Friday, November 12, 2010

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez — 288 pgs


Book CoverCole is living in a world ravaged by disease. In a future not far removed from our own, all hell has broken loose and a pandemic flu virus has decimated the world population. After having lost both his parents to the illness and barely surviving it himself, Cole is placed in an orphanage and forgotten. But just when he's started to give up hope, he begins to receive visits from an evangelical pastor who wants to take him home and arrange for an adoption. Cole's parents having been fierce atheists, he knows nothing about organized religion and so finds himself at a crossroads in relation to his spiritual leanings. Though Cole is initially skeptical and cold, he does leave the orphanage with Pastor Wyatt and comes to value life in the small community called Salvation City. Pastor Wyatt acts as a loving father to Cole and his wife, Tracy, also takes him into her heart. Cole is home schooled and begins attending worship services and learning the bible in a perfunctory way, creating relationships in a town that seems to have escaped the more dire consequences of the pandemic. But although Cole is outward happy in this setting, he can't help the anger and fear he feels as an adolescent in flux, and when a visitor to Salvation City comes looking for the forgotten boy, Cole has to decide which path he will eventually walk. Will Cole stay with the loving pastor and his extended family, growing up to be a fixture of the church? Or will he take his chances in a world far different than the one he's known, essentially giving up his safety for his freedom? Sigrid Nunez explores these complicated issues in Salvation City with sensitivity and clarity, leaving readers to puzzle out the complexities of a new world scoured by infirmity and madness, where nothing is as it once was.

This is the second YA1 book I've read in as many months, and while I like getting a feel for the genre and think YA books hold a lot of appeal to me as a reader, this one didn't meet with as much success as the first book I tried. I really liked the premise and the storytelling and felt that the plot posed a lot of interesting questions to the reader, but one thing that definitely rubbed me the wrong way was the unending angst of the protagonist, Cole. I've said before that I don't deal well with too many angst issues in the books I read, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I have two teenagers at home and I get my recommended dose of angst daily, thank you very much. Too much angst isn't edgy or complicated, it's just tiresome. When it's repetitive, like it is here, it can be frustrating to read.

In a series of flashbacks, we meet Cole and his parents. Cole is unendingly angry with them for all sorts of reasons that I could never quite fathom. He doesn't want his mom to hug him or his dad to take an interest in the things he does. He hates to read books. When the pandemic hits, Cole is left with even more anger then before and becomes a ward of the state as an orphan. There was never sufficient explanation as to why Cole was so angry; he just was, which was frustrating. At times I could accept this anger as the due process of being a teenager, and at times Cole's anger was justified. The problem was that for most of the book, he veered from ambivalence to anger in a way that I found grating. In later sections, Cole becomes a more understanding person and starts to let his heart open to the possibility of love that Pastor Wyatt and his wife want to provide, but by that point, I was annoyed with Cole and couldn't get in line with his new transformation.

This book deals very with religion and spirituality in a very interesting way. The residents of Salvation City are spiritual people but they aren't goody-goodies. They have the same problems as everyone else does and they deal with them in much the same way. Though at times they can be naive, they are, on the whole, well adjusted and decent people. There is some talk of Pastor Wyatt engaging in acts of aggressive proselytizing, but for the most part, he's just a man who wants to do the right thing and be good to those around him. As Cole becomes closer to him, he finds in Pastor Wyatt a man that he comes to feel is a father to him. Later, Cole begins to find this relationship suspect (no surprise there) and feels that he may have been misled by the pastor and his wife. This spurs him to think about leaving Salvation City behind for a chancier future. This is another thing I didn't really understand. Cole seemed to be happy and was adjusting well, and then all of a sudden, he takes a different viewpoint. I'm well aware that this shift in attitude came from a visit from an unexpected quarter, but it seemed simple to see that Cole was living a good life and was very loved by the people around him. Why did he want to leave all that? Again, I blame the angst.

There were some points on which I understood what Cole was going through. When he begins to question a God that would let his mother and father perish because they were not saved, I could empathize with his fear and confusion. What afterlife awaits those who are not believers? I've asked myself this question many times, and found that I was just as worried and apprehensive when Nunez explored this issue as when I had studied it on my own. It's a tough thing to confront the gray issues of your spirituality and Nunez does this exceptionally well. I didn't get the feeling that she was making judgements, just exploring issues that seem to be difficult for a lot of people to understand. I have to say that I'm of the mind that the God I believe in doesn't make those kinds of distinctions, but again, the logic behind these questions seems valid to me.

While I had some very troublesome issues with this book, I feel that the writing and subject matter were presented very well. Aside from my reactions to Cole, this was a book that made me think about some rather interesting issues regarding religion. I wouldn't exactly call it dystopian literature, as it's packaging suggests, and would have to say that this book was more of a character study. So while there was a lot going on, it really felt more of a character driven read than a plot driven one. If you're not troubled by the angst that so clearly seems to be a problem with me, you might enjoy this read.

1 The author asserts that this is not a Young Adult title. Noted.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

22 comments:

TheBookGirl said...

Wonderful review :)

I was surprised that this is actually a YA title. From your description, it seems like a novel for mature audiences; the themes are quite profound and the questions raised are not the sort usually posed in books for a younger market.
In one respect, I am glad these days to see any YA title that does not have a vampire, werewolf or other paranomal element, but I am curious if you thought that this might be beyond the appreciation of at least the younger end of the YA audience?

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I was waiting for some reviews on this one, before I read it. I did not think the reviews would all be 5 stars, but I still think I might like it. Unfortunately, it must wait until 2011. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Zibilee said...

BookGirl,

While this book is intended for a YA audience, you bring up some good points that I didn't mention in my review. Some of the concepts in this story are very heavy, and it leads me to believe that this book would be better suited to readers at the end of the YA spectrum. I would have to say this this book is probably meant for an audience or around 15 and up. Mostly I say this because there are some pretty advanced thoughts about religion in it, and I think that it might just go over the heads of younger readers. Thanks for the insightful comment and question!

Steph said...

I had no idea that this was a YA novel! I've never read anything by Sigrid Nunez, but I've heard great things about her; I have a copy of The Last of Her Kind which is supposed to be amazing. It sounds like she's an author who is not afraid to tackle hard questions!

Amy said...

Too bad that this one didn't do it for you zibilee. It does sound rather confusing and simplistic in not explaining his anger or reasoning behind his actions. I will avoid it thanks!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I am with you on the angst, girlfriend. I have more than enough of that in my house. I don't need to read about more of it. Unless a book gives me solutions to deal with angst, I'll prefer to pass!

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I didn't realize this book was young adult. The premise sounds fascinating to me, but its response has been rather lukewarm. I'm still on the fence about this one, but thanks for your thoughtful review.

Audra said...

I too didn't realize this is a YA novel -- I just got (from Fiction @ bookstore, as it were). I'm a diehard Nunez fan so I'm intensely intensely excited about this one.

I'm surprised to hear your thoughts about the angst; I think Nunez is normally v deft with the intense emotions of loss and heartache, etc (The Last of Her Kind is just perfect in that regard).

Suko said...

Interesting review, Zibilee, and well written as always. I don't read a lot of YA books, but once in a while I do. I'm not sure if I'd enjoy this one.

sigrid nunez said...

I am the author of this book and just want to let you all know that it is in fact NOT a YA novel, was never intended to be one, and was not published as one. I'm not sure how this misunderstanding occurred, but I'm glad to have a chance to correct it.

Zibilee said...

Ms. Nunez, I am so glad you cleared this up for me! I think my mistake in believing this book was targeted towards a YA audience stemmed from other reviews I had read, and because of the fact that the book focuses so tightly on a young adult as the protagonist. A lot of the book had a similar feel to some of the YA that I have seen out there, but I do agree that it deals with some pretty mature themes, and can certainly understand that it does not fall into the YA genre. Your comment does clear up some questions I had about the book, so I am glad to have had you weigh in on this issue.

Trisha said...

It sounds like the book tackles fascinating topics, but like you, I can get very annoyed with the overly angsty in YAL. I do have this one on my shelves from BEA, but I'm thinking I'll worry a bit less about reading it.

S. Krishna said...

Ok, I had NO idea this was YA (apparently like many of the other commenters). I do want to read it, but I think I'll wait awhile. I try to space out YA reads because if I don't, I don't enjoy them quite as much.

sigrid nunez said...

Let me try this again. I'm the author of this book and as I said in an earlier comment, this is NOT a YA novel and was not published as a YA novel. It would be much appreciated if this error, which is a serious one, were corrected.

Erin said...

A great, thorough review!

I read this book a few months back. I thought it was well written and that many issues were explored in thoughtful ways; I just wasn't interested so much in the story. I didn't particularly like Cole. As you said, he was kind of angsty. So, I thought it was a well-done book, just not one for me!

Lenore said...

I think Heather may have gotten the impression that this is YA because I reviewed it on my blog, and I do review mainly YA fiction. That combined with the age of the protagonist - and the fact that I did not clearly state that it is NOT in fact YA, may have led to the misunderstanding.

Aarti said...

I HATE angsty books, too! That's why sometimes YA can be very frustrating to me. Perhaps I misremember, but I don't think that I was that angsty as a teenager. Or maybe I was and just didn't spew it all over my conversations with everyone? I don't know. I suppose I've always been pretty pragmatic, so perhaps I don't have that much sympathy for the drama...

bermudaonion said...

When I read too much angst, I can't help but think "get over yourself already!" I know a lot of people live for that, though, so I bet this book will have a good audience base.

Literary Feline said...

Thank you for another insightful review, Heather! This isn't likely a book I would pick up to read but it sounds like it raises several interesting points worth delving into.

Amy said...

Such a well thought out review! I've been interested in this book, but I think I'll hold off on it.

Jenners said...

Funny that the author states it isn't an YA book (which I am hit and miss with ... I struggle with that whole label to begin with).

It does sound dystopian though.

Nymeth said...

Despite your issues with this one, I have to say that the premise really appeals to me. I might give it a try at some point.

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