REAL LIFE & LIARS by Kristina Riggle

OCT 19, 2009

In Real Life & Liars, protagonist Mira Zielinski represents a new demographic for our times: hippie turned senior, at age sixty-five still free-spirited and defiant, who has decided to refuse treatment for her recently diagnosed breast cancer. She’s also decided to withhold the diagnosis from her three grown children, as they converge on the family home in Charlevoix, Michigan for a grand 35th anniversary party. As it turns out, however, the Zielinski children are bringing home a few secrets of their own.

Author Kristina Riggle’s intelligent, entertaining debut novel is tightly chronicled, covering four points of view over the course of the party weekend. Eldest daughter Katya is stressed over her unruly teenagers, her husband and his suspicious behavior, her own too-tight hold on maintaining the perfect life. Middle child Ivan, dreamy high school music teacher and struggling songwriter, can’t seem to find the right woman, even when she is right there under his nose. Irina, young and irresponsible, recently saddled with a surprise pregnancy and much older husband, is already questioning the wisdom of this latest impulsive decision of hers.

Amid the weekend festivities is a growing storm—meteorological and otherwise—that promises to bring these disparate issues to a head, bring family members face to face with their problems and each other, clearing the way, however violently, for resolution and redemption.

In the wrong hands, the subject of a life-threatening cancer diagnosis could have become a maudlin, sentimental read, but Riggle has crafted a story that renders the issue entirely palatable, while still treating it with the dignity and thoughtfulness it merits. Mira’s observations, her down-to-earth introspection, are both hilarious and bittersweet. Her ponderings over how one actually leaves life and loved ones behind are the sort of thought-provoking questions that make this novel rise above the mainstream in today’s commercial fiction.

Additionally, Riggle successfully delineates the four diverse point of views, telling the story in brief sound byte chapters composed of snappy dialogue and vivid prose. Mira’s voice is the most distinct, told in first-person versus the others’ third-person narration, a set-up that suits the story well. Katya’s story and point of view are the second most distinct, although her strident personality throughout the story—think PMS on steroids—grows a little exhausting on the reader. Yet her predicament rings true, free of cliché, and flashbacks to her teenage years, showing a more vulnerable girl desperate to fit in, with a mother determined to cultivate the opposite, offer a welcome soft touch to Katya’s character. Irina’s story, as well, profits from backstory that paints the portrait of a youngest child, born after her mother was “done” with parenting, who now analyzes her own unplanned pregnancy and her past with new eyes.

Chosen as a Target “Breakout” pick in August, graced with irresistible cover art, Real Life & Liars will hold strong appeal for women’s fiction readers, or anyone who likes their fiction intelligent but breezy, relevant and unforgettable.

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