton and the disappearance of Sissy's best friend, 10-year-old Vicki Anderson and the problems of the Kisch household intertwine with those of Vicki's widowed mom Ginny.
The problems of the Kisches, the Andersons and their neighbors make "Precious" an ideal book for a book club, even if Novack doesn't provide a guide at the end of her novel. I found a good generic guide on
Natalia's background as a gypsy child whose birth mother was murdered by the Nazis adds an additional level of complexity, making this beautifully written novel even better. Natalia was adopted by a German woman who settled in the town.
The teen-age Natalia found the love of her life -- or so it seemed for many years -- when she met Frank Kisch in high school. Their marriage seemed to be idyllic as their raised their two daughters, but Natalia finds little satisfaction in the role of a traditional stay-at-home mom. Tension increases as Eva grows up and displays what Natalia believes is a willful disregard of the family's rules. Frank sees a startling similarity of his teen-age daughter to the young Natalia he fell in love with.
Authors hate to be compared to other writers, but I found echoes of Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Tyler in the themes Novack explores in "Precious." Now that I've said that, I must emphasize that Sandra Novack displays her own distinctive voice in "Precious."
The return of Natalia brings the tension in the Kisch household to a boiling point, which spills over when Frank, who works the three-to-eleven p.m. shift at the steel mill, is laid off. Novack is particularly strong in her portrayal of her characters. I'm sure every reader will find people in the novel that are similar to ones in their own experience.
The title is a key to understanding the novel. It's much like "Rosebud" in the classic Orson Welles film "Citizen Kane," so I won't spoil the novel for readers by revealing one of the many meanings of the word.
"Precious" is a powerful, gracefully written, subtly startling work of art. I recommend it for men and women, with the warning that the language is occasionally quite graphic.
* * *
About the Author: Sandra Novack's fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast and Mississippi Review and other publications. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and her story "Memphis" was honored by Stephen King as a "Distinguished Story" in "Best American Short Stories 2007." A collection of Novack's stories is scheduled to be published next year by Random House with the working title "Love and Other Disasters." Author's web site:
Publisher's web site:

Share This Story:   

Return to HNN front page.  Make HNN Your Homepage (IE Users Only)