I’m not sure if it was the absolutely beautiful cover by Teagan White or the book summary that piqued my curiosity and made me request Nest by Esther Ehrlich on NetGalley. (Actually, I think it was the book cover that made me pay attention to the summary.) At any rate, I positively devoured this book, and I’m pretty sure that this is one that will appear on quite a few best books lists this year. I won’t be surprised by any award it wins.
First, the book jacket summary:
“Home is a cozy nest on Cape Cod for eleven-year-old Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein; her older sister, Rachel; her psychiatrist father; and her dancer mother. But when Chirp’s mom develops symptoms of a serious disease, the family struggles with tragic changes.
Chirp gets comfort from watching her beloved wild birds. She also finds a true friend in Joey, the mysterious boy who lives across the road. Together they create their own private world and come up with the perfect plan: Escape. Adventure. Discovery.”
WARNING: SPOILERS! Stop reading here if you don’t want to know what happens in the story!
What I really didn’t count on was the particular brand of tragedy the Orenstein family faces: after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Chirp’s loving and enthusiastic dancer mother plunges into a deep pit of depression, necessitating a long stay in a psychiatric hospital. Her depression is resistant to treatment, and her homecoming ends tragically with her suicide. Whew. That’s heavy stuff for a middle grade novel. Another really heavy issue in this novel is the fact that Chirp’s friend Joey lives in an abusive home. There’s nothing explicit about the abuse, but it’s most definitely there. Both of these issues are ones I generally avoid reading about, truthfully, because my heart just can’t take it. I knew the tragedy was coming (because I’d cheated and read a review before I got very far into the book), but the book was so engaging and I cared so much about Chirp that I wanted to see it through. I’m mostly glad I did.
Another difficult issue in the book is the one of faith, though it’s not a central theme to the novel. The Orensteins are Jewish, though they only observe the holidays in a traditional way. At school, Chirp is kind to a slow-witted girl named Dawn whose mother is a Christian, so there’s a bit of tension and confusion on Chirp’s part because of Dawn’s mom’s reaction to the tragedy. Chirp shows what is presumably a realistic misunderstanding of Christianity that would certainly provide much fuel for discussion with an interested reader.
With all these difficult issues and problems, I still think this is one of the best juvenile novels I’ve read in a while. Personally, I love that Chirp loves birds and bird watching. I love that she enjoys nature and being outdoors. I like that her family isn’t perfect but it’s very warm and loving. Her relationship with her older sister, Rachel, is realistically portrayed, with them moving toward and away from each other repeatedly throughout the story. I even like that it’s set smack dab in the middle of the 1970s because I was born in the mid-70s, so I got quite a few of the cultural references. That was fun. I love that Ehrlich works in quite a few book references, too. What wins the day, though, is the characterization and voice: Ehrlich really gets into Chirp’s twelve year old brain and expresses her viewpoint, confusion, grief, and hope. Her relationship with Joey is pretty realistic, too, with them moving between friendship and a mutual crush, but mostly just finding common ground due to the difficulties in their lives. My biggest criticism of the book is that I didn’t love the ending. Ehrlich certainly doesn’t tie things up with a nice, symmetrical bow at the end, but she doesn’t leave the reader (or Chirp) without hope. I wanted Joey’s part of the story to end as optimistically as Chirp’s, but alas, it just ends in ambiguity. I suppose that’s realistic, but that doesn’t make me like it.
I wish I could share a few quotes in order to showcase Ehrlich’s skill as a writer, but I can’t since I read a pre-pub copy of the book. Is this a book for every child? By no means. Is it a noteworthy title? Yes. Again, I’m looking for this one to get some notice once it comes out on September 9. (Wendy Lamb Books)