Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: 'Once Upon A Lie' by Michael French

Los Angeles native author Michael French first came to this reader’s attention with his insightful revision of Tracy Kidder's brilliant biography of Dr. Paul Farmer (‘Mountains Beyond Mountains’) – adapted for young people. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University and is a businessman and author dividing his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. His new biography notes that he is ‘an avid high-altitude mountain trekker, world traveler to developing countries, and is a collector of first editions of twentieth-century fiction.’ On the literary level Michael has published 24 books - fiction, young adult fiction, gender studies, biographies, adaptations and art criticism (including his commentary on pianist Lang Lang). His novel, ‘Abingdon's’ was a bestseller and a Literary Guild Alternate Selection. His young adult novel, ‘Pursuit’, was awarded the California Young Reader Medal. On a different level he and his wife, Patricia, are philanthropists raising money for programs aiding teachers in Santa Fe, N.M., public schools, which are some of the most challenged in the country

Michael’s many skills as a writer include his ability to bring the reader into his novels by assuring the time frame of the action and establishing the identity of his characters in a near biographical manner. For example he introduces Alex (Alexandra) first – ‘Sunday, July 6, 2014. My mother’s car just pulled up across the street. The brunch is her idea— our private reunion after nine years. Her email insisted she has important news, but she wouldn’t give details. All morning, I’ve distracted myself by rereading the memoir I can’t seem to finish writing. My book eludes its ending. Intuition says there’s a missing piece, but I’m not sure where to look for it. Maybe Mom can help with that. The life of Jaleel Robeson, entwined with mine, is a complex wilderness. Colleagues to whom I’ve mentioned the project encourage me to keep writing. They don’t know very much about the story, but they understand my temperament. Unfinished tasks nag at me like an empty stomach. I take extra long in the bathroom, putting on eyeliner and lip gloss. After nine years, I still feel a need to make a good impression for my mother. A college professor should have her head on straight, but intelligence and insights don’t always trump old patterns. A young girl looking for guidance and approval is an empty vessel quickly filled with her mother’s points of view. Here I am, stirring in a chair in front of my makeup mirror, trying to look more attractive than I really am’ And Jaleel – ‘He never needed an alarm clock. There had been a rooster in Jaleel’s head as far back as he could remember, crowing faithfully at 5 a.m. without regard to school days or weekends. He didn’t mind that friends laughed when he told them. “How can there be a rooster in your head?” one joked. “What do you feed it, Jaleel?” There was no point adding that he loved the rooster, because it never failed him, not even by a minute. Early morning, before the sky had a smear of light, was when his imagination jumped to places he was usually too busy to visit during the day or evening. In seventh grade, school was challenging when you always asked for extra credit work that kept you up late. But Jaleel wanted to be at the top of his class, and he saw no reason he couldn’t do it if he worked hard enough. Before his parents were fully up, he was usually on his bike, backpack jiggling with books, homework, a sack lunch, and a baseball glove that smelled of lanolin oil to play catch with the older boys before class.’ We feel we know these tow and are read for the interplay of the novel.

As his summary states, the story is about ‘two strangers who become unlikely friends, only to unintentionally put each other's life in jeopardy. Jaleel Robeson, a gifted, eighteen year-old black man, falsely accused of murdering his father in a small Texas town, is on the run. He assumes a new identity in 1980s Los Angeles as a successful student on his way to college. Alexandra Baten, a restless sixteen year old while girl, lives in a privileged Toluca Lake family but feels trapped by her parents' values. One weekend, she rides her bike into a run down neighborhood, meeting a young black man selling lemonade. Thus begins a friendship between opposites, at least on the surface, but they learn they have more in common than they imagine. Told from each character's point of view in alternating chapters, we become involved in a gripping tale of two Americas where discontent and violence always lurk under the surface. When they erupt, no one is safe. Once Upon a Lie is both a family drama and a crime drama, as well as an exploration of interracial love, mother-daughter relationships, and redemption through courage.’

Michael manages to create pulsating tales that not only entertain but act as a platform for considering many contemporary issues. He continues to be a very fine writer, one worth our close attention. Grady Harp, March 17

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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