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Mona Simpson
Alfred A. Knopf / Borzoi Books / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-35141-6
Publication Date:04-15-2014
326 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 04-23-2014
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2014

General Fiction Mystery

The events of any given day generally seem almost disposable, interchangeable. Our perspective is blinkered. Mona Simpson takes everyday events and writes from the blinkered perspective of a teenaged boy in 'Casebook,' to create an intimate epic, a story rich with life and struggle, seen up close with understated grace and economy. 'Casebook' is a compelling, engaging and often frightening story of love, loss and discovery in the friendly, apocalyptic landscape of the post-nuclear family.

Miles Adler-Hart tells the story in first person, beginning with his attempts to find out what his mother will and will not permit in terms of television viewing. What he learns instead is that his parents are separating, and as he ups his surveillance game to phone tapping and more, he's our witness to love in all its frightening splendor. His father moves out, his friend's mother moves to Topanga, as worlds are torn asunder with a gentle nod and a soft handshake.

Simpson's novel is riveting from the first page, and maintains an intense tension through the final line. She uses the perspective of her teenaged protagonist to tell us much more than he understands. It's a canny move, giving readers an emotionally mature rendering of an emotionally immature mind. Miles has a few hard moments at first, but he soon gets to know his mother's new boyfriend, Eli. It's not long before Eli's in his sights as well, even as he falls for the man as a possible replacement for his father. As readers we want to see both Miles and his mother happy, but Miles investigations continue to ask questions to which nobody wants answers.

The prose here is the star; told entirely in Miles' voice (with the exception of found papers, etc.), 'Casebook' is incredibly involving. Miles is funny and much smarter than he knows. By making a fair amount of the reading experience happen outside of the text, Simpson grabs her readers and sets them up as storytellers. The novel unfolds over a couple of years and Simpson craftily conveys Miles' maturation as he grows up.

But while Miles is the protagonist, he's also just one a very large and well-crafted cast of characters, most of whom he has endearing nicknames for. Mims, his mother, is smart, sweet and a little bit confused. He has a set of twins as little sisters whom he calls "the Boops." Readers will find the character of Eli to be a fascinating portrait, and Ben Orion to be one of the most engagingly original PIs you've ever met. His friends, their mothers, his mother's friends and their kids, most of them in some form of separation or divorce, all come seem like members of your own extended family.

To a degree, 'Casebook' is a bit deceptive. It starts with a light tone that might lead readers to think they're getting a nicely written bit of humor. And there are many laughs, many out loud, to be found here. But there are also more serious moments, more tender moments, more terrorizing times of the sort life provides, with or without our consent.

Mona Simpson, using the bits and pieces of the kind of lives we causally shatter, has crafted an epic story of love and loss as seen from the outside. The economic and emotional casualties of the war on families, the clashes between family members, may not seem so rich, so sorrowful, as we live them from within. There is no bright flash, no duck-and-cover. But perhaps there are analogues to those shadows on the sidewalk, burnt into our souls in a manner that informs our lives after the end.

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