BookBrowse Reviews Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont

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Among the Ten Thousand Things

A Novel

by Julia Pierpont

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont X
Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2015, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2016, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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A timeless story about the brittleness and resilience of family.

Did you ever read a book where the writing is so great it hurts – in a good way? Before deciding to review any book I often do a quick skim, just in case it looks like something I'd rather not have to say anything bad about. That didn't work with Julia Pierpont's Among the Ten Thousand Things. Once I started skimming I wanted to gobble every single word, to savor the way she saw the ten thousand things in the lives of people I probably wouldn't even want to know, if not for her.

She picked me up out of my chair and dropped me into the lives of the Shanley family of New York City. There is Jack, a 55-year-old semi-successful artist, husband to Deborah (Deb), 41, dance teacher and mother. Their children are Simon, 15, and Kay, 11. They come across as a self-indulgent, over-privileged family, superficial and good-looking as all getout. They live in a multi-story uptown apartment building with a "doorguy", as hormone-driven Simon calls him. Kay is afraid to call him anything because she's certain she has misheard other tenants who call him Angel, "but no one was named Angel."

One day after school, as the elevator doors are closing, Angel hands Kay an unremarkable cardboard box, flaps overlapping themselves but not sealed, delivered to him and addressed to Deborah. Typically eleven-year-old, an excited Kay decides to sneak a peek because it might be a surprise birthday present for her. Oh boy. It is the furthest thing from any kind of present. The box contains a letter to Deborah from an unknown woman who says she has been sleeping with Jack and is enclosing a huge stack of printed emails exchanged between the two of them. The contents prove to be Kay's introduction to pornography, penned by her very own father.

The emailed prose ranges from the deepest purple to X-rated and while Kay knows she shouldn't, she feels compelled to leaf through the disgusting pages. She is confused and frightened, stashing the box away until she can show Simon. He'll know what to do. He does. After a brief examination he turns the box over to his mother.

Simon and Kay watched her go, listened to her footsteps travel the hall, heard the bedroom door creak a little open, then closed. They waited like it was all Kay's room was for, waiting, like they should have had magazines. Each minute took all its time.

Their mother's private sounds grew more and more frightening, the longer it seemed they'd never stop. Sometimes just a page turning, and they wondered which page. Or when something slammed – a lighter object colliding against a heavier one, a cascade – what was that? A hand, a fist, a stack of books.

From here, their lives spiral out of control, since it is clear that these parents are barely adults. They are just as shallow, as devoid of adequate life skills to deal with the situation, as ten-year-olds. But like Kay – who is, by the way, the most emotionally healthy of them all – we can't turn away. Because as Deb (who used her pregnancy with Simon as an excuse to jettison her failing dance career) and Jack (who, in a fit of childish denial, hurls the offending pages out the bathroom window) pinball through their pitiful situation, Pierpont compels us to watch; to know them, and their fears and needs.

Preposterously, there is even a point where Jack tells Deb it might be nice to have another baby. Luckily he demurs. But, "She was almost disappointed to hear him back away from the idea so quickly, because she understood what he meant…Not that it was a thing she'd consider - it would be too obvious a distraction from what was wrong, like making a window out of the mirror they were standing in, just so they wouldn't have to look at their own reflections." There are moments of wisdom and selflessness, mainly for Deb, in whom motherhood has enforced maturity.

This is adult fiction at its finest. From the language to the themes to the structure that breaks the rules – interrupting the plot in order to spin out the entire dénouement of their lives mid-book, then returning to the previous micro-view of the present – Among the Ten Thousand Things is not a comfortable book to read, but a fiercely rewarding one.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

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

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