I’m a little bit worried about author Leah Hager Cohen. I read her most recent novel, The Grief of Others, and found it very affecting. She has a way of digging into the complexities of characters and their relationships in a way that is very true. People are a mixed bag, they’re all wonderful and hateful, deliberate and unconscious, judging and forgiving. And people’s relationships are also complicated; there is a worm in every apple and a silver lining for every storm. After consuming The Grief of Others, I picked up two of her previous novels, Heart, You Bully, You Punk and House Lights. They are similarly complicated, hopeful, loving and painful. Reading them made me hurt a little bit, and I wonder what it must be like to create books like this. I imagine Cohen walking around without a top layer of skin, always open to the truth underneath the appearances. I hope she takes care of herself.
Needless to say, it’s a big thumbs up for her earlier books. Heart, You Bully, You Punk is particularly poignant, as two similarly flawed young women – a student and her teacher – come together in a way that seems to help them both. It’s very disquieting though; despite their connection, both characters are too damaged to choose the better path. I loved the book, rooted for teacher Esker and teen Ann as well as the other, well-drawn and three -dimensional characters in Heart, and was saddened by the end.
What about House Lights? 20-year old Beatrice Fisher-Hart is the daughter of two psychologists, but takes after her grandmother, a famous actress. This coming-of-age novel has a twist of sadness, as well, for while Bebe is forging her own path as an actress and coming into her own as a woman, she is also learning of her parents’ inherent flaws. Father is a serial adulterer, enabled to some degree by mother’s willful blindness, and learning the truth about them – particularly her beloved father – profoundly affects her. Ultimately, Bebe forgives her father and sees her parents with more compassion, but the reader is left wondering how much better, and more fulfilling, her life could have been. How much do we shape our lives? How much are we shaped by them? House Lights illuminates this question.