BookBrowse Reviews Academy Street by Mary Costello

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Academy Street

by Mary Costello

Academy Street by Mary Costello X
Academy Street by Mary Costello
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2015, 160 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2016, 160 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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A vibrant, intimate, hypnotic portrait of one woman's life.

Mary Costello's Academy Street tells the story of the full life of Tess Lohan, from her days as a quiet yet curious six-year-old girl living in west Ireland, through her decades in New York City as an introverted nurse, to her golden years filled with bittersweet reflection and devastating emotional pain. The novel is a quiet one, driven by Tess's innermost thoughts and feelings, and Costello draws a life-like portrait despite the novel's slim size. With all her imperfections and foibles, Tess makes for an interesting character, and readers will find themselves easily drawn to her story. I felt like I was checking in on a distant friend each time I picked up the book.

The novel opens in Ireland on the day of Tess's mother's funeral. The fresh, dark landscapes, the chaos of a large family gathering, and the confusion and disorientation that death brings are described with vivid, evocative language. Costello successfully plants the seeds of Tess's personality, giving readers the context for her future self. Seeing the world through the eyes of an innocent, bright six-year-old who doesn't completely understand the gravity of her situation creates an immediate bond between the reader and the protagonist, and the pages turn quickly.

As the novel continues, we see how life events shape Tess and quietly mold her into the contemplative, isolated woman she is. What was once childhood reticence becomes a slightly awkward persona. Her desire to make a connection with people leads her to project her own feelings and fantasies onto others – a quality that causes her both confusion and pain when reality rears its head.

He looked out across the lawn, into the twilight. In the silence that ensued she arrived at a complete understanding of him. …It was as if she had perceived all the joy and fear and pain that had ever entered his heart. …She had the sense that he might after all save her, save them both, but then…he was gone and everything was silent.

One of the strongest parts of the book is the relationship between Tess and her neighbor Willa, a confident African-American woman who gives Tess the support she needs and doesn't hesitate to speak her mind. Willa keeps Tess grounded in ways that her favorite sister Claire once did, and she helps her become more courageous in her own ways. She provides the safe environment in which Tess can grow and change, and likewise, Tess opens the world of literature to Willa.

Tess relays the tales back to Willa – each week returning with books, reading aloud passages that told of the antics of Zeus and Apollo and Aphrodite, so that Willa too was drawn in, playfully taking sides, expressing faux outrage and delight, bringing a new way of seeing to Tess.

"He's a piece of work, that Zeus!" Willa said. "Now Hera – she's my kind of woman. If my Zeus ever, ever strayed, I tell you, hon, Hera's got nothing on me in the jealousy department! …Oh Tess, it ain't love if it ain't jealous."

At times the narrative is so wrapped up in Tess's inner world – particularly in the last third of the book – the story begins to feel sluggish, like there's too much telling and not enough showing. But still, Costello's writing is beautiful and readers will certainly get lost in the artistry of her language and the dreamy quality of Tess's melancholy world. However, one thing that stands out as particularly average is the title. Given all the possibilities, it certainly doesn't showcase the book well enough and might cause some potential readers to pass it by, which would be too bad.

I recommend Academy Street to anyone who considers him or herself an introvert, to fans of Irish writers such as Colm Tóibín, to those who enjoy fiction about New York immigrants, and to those who understand that you can never really go home again.

Reviewed by Elena Spagnolie

This review was originally published in April 2015, and has been updated for the April 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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