By Catherine Ryan Hyde
Knopf. 228 pp. $15.99
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Reviewed by Katie Haegele
The second thing 13-year-old Cynnie does, shortly after we meet her, is steal her mom's boyfriend's knife while the two are screaming at each other and too drunk to notice.
The first thing she does is pick up her little brother Bill, who has Down Syndrome, and cradle him, because no one else can cheer him up when he's crying, including their mother (who doesn't even try). When Cynnie sings to Bill he trills the tunes back to her. At 3, the only word he can say is her name.
Those are two important things to know about Cynnie, and I told them to you in that order to get your attention. But Catherine Ryan Hyde, the author of this beautifully real novel, put the first one first for a reason. It takes Cynnie a long time to realize she's a good kid, but Hyde makes sure we know it right from the start.
Cynnie and Bill live with their mom - and her mom's succession of loser boyfriends - in some unspecified place in the American southwest, a place where people have horse ranches and Arizona and California are close enough for runaways to drive to, as Cynnie soon finds out.
And yes, the first half of this book is about the regrettable decisions Cynnie makes. Things start out bad, but they get worse when her mom tells her Nanny and Grampop are coming for a visit. Something about the announcement "got [her]stomach's attention," as Cynnie tells us. Sure enough, it turns out they're coming to take Bill home with them because Cynnie's mom is such a mess. This breaks Cynnie's heart, but it also makes her angry: Why won't they take her, too?
It's around this time that she starts copying her mom by drinking gin or wine whenever she feels sad, which is most of the time. At 13, she's graduated from trying to keep her mom from burning the house down when she passes out smoking: She's developing a substantial drinking habit of her own.
The beauty of the book is that this girl never once strikes us as other. From the very first sentence she's real, funny, a friend. We do get glimpses of her as others see her - she tells us that the other girls in the neighborhood call her Tarzan, and she admits that she doesn't really know anyone at school and no one really knows her. But even though Miraculous Reappearance is touted as being about marginalized people, outsiders, there's nothing alien about the feelings Cynnie has to learn to face: fear of getting hurt, anger at her family, the sadness of missing Bill. You don't have to be an alcoholic to appreciate any of those things.
The other great thing about Hyde, whose previous novels inlcude Pay It Forward, is that she tells you what you need to know. When Cynnie and her friend Snake go out for ice cream one day, she narrates, "And then we were at the ice cream place, and there was no line." That little bit of information might not seem like much, but it's something almost any other writer would forget. When you're the one getting ice cream you care whether or not there's a line. Hyde isn't just crafting a story here; she makes that subtle sidle over the line into really inhabiting her character's life.
Her writing, reminiscent of the evocative style of S.E. Hinton, makes me think of the surprising response I once got when I said hello to a stranger and asked him how he was doing. "Very close to perfect," he reported happily. This book is very close to perfect, I'm happy to report, and - although this is not the first time I've thought so about a young adult novel - it's hard for me to imagine anyone feeling too grown-up for this story.
Look at this conversation Cynnie has with a new friend from school once she starts to get her life back on track. Cynnie tells her:
"You know how some people are."
"You know. Some people just don't want to get near anything that might hurt."
"That's everybody. Isn't it?"
"Not really. Some people could have a dog, and then if the dog dies, they get another one. Other people, they say, No, that's it. Too painful. Not going through that again."
"I would get another dog," she said.
"I think I would, too," I said. "Now."
"Pretty much everything."