Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Slow Burn for Megan Abbott

Almost two years ago - talking on the phone with George, bemoaning the fact that his store got to host Megan Abbott that night for her sly, insinuating novel, You Will Know Me.  I told him I'd be making the trek from my Books Inc. store to his, traversing the big water that is the San Francisco Bay in order to see her that night.

I had ulterior motives, I usually do.  That August night the motives were a stack of books, all written by Ms. Abbott, that I wanted signed.  I have a bad first-edition habit, and an even worse predilection for books that are signed.  And if they're signed by someone I admire?  Be still my fast-beating Greek heart.

When I arrived in San Francisco, I went to talk to George again, to ask if he needed any help.  Booksellers are always helping booksellers - straightening, putting out chairs, answering customer questions.  It doesn't matter if we're in our own store, it's habit.  George had a certain gleam in his eye when he asked, Just exactly how much do you like Megan Abbott's books?

A lot, I said.

Enough, he said, to introduce her tonight?

I don't think I hesitated, not much at least.  I looked at my phone, checking the time.  There were fifteen minutes until the event would start.  Time enough to put together an intro that wouldn't embarrass myself?  Maybe.  I had the advantage of loving the book, even though it was particularly terrifying and frightening for me as a reader, because, at its heart, the story revolves around the aspirations of a very talented and very young gymnast.

Her high-flying dreams circle around the hopes of parents and rush through the gymnast's own mind, all the while skirting the tragedy that leaves one young man dead.  As the father of a gymnast, the world that Abbott sketched - surrounding all the hours, all the gyms, all the injuries and achievements of the hard-working girls who devote hours to the sport - was eerily perceptive, because that of course is what Ms. Abbott has always done so well.  She chooses a world that's familiar and common, and then she infiltrates it - wrings out all the workaday - and only leaves behind the secrets that most of us work hard to keep hidden.

Her novels, naturally, are richer for it.

So I introduced Ms. Abbott, explaining why this particular novel hit a little close to home, but that I roared through it like I do all her books, and it was a lovely night in the city (especially since Ms. Abbott was kind enough to sign that stack of books I burdened her with).

Two years have passed, and now there's another novel that has just entered your local bookstore, and if you haven't yet picked up Give Me Your Hand, go do that first, and we can drink second.

Give Me Your Hand is another tight, chilling story where Ms. Abbott presents the reader with a young girl who isn't hapless, not someone waiting to be saved by a Prince on horseback - but someone who you in fact might need saving from.  Two girls begin the story, and it will be the same two, now women, who will finish it.  At times the air will seem to have been driven from the room as you read - Ms. Abbott is good at evoking oppressiveness, both in the relationships between characters and in the physical spaces those characters inhabit.  The book is terrifying in the best ways that books can be terrifying - laying bare the believable and cruel ways that two people can treat one another when they both want the same thing.

When I create a cocktail for a book, I'm always looking inside the pages to see what ingredients are lying in wait - to find the aromas and tastes that will add to the booze to fashion a drink that pays homage to the words.

I didn't do that this time.  This time, I went no further than the cover of Give Me Your Hand.

That was enough.  The burning rose brought a sweet smokiness to mind, and sweet and smoky on the rocks can be good indeed.  Rose liqueurs aren't easy to find, but if you do come across some, you might be inclined to add smoky scotch to your glass to balance it.  And if you do that, you'll have yourself a Slow Burn, much like the steady and penetrating anger that infuses Ms. Abbott's riveting novel. 

Slow Burn:

2 oz. Ardbeg 10-Year-Old Scotch
1 oz. rose liqueur
1 oz. simple syrup
.75 oz. lemon juice
Rose for garnish

Shake all with ice.  Serve over.  Garnish with a rose - in this case that means lighting it on fire (and this is made easier if you douse the rose with high-octane liquor - like Balkan Vodka - just before you touch it with a match).