"The Conditions of Love" (Grand Central Publishing), by Dale M. Kushner
The child of wayward parents, Eunice is a bright, often headstrong girl who makes few friends her own age as she grows up in the small-town environs of the upper Midwest in the 1950s.
The friends she does make — older, independent types with lessons to teach her — fill her youthful years with shared affections, open her eyes to a wider, more demanding but beautiful world, and unveil their own dark backstories as Eunice's young life turns rocky.
"The Conditions of Love" is the debut novel of Dale M. Kushner, a poet and writer in Wisconsin. It moves slowly and gingerly during its opening section when Eunice is a preteen, and it might easily be viewed at the start as a coming-of-age book for a younger set of readers. But by the end of that section, when facts-of-life shocks begin to strike, it turns into a moving, at times jolting, saga.
Kushner's scenes, like her characters, are expertly sketched, vivid and memorable. Some scenes may go on too long, but they can also be riveting — and not for the squeamish.
With Eunice as narrator, the story begins in 1953 when she's 10 and still smitten with the father who abandoned her in infancy. She's also in a frustrating emotional struggle with her mother, who lives vicariously through the movies, film magazines, Hollywood stars and their on-screen characters. Eunice wants her to get hitched with a likable new man in town, but that's not in mom's script.
"Normal!" her mother says. "Who wants to be normal, kiddo?"
Eunice may — or may not — want life on a normal keel, but hers veers far from any bucolic family setting of the 1950s Midwest. When she moves with her mother to a new town, which is inundated by a flood, their lives diverge — and Eunice is befriended by Rose, who lives a spartan life in the woods.
The last of the three parts of the novel finds Eunice with eyes for an attractive man named Fox. A bit of a local curiosity, he's in his late 30s, lives alone on a farm and has studied art, one of the self-taught Eunice's interests. There is an unsettling edge to the relationship — Eunice is a 16-year-old runaway when she arrives uninvited at his farmhouse one night. Moody, willful and unpredictable, as teenagers may be, Eunice is no easy catch, and neither is Fox.
Engrossing to the end, this is a fine first novel.