Lesley Kagen returns to Milwaukee and her O'Malley sisters - Troo and Sally - in the sequel to Whistling in the Dark. But, if like me, you are just discovering the wonderfulness that is Lesley Kagen, you needn't worry about reading Whistling in the Dark first. You'll likely want to return to it after experiencing the summer exploits of these "Irish twins" as they fret over a town bully who's escaped from reform school, a series of home invasions, a run-away orphan, their mother's annulment and the popular parish priest who just doesn't sit right with Sally. Narrated by Kagen, herself, the summer of 1959 comes alive through the eyes of Sally with a realism rarely, if ever, so astutely rendered by an adult.
Sally has been saddled with the responsibility of looking after Troo. Her father asked this of her shortly before he died of injuries from a car accident. The young, impressionable and devastated Sally promised her father, and she fully intends to live up to that promise. Only Troo is a hard one to keep pinned down and out of trouble. Troo is spirited and rebellious and regularly finding herself in hot water.
Kagen's characters are so profoundly drawn readers will likely recognize younger versions of themselves and friends they knew growing up. Kagen doesn't just pull readers into her story, she pulls them back into their own stories - to 'Ghost in the Graveyard,' penny candy, soda fountains and Breck girls. Making that kind of connection with a book turns the story into something far more memorable than simple entertainment.
Most readers are familiar with the eye rolls and sarcastic tones of the younger lots. We used those devices ourselves and have watched our children discover them as well. In her narration of Good Graces, Kagen gives voice to the growing pains of adolescence as well at the compassion of caring adults, the self-centered obsession of egotists, the all-consuming regret of the remorseful. And on top of everything else, she transports us back to 1959 Small-Town USA. The sights of a Fourth of July fireworks display, sounds of the playground, smells of picnics and zoos and summer camp, all rolled into an incredible listening experience.
The author's name listed as the audiobook's narrator often gives cause for dread, but in the case of Good Graces, I don't believe another narrator could have done even half as well as Kagen, a former radio DJ, commercial voice and television actress. All the nuances to which Kagen is so intimately attuned deliver their desired effects through her professional training and her obvious adoration of the world and its inhabitants she's created.
There is a richness to Kagen's writing, a richness that remembers the innocence and clarity of childhood:
"It's so hard to lose someone you love. Our hearts growl for Daddy the same way our tummies do when we're hungry. It must be even worse for Mr. Kenfield. I know my daddy's gone forever in the deep blue of the western sky. I'll never hear the sound of his voice again or feel his late-day whiskers on my cheek or spend time after supper curled up on his lap listening to his happy shouts when Hank Aaron hits a homer on the radio. But Mr. Kenfield's daughter is not dead. She's out there somewhere. I bet if my old neighbor had it to do all over again, he wouldn't have sent Dottie away to the unwed mothers' home the way the church told him to do."
And there's a warm humor that makes you laugh out loud and reminisce:
"'You've got the wrong idea about our church,' I tell Ethel. 'You've only been up there for funerals. You don't know how bad it can get.'
'Mmmmm...hmmmm.' In southern, that means, Go on, tell me more.
'You gotta starve yourself for hours before you receive Holy Communion.' Ethel would especially not like that part. She adores a big country breakfast with ham first thing every morning. She wouldn't like the taste of the body and blood of Christ. He's really bland. (I'm too nervous to bring this up to anybody who might know the answer, but isn't swallowing down Jesus kinda like being a cannibal?) 'And the nuns, they got ways of torturin' people that are worse than the Red Chinese.'"
Good Graces encapsulates all the elements of a good book by my reading standards: endearing characters, rich experiences, suspenseful plot elements, intelligent humor and sincerity. I can't believe it took me this long to discover Lesley Kagen's work, but I'm extremely thankful I finally did.
Good Graces is without a doubt, the audiobook highlight of my year. There simply wasn't a bad element to the production, not even a mediocre one. It is superb at every turn and I can't recommend it highly enough. This would be a fantastic audiobook for someone just considering the possibility of audiobooks for themselves.
Good Graces is available on audio download from AudioGo (ISBN: 978-1-609-98525-7) and in print from Dutton (ISBN: 978-0-525-95238-1)