Isabelle refuses to speak, and her parents are in a panic. Ruth,
Isabelle's mother blames herself, while Wilson, Isabelle's father, vacillates
between hope and denial. Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop takes these three
characters, three perspectives, and one interesting problem to create a novel
that dually investigates the trials of family life and the pains of adolescence.
At the center of Winthrop's story is the silent Isabelle, whose life seems suddenly out of control. In actuality, Isabelle is merely growing up, but to her, things seem disordered and frightening. She recedes into her mind where she watches the world from behind a steel screen of silence and guilt. Isabelle is an astute 11 year old who sees what her silence is doing to her parents, but convinces herself that she cannot speak, that she has forgotten the self that used to be the speaking Isabelle. Winthrop's brilliance is in her ability to expose Isabelle's emotions and thoughts; we see a pre-adolescent fighting to understand the vicissitudes of modern life. Isabelle's interaction with her friends from school is painful, and the loathsome feeling of being left out becomes real. Isabelle finds solace from her burdens in her art, silence, and with animals.
Around Isabelle and her silence, her parents try desperately to solve the problem. Wilson becomes convinced that Isabelle will begin to speak again if they take her on a trip to Africa. Ruth thinks mother and daughter art classes might do the trick. They are both wrong. They never get angry with Isabelle or tell her to shape up. There is no heavy-handed parenting or stern discipline. They respect her space, even if that is not what needs to be done. Ruth and Wilson are affluent and caring, yet, ultimately, they are ineffective and the plot sags a little because of this.
Isabelle is the most interesting character, not because she's silent and one wonders why, but because she provides tension. People walk into the room, talk to her, and she does not respond. This is interesting. Ruth and Wilson yell at each other, but their positions are stereotypical and their characters are aggravatingly familiar. Many of the scenes repeat themselves, and rather than hitting an artistic chord, the strategy resonates as overused.
Winthrop's prose is bright and piercing at points, dull and mundane at others. Her descriptions are precise and methodical, but the specific details become burdensome at times. The shining light, and the reason the pages continue to turn, is Isabelle. Winthrop handles her expertly, and she should have been given more space. A version of this novel in first person narration from Isabelle's point of view would have been intensely revelatory.
Ultimately, however, December offers a keen and real glimpse into the troubled heart of a young girl, and Winthrop provides a unique view into the challenging transition from childhood to adulthood.
This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the July 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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