By Rosamund Lupton
Crown, 386 pp., $25
“Motherhood isn’t soft and cozy and sweet,” muses the heroine in this juicy English thriller; “it’s selfish ferocity, red in tooth and claw.” Rosamund Lupton, whose first novel, “Sister,” set a ticking-clock mystery amid the messy landscape of family dynamics, here concocts a tale of arson, near-death experiences, and enduring maternal love. Grace Covey, a part-time arts writer whose real career has been raising her teenage daughter Jenny and decade-younger son Adam, rushes into Adam’s burning school when she realizes Jenny (helping with the annual field day) is inside. She’s able to rescue Jenny, but both mother and daughter are critically injured; worse, Adam is suspected of setting the fire. As family members, doctors, and police detectives swirl around their hospital beds, Grace and Jenny find a way to meet — in a ghostly fourth dimension — where they hope to solve the crime and figure out their own recovery.
Disembodied protagonists face limits, of course; Grace’s voice is most affecting when Lupton uses her to paint the family’s appealingly imperfect back story. When she (or her spirit, anyway) must leave the hospital to observe the investigation, the book is somewhat less successful. And the mystery itself, ping-ponging between subplots of private school financial difficulties and creepy sexual stalkers, twists perhaps one too many times. Still, Lupton’s finely wrought portrait of motherly love is genuinely moving.
THE STORY OF ENGLISH IN 100 WORDS
By David Crystal
St. Martin’s, 260 pp., $22.99
In a preface, linguist David Crystal promises to sketch a history of the English language that neglects neither forest (major trends in how languages develop) nor trees (specific, often highly amusing, examinations of particular words). In 100 lively, brisk chapters that switch from narrow to broad focus, Crystal abundantly succeeds. Starting with “roe,” the words whose Old Norse precursor was found carved into a roe-deer bone found in a 5th-century burial ground — “as close as we can get to the origins of English” — Crystal’s word list proceeds roughly chronologically. The earliest entries manage to inform (or remind) readers of the broad strokes of how English as a language was formed in collisions of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, and French, which may account in part for its ability to be “playful and innovative,” qualities Crystal amply illustrates.
The words Crystal highlights demonstrates the way a language can be both enduring and ever-changing. The word “gaggle” (as in “of geese”) appears with 200 or so collective nouns in 1486’s “The Book of St. Albans” — a kind of everyman linguistic invention, Crystal writes, we still engage in: “human nature hasn’t changed that much in 500 years.” Pondering the lost word “fopdoodle,” Crystal writes of disused words that slip from dictionaries; he wonders whether “grody” has died out entirely or if it may yet be heard “in the back streets of Boston.” Readers?
The Medication Generation Grows Up
By Kaitlin Bell Barnett
Beacon, 256 pp., $25.95
Sometimes, Kaitlin Bell Barnett writes, “a pill isn’t just a pill.” In this sensitive, provocative look at what she calls “the medication generation,” Barnett profiles young adults who have grown up amid rapidly changing ideas about mental illness, learning disabilities, brain science, and the role of phamaceuticals. “Some credit medication with saving their lives,” she writes, “some think it ruined portions of their lives.” No matter how they view their early experience with psychiatric diagnosis and treatment, Barnett argues, this generation has had a different relationship with medication than any that came before. Taking prescriptions to regulate moods during the emotional firestorm that is adolescence only adds to the “thorny task of separating drug from self from disorder” — raising questions that go far beyond abstract hand-wringing about overmedicated kids.
What we can learn from this first generation to reach adulthood already veterans of psychopharmacology? One clear lesson is that our current health care system is inadequate to provide the level of counseling and consistency these kids need. Of the five people Barnett profiles, one provides a particularly stark example of what not to do — growing up in foster care, Paul’s behavior problems were treated with an ever-increasing arsenal of drugs while nobody addressed his real needs for connection, trust, and respect. Elizabeth, who faced ADHD and depression, felt abandoned by parents who let her manage her own medications but rarely checked in. Barnett’s own experience with Prozac — which she says “erased my despair without making me feel stripped of myself” — lends authenticity and authority to her calls for better attention to the real needs of children and teenagers struggling to grow up whole.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.