Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shaken and Stirred by Joan Opyr

Publisher:                   Bywater Books

Joan Opyr writes about family in the way that most people experience it and few have the nerve to discuss it.  She describes the dynamics, love and frustrations, support and confrontations, warts and all, in an honest and open manner while demonstrating how important families can be and how aggravating.  The thing that keeps Shaken and Stirred from being a brutally serious book is the tremendous humor that reverberates through the pages.

"My surgeon lied to me," may go down as one of the best opening lines in literature.  Immediately the reader wants to know what happened to this woman and will not stop reading until the end.  Poppy Koslowski begins her story with a personal medical crisis that is then eclipsed by a family emergency.  Poppy's grandfather is dying and she has his power of attorney. She and her childhood friend Abby have to go to Raleigh, North Carolina, so that Poppy can pull the plug on the life support machine of a man she both loves and hates.  Going home causes a great deal of conflicting emotions for both women.  There are strong and formidable women waiting for them there, mothers, grandmothers, friends and former lovers.  Before the visit ends, Poppy and Abby will have to confront their families, their pasts and each other.

Opyr is adept at developing characters and creating scenes, blending them together like layers on a painting to give the story depth and detail.  There is one poignant scene when Poppy considers the point that she is, in effect, a dead branch on the family tree.  There will not be any children from her, no individual contribution to the gene pool.  Her concern about whether or not anyone will remember her after she dies, will tell stories in which she stars, will be familiar to many people.  As Poppy might say, everyone hopes to be remembered by someone, why else are there cemeteries? It is moments like that when Opyr reveals herself as an astute observer of the human condition. 

Shaken and Stirred deals with serious situations such as the loss of a lover, living with an alcoholic, family infidelity and the death of a relative, but Opyr shows that sometimes they can also be very funny.  The reader knows that what is going on is a tense or uncomfortable topic, but also cannot fail to see some of the ridiculousness of what is happening.  The reality is that sometimes people laugh at funerals.  Poppy understands each of her relatives and friends perfectly.  There just is not anything she can with or about them.  At least she recognizes the absurdity of her situation.  Laughter becomes a defense mechanism for both Poppy and the reader.

Opyr shows the growth of characters and explains their behavior by alternating scenes from the past with the present.  The casualness displayed toward the impending death of Poppy's grandfather becomes very understandable when the reader is given a window into his past behavior.   It also becomes apparent that some people never change.  Poppy's first love is no more capable of making a commitment than she was when they were teenagers; however, the reader will realize before Poppy who the real rock in her life has been.  Poppy's awakening is almost an afterthought, a "duh" moment, that many people have experienced in their own lives.

Joan Opyr used her own roots in North Carolina to create a story about a family of strong women, flawed if appealing men and children who are trying not to be associated with them.  Southern mannerisms and attitudes abound, but in a genteel and sometimes preposterous presentation.  There are issues for the reader to ponder and hardly a page will go by without eliciting a smile or a laugh out loud.  This is an easy book to read and a lot of fun also.

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