BookBrowse Reviews The Lightness of Hands by Jeff Garvin

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The Lightness of Hands

by Jeff Garvin

The Lightness of Hands by Jeff Garvin X
The Lightness of Hands by Jeff Garvin
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2020, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2021, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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In this captivating YA novel, a teenager with bipolar disorder attempts to guide her magician father toward a career comeback.

The stillness that comes right after reading a book that has wrapped itself firmly around your heart is so distinct from the stillness just before you fall asleep or when you go out for an early morning jog before the rest of the world is stirring. You don't want to leave it; the real world can wait. That's what it felt like to finish The Lightness of Hands by the word magician Jeff Garvin. It's a YA novel I wish I could've read when I was 16.

Within that stillness I found a connection to protagonist 16-year-old Elias Dante, Jr., a.k.a Ellie, daughter of the Uncanny Dante, a once well-respected Las Vegas magician who became notorious for a spectacularly failed magic trick on Late Night with Craig Rogan (think Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show when he had those "Magic Weeks"). Ellie has lived the RV life since she was six, when her mother committed suicide and she and her father left Las Vegas. As the story begins, they're in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and her father is about to start a gig at a wedding party. In my life, I've moved 17 times, not in an RV like Ellie, but I often had the small thought in the back of my mind that maybe I shouldn't get too comfortable, because who knows when we're going to pull up stakes and move on. Ellie's desire for a stable life felt deeply relatable.

Besides trying to help her father make some money so they can survive, even providing a distraction in a gas station convenience store so he can reset the gas pump behind the counter for more diesel than their Visa prepaid card can provide, Ellie is also dealing with bipolar disorder, genetically inherited from her mother. Jeff Garvin also has it (as he explains in the book's author's note), and his descriptions of Ellie's experience are vivid. Dark clouds gather over her as she struggles to hold on long enough to get her and her father to Los Angeles for him to perform on Flynn & Kellar's (presumably a play on Penn & Teller) Live Magic Retrospective broadcast. The only problem is, Ellie's dad doesn't know about the show, because if she told him, he would staunchly, angrily refuse. His segment of the retrospective is to be a second attempt at that failed trick, which has a somber, personally tragic history behind it. On top of that, since their insurance has lapsed, Ellie doesn't have any more medication for herself, and her father's heart problems are also going untreated.

There are glimmers of hope in Ellie's struggle. She has Ripley, an asexual longtime online friend her age who has family problems of his own, but has developed an outstanding sense of humor as a coping mechanism. There's also Liam, who she knew when they worked in a production of Damn Yankees together at a high school she briefly attended. He's attending Cal State Fullerton, an hour from Los Angeles, so a reunion is possible. And even though Ellie has sworn off performing alongside her father as she once did (she's focused on becoming a nurse one day), she recalls and re-experiences the joy of doing so when she participates in one of his gigs in Indiana.

And then there's Las Vegas, which has a significant presence throughout, from Ellie's memories of it when she was a toddler, to a complicated stop there in which she tries to convince a Howard Hughes-like casino owner to let her rent the truck and water tank needed for her father's failed trick. There's plenty of amusement to be found in the fictionalized names Garvin has for some casinos and magicians (Mac Regent is definitely Mac King, the afternoon comedy magician), a pitch-perfect description of the town of Summerlin ("basically a giant golf course dotted with Costcos and McMansions"), and general descriptions of Las Vegas at night that ring so true. I lived there for five years, so I spent an inordinate amount of time with each reference, combing through the memories that they unearthed. Other readers familiar with the city will likely do the same.

The Lightness of Hands may also be a lifeline to teenage readers like Ellie who struggle with bipolar disorder and the loneliness that may go along with it. Garvin has given them an articulate voice to describe their feelings. This is a novel that I'm so glad they have, a deep-seated connection that speaks to them directly. I'm merely a delighted enthusiast.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2020, and has been updated for the September 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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