I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about Laura Moriarty’s debut novel, The Center of Everything, when I began reading it. The cover and inside pages were slathered with praise. This sort of adulation always leaves me on edge and wondering whether the book is really worthy, as I hate being told by marketeers how to think about something or how I should feel about it. And yet, in this case, I would have to say that the adulation was correct, and maybe even not as high-praise as it should be.
Told from the POV of Evelyn Bucknow in Kerrville, Kansas, who ages from 10 to 18 as the story progresses, the narrative navigates through the Reagan years in America, including the beginning awareness of AIDs, the demonization of welfare moms (of which Evelyn’s mother is one), Nancy Reagan’s “Just say NO to drugs” campaign, an Evangelical backlash against teaching evolution in schools, an increase of poverty and decrease of federal aid, teenage pregnancy, the Iran-Contra scandal, etc. etc. And what we see is that these times are not so very different as the ones we live in now. But this book is about more than politics and social status, it is also about coming of age, falling in love, learning to forgive.
As Evelyn witnesses the changes in the world around her, her center branches out from her mother, to Kansas, to Jesus, to the Earth, to the Universe and back again as she learns that inequity is not written in stone, that we can overcome our hardships, and that we can believe in more than one thing and still love those who think the answers are black or white:
He had stood on a chair one day and moved the little Earth in his classroom around the electric sun, his hand clutching the bottom like he was changing a lightbulb. He kept it tilted on its axis, so we could see how sometimes, depending on where the Earth was in its orbit, the light and heat fo the sun would shine more brightly on the Northern Hemisphere, and then later, more on the Southern. If the Earth weren’t tilted like this, he said, there wouldn’t be seasons. He made the earth straight up and down and moved it around the sun to show us what this would look like, the band of light around the equator unchanging as he moved around the room. But this way, he said, tilting it back, everybody gets some light.
This is not simply a story told of a child growing up in the Midwest in the 80s, it goes deeper than that as Moriarty weaves metaphor and allusion so subtly that they might be missed to show us how it feels to be this child, the one wanting, on the outside. And with that we are brought back to a place where we might have been that one watching as the boy she loves falls in love with her best friend, the pretty girl:
Travis rolls his eyes, unwrapping his hamburger. He offers us his french fries, and I notice, the way you notice that you might be coming down with a sore throat but maybe not, that he keeps looking at Deena.
And it is also the story of a how Evelyn comes to love her mother again, despite her faults. How she witnesses her mother’s rebirth as she teaches her son, Evelyn’s little brother, how to communicate:
There is ice cream and chocolate syrup on the carpet, and it will be difficult to clean. But I say nothing. I know this is amazing, what I am seeing before me. It is just a small thing, him feeding himself, just a little something he has learned, something she has taught him.
But if she could teach him this, then there is no telling what else is there, wrapped up inside him like a present, and outside of him as well.
More than just the story, what I admired about this book was Moriarty’s skill as a writer. I was quite taken not only with her ability to deliver a flawless child narrator but also to add so much physicality to the text, writing movement so that it is completely visible. There were just a few bumps along the road of this book (maybe where the editing could have been stronger, cutting out such phrases as “wave of nausea”–come on, people! Can we not let “wave of nausea” and bile rising in throats go??? Is there not something fresher we can use to describe wanting to throw up???) but on the whole I found this book incredibly strong. In fact, this book touched so many of my personal hotspots that I found it hard to break away from it in the end.