Improvement by Joan Silber Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

Improvement by Joan Silber; Counterpoint, 2017. 227 pages; $26.00 (hardcover); reading level: adult.

Part I of this three-part novel dangles the prospect that this will be an intriguing but straightforward story. It’s 2012 and Reyna, living in Brooklyn and the single mother of a four-year-old, narrates. We meet Aunt Kiki, Reyna’s boyfriend Boyd and, after Boyd’s release from Rikers, a group of Boyd’s friends who cook up a cigarette-running scheme that ends disastrously. In Part II, the straightforward story spirals out of control. Through a third-person narrator, we are confronted by a host of new characters, some from the Virginia end of the cigarette-smuggling escapade and others from Kiki’s 1970s life in Turkey. In Part III we’re looking through Reyna’s eyes again and the plot threads are somehow back under control. We’re left with loose ends and unanswered questions, but somehow feeling as if we know all we need to. It is hard to overstate both the number and the depth of the themes bubbling underneath Silber’s plot: atonement, guilt, forgiveness, the lust and need for money, love in all its aspects, the interconnectedness of human beings, and how the improvement billed in the title rests not only on our decisions but on those of others. This is a post-Christian, humanistic world in which the characters who respond with generosity of spirit, even when life goes badly wrong, walk out the promise of the book’s title. As Reyna puts it, “I always wanted the last triumph of behaving well.” Because we spend so much time listening in on the characters’ thoughts, the writing here is not – and should not have been – beautiful. It is rather Silber’s ability to weave disparate human mini-worlds into a coherent whole that is so masterful and impressive.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

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