Stacey D'Erasmo's charming first novel has garnered more attention than most literary debuts in its short time on the shelves. Just released on Jan. 12, it has already seen reviews in The New York Times Book Review and on NPR's "Fresh Air," unusually prominent recognition for an unknown quantity.
But D'Erasmo is not unknown to book reviewers, especially those plugged into the New York publishing scene. The former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement and a well-known reviewer in her own right, the author apparently has plenty of friends in the industry who want to draw public attention to her entre into the world of fiction. And Tea is certainly not undeserving, though it is, perhaps, not quite worthy of the sizable splash that has accompanied its publication.
D'Erasmo tells the story of the coming age of Isabel Gold, a precocious girl in suburban Philadelphia whose mother commits suicide when Isabel is 8 years old. The book opens with a compelling scene, a moment of startling cruelty when Isabel and her mother are exploring a house in the country, and the mother announces to the little girl that sometimes she doesn't feel like living anymore:
Her mother was quiet for a minute. Her lime-green bird mood semed to have passed suddenly. She leaned her head in her hand at the little desk. Her two rings shone in her hair. "You know, Isabel," she said. "I just want to die."
Isabel's mother, Cassie Gold, a nurse who swills bourbon from a coffee mug while watching soap operas on her off hours, finally succumbs, and the event of her death becomes a faint background against which Isabel stretches and grows. The first section of the book, "Morning," describes the year of the suicide; the second, "Afternoon," deals with Isabel's high school experience, especially her obsessive friendship with a girl named Lottie; and the third, "Evening," describes Isabel's first post-college year in New York City, when she has come to terms with being a lesbian and suffers the pangs of the breakup of her first serious relationship.
D'Erasmo is precise and witty in her use of period detail -- Isabel and her friend Ann pretend to be Max and Agent 99 while playing Get Smart -- and she is remarkably acute delineating the competing feelings of alienation and adventurousness in Isabel's adolescence. Tea is smart throughout, offering glimpses into Isabel's burgeoning sexuality and her formidable intellect, while opening the reader's imagination to the possibility of all we don't know.
Most touching is D'Erasmo's treatment of Isabel's coming to terms with the mysterious identity of her mother. Like most orphaned
children, Isabel idealizes Cassie and reserves a private space in her consciousness for the mother she never really knew. But as Isabel matures, Cassie's deficiencies become more glaring and harder to ignore until, finally, Isabel also comes to embrace her mother's flaws.
Tea is an insightful book and a successful coming-of-age exploration, beautifully written, but it lacks dramatic tension. D'Erasmo's scenes are all equally flat in their measured affect, regardless of what happens. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Isabel, but I often found myself wanting something more to happen, and with more impact.
Tea offers the reader some insights, but rarely surprises. It's an impressive first novel, but D'Erasmo has areas she needs to develop in order to really capture the reader. I look forward to her next book and to the further growth of her appreciable talent.