Broken for You, by Stephanie Kallos is a rare treat, a first novel with profound depth, detailed, individual characters that are extremely compelling, and a theme that permeates the story, deeply layered through every scene.
Wanda Shultz (“Tink”) is a professional stage manager with a deeply broken past. Her mother, Gina, was a highly disturbed artist who left her family because of her emotional instability. Her father, Michael, a Dubliner émigré, was so deeply in love with her that he went searching for her, dropping Wanda off at her aunt Maureen’s place in Chicago at the age of six. She quickly learned the art of negotiation by dealing with her eight cousins, a trait that would serve her well in her profession. When her lover, Peter, leaves her alone in New York and disappears, she is bereft, until she receives a postcard from Seattle with no message. Believing the postcard to be from Peter, she quickly wraps up her life in NYC and departs for Seattle to look for him.
In Seattle, wealthy septuagenarian Margaret Hughes finds out she has a brain tumor. Living alone in the mansion she inherited from her art-dealer father, the revelation prompts her to change her life in a profound way. She puts an ad in the paper seeking a roommate and newly arrived Wanda answers it. She is a bit surprised to find a mansion full of antique porcelain figurines and dishware with such a pedigree that they are literally worth millions of dollars. Wanda gets a job stage managing a production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet and begins looking for Peter, disguising herself as Detective Lorenzini (her mother’s maiden name).
The relationship between these two women is at the heart of the novel, but really it is their individual broken pasts and presents that drive the story. As their lives intertwine and they search for ways to deal with their broken lives, a friendship evolves that runs far deeper. They begin to pick up other people with broken lives to live in the mansion with them and become a family, not in the traditional sense, but in the way that modern families evolve–made of friends, ex-lovers, strangers just weird enough to relate to you, and other broken souls whose path intersects yours.
There’s a great deal of love in this novel, but it is not easy love. It’s love that you have to work for, love that you have to assemble from the broken parts of you lying around on the grass, love that regenerates like a chopped off tail. It’s a book that will take you into this family and make you a part of it through a disengaged narrator that might be part you-part author, a voice that bridges the distance between us.
If someone pressed me to find a flaw in this book, I’d have to squirm and admit that it is a little bit long, like a terrific two hours and fifteen minute movie that probably should have been cut to one hour and forty-five minutes, but that the director loved so much she left in a few extra scenes. Make no mistake, there are great movies and great novels that are a little long, but if I’ve learned anything in the business of writing it is that the author and/or a skilled editor sometimes needs to take the helm and trim that wonderful artistic work just a bit.
That being said, this is among the best and most engaging novels I’ve read in the last ten years. In places, I wept in the beauty of the writing. I’ve now been writing myself for three years and this novel is inspiring me to work harder and do better. I think that everyone who has even a modest interest in contemporary literature needs to read this novel. In one swift move, Stephanie Kallos has joined the elite in her field. I have no hesitation in mentioning her in the same breath as Barbara Kingsolver–she is that good!
Read this book!