STARRED REVIEW
May 09, 2017

A community bound by loss

By Bryn Chancellor

The little town of Sycamore, Arizona, the locale of Bryn Chancellor’s eponymous novel, is a place where the American Dream goes to die. Many of the denizens are there because of failure: the failures of marriages, families, relationships, careers they thought would be brilliant and have come to nothing. Ironically, they fetched up in Sycamore just to find versions of the same old failures and deferred dreams lying in wait for them. Children who are born there long to leave.

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The little town of Sycamore, Arizona, the locale of Bryn Chancellor’s eponymous novel, is a place where the American Dream goes to die. Many of the denizens are there because of failure: the failures of marriages, families, relationships, careers they thought would be brilliant and have come to nothing. Ironically, they fetched up in Sycamore just to find versions of the same old failures and deferred dreams lying in wait for them. Children who are born there long to leave.

Few know this better than Jess Winters and her mother, Maud, who’ve fled to Sycamore to escape the fallout of a divorce that’s left them struggling both financially and emotionally. When the book opens, Jess is nearly 16 and already wants to be shut of the place where she’s lived for less than 24 hours. Restlessness plagues Jess even when she finds friends and boyfriends and discards them and makes that one last mistake. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that in the first chapter Jess is alive and by the second chapter, set some 18 years later, she’s not.

Much of the rest of the story of Sycamore is told by its women. In scenes that move between 1991 and 2009, we hear from tall, beautiful, fractious Jess; her first bestie, Angie Juarez, who’s blossoming lesbianism was too much for their friendship to bear; Jess’ next best friend, Dani, a brilliant girl whose ambitions are wrecked by betrayal; Esther, the high school teacher turned baker; and Rachel, Dani’s whirligig of a mother. The men around them strive to be decent; they often fail. In one case, the failure can’t be forgiven.

But Chancellor’s compassion for her characters balances their unwillingness to forgive (the event at the novel’s core wasn’t as bad as it could have been, after all) with imperfect impulses to connect and understand. Sycamore is a sad, knowing and timely book.

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Sycamore

Sycamore

By Bryn Chancellor
Harper
ISBN 9780062661098

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