Sunday, May 02, 2010

Mending The Thread: Zen and Zander Undone by Amy Kathleen Ryan

You develop defenses.

Like, whenever someone tells me how sorry they are that Mom died, I always say, "Oh, that's okay. She was a pain in the ass anyhow."

This is how I sort people out now. The people who laugh are cool. The people who are shocked might turn out to be cool, or they might not. The people who get offended always turn out to be uptight jerks.

It's true that Mom was a pain in the ass, but ... she was a good pain. Losing her--not so much.

Sisters Zen and Xander are undone by their mother's agonizing death from cancer, but although they are close, they handle their pain in very different ways. In her senior year Xander earns offers from CalTech and MIT, but she becomes increasingly wild, dressing, in her own term, like a skank and partying and picking up terrible men. Zen plods through her junior year in sweats and no makeup, having eerie conversations with her mother's shade at odd moments, her only release her Shotokan classes and endless cups of mint tea. Their dad has taken a sabbatical and is withdrawn and mostly unseen as he grieves in solitude, sleeping in his dusty basement study, and in their grief Zen and Xander feel themselves growing apart in a dark and too quiet house.

Zen knows that something has to change for them. It both comforts and hurts as the sisters begin to receive letters from their mom, written in her last months, one each coming on holidays and birthdays, her Mother's Day note found taped to her gravestone, informing Zen that she will go to the prom with her neighbor Adam in a pre-ordered dress. Reluctantly, Zen goes, and as if her mother knew it would, that letter is a catalyst to shake the sisters out of their emotional dead end.

Xander becomes so obsessed with discovering who is delivering their mom's letters that she coaxes Zen into a visit to their mom's lawyer's small office, where Xander distracts him while Zen snatches their mother's folder from his file cabinet. There the girls find a brief note from a man named John Phillips, acknowledging the receipt of one of their mom's cherished bird figurines, and as summer comes, their last summer together at home, both sisters struggle with the question of who Phillips was and why their mom sent him her favorite lovebird bisque. Was their mom an unfaithful wife and mother? How could she have been, when she clearly adored their father and loved them fiercely?

The tension builds, especially within the impetuous Xander, and both sisters unconsciously sense that this piece of unfinished business will stand in the way of going forward with their new lives until they uncover the whole truth. At last, Zen and Xander set out on their own trip to find the man and hear the full story for themselves.

And they do. Zen, and Xander in her own way, come to realize something new about their mom and about themselves.

Mom is dead. John Phillips was just one facet of her life that we didn't know about. But there were a million facets to the diamond that was Marie Vogel, and the only ones we ever got to see were of her being our mom. The mischievous teenage, the brilliant academic mind, the confused lover, the torn heart, all of these were parts of her too, but we never knew these sides of her, and we never will.... Mom's life is a closed book we can never read.

It's like we were trying to build a bridge to wherever Mom is. But that's impossible. Not only did we lose Marie the mother, we lost all of her, and we lost the chance to know the rest of her. Forever.

But that is not Marie Vogel's last word. With their trip, their father, seriously shaken, seems to return to them from his long emotional absence, and Xander packs up hopefully to leave for CalTech to begin the rest of her new life. And Zen receives another letter:

Dear Zen,

It must be hard to be left behind, first by me, and now by Xander. I wish there was something I could say to ease your heart right now, but I think you'll just have to feel the pain.

Xander isn't just your sister. Not all sisters have what you have. Don't let go of it. There is a precious silver thread you can always walk across to find each other. I feel better about leaving, knowing you have each other. You always will.

You're going to find your own way. You're going to become the woman you were always meant to be.
Love Always,

Amy Kathleen Ryan's forthcoming novel, Zen and Xander Undone (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), skillfully probes the relationship between sisters and the ties that, like the silver threads of a web, are what join human relationships. Her characters are strong, believable, yet delicately developed out of the carefully unfolding plot, and thoughtful young adult readers will find this book a challenge and a revelation in its delineation of the precious silver thread of human connections.

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