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Monday, September 29, 2008

Skylight Confessions

Alice Hoffman is another of those writers of whom I’ve been aware for a number of years despite not having read any of her work up to now. Based on my rather uninformed impression of the kind of fiction she wrote, I simply never felt compelled to pick up one of her books. And, frankly, if the audio book choices at my library had not been so limited a few weeks ago, I would not have chosen Skylight Confessions to entertain me on two week’s worth of my daily commute.

Skylight Confessions is one of those books in which not all of the main characters are living, breathing entities. In this case, one of them is the house in which most of the major characters live at some point in the novel’s progression. That house, an architectural marvel known locally as the “Glass Slipper,” gives new meaning to the old saying about “people who live in glass houses” because those who live there have to adapt to the fact that this house, so largely constructed from glass, allows much of the outside world to intrude on their personal space and privacy. Sadly, no one who lives in the house really seems to enjoy the experience but that is not all the house’s fault.

Hoffman’s story begins in another house, the one in which seventeen-year-old Arlyn Singer is alone and grieving the very recent death of her father. Arlyn is a romantic girl who earnestly believes in fate and destiny. She has convinced herself that the man of her dreams, if she is has the patience to wait for him, will soon present himself at her front door and that the two of them will live happily together for the rest of their lives. When John Moody, a college student who has lost his way in search of a nearby party, stops to ask directions, Arlyn happily seduces him in the certainty that he is the man for whom she has been waiting.

Arlyn is only partially correct, as it turns out. True, she will live with John Moody for the rest of her life - but she will be dead well before she is thirty, leaving John and her two children on their own. Skylight Confessions is the story of the largely dysfunctional family that Arlyn leaves behind: six-year-old Sam, a difficult child who eventually turns to drugs in order to get him through a life without the mother he adored, a baby girl named Blanca who grows into an angry young woman who resents her father and the woman he married soon after her mother’s death, and John Moody, the man Arlyn so confidently married and who has learned to draw comfort from his frequent sightings of her ghost around the house.

Skylight Confessions is filled with characters in addition to the Moody family who have confessions of their own to make. These include Arlyn’s old friend, Cynthia, a woman who offers John Moody the comfort of her bed even before Arlyn is dead and buried, and George, the window washer who kept the house walls and roof clean for so many years, a man Arlyn feels more love for at the end than she feels for her husband. All of these characters have problems and, at one time or another, all of them behave badly, making them more memorable than likable in the eyes of the reader.

But even the novel’s most consistently noble character, Meredith, the woman who appears from nowhere and accepts a job as mentor to the two Moody children a few years after Arlyn’s death, has a confession to make. Like John Moody, she sees Arlyn’s ghost and she followed Moody home after first noticing him and the ghost together far from the family home. Meredith bonds with the two children and inserts a note of normalcy into their lives but remains reluctant to admit how and why she first entered their lives.

Mare Winningham offers an accomplished reading of this six-disc audio book, perfectly capturing the emotions of the various characters as she reads their words in the various stages of their lives but, bottom line, Skylight Confessions doesn’t have much new to add and the story and characters fall a bit flat, a disappointment to a first-time reader of Alice Hoffman.

Rated at: 3.0
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