BookBrowse Reviews Improvement by Joan Silber

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A Novel

by Joan Silber

Improvement by Joan Silber X
Improvement by Joan Silber
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Nov 2017, 256 pages
    Aug 2018, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book



A bold and piercing novel about a young single mother living in New York, her eccentric aunt, and the decisions they make that have unexpected implications for the world around them.

The opening paragraph of Joan Silber's Improvement is enough to suck you in: "Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they've risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can't begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever. I had an aunt who was such a person."

There. Now, go back and reread this beauty. The key sentence if you missed it — "I had an aunt who was such a person" — is tucked in at the very end, and is said by Reyna, a young woman in New York City. It is a hint of what it is to come: a novel about tangential connections and relationships swirling in and out of people's lives, where the direct focus of the reader's attention is constantly being remapped. The many characters in this novel (it's really a set of loosely interlinked stories) are so cleverly and indirectly related to each other that it reminded me of the theory of six degrees of separation, which offers that every person on the planet is only six people away from knowing all others. The ways in which we're all connected, sometimes through simple actions, sometimes through not so simple ones, boggles the mind.

The novel begins with Reyna, who is trying to stay on the straight and narrow. Her boyfriend, Boyd, might be serving time at Rikers prison in New York City, but he too is ready to make amends. Together they're looking forward to a reboot with Reyna's toddler, Oliver. Aunt Kiki, whom Reyna refers to in that introductory paragraph, is keeping a wary eye on her niece even as she misses the life she left behind in Turkey. When Boyd is finally free from prison, he is drawn to more illegal schemes: this time he insists he'll be okay. All he has to do is drive down to Virginia, buy bulk boxes of cigarettes and smuggle them back to New York. (See Beyond the Book.) The tax differential will make Boyd and his buddies rich. For a while, Reyna goes along, or at least pretends to look the other way. But when she is asked to help on a critical assignment, she refuses. And that one singular decision creates a Doppler effect of reactions. The rest of the novel is a portrait of the various people directly or indirectly affected by Reyna's decision.

Silber's precisely crafted and electrifying sentences are more than enough to keep you hooked. For example, there's this beauty about a middle-aged man, Teddy, whose life indirectly intersects with Reyna's through a highway accident: "Teddy remembered the noise of the car's arrival, the unbelievable cosmic smack of it collapsing itself into crumpled metal." Or "Teddy was living in two worlds, a tidy house overflowing with abundance and behind the walls a hidden boneyard of bills and strained credit."

As an added bonus, the characters' emotional landscapes are faultless, although sometimes their uniform desperation about the state of their lives is such an overwhelmingly common thread that it becomes easy to mistake one for another. Pummeled by rotten luck and poor decisions, whether it's Teddy, the middle-aged truck driver or Darisse, a woman in Virginia hoping her new boyfriend will be the way out of poverty, the characters all hope for improvement — or strength. After all, strength has to come first, says Darisse, in the novel. "Improvement wasn't coming any other way."

At the end of it all the prose reverts to Reyna. She might not fully understand just how much her actions have swayed things one way or the other in the universe, but she does try for one act of redemption. With achingly real characters and sharp writing, Improvement is a reminder that our actions have real consequences that cannot always be predicted. The only comfort can be derived from living our best lives; putting one brave foot in front of the other every single day.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in November 2017, and has been updated for the August 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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