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the daily review, Wednesday Feb. 15

Treasure this book!!! Also, read it!!! Add to ...

If you can think of Sara Levine’s very funny and winning fictional debut as one of those quickie Hollywood elevator pitches, maybe as Robert Louis Stevenson (obvious) meets Holden Caulfield meets Ayn Rand, you’ll have some idea of the tenor of this wackily original tale.

This brief novel about an unnamed twentysomething New York woman so enthralled by the adventures of young Jim Hawkins with Long John Silver, Squire Trelawney, Ben Gunn and the other inhabitants of Treasure Island, that she resolves to pattern her life on the book and, more specifically, on young Master Hawkins. So she adopts a mantra that can liberate her from her dead-end job – she works at a pet library, which is what you might suppose it to be – and from her deader-end boyfriend, practical, unadventurous Lars (she does acknowledge that he’s a good kisser). That always capitalized and frequently repeated mantra is:

BOLDNESS

RESOLUTION

INDEPENDENCE

HORN-BLOWING

You’d think, then, that this might be a novel about breaking the bonds of restriction, about discovery, about the relationship of expectation and achievement. And so it is. But in a very odd way. You could call it an anti- bildungsroman, a novel in which the protagonist seems incapable of growth.

For, you see, our narrator, though sometimes charming in her naiveté, and decidedly quirky, is also delusional. She steals money from her long-suffering employer at the pet library in order to purchase a parrot, for her a necessary accoutrement for life on the imaginary high seas. She makes preposterous demands of, and entertains even more preposterous illusions about, family and friends. She shuns work and prefers to sponge off others. She goes through dozens of shrinks; she humiliates her sister, Adrianna, when she discovers her affair with a teacher of her parents’ vintage; she is incapable of judging when people have had quite enough of her antics. She imposes; she frustrates and betrays those who, somewhat unaccountably, love her. In short, she is outrageous, impossible, narcissistic – and without being even remotely aware of it. Talk about unreliable narrators!!!

Treasure Island!!! is a girl’s own self-helpless book, a parody of family memoirs, with a serious undercurrent. Late in the novel, when her family’s patience has reached its limits, our narrator’s fundamentally decent sister offers an alternative to her unrealized mantra: “Ever since you read this book, you’ve been gearing up to do something, right? Well, do something, sister! Take a risk! Go somewhere! Get a job! Try loving somebody – for real, I mean.…”

Sara Levine claims she works very slowly and that she won’t be writing many more novels, if any. On the evidence of this remarkable debut, with its sympathetic-vexatious narrator, its variety of hilarious-sad incident, and its ultimate large-heartedness, that would be a terrible shame.

As a boy, Globe Books editor Martin Levin had a special fondness for the sympathetically roguish Long John Silver.

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