Saturday, 22 April 2017

Grendel's Guide to Love and War, A. E. Kaplan

"Tom no," Zip said. "Tom," I said, "yes."
Tom Grendel lives a quiet life—writing in his notebooks, mowing lawns for his elderly neighbors, and pining for Willow, a girl next door who rejects the “manic-pixie-dream” label. But when Willow’s brother, Rex (the bro-iest bro ever to don a jockstrap), starts throwing wild parties, the idyllic senior citizens’ community where they live is transformed into a war zone. Tom is rightfully pissed—his dad is an Iraq vet, and the noise from the parties triggers his PTSD—so he comes up with a plan to end the parties for good. But of course, it’s not that simple.

One retaliation leads to another, and things quickly escalate out of control, driving Tom and Willow apart, even as the parties continue unabated. Add to that an angsty existential crisis born of selectively reading his sister’s Philosophy 101 coursework, a botched break-in at an artisanal pig farm, and ten years of unresolved baggage stemming from his mother’s death…and the question isn’t so much whether Tom Grendel will win the day and get the girl, but whether he’ll survive intact. 
* * * * *
5 / 5

This book managed to be a hilarious, witty, endearing and slightly heartbreaking page turner all at once. I was thoroughly impressed. This book had such a solid main cast from Tom Grendel himself, lawn mower and interviewer of old ladies, to his wild actress sister Zip, best friend Ed, and unruly teenagers next door, Willow and Rex (bro-iest bro ever to bro). It also managed to be so lighthearted and genuinely funny whilst touching on some serious topics.

There'd been a raw honesty to that moment. That was what I wanted: the rawness. The perfect distillation of self, with no lies, no clutter. The beautiful clarity of knowing and being known

Kaplan wrote in the Author's Note that this was actually very vaguely based off of Beowulf, which I haven't read so did not recognise the obvious allusion to Grendel, with teenage parties and escalating prank wars instead of sword-waving feuds. Grendel's Guide to Love and War is, in Kaplan's words, a story about loyalty and blood feuds, but also about memory and its intrinsic ties to intimacy, how the memories that get dredged up involuntarily can be even more powerful than those we seek out. I reckon that's pretty accurate.

Tom Grendel lives with his dad, an Iraq veteran, in a suburb entirely populated by retired old ladies. They pay Tom to mow their lawns and never has a party ever been heard until Ellen Rothgar comes to town with Willow and Rex in tow. When she goes away for a few weeks the music starts pumping and the weed is being smoked like there's no tomorrow - only problem is that this is wreaking havoc on Tom's dad's PTSD. So when he leaves town to get some peace, Tom and his friend Ed decide that they're going to get the party shut down. Tom's older sister Zip comes home for a spell, only to find that a misguided romance in the form of Wolf is "babysitting" the Rothgar kids.  It starts with signal jammers and short circuiting and somewhere along the way involves the crazy neighbour with a gun, the local pig farmer who feeds his livestock "artisanal weed", and the local OAP with an eyepatch and a probation.

"It means," I said, "that I am about to own Rex Rothgar."
"What do you have in mind?"
Boldness. Brilliance. Manliness. I said, "Guile." 
Most of the reason that I loved this book was down to the characters. Tom Grendel is one decent human being. Not only does he mow lawns and weed gardens for his college fund, he also interviews the inhabitants of his neighbourhood, wanting to preserve their stories. He's one of these people that shows you who he is, keeps no secrets, even if it ends in him in a lake full of snakes and his best mate Ed on the phone trying to bail him out. Ed Park's life dream is to become a premier-level vinteer and spends all his time using forged ID to get into wine tasting events. He also has a job at a doll cafe. It's these sorts of little details about the characters that make them real. 

I laughed. "I am not your manic pixie dream boy, Willow Rothgar. I serve only myself"

Tom's had a crush on Willow Rothgar, who was in fact his first kiss, for a while. So when she moves next door he finds his chance to exchange some serious eye contact. At least until, you know, her brother Rex starts throwing banging house parties at 3am. So there's a little romance sideplot alongside the pranking, and then there's the Tom and Zip's mother. She died when Tom was younger and his dad doesn't much like to talk about her. He's chasing her memory whilst trying to hang on to a father who is still traumatised but not seeking help. This book threads together a lot of ideas really well. It's about family and memory and friendship and college and dealing with idiots.

The writing is also superb. The dialogue is pretty witty without being over the top and the text can be genuinely funny without making the book too "young". When I read on my Kindle I use the highlighter function for lines that are funny or poignant, and one of the first I underlined was:

I hadn't imagined that would be the last time I'd see Mrs Taylor ensconced in her substantial undergarments, waving a bag of Friskies and screaming

It blends seamlessly between this sort of casual humour and some really nice thoughtful ideas. I would absolutely recommend Grendel's Guide to Love and War as a light but unique read.

My thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author for an ARC of this book.

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