It is not unusual for first novels to be of the "coming of age" variety. But seldom has anyone come of age the way that Miranda Donnal, the main character in Aoibheann Sweeney's first novel, manages to do it. Miranda, an only child, was taken to live on an isolated island about a mile off the coast of Maine when she was only two years old, and because her mother died not long after the family's arrival, she spent her formative years on the island with only her father and Mr. Blackwell, the family caretaker, as company.
Miranda's father isolated himself with his books and his lifetime project of producing a new translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses and was not much of a father to Miranda, preferring to leave her to her own devices as long as she was always home for dinner and available to type up his latest pages of translation. Luckily for Miranda, Mr. Blackwell did have some paternal instincts and he came to love the child in a protective way that her father could never equal. It was Mr. Blackwell who made sure that Miranda was enrolled in school and who was there to take her by boat to the mainland every morning until she was old enough to handle the trip alone. And it was Mr. Blackwell who educated Miranda in the ways of life on the island during all the years when her father seldom seemed to think about her.
Despite this unusual upbringing, Miranda felt protective of her father and seemed to understand why he was incapable of expressing or showing his love for her. So when he surprised her after her high school graduation by arranging a job for her in New York City with his friends at the cultural institute he helped to found there before leaving for his new life in Maine, she exchanged her tiny island for a much larger one. And she found more there than she expected to find.
She found her father.
Clue by clue, she pieced together the life her father lived in New York and came to realize that he was nothing like the man she had imagined him to be all of her life. And, at the same time, she learned as much about herself. She found friends and she found lovers in New York City. Her problem was to decide which were which, and when she finally did that, she was ready to begin the rest of her life.
Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking, is a frank presentation of how life sometimes surprises us just when we think we have it all figured out. Sweeney places the reader in this unusual world in a way that makes it understandable and to seem almost normal, a remarkable achievement.
Rated at: 3.5