I have been a great fan of Cordelia Strube from the time she first drew attention for her novel Alex and Zee. Strube’s first novel was nominated for the W.H. Smith Books In Canada first novel award and it garnered a fair bit of praise roughly 15 years ago, back when young Canadian authors were being discovered and celebrated regularly, in both this country, and on the world stage. Strube’s various other novels Milton’s Elements and Teaching Pigs To Sing are firmly tucked away in my own personal home library of great Canadian authors. Teaching Pigs To Sing was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. When I heard of Strube’s latest novel Lemon, I quickly contacted Coach House books and asked for a review copy for thriftymommasbrainfood. And from the moment I received this one in the mail I couldn’t put it down. I read it on the treadmill at the Y and while waiting for my daughter’s at their various activities which they do all over town. I literally could not put it down. And that doesn’t happen that often any more as my reading time vies with many other obligations, commitments and passions. Strube is a witty author, with a strong narrative voice, perhaps an aquired taste for some, but her characters are often strong females with a very jaded view of life, or a cynical eye. Lemon is no exception. Lemon is the story of a disenfranchised young girl, 16, named Limone, nicknamed Lemon, who spends her days rebelling at school and her off hours volunteering in a children’s cancer ward at a local hospital. At the start of the story when we meet Lemon, she has three mothers. The biological mother seeking her, her adoptive father’s depressed ex who tried to kill them both, and her most recent stepmother. Lemon lives with the most recent stepmother, a school principal who has become agoraphobic since being stabbed. The young teen escapes her life by reading voraciously. In her sad world teens beat each other up to feel something, sexting each other constantly, then betraying their friends by posting their pervy messages on sites like Youtube. Cyberbullying is the norm at Lemon’s high school and teachers seem to look the other way as most of the students have some secret underground perversion. Despite the claim that Lemon feels she has three mothers, she sees herself as an orphan in a world that is not worth living in and she spends her spare time hiding in trees observing the drug dealers, thugs and lowlifes in her neighbourhood. While she was at one point adopted, those parents have long since broken up. When we meet her, her adoptive mother is dead, her birthmother is searching for her and Lemon is conflicted. Her adoptive father, who eventually it is revealed, turns out to be her biological father, is a horrid skirtchaser she dubbed The Slug. Lemon’s closest friend is a child named Kadylak dying of cancer, her one teenage friend is the school slut and her only other friend is a dark intense poet practising to be a psychiatrist. When Lemon’s only true friend dies of cancer she receives a package from the family containing the girls’ drawings and it plummets her into a downward spiral. “Brightly coloured birds with stick legs under an always smiling sun. Drawings I watched her pen intently with felt marker, wondering why the sun was always smiling. She who could not go outside for fear of burning her chemo-blasted skin always drew smiling suns. I believed she would survive because of those suns.” While this book is extremely graphic, Lemon is a beautiful character with an unflinching view of the really desparate world she feels she has inherited. In the mirror she sees her biology tying her to people she either doesn’t know or cannot stand. In the end this is a story about the nature of family. When a young drifter who is also an environmentalist comes to live with the odd pair, the novel clearly becomes an essay on the nature of family and what it is that binds us to this earth. Lemon is one of the most humourous, sad and touching books I have read in a very long time. It is very respectful of adoption language and truthful in rendering the emotions involved in this bittersweet process. It is life in an adoptive family, but darker, way funnier and taken to the extreme. This is a story I will treasure.
Lemon by Cordelia Strube
Coach House Books
Toronto, 2009, 260 pages, $19.95 Canadian $21.95 U.S.
thriftymommas rating $$$$ and 1/2 out of $$$$$.