Beth Kephart's The Great Upending opens with a whisper through a wall:

"Moon's in bloom," Hawk says. "Just hanging there. No strings."

And just like that, we all lean in a little. We want to know this Hawk, and we want to know his sister Sara, and we want to sit out on that roof with them and look out over their dark farm toward the silo their mom and dad fixed up to rent out. And like them, we want to know more about the mysterious Mister who responded to their rental ad (Come. Stay.) with his Cadillac and his unicycle and his wish for complete privacy.

The Great Upending is a beautiful book, gorgeously written for language-lovers, those of us who are knocked flat by unexpected descriptions and phrasings that keep singing long after the book is over. Sometimes, with writing like this, the descriptions can bog a reader down, especially for the young. In the case of The Great Upending, they definitively do not. For every gorgeous line, every thoughtful and rightly-fitted description, is balanced entirely by our love and hope and wish for these characters, their story, and their place. The story unfolds swiftly and with a childlike energy, and when, in the end, the pieces of the puzzle fall more fully together, the reader is left with a completely wonderful reading experience.


Loath as I am to reveal too much plot, I would still be remiss if I didn't mention that this story takes place on a family farm, where hope and despair are close companions. Every year, every day, brings new opportunities to live out a certain kind of faith: a faith that knows what happens when you plant a seed. Is there anything more hopeful than freshly-tilled soil and a handful of seeds? The thing about a farm is you still have to do the work, even if the crop is coming in poor, even if the animals are sickly and you don't know why, even if the soil is so dry you can't be sure it still counts as soil anymore.


A farm, especially one suffering from drought, is also exactly the right location for a story that points up the difficulties of managing a chronic disorder (in this case Marfan Syndrome) within a broken health care system. Without hope, it would be unbearable, so you always hope. But there are long, difficult days, days of fearful crying and wonder how it will ever get paid for, and every day you still have to get up and do the work. Sara and Hawk and her family show us what happens when love and the care of your neighbors is just about all you have.


Into this landscape, Kephart layers in The Mister, and what a fascinating twist he is. An elusive creative, The Mister is as unclear to the reader as he is to Sara and Hawk for most of the book, but he reminds all of us to never cease looking for, focusing on, and in many cases, creating the good and beautiful in this world. In the face of, well all of it, this reminder is critical. We can and should be fixed on the beauty, marveling at the blooming moon and the strength of a family and the audacity of a pair of red shoes. Why shoes? You'll need to read The Great Upending to find out!


The Great Upending will be available March 31. Preorder now from Bookshop.org or your favorite independent bookseller.


The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!

Writer Anne Helen Petersen has a feature at the end of her weekly-ish newsletter that she calls "this week's just trust me." It's a link with no explanation other than her assurance, and almost invariably, I click it. With books that seem to defy adequate explanation or description, I often wish I could provide a link and a just trust me. Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation is one such title. It is brilliant and bold and does everything I imagine Marriage Story does but better. (Full Disclosure: I have not seen the movie, but books are always better).

The book is the story of a marriage, but not exactly. More specifically, it's the story of a mother in a marriage and the ways a woman might be simultaneously reduced and expanded in and by both institutions. At the beginning of the book, the unnamed narrator is "I" and her mate is "You." Very quickly, the most prominent pronoun in the fragments is "We," and then just as suddenly, "She" appears, and the "I" and the "She" take up almost all the room. And just like that, a lightning bolt of recognition, an almost-painful realization of similarity resonates through readers, especially those who suffer from the same fierce and consuming mother-love.

My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn't know them.

The narrator doesn't know any of those songs. Maybe they didn't exist until Jenny Offill decided to write one, and Dept. of Speculation is what came out. It is a song that takes your breath, at once familiar and strangely new, and if you're like me, it will be stuck in your head, playing on repeat, forcing you to reckon with it for all of your days

Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I'd say.

Back to pronouns and structures and fragmentations (of narrative, of self): Almost without noticing, "You" becomes "My husband" a distancing that is not at all like "my sister" who is never anything but "my sister" and always speaks truth.

My sister shakes her head at this story. "You have a kid-glove marriage," she says.
She's moving to England. That bastard husband of hers.

"She" is often "my daughter" and rarely "our daughter" and then in a blink, the narrator becomes "the wife." There is "the husband" and "the daughter" and everything has changed and nothing has. And then the book ends, and I won't say more about that except to say it is both a held breath and a restoration, and overall, I wish you'd just trust me and read the book.


The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!

Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

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