Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang

Spoiler-free summary:
Taking place in a single day, Maya Lang's debut novel, The Sixteenth of June explores the relationship between the members of a wealthy family in Philadelphia. Leo is the simplistic, humble son who yearns for "normalcy," which, to him is a life away from the gilt and glamour of his mother's world. Stephen, an academic lost inside literary theory and his own theories about himself, loves Leo's fiancĂ©e Nora, a talented opera singer, with a fierce platonic urgency and met her long before Leo came into the picture. These characters and their strange undulating bonds are first introduced to us on the morning of June 16th due to the death of Leo and Stephen's grandmother, and leave us again that evening at a showy,  pretentious family party dedicated to James Joyce's Ulysses. Billed as a social satire, The Sixteenth of June is an amusing, thoughtful look inside the dynamics of family and the dynamics of the mind of the individual.

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I'm going to begin this review by stating that, like many characters in the novel, I haven't actually read Ulysses. Sure, I mean to. I will even go as far as to say, in my best girl scout voice, "I fully intend to read Ulysses." But so does everyone else. Despite not ever having read Ulysses (or any Joyce other than Dubliners) I did not have a hard time understand this novel and picking up the references to Ulysses. In fact, I think not  reading Joyce's most challenging work made reading a novel directly inspired by and descended from it an interesting experience. You will find solidarity with the characters in the novel who haven't read the book, but are celebrating it anyway. You will have to confront yourself with the question, "Why do I want to read that giant thing?"

What I am trying to say is: The plot of Maya Lang's novel stands on its own, but is enriched by references and allusions to Ulysses (and these references can be picked up and understood with a quick skim of the Wikipedia page on Ulysses before reading).

I read The Sixteenth of June while I was reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. They were disturbingly similar. Both involve a love triangle, a best friend figure who is struggling with their religious and sexual identities, pretension in the literary world, mental illness and the way it affects our relationships, wealthy and self-righteous parental figures. They were so similar that I'd continually get confused between the two of them. They even end with pretty much the same conclusion and dynamic between the characters. I decided that the universe was trying to tell me something by bringing both of these books to me at exactly the same time (though I'm not sure what the universe was trying to tell me; Don't go to grad school, maybe? Stay away from the East Coast?) While I am a fan of Eugenides (Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides), I think Maya Lang did it better. Her characters felt more authentic and were genuinely likable where Eugenides's characters were cold and felt like personifications of themes and theories instead of real people. This is impressive considering Lang's story takes place all in one day whereas Eugenides had unlimited time to convince us that his characters were worth reading about.

I thought Maya Lang's description of trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling) was accurate and added a nice layer to Nora, who would have been boring and flat otherwise. I also really enjoyed the dichotomy set up between Nora's parents and Leo and Stephen's.

The Sixteenth of June is a sweet, inventive read. I look forward to seeing what else Maya Lang will offer us.

Buy The Sixteenth of June, available June 3rd, 2014 in hardcover and e-book format from Amazon

Photos: Scribner

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