April & Oliver by Tess Callahan is the type of book that leaves you gasping for air. The pain this family experiences is raw and undiluted. Although Callahan's writing is not explicit, it is a little too easy to imagine what goes on in April's relationships. However, the undercurrent of love between April, Oliver, and their grandmother, Nana, eases the pain of their shared experiences.
April & Oliver chronicles a year in the life of best friends and step-cousins April and Oliver, but its pages span more than this year in their life. Past memories from their early childhood and teens appear unbidden as they navigate this treacherous year filled with death, abuse, love, sex, and (almost) marriage. There is a reason Callahan chose to title her novel after her main characters - as children, you rarely saw one without the other, and even as adults April's and Oliver's thoughts are often turned towards one another. It is this inextricable link, this entangled bond between the two that at once saves their lives and dooms their other relationships.
A victim of sexual abuse at age fourteen by her father's forty-year old friend and fellow bartender Quincy and physical abuse at the hands of her father, April, now in her late twenties, continues to live out this cycle of abuse in her current relationships. The men she dates, all older, all abusive, are merely reincarnations of her dysfunctional relationship with Quincy and her father. (Maybe Freud was onto something....) Even her job bartending refuses to let her relinquish her past and move on. Although she doesn't give the appearance of wallowing, April refuses to seek better for herself - a choice that continually exasperates her grandmother, Nana, who is on the verge of senility, and her step-cousins Oliver and Al. The only loving relationship April has ever had is with her brother, Buddy, who passes away at the age of 18 in a car wreck at the beginning of the novel. This tragic and untimely event forces April to come face to face with cracks in her life that are threatening to splinter and pierce all those in their radius - Oliver and family included.
Oliver has not been home or even spoken to April in five years - Buddy's funeral brings him home, and his physical return heralds a return of all of the memories and feelings he had bottled and stored over the past five years. Unlike April, Oliver has become a successful law student with a beautiful home and an even more beautiful and kind-hearted fiance, Bernadette. But in the face of all this practical, responsible success, Oliver cannot let go of his irrational feelings for April. Oliver is the only one who knows about the abuse April suffered and the only one who will acknowledge the abuse she continues to suffer at the hands of her many boyfriends. Partly out of a compulsion to protect her and partly because he loves her, Oliver continues to seek April out when she is at her lowest and bring her into the fold of the family. This does not sit well with Oliver's fiance, who despite her altruistic nature, fears the deep feelings between April and Oliver.
The attraction between April and Oliver is undeniable, and you can't help but like Oliver - he has a tortured artist's soul in a responsible man's body. He is sweet, protective, and attentive. April is rougher around the edges, and although she cannot help the abuse she has been through, her continual need to perpetuate her suffering is a bit masochist. In short, she and Oliver are perfect for each other, and I spent the entire novel wanting them to kiss and make up; however, at the same time, I liked Bernadette, Oliver's fiance. Callahan crafts her character very deliberately to be likeable. It would be so much easier to hate her and root for April and Oliver, but in real life, who we like and who we end up with aren't always the same people. Feelings aren't always clear cut, and while I think Callahan errs on the side of tragedy, she does reflect real life.
Another stumbling block in the novel for me though is the familial ties binding April and Oliver together. Their fathers were stepbrothers, making April and Oliver stepcousins. Even though there was no blood involved, the fact that they liked each other and called the same woman "Nana" felt a little incestuous to me. This element of the novel is present, but Callahan does not spend an inordinate amount of time focused on it. As a plot device, it actually works fairly well for placing April and Oliver in the same place at the same time and worrying over the same people.
Outside of April and Oliver's will-they or won't-they relationship, I loved the character of Nana. She embodies some very real fears about growing old, dealing with your past life and loves, and responding to children and grandchildren. She has a no-nonsense attitude towards life and her grandchildren's choices, tempered by an endearing quality to forget where she is and what she is wearing. Although parts of the book, like April's decision to forgo telling Nana about Buddy's death, disturbed me, on a whole, I found the novel to be tragic, yet hopeful. Callahan's decision to leave the conclusion of the book open-ended is appropriate and gracefully executed. The romantic in me imagines that all is reconciled, and every character ends up where he or she needs to be, even if the road to get there was rocky - but of course, this is just one reader's opinion. Other readers will have to come to their own conclusions about these characters' destinies.
Best matched with: an unrequited love.