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We’ll all float on – ‘The Lightness’

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We’re all searching for something. The problem is that we don’t always know what that something is.

Our quests for understanding – internal, external or both – aren’t always defined solely by ourselves. Oftentimes, particularly when we’re young, our personal journeys toward knowledge are unduly influenced by the people and places with which our lives are entangled. What we seek becomes conflated and even replaced by the pursuits of those close to us – sometimes without our even knowing that it is happening.

This confusing, convoluted search is central to “The Lightness” (William Morrow, $26.99), the debut novel from Literary Hub editor Emily Temple. It’s a fractured, fascinating look at a teenage girl’s pursuit of understanding – understanding of her circumstances and understanding of herself. Structurally daring and prosaically deft, the narrative moves back and forth across time (though all is past from the perspective of our frank and forthright narrator), capturing the fluidity and futility of memory.

It’s also a story of the complex sociological minefield that is friendship between teenaged girls, delving into the eggshell-stepping delicacy that can come from the deep and not always fully conscious desire to connect with those who may or may not have your best interest at heart … and are perfectly willing to co-opt your journey in order to advance along their own.

Olivia has arrived at the high-altitude, high-concept meditation retreat known locally as The Levitation Center with an agenda. Yes, she is interested in the scattershot Buddhism-centric Eastern teachings of the facility – particularly the rumored lessons that led to the place’s nickname. But she’s also here to try and learn the fate of her father, a man who had attended the retreat last summer and never returned.

The particular program with which she has engaged is aimed specifically at troubled teen girls. Olivia is one of a score or so of girls, each of whom is here for reasons that range from progressive to punitive. She is soon drawn to a mysterious trio of young ladies who don’t seem to be beholden to the same rules as the rest of them. There’s the athletic, abrasive Janet. There’s the model-beautiful, gossipy Laurel. And then there’s Serena, the enigmatic leader of the trio, a veteran of the center and the one most committed to achieving levitation through whatever means necessary.

Despite the warnings of some of the other girls, Olivia allows herself to be pulled in by Serena’s magnetism, even as she continues to unpack her feelings about her father’s mysterious disappearance. Meanwhile, her daily work detail puts her in the garden, working alongside Luke, whose charm, good looks and enlightened reputation make him an object of much fascination among the girls – and Olivia’s proximity to him inspires more than a few tinges of jealousy.

But as Olivia learns more about her new friends, she realizes that there is still so much more for her to know – not all of it good. The difficulties inherent to her relationship to her manic sculptor mother and her spiritually secretive father spill into her understanding of herself, while Serena’s increasingly strange and obsessive quest to levitate leads her down some questionable paths – paths whose endpoint might well prove tragic.

“The Lightness” walks an interesting tightrope, a coming-of-age story that deftly introduces elements of literary thriller into the mix. There’s a delicacy to the manner in which things unfurl that is really quite striking. The relationships that Temple creates for Olivia are compelling – particularly when you take into account the whiff of unreliability surrounding her narration; even her occasional direct addresses to her audience read as somehow performative. Viewing her world through that backwards-looking lens of loss is engaging as hell, drawing into sharp focus her desire to connect even as we question the fullness of her truth.

A clear point of comparison that has been made by a number of reviewers is Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” – and it is an undeniably apt one. The truth is that this sort of dessert-first storytelling is a dangerous game, one that can undermine a narrative’s impact significantly. It’s a bold choice that Temple executes well enough that even with an extant sense of the ending, she still finds ways to surprise us.

In a way, Temple has crafted a kind of metaphysical “Mean Girls,” one where we’re aware of Regina George’s ultimate fate from the onset. This notion of the power imbalances and transactional tendencies that come part and parcel with fraught female friendships bears a real universality; Temple has captured the desperate sadness and the giddy mania that comes with surrendering to that desire for inclusion.

This is a story about searching and its consequences. That quest for meaning – meaning that we may not understand or even want – in many ways defines the quester; any road to enlightenment worth traveling will be rocky. Some questions are not meant to be answered, while others should never be asked. At its heart, “The Lightness” is about a young woman for whom those questions are ultimately everything.

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 June 2020 11:56

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