Light From a Distant Star by Mary McGarry Morris

June 9, 2013

Plot summary (from the publisher): Light from a Distant Star is a gripping coming-of-age story with a brutal murder at its heart and a heroine as unforgettable as Harper Lee’s “Scout.”

It is early summer and Nellie Peck is on the cusp of adolescence – gangly, awkward, full of questions, but keenly observant and wiser than many of the adults in her life. The person she most admires is her father, Benjamin, a man of great integrity. His family’s century old hardware store is failing and Nellie’s mother has had to go back to work. Nellie’s older half-sister has launched a disturbing search for her birth father. Often saddled through the long, hot days with her timid younger brother, Henry, Nellie is determined to toughen him up. And herself as well.

Three strangers enter Nellie’s protected life. Brooding Max Devaney is an ex-con who works in her surly grandfather’s junkyard. Reckless Bucky Saltonstall has just arrived from New York City to live with his elderly grandparents. And pretty Dolly Bedelia is a young stripper who rents the family’s small, rear apartment and becomes the titillating focus of Nellie’s eavesdropping.

When violence erupts in the lovely Peck house, the prime suspect seems obvious. Nellie knows who the real murderer is, but is soon silenced by fear and the threat of scandal. The truth, as she sees it, is shocking and unthinkable, and with everyone’s eyes riveted on her in the courtroom, Nellie finds herself seized with doubt.

No one will listen. No one believes her, and a man’s life hangs in the balance. A stunning evocation of innocence lost, Light from a Distant Star stands as an incredibly moving and powerful novel from one of America’s finest writers.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I thought Nellie was a decent character. Some readers have complained about her lack of consistency (e.g. being scared of everything one day, completely confident the next), but I didn’t see it that way. I saw her as the teenager she was, which means mood fluctuations and lots of uncertainty about who she was from one day to the next.
  • The family’s financial struggles, while annoying because of Ben’s (the father’s) stubbornness about his book, was well portrayed. I could understand Ben wanting to keep the hardware store around as long as possible since it had been in his family for a hundred years. But at the same time, I could totally see why the mother was so exasperated with him all the time.
  • Nellie’s fascination with and ignorance of Dolly Bedelia’s lifestyle was interesting as well. Nellie showed her naivete when she thought Dolly was an actual dancer (rather than a stripper) and asked her about singing, etc. But I think she did learn a thing or two about life, especially after Dolly’s affair with Mr. Cooper began to surface.
  • I liked Nellie’s friendship with the Cooper girl (was her name Jessica?). It seemed pretty realistic of some teenage friendships, where the person might be annoying and/or mean, but you hang around with her anyway out of habit, pity, etc. Not all teen friendships are of the BFF variety.

Disliked:

  • It was difficult for me to get a sense of time and place out of this novel. In some chapters, it felt as though the action were taking place several decades ago, like in the ’70s or ’80s. But then the author would mention something like Google or Trek bicycles and I would realize, “Hey, this is supposed to be in the present.” It was just odd and disorienting to have the small-town stuff like a family hardware store, treehouses, and a junkyard juxtaposed with mentions of fully modern things.
  • I didn’t care for the storyline involving Ruth’s search for her “real” father in Australia. I didn’t warm to the character (Ruth) or share Nellie’s concerns about what it might do to the family if Ruth found him.
  • Max Devaney’s trial was kind of anticlimactic. Nellie’s testimony was boring and the author didn’t handle the girl’s fear or nervousness about the ordeal very well. I didn’t understand why Nellie failed to push the Mr. Cooper-is-the-killer meme from the beginning. Why would she keep letting the adults interrupt and dissuade her rather than spit out what she knew/thought? That didn’t make sense.
  • I wanted more details about Mr. Cooper’s suicide. The readers know why he did it, but did the community ever find out? Was Nellie vindicated in their minds?

Rating

Overall, I thought Light From a Distant Star was more interesting than not. It was slow going and times and longer than it needed to be, but once I got into it, I was sort of intrigued (enough) by the Nellie character to plod on through. There is no way in hell Nellie reminded me of Scout from Mockingbird, though (wow, who came up with that comparison???). This book was a fair read, but nowhere on the level of Harper Lee’s stuff. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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