With her remarkable first novel, The Conditions of Love, Dale Kushner gives us an offbeat and lyrical coming-of-age story about a small-town girl who overcomes a string of tragedies to find the love and stability that she spends her entire young life searching for.
The novel opens in 1953, and Eunice is a very young girl living in small-town Illinois with her quirky and erratic mother, Mern. Mern works in a hair salon, is obsessed with Hollywood, and has the worst luck with men. Eunice longs for her absent father, is terribly lonely, and spends most of her days visiting her elderly downstairs neighbour and nourishing a passion for drawing. The day her father comes back into her life when she is ten-years old is transformative for her – she gets a small taste of what it’s like to be loved by the people who are supposed to love you. However, he’s gone again as quickly as he reappeared and Eunice is right back where she started from.
This continues throughout the rest of the novel – the love from others that Eunice so desperately seeks is always just out of reach. Mern starts dating the unassuming Sam Podesta, and just when Eunice starts to imagine him as her new father, he’s gone. Mern never really seems to care much for her daughter, and this culminates in her abandonment of Eunice after a devastating flood. At this point, Eunice is a young woman and she finds herself in the care of Rose – a woman who lives on the outside of society and comes to truly love Eunice as if she were her own. However, circumstances once again intervene and Eunice finds herself in an un-loving foster family, watching Rose wither away, just out of her reach.
All of this culminates in Eunice’s discovery of Fox – a quiet and mysterious farmer, with whom she feels an instant connection. Eunice gives everything she has to be with him – at this point, she is unwilling to let go of the love that she has waited for her entire life. Of course, tragedy must intervene once again and just when things are looking perfect, Eunice must pick up the pieces of her shattered life one more time.
This book just totally blew me away. Kushner develops her characters so well, to the point that at the end of the novel, almost-grown up Eunice is almost unrecognizable to the younger version of herself at the beginning. You see how the events of her life have both devastated and strengthened her, and by the end of the novel you just desperately want her to find what she’s looking for – the stability of real, lasting love. While this may be Kushner’s first novel, she began her career as a poet, and this shines through on every page.
If you already love The Conditions of Love, try one of these next:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is a true classic coming-of-age story about Francie Nolan, a girl growing up in the Brooklyn tenements at the turn of the 20thcentury. This poignant and moving description of the daily experiences of Francie and her extended family are real and oftentimes raw. A novel that is as equally heartbreaking as it is uplifting, if you haven’t read it yet – pick it up immediately!
The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls, is set in “1970 in a small town in California. “Bean” Holladay is twelve and her sister, Liz, is fifteen when their artistic mother, Charlotte, takes off to find herself, leaving her girls enough money to last a month or two. When Bean returns from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz decide to take the bus to Virginia, where their widowed Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying mansion that’s been in Charlotte’s family for generations.” Publisher