Mara, the twenty-something narrator of Danielle Younge-Ullman’s debut novel, Falling Under, is a hot mess. An artist who can barely leave the house except to have violent sex with a guy called Erik, Mara is clearly suffering from the cumulative effects of a troubled childhood, a stalled career and a tragic love affair.
Love always starts out well. There’s the chemistry, the lust, the gushy, dizzy, cuddly, branch-eating phase, the wonder, the miracle of togetherness. And then familiarity creeps in, followed by disappointment, disillusionment, fear. Inevitably there is silence, screaming, betrayal, the wrenching ugly truth when you look at each other and know that your love has turned to disgust, despair, boredom, hate. All happiness gone, all rotten, all rotting.
Younge-Ullman employs two narrative perspectives in the novel. When Mara is reliving her childhood, her parents’ messy divorce and its fallout, she speaks in the second person: “When you reach out to touch your shiny new bike, Mommy might start yelling at Daddy about how dare he spend their money and how you’re only five and what do you need a new bike for anyway?” The second person works really well here because Mara’s childhood, although not abusive per se, scars her emotionally and clearly hinders her ability to form healthy attachments to people as she grows up. The second person narration is both intensely personal and somehow distancing at the same time.
The rest of the novel is first person narration and Mara’s black humour, self-doubt and neurosis is on full display. The reader will traipse though Mara’s life, often unwillingly, as she negotiates the thorny relationship with her mom, her co-dependent relationship with her dad and, miraculously, a new relationship with Hugo. But none of it is easy for Mara. She just doesn’t have the skills. She is sure, as was Chicken Little, that the sky is about to fall.
He would never understand how being happy makes you sad. How the happier you are the more you know the sky is about to explode into tiny, sparkling shards of glass that will pick up speed as they fall to the earth and slice right through you leaving your skin with little holes in it, leaving your heart bleeding.
Mara is, despite her quirks, a likable character. And Falling Under is a good book. But I can’t say that I finished it feeling wholly satisfied. Was it really necessary to make all the dangling and complicated threads of Mara’s life into a beautiful cat’s cradle in the end? Maybe – but given her problems, I wouldn’t have minded a little less happily-ever-after.