Review by Amy Feltman
Woke Up Lonely, Fiona Maazel
Here’s a disclaimer, front and center: I was in Fiona Maazel’s class this semester at Columbia. The topic of our seminar was about keeping readers interested in narratives; many strategies were discussed. Have something creepy and intriguing happen in the first paragraph—be elusive. Or don’t be elusive, tell the readers exactly why the barn burned down and then make us care about it. But then there are the books in which content blindsides well-executed craft and style, and this is one of those. Is there a prostitution center and casino only accessible through underground tunnels in Cincinnati, Ohio? Sure. Is there a Caucasian woman dressed as a Korean trying to impersonate a Caucasian woman, slyly navigating North Korea in search of her ex-husband, the most mild-mannered cult leader of all time? Yup. Everything is wildly unique and foreign and heart-wrenchingly nonchalant in announcing its unique- and foreignness, and that is enough to keep me hooked. All the elements of this novel that could usher in clichés—broken family, cuckolded husband, a deeply unfortunate woman who gets slammed with cancer, sexual abuse, and unrequited love—instead somersault through our expectations. Maazel has created a world that is all her own.
From the first two sentences, the reader is struck by alienation and façade that feature strongly throughout the book: “They were together. In their way.” Their way, of course, signifies to us—particularly in hindsight—that this group of characters is closer to the cast of NBC’s Community than the lovable nuclear family of Leave it to Beaver. The heart of the novel centers on the figure of Thurlow Dan: father of Ida; ex-husband of Esme; founder of the ubiquitous cult, the Helix, which offers a “cure” for loneliness for its loyal members. If the Helix sounds utopian and strangely appealing, that’s because it is. “Tell me something real,” Thurlow Dan tells his followers. “Talk to each other… and start feeling better.” Thurlow, who comes across as the kind of guy who would wear socks with mismatching flip flops, is the opposite of the prototypical cult leader. He’s not a good father or a good husband, but his fuck-ups have the aftertaste of good intentions. His imagined ten-year reunion with his daughter involves a three-sentence meditation on which dessert would be most irresistible. He’s perpetually trying out for a play, and that play is a modern-day salvation: the mending of the nuclear family. Forgiveness.
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