The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Falconer
The Falconer
by Dana Czapnik

Paperback (8 Oct 2019), 304 pages.
Publisher: Washington Square Press
ISBN-13: 9781501193231
Genres
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Critics:
  

Told in vibrant, quicksilver prose, The Falconer is a coming-of-age story, providing a snapshot of the city and America through the eyes of the children of the baby boomers grappling with privilege and the fading of radical hopes.

New York, 1993. Seventeen-year-old Lucy Adler, a street-smart, trash-talking baller, is often the only girl on the public courts. At turns quixotic and cynical, insecure and self-possessed, Lucy is in unrequited love with her best friend and pick-up teammate Percy, scion to a prominent New York family who insists he wishes to resist upper crust fate.

As she navigates this complex relationship with all its youthful heartache, Lucy is seduced by a different kind of life - one less consumed by conventional success and the approval of men. A pair of provocative female artists living in what remains of New York's bohemia invite her into their world, but soon even their paradise begins to show cracks.

Excerpt
The Falconer

The ball is a face. Leathered and weathered and pockmarked and laugh lined. No, it's not a face. It's a big round world, with crevices and ravines slithering across tectonic plates. I bounce the world hard on the blacktop, and it comes back into my hand covered with a fine layer of New York City diamond dust—pavement shards, glass, crystallized exhaust from the West Side Highway—and it feels like a man's stubble, or what I imagine stubble might feel like against my palm, and it's a face again. I bounce the face, and it's back in my hand and it's something else. A sun. A red terrestrial planet. An equidimensional spheroid made of cowhide and filled with nitrogen and oxygen. Whatever it is, whatever I imagine it to be, I know it holds some kind of magical power.

There's Percy on my periphery. Limbs like a wind chime in a hurricane. He's open in the passing lane. Woo woos for the ball. But I got this. I've had the touch all game. I'm dribbling the sun nice and low by my ankles, like it's bobbing over and under the horizon. No way am I passing it. Dude guarding me has the sometime goods of a former college baller. A powerful drive to the basket but knees that only work every other play. No match for the sky walker in me. I'm smaller but I'm way quicker, with a scary first step and lean, taut muscles I've got absolute faith in.

I take him on easy. Leave him flat-footed and salty as I blow by. I pull up and launch a rainbow from a spot in the low atmosphere where gravity is diluted. The red planet flies through the chainlink net without touching a thing. As though it's been sucked into the perfect center of a black hole. Thwip. Bounces on the blacktop court nice and gentle. Puts a period on the pickup game win.

My man just stands there, hands on his hips, shaking his head, looking at me. Grinning goofy. Sweat, like, seriously pouring off his face. Inner me is hard-core gloating. But I'm keeping it cool on the outside. I love schooling geezers who mistake me for an easy mark.

"Girl," he goes, "you the real thing, you the real thing," and he takes my hand and pulls my whole body into his, smacks my back three times, giving me a genuine but sweaty bro hug.

There's only one place in the whole universe where a pizza bagel—a Jewish and Italian mutt-girl—might get that exact compliment from a middle-aged black guy: 40 degrees latitude and -73 degrees longitude. Find it on your atlas.

"Ball hog," Percy shouts as he ambles over. Making music as he moves. He dangles his lily-white arm with its random pale brown freckle clusters over my shoulders and whines, "I was open, man."

So was I. But all I do is smirk at him as if to say, Tough shit. Jackass looks even better to me when he's pissed. Even with his patchy, scraggly attempt at a beard and the greasy hair he's growing out from the bowl cut he's had since he was five. Something about that potent combo of sweat and Drakkar Noir and competitiveness just does it for me.

The old dudes leave, citing the obvious excuses: Gotta get home. It's late. The wife. Yeah, whatever. I know the real reason. No fun getting your asses handed to you by a couple of high school kids, especially when one of them is a seventeen-year-old girl.

They take the red spheroid-face-star with them. I met that basketball for the first time only thirty minutes ago but I already know I love it unconditionally, and that it loves me back in a way that no carbon-based life-form ever will. I mourn it as I watch it leave, tucked under my man's arm. I ought not to imbue a ball with so much magic, but when I'm holding one I go from Lucy Adler, invisible girl—lowercase i, lowercase g—to Lucy Adler, Warrior Goddess of Mannahatta, Island of Many Hills. The court is my phone booth. I am transformed.

Percy goes, "I'm up for a little one-on-one action."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Falconer by Dana Czapnik . Copyright © 2019 by Dana Czapnik . Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

New York, 1993. Seventeen-year-old Lucy Adler, a street-smart, trash-talking baller, is often the only girl on the public courts. Lucy's inner life is a contradiction. She's by turns quixotic and cynical, insecure and self-possessed. Despite herself, she is in unrequited love with her best friend and pickup teammate Percy, scion of a prominent New York family who insists he wishes to resist his upper-crust fate.

As Lucy navigates this relationship in all its youthful heartache and prepares for life in the broader world, she begins to question accepted notions of success, bristling against her own hunger for male approval and searching for an authentic way to live and love. She is drawn into the world of a pair of provocative female artists living in what remains of New York's bohemia, but soon even their paradise begins to show cracks.

Told in vibrant, quicksilver prose, The Falconer provides a vivid snapshot of the city's youth as they grapple with privilege and the fading of radical hopes, and paints a captivating portrait of a young woman in the first flush of freedom.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

  1. In the first few pages, we are introduced to the protagonist as she plays basketball. Describe how the author uses this physical scene to bring us into Lucy's inner world. What does the description illuminate about the experience of playing sports as a woman? What does basketball mean to Lucy in particular?
  2. The third chapter begins with snapshots of the Lower East Side of the 1990s as Lucy perceives it. Does her description of the city remind you of the New York you know today? Why or why not? And how does this break in the narrative serve the larger story?
  3. In that same chapter, Lucy tells Violet the story of how she got the white scar on her lip, a self-inflicted attempt to imitate the pretty scar that her classmate Lauren Moon got from a split lip. What does this revelation say about Lucy's self-perception versus how she believes her peers see her? What do you make of Violet's comment that even self-inflicted scars are earned?
  4. Privilege plays an important role in the story and means something different for each character. Discuss what it means for Lucy, Percy, Alexis, and Violet; how it influences their choices and ways of being; and how being the children of Baby Boomers figures into all of this.
  5. Why does Lucy admire the Falconer statue? What is its significance?
  6. After her makeover at Percy's house, Lucy asks Brent's girlfriend, Kim: "Do you ever think makeup is a signifier of our inferiority?" (p. 99). Examine their conversation. With whom do you agree, and why?
  7. After being hit in the face at a basketball game, Lucy takes a moment to herself in the bathroom before leaving the gym (pp. 126–28). Why does she decide to leave?
  8. Lucy and Percy's dynamic changes over the course of one transformative night (pp. 140–51). Describe how the author presents the scene to us. What's running through Lucy's mind in this moment? How does Lucy's perception of love and of Percy change?
  9. Lucy spends New Year's Eve with Alexis at a diner where they share their favorite moments of the past year. Alexis observes that "we're both chasing a feeling of weightlessness" (p. 173). What do you think she means? What else does Lucy learn about her friend that night?
  10. Examine Lucy and her mother's frank conversation about motherhood (pp. 201–6). How does it pertain to today's discussions about feminism, and how do generational differences play into their exchange?
  11. Compare Lucy and Percy's relationship at the beginning of the book to their relationship as it stands at the end. What has been lost, and what gained?
  12. Trace Lucy's character development throughout the book. What does she learn about herself and what she wants? How do you feel about the ending? What do you think Lucy's future will be like?
Enhance Your Book Club
  1. New York comes alive in The Falconer because Lucy relies on all five senses to describe her city. In your own words, try to describe your hometown or city as you perceive it.
  2. Lucy's observations are often full of musicality and precocious insight. Which lines stuck out to you the most?
  3. How would you describe your own coming of age in comparison to Lucy's? Lucy's solace throughout the book is basketball. What was yours? Discuss.
  4. Lucy is seen reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Read this novel in your book club and discuss how it might relate to The Falconer.

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Washington Square Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Equal parts wry and emotionally-moving, Czapnik captures the complexities of adolescence through the eyes of a teenage girl on the cusp of a feminist awakening.

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The Falconer is an instant female coming-of-age classic replete with 1990s nostalgia; equal parts cinematic and contemplative, cynical and doggedly hopeful. Dana Czapnik's protagonist will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Holden Caulfield, the archetype of teenage misanthropy, but she is so much more than that — a completely original and exceptional creation.

17-year-old Lucy Adler is a star high school basketball player attending private school in New York City who is in unrequited love with her best friend Percy. She is proud of her skills on the court, but she is frustrated that Percy does not look at her the way he looks at other girls, those who Lucy perceives as prettier and more confident with their social skills. Lucy's older cousin Violet, a painter and outspoken feminist, attempts to provide an alternative perspective, as does Lucy's mother, but as things grow more complex with Percy, Lucy finds it increasingly difficult to determine what kind of woman she wants to be. Interspersed with the plot are Lucy's ruminations on NYC, class and consumerism, art, and the gradual loss of her childhood innocence.

It's a relatively simple plot, but the drama of seeking out an identity in adolescence is larger and more complex than it might seem. Czapnik uses symbolism with a deft hand to demonstrate Lucy's myriad ways of looking at something; a phenomenon that happens to all of us, but is particularly jarring at this time of life. Lucy wonders why she does not appear the same in pictures as she does in the mirror, a powerful reminder that we rarely show our true face to others. New York City is a perfect symbol for growing up — always changing, becoming something else, and full of grand events and tiny tragedies that seem equally significant.

Czapnik captures the counterculture of the 90s perfectly, from the decorations on Violet's fridge (Polaroid pictures, Dadaist reproductions), to her roommate's art projects (the "Barbie" logo painted with Pepto-Bismol). Towards the end of the novel, Violet and her roommate stage a demonstration to protest the new K-Mart opening in Astor Place, which they view as a defiling of Manhattan's artsy East Village and a symbol of corporate excess, and indeed they're right. This attitude seems quaint now that Starbucks is on every corner in Manhattan, including Astor Place (which is also now home to a Walgreens, Chase Bank, Staples, and the Facebook NYC corporate office, among others).

The book's title comes from a statue in Central Park of the same name, a rendering of a young boy standing on his toes to release a falcon into the air. Lucy's singular ambition is to be like this boy, suspended in beautiful animation, a representation of wild freedom. "Why can't girls with muscular legs in leggings stand on a hilltop and release a bird?" she asks. She is persistently aware of how and when she is treated differently from her male counterparts, and how she is patronized by adults. "I hate when adults try to teach me s—t about life," she declares, "Nobody knows anything about anything at all. The oldest, wisest person on the planet is as clueless as a newborn dog." (One can certainly imagine Holden Caulfield saying this.)

It is frankly shocking that this is Czapnik's debut novel; to get it this right on the first shot is a tremendous rarity. While the book is written for an adult audience, it has YA cross-appeal as it captures the teenage experience with raw emotional realism. Lucy is whip-smart (more clever than people presume girls her age to be), but not unrealistically so. She is insecure and she is stupid in the ways that girls her age can be (myopically boy crazy). She is a ruthless ball player. She is someone I want to know and someone I once was at the same time. Lucy learns a lot about what kind of woman she wants to be over the course of the novel, but she learns even more about what kind of person she wants to be, and it is an absolute pleasure to take this journey along with her.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

New York Times
Czapnik, who herself grew up in Manhattan around the same time as Lucy, captures nostalgia — for both a vanishing New York and Lucy’s evaporating childhood — with the lucidity of a V.R. headset...Reader, beware: Spending time with Lucy is unapologetic fun, and heartbreak, and awe as well.

Publishers Weekly
Despite a lived-in sense of place, this coming-of-age novel seems to be about jaded young characters who have already come of age, leaving them - and the reader - with little room for emotional development.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Coming-of-age in Manhattan may not have been done this brilliantly since Catcher in the Rye. That comparison has been made before, but this time, it's true. Get ready to fall in love.

Author Blurb Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs
Smart, tough, an extraordinary athlete, Lucy Adler teeters, zealous and baffled, on the cusp of womanhood. Dana Czapnik's frank heroine has a voice, and a perspective, you won't soon forget. The Falconer is an exhilarating debut.

Author Blurb Salman Rushdie, author of The Golden House and Midnight's Children
A deeply affecting tale of a young woman coming of age in a man's world. All the characters feel authentic and unique, and its protagonist, Lucy Adler, jumps right off the page...Lucy's journey into adulthood will be especially resonant with today's readers.

Author Blurb Colum McCann, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking and Let The Great World Spin


An unsentimental education in all that is urgent, soulful and intimate. As much the portrait of an era as it is the portrait of an adolescence, this is a crossover novel that will thrill readers of all generations. The Falconer captures the grueling, exhilarating pathos of one woman's quest to become whole. A wonderful debut.

Author Blurb Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists and The Anatomy of Dreams
Meet Lucy Adler. As I read The Falconer, I felt like I'd found a literary cousin of Holden Caulfield - if Holden were a straight-shooting, hip-hop-listening, court-dominating, seventeen-year-old Jewish-Italian girl. Dana Czapnik has crafted a wholly original coming-of-age story. In basketball terms, The Falconer is a fearless three-point shot.

Author Blurb Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances and American Innovations
Told with a poet's ear and a basketball player's eye and reflexes, The Falconer is an extraordinary book...Every detail feels true and important, every small observation tells a larger story. A wonderful new talent.

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Simone de Beauvoir

Lucy Adler, the teenage protagonist in The Falconer, is influenced by her older cousin, Violet, a painter and feminist who provides a model of independent womanhood (albeit an imperfect one). In one scene, Violet takes Lucy to a bookstore and buys her copies of French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir's seminal texts, The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex.

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908 and exhibited a brilliant and creative mind from an early age. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, becoming only the ninth woman to graduate from the college, which had only recently begun admitting women. She met Jean Paul Sartre there, and the two began their lifelong personal and professional collaboration. They were romantically involved for 51 years until Sartre's death, but never married. After graduation, de Beauvoir taught at the lycée (high school) level until 1939 when she began focusing on her writing full-time.

The Second SexThe Ethics of Ambiguity was published in 1947 and it is considered one of the fundamental texts of existentialism, a system of philosophical thought that stresses individual choice and human responsibility, and the primacy of free will over any sense of destiny or determinism. The problem, de Beauvoir asserts, lies in the outside world – the judgments of other people and societal strictures that try to contain an individual seeking to live an authentic life. Throughout the text, de Beauvoir engages with and criticizes German philosopher Friedrich Hegel's idea of the absolute spirit, a sort of undercurrent of lofty and transcendental feeling that can be tapped into through creativity, philosophy, and religion. De Beauvoir did not believe in any such vague generalities but argued that each person has their own belief systems and goals and must therefore carve out their own best practices of existence. Any sort of fulfillment is highly individual and could not possibly look the same for one person as it does for another.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul SartreThe Second Sex, published in 1949, focuses specifically on the plight of women in a patriarchal society. De Beauvoir argues that women are treated as inferior because they are viewed as "Other" in relation to men rather than as full and autonomous people in their own right. She declares that woman is "the incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other." The text is multi-faceted and explores gender and sexism from many perspectives, including biological, literary, historical, and psychological, but it is perhaps most famous for de Beauvoir's assertion that gender expression is the result of socialization, not inborn characteristics. "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," she writes. The Second Sex was, unsurprisingly, very controversial, earning a spot on the Vatican's list of banned books.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote prodigiously all her life and published dozens of books, including philosophy, fiction, and memoir. She played an active role in the women's liberation movement in France in the 1970s and 80s and edited a collection of Sartre's letters after his death in 1980. De Beauvoir died of pneumonia in Paris in 1986.

Simone De Beauvoir in 1967

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