a novel by
MIRA Books: 384 pages; $14.95
Reviewed by Rita Marks
In the opening of Outside the Ordinary World, Sylvie Sandon paces in a family therapist’s waiting room. On the other side of the door, her thirteen year-old daughter, who hasn’t spoken to her in days, “makes her case” against her. Sylvie wonders if purgatory is “a place like this, where we hold our breath while the stories converge. A land where we linger, mourning our nature like obstinate children whose parents warned them about the crack in the sidewalk, the fissure in the glass, the lethal fork in the road.” As she waits, her thoughts jump from present to past and back again, struggling to make sense of her fractured world: “Don’t we all assume we’ll do it differently, not repeat the past? We believe with all our hearts that we can rise above the things they couldn’t. Sometimes, our beliefs blind us.” Artfully compressed into this scene are hints of foreshadowing, and clues to the themes of love and betrayal, guilt and redemption Western Massachusetts author Dori Ostermiller weaves through her debut novel.
What follows is the first of many seamless transitions between Sylvie’s California childhood and her present life in a small Western Massachusetts town, between the firestorm of her Seventh Day Adventist upbringing and her tepid existence as a restless wife, mother, and artist.
As a child, Sylvie is the cauldron into which both her parents pour all their frustration and discontent. Often with a drink in hand, her surgeon father is distant. Craving his attention, Sylvie resorts to extreme measures, provoking him to lose control. A slap across the cheek, it seems, is better than nothing. Alarming as these scenes may be, one can’t help but to smile at the boldness of her innocent cunning. Her mother Elaine is an ethereal creature who seems to float above the ordinariness of her world, where she can’t feel the phantom pain of unfulfilled dreams. She calls Sylvie, the younger of her two daughters, her “angel.” Although a term of unquestionable love, it begins to feel more insidious than endearing as Sylvie assumes the role of guardian of the secret that is her mother’s affair. Unlike Sylvie’s father, Elaine’s lover is self-effacing, funny, and attentive. Sylvie adores “Mr. Robert,” but rather than finding comfort in her affection for him, she feels conflicted. When Robert presses her mother to make a choice between him and her husband, Elaine commits an egregious violation of the boundaries between mother and child.
Thirty years later, still burdened by childhood guilt, Sylvie is married with children of her own. She loves her husband Nathan, but the marriage suffers with the demands of their jobs and two daughters with attention-deficit disorder. Add to the mix strained finances, Sylvie’s blocked artistic creativity, and Nathan’s time-consuming renovation of their dream home, an antique farmhouse with, it turns out, a tragic history. With so many pressures converging, Sylvie chooses a path she swore she’d never take. Enter Tai Rosen, a local landscape architect, whose intelligence, earthy masculinity, and Buddhist calm promise to resurrect her elusive sense of self. Although Tai is the perfect distraction, he becomes yet another source of guilt for Sylvie, who nevertheless feels powerless to stop the momentum of their affair: “I’m desperate to be back in the life I’ve chosen. I want our family back to normal and the dream revived. I want to want my husband again. . . . In the next breath, I just want to walk alone along some windswept sea for weeks, never speaking. There are so many things I want, and each comes at a price I can’t pay.”
Whether narrating as Sylvie the child or Sylvie the woman, her voice echoes off the page with authority and compassion for those who have betrayed her and those she has betrayed. The child Sylvie is captivating and keenly observant. As a woman, she is magnetic; hers is a voice of poignancy and lyricism, her story, an unsettling tale of the power of family legacy and its inextricable pull on the trajectory of our lives.
No character in this compelling montage of past and present is wholly virtuous or vile. Instead, the author illuminates each with a balance of frailty, fortitude, and possibility that is the human condition. With skill and sensitivity, Ostermiller not only strips away the impulse to judge them, but also elevates them to the realm of unforgettable.
Dori Ostermiller’s gift for storytelling with precision and restraint makes Outside the Ordinary World anything but ordinary. That it so easily crosses genres, from literary to mainstream and women’s fiction, with prose that is visceral in its beauty makes it an astonishing debut.
Dori Ostermiller is the founder of Writers in Progress which offers editorial services, manuscrpt consultations, coaching and workshops in Northampton MA
Rita Marks is a writer who lives in Western Massachusetts. She can be reached at email@example.com.