In the last few years, it seems as if you can’t swing a
literary cat without hitting a dying parent. Be it a mother riddled with
cancer, a father with a heart condition or a grandparent failing from Alzheimer’s,
this frame has been cropping up more and more as an event on which to hang
childhood anecdotes, coming out traumas and a reason to mend fences. It’s
almost a cliché—but Joan Opyr manages to avoid most of them in her moving look
at family and lovers, Shaken and Stirred.
Poppy Koslowski is recovering from a hysterectomy when she
receives a call that her grandfather, Hunter, is dying. And she’s been given
the responsibility of pulling the plug if need be. She takes her best friend
since childhood, Abby, back home to the bosom of her family to help her deal
with her mother and grandmother as well as an old love she’s never really
So, while the set-up is pretty familiar territory, Opyr does
some very interesting things with it. Hunter’s imminent death is not the focus.
In fact, it’s rarely mentioned until it actually happens. It’s Opyr’s
characters that drive the story, not the plot. First, there’s the wonderful
Abby, who has enough sassy black lesbian chick in her to liven things up but
never becomes a caricature. Their dialogue is sharp and witty without sounding
written. She’s the polar opposite to the moneyed, cultured Susan, Poppy’s first
love—but both characters are equally detailed and finely tuned. And someone
even wins Poppy in the end.
For character, however, it’s tough to beat her dying
grandfather, Hunter, who we see mostly in flashback. He’s a bitter ball of
dysfunction: an alcoholic philanderer with a less-than-PC attitude towards
children but one who took her and her mother in when they split from her
father. Hunter is a piece of work, and Opyr uses her eye for detail and gift
for dialogue to put him together like a ship in a bottle.
If there is a fault to the book it’s that it switches from
past to present with little warning, which can be a bit disconcerting
sometimes. Opyr, however, is a good enough writer to orient the reader quicker
than most and, in the end, it’s less of a distraction that I’ve seen in other
books with fractured timelines.
Shaken and Stirred is a fine, entertaining read,
dealing with family complexity, the longings and ruminations that re-visiting
your childhood home can bring and a very unexpected love story. It’s a
wonderful novel to round out your summer.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler