April Simone is the damaged character at the centre of Tess Callahan’s first novel, April & Oliver. She’s the sort of twenty-something girl you want to shake and hug because her decision-making skills have been compromised. (I was going to say somewhere along the road to adulthood, but once you know her story – you know exactly where it happened). We meet her younger, much adored, brother Buddy, first. But we don’t get to spend much time with him because he’s killed in a car accident:
He wishes he could let her know that what’s happening now doesn’t hurt at all. He’s fine. A veil of snow shrouds the windshield. Buddy feels a growing pause between each breath, like a stride lengthening, an aperture opening by increments, until at last he slips through.
And then we meet Oliver, her cousin – although they are not linked by blood. (They sort of share a grandmother because their fathers had been step-brothers through Nana’s second marriage. I think.) April and Oliver had been best friends as children and teenagers, but they have been estranged for the last several years. Oliver moved away and they just lost touch. Buddy’s funeral brings them back together – but their reunion is anything but happy.
Every conversation between April and Oliver is barbed and sexually charged. While Oliver certainly seems like the one who has it all together (he’s a law student, engaged to the beautiful and selfless, Bernadette), the longer he spends with April the more his carefully constructed life seems to unravel.
April tells him: “I know your problem, Oliver. In your head is a girl who doesn’t exist.”
Bernadette is all too aware of April’s magnetic pull. “Is there anything else I should know about?” she queries. “It was never like that,” Oliver answers. But it’s a lie because between April and Oliver it’s always been like that and denying it is perhaps part of the problem.
But April is a mess. She’s recently invoked a no contact order against her boyfriend, TJ – a man with a horrific past who is both scary and somehow sympathetic. She lives in a dump of an apartment, has a crap job and has so many skeletons in her closet, it’s no wonder she pushes Oliver away. He knows her too well.
They know each other too well, and their ability to peer into each other’s dark corners both antagonizes and comforts them.
April & Oliver is beautifully written; I’ll give it that. And when I finished the book I did feel satisfied despite its ambiguous ending. Sometimes, I admit, I did find the book frustrating – but perhaps I was meant to. I am a sucker for angst, though, and April & Oliver has that in spades.