I still remember my first love. She had blonde hair, blue eyes and a great smile. I had no idea why she was interested in me. I was a late bloomer, unable to form proper sentences around girls until my senior year in high school. That’s when I met Natalie, a sophomore from the French high school on the other side of town. We dated for three months, and I was convinced that our love would last forever. As with most high school love stories, ours ended badly. When she told me that she’d met someone else, I acted with as much class as I could and wished her well. I cried for days, completely and utterly devastated. Even now, twenty four years later, I still recall those heady moments of first love, the utter absorption of it, the dominating urge to be with her every waking moment. Dan Stockman’s debut novel, Brood X, not only reminded me of what that first love felt like, it drew me back to that time. Back to the times with Natalie at the YMCA and at the drive-in. At my parents’ house and my room in the basement and the hours spent on the phone.
As Brood X opens, we’re introduced to Andy Gardner, a thirty four year old manager in a cabinet making company going nowhere. He hates his life and broods often about his failed marriage, his lame house, his rundown car. If there’s a suburban hell for a divorced single man, Andy has found it. Worse, he’s aware of his failings to the point that he’s not sure why he bothers to get up in the morning. When Scarlett, the pretty single mother from next door comes knocking, he cannot fathom why she’d be interested in him. He surprises himself by not pushing her away, by revealing life and humour, two things he was certain he’d lost.
As their relationship grows, however, he begins to dwell on the most impactful relationship of his life, his summer romance as a seventeen year old with Ashley. They’d been perfect together, in love in the way we are at that age without complications or hang ups or baggage. But she’d disappeared, moved away on the last day of that fateful summer without a word, as if she’d never existed. It had changed him in a way he didn’t understand, had driven him to decisions he’d made later, decisions he’d always regretted.
Andy is certain that if his relationship with Scarlett is going to survive, he must find out what happened. Why had Ashley left so abruptly? Where had she gone? And where was she now? He sets out to find her, knowing that his future depends on this, everything from his relationship with Scarlett to the man he wants to become. He has been given a second chance to rediscover his first love. If he can just make the past right, or at least, make sense of it, perhaps he can figure out his purpose and start over.
Of all the things that Stockman does well in Brood X, perhaps what he does best is his evocation of young love. There are moments, particularly in the scenes with Ashley and Andy, that you feel their craving for one another, their desperately joyous need for each other, their certainty within the moment. I’ve yet to read another novel that has brought me so forcefully back to my own past, to my days as an awkward teenager when that certainty was needed to overcome my lack of experience and knowledge about the world and the crashing waves of possibilities that threatened to drown me with every choice.
Good storytelling takes us away, allows us to go someplace and visit new people in different places. Allows us to be someone else for a while. Great storytelling provides an escape as well, but also takes us back or drives us forward. Great storytelling not only tells us a new story, but somehow merges it with our own so that when we’re finished, we’re no longer quite the same. That character’s story becomes part of our story. It is in this mingling that great fiction reveals its power.
Stockman, an award winning journalist, hooks you with Andy’s journey, and what starts slowly as a hissing, clattering train, picks up momentum until you’re screeching past the grassy fields in a locomotive, whistling for everything to get out of the way until the end arrives, squealing and gasping, hoping for a moment that everyone will just be quiet so you can catch your breath. And in the quiet after, when your breathing has returned to normal, you’re taken through Andy’s journey again, only this time you are able to move slowly. Contemplatively. Watching for the sights and sounds that are both new and old. This time you can smile at the faded memories, or dwell on the receding sadness of those days.
As much as I loved Brood X, it does have its faults. The chapter spent from the perspective of the cicadas doesn’t work, and while I appreciated what the author was trying to do, it comes too late in the book and feels unnecessary. There are prose issues in the first few chapters, sentences that don’t work or needed another pass, and the dialogue falls flat at times, particularly within the first half of the novel. This is not a literary work of beautiful grammarian construction, though it does have a few stunning moments of lyricism that suggest this is an issue of time, rather than ability.
In the end, however, the criticisms are quibbles. This is an astonishing debut. Somewhere in its juxtaposition of accessibility, excellent storytelling and poignancy, Brood X shakes us with surprising power. That moment we all feel when we have witnessed a great story, when we wish only to sit and reflect for a while. Think about who we are and how we got here. Think about the future and where we’re headed. And when the journey is complete, we know, as Andy does, that everything will be different when we reach the end.
****(Out of five)