On the shelf
By Marcy Dermansky
Button: 240 pages, $26
If you purchase books linked from our site, The Times may receive a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.
Marcy Dermansky specializes in female characters who misbehave. Her second novel about a helpless nanny is titled Bad Marie. From the sisters who get tattooed in her debut Twins to the street protagonist in The Red Car to the mother-daughter rivals in 2019’s Very Nice, Dermansky lets women go their own way. even if those paths lead to dark and difficult places.
“Hurricane Girl” might sound like another cheeky title and in a way it refers to the troubled protagonist. But there is a real hurricane. Allison has just left Los Angeles and her life as a screenwriter to live on the coast of North Carolina when a hurricane blows off the roof of her new home.
Things quickly deteriorate from there, and Allison, in shock, makes some terrible decisions and ends up driving north to her mother’s home in New Jersey with a real hole in her head. The skull injury doubles as the novel’s most important literary device, an unreliable narrator – in this case, one whose version of events is beguilingly believable. Dermansky tells the story in close third-person, meaning the reader remains just as unaware as Allison of her injuries until someone says, “That explains the glass in her hair,” and we realize there’s glass in her brain, too.
When Allison next wakes up, she sees her college friend Danny Yang, now Dr. Daniel Yang, in the eyes, a brain surgeon whose care saved her life – not that Allison takes it that way. “So you didn’t need my approval? They thought it was okay to operate without my consent,” she says, when he reminds her that “hospital policy” requires him to do just that.
dr Yang, brilliant and kind and still crushing on Allison, doesn’t just oversee her recovery at the hospital. Before you can say “rebound,” Danny invited Allison to stay at his Fort Lee high-rise with a rooftop pool, a drawer full of takeout and access to his credit card.
“You love to swim,” says Allison’s mom, and Allison dives in day after day. Swim, make love, sleep, repeat. Allison can’t stop touching her newly shaved head and approaches the incision over the hole in her skull. In case you’re wondering, small holes in the skull can heal, larger ones can’t.
Caution: There are wounds from which some of us never recover. We wanted to believe that Allison still “had her sanity” after being hit in the head with a heavy glass vase. As her dreamy days in Yang’s tower house drag by, we want to believe that Allison is well and deeply healed. We know she has memory problems. We know that she is not comfortable with her recent past or her family history, especially with her older brother. (“She had had an awkward conversation with her brother after his wedding when she learned that she hadn’t performed her bridesmaid duties properly. Allison had never wanted to be a bridesmaid.”)
Like all of Dermansky’s characters, Allison has both conscious and unconscious problems. But the central theme is really all in her head, and it takes her a while to come to terms with a loss of agency – firstly by an act of nature and secondly by an act of a man (the vase bearer). That loss burns steadily in Allison’s new consciousness.
Most of the time, though, Allison just wants to swim; Your daily, obsessive sessions in the water resemble nothing quite like the calm before a storm. But if you’re thinking that all that swimming will “bring Allison back to life” in the sense of beginning to lead a normative existence, you’re wrong. If you really listen to Allison, her actual desires will come out clearly. She wanted to live a quiet life in her own home. She doesn’t want to be married, doesn’t want to be caught in the cycles of her allied friends. She wants to be cared for – but on her own terms.
Allison also wants something else, something that may or may not shock you, depending on how closely you’ve been listening. Even the most unreliable narrators leave clues. Dermansky frequently contrasts Allison’s considered behaviors, such as taking steps to brush her teeth or taking a turkey sandwich, with her impulsive actions, which include entering a stranger’s home, driving hundreds of miles with a concussion, and moving into Danny’s apartment without her family to inform about their whereabouts.
Allison, now a stranger to herself, can’t make up before and after, can’t live with those consequences, and no wonder she may have made some bad choices, but the person who hurt her made worse ones. The book’s resolution may be less surprising than its finale, but it’s no less intentional than Allison’s teeth-cleaning process. “But,” she told herself, the trip to her old house had been a success. She wasn’t dead, for example.”
In “Hurricane Girl,” Dermansky brings a woman back to life as the sun breaks through the clouds. Allison’s choices may have seemed confusing, but in the end, her existence is finally hers alone. It might be too early in the author’s career to say that she believes her characters are only capable of bad decisions. But in Allison, she has found one capable of shattering stale scenarios like a powerful, cleansing storm.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-29/marcy-dermansky-whips-up-the-perfect-storm-of-an-unreliable-narrator-in-hurricane-girl A perfect storm of an unreliable narrator in ‘Hurricane Girl’