Title: The Palisades
Author: Tom Schabarum
Publisher: Cascadia Publishing
Cover photograph by the author
Buy link: Amazon.com
Length: Novel (290 pages)
Genre: Contemporary gay fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie
In a nutshell: Twenty-something gay man comes to terms with his dysfunctional family and makes peace with his long-estranged mother.
The Palisades revolves around family, the search for sustainable love, our place in nature and how it revives us and the threads of our past lives that inform our current ones. Marjorie and Nicholas, mother and son, come together during one traumatic night in Big Sur, the place where their lives separated decades before. Nicholas has been in a fitful relationship with his partner, Matt, for some time, but the ensuing events, after uniting with his mother, open up familial wounds that threaten them. He begins investigating what happened to his mother, which takes him deeper into the darkness of his family. His mother, Marjorie, comes back to the world slowly with Nicholas’ help and begins to reveal her side of the story and how she ended up living out of her beloved van in and around Big Sur. The Palisades delves into the aftermath of a person vanishing from their loved one’s lives and the ripples it causes in their character. After all is revealed, Nicholas and Marjorie must ultimately choose which path to take to transform their lives.
At about the 70% point of this book I said to myself, “And why exactly am I reading this?” I was far enough in that I had to finish to find out what happened and despite my forebodings, it actually had a sort of hopeful ending. But it was not a particularly cheery book.
I actually did have a reason for reading this. It was one of the five novels nominated for Best Debut, Gay Fiction for the Lambda Literary Awards. Since I had read and greatly enjoyed the book that won (Bob the Book by David Pratt) and another one of the nominees (Probation by Tom Mendicino), I thought I’d give this one a go. Alas, I didn’t enjoy The Palisades nearly as much as the other two.
The story opens where the book ends: Nicolas is at his mother Marjorie’s cottage near Big Sur, California. He finds a letter addressed to him and debates whether or not to read it, then decides (of course) that he must. The story then progresses in alternating chapters: Nicholas’s first person POV of what he is discovering in the present and Marjorie’s letter detailing all of the hidden family secrets from the past two decades.
In the “dysfunctional family genre,” this story was pretty typical. The “Wicked Witch of the West” character was the evil grandmother/mother-in-law who did everything she could to make everyone’s lives miserable and mostly succeeded. Her crowning achievement was making Marjorie lose her mind although as we find out throughout the narrative, she wasn’t as crazy as people thought.
While bad things happened in the family, thankfully there weren’t any beatings, rapes, bullying, stalking, or burnings. The gay character, Nicholas, had emotional scars and suffered a broken arm (sort of accidental but used by witchy-mom to achieve a desired end), but I was glad he managed to get to the end of the book more or less unscathed. So many of these stories have the gay kid getting raped as if that is the de facto gold standard of abuse. I was glad the author didn’t go down that path.
Nicholas is gay and has a fitful relationship with his lover, Matt, but that really wasn’t central to the plot. It was much more about Nicholas and his mom, discovering who she was and what had gone on in her life. Marjorie’s story was pretty interesting and I found myself looking forward to her chapters, moreso than the Nicholas chapters. But the Nicholas stuff was essential to bring the story full circle.
Would I recommend? Well, if you’ve been subsisting on a diet of “naked torso” books and feel like you need to read something serious, this would be an okay choice. The writing was decent and the story pulled me in, even if it wasn’t terribly original. If you are familiar with Big Sur and the surrounding environs, you might enjoy it even more, since there were lots of nice descriptions of the town, ocean, and nearby mountains. And I suspect there are many readers for whom the story will resonate more than it did with me. I’d suggest reading the Google preview (which includes about a third of the book) to decide if it works for you.