Friday, July 5, 2019

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long is the kind of book every reader will want to devour. It features gorgeous language, a story that won’t let you go, a mystery, and captivating characters. Fifteen-year-old Ilya is the smartest kid in his small Russian oil refinery town and a teacher has helped him achieve his dream of spending a year in the USA as an exchange student. When the book opens Ilya’s in the Baton Rouge airport where four members of his host family are waiting to greet him and take him to their small town which is also home to a refinery where the glow also creates lights all night long. At first glance, they seem like the Flanders family of “The Simpsons” series with their references to prayer and church and their unrelenting cheeriness. Their older daughter, Sadie, who’s waiting at home, is more nuanced and she’s beautiful. All should be perfect for Ilya but back in Russia, his older brother, Vladimir, who has a drug problem, has been put in prison after confessing to a crime Ilya knows he didn’t commit. Despite the distance, Ilya works to prove Vladimir’s innocence by looking for clues on the internet as to who really committed  the murder while trying to learn the ways of his new world where everything is supersized.

Fitzpatrick’s skilled sentences belie the fact that this is a debut novel. In describing Ilya’s intelligence, she writes, “He’s sharp,” one teacher said. “A prodigy,” said another. They said he might get a scholarship to Syktyvkar State or even to the Language Institute in Moscow. Convinced by his teachers of Ilya’s aptitude, his mother and grandmother started to hope. For a little more money, for a table that didn’t wobble, for a bigger apartment, for a car, but most of all their hope conjured his future: a degree and a good job in Moscow or St. Petersburg, neither of which they’d ever seen. They treated Ilya as tenderly as the brass samovar that came out from under the bed, from under its layers of felt, only for polishing. His grandmother mixed extra sour cream into his shchi. She scooped it onto his pelmeni.

“More Smetana, Ilyusha?” she’d say.  He’d watch the cream quiver on the end of her spoon and knew she’d give him all they had.

Fitzpatrick infuses even the most minor characters with characteristics that allow the reader to see them as real people.  Of his grandmother’s new friendship with the man down the hall she writes, “Timofey was even more ancient than Babushka and had the sort of unkempt nostril hair that felt like an act of aggression.”

The true gift of this exceptional book is in the way it makes outsiders in both Russia and small-town America feel so real and tender that the reader yearns to step inside the book to steer them onto easier paths. The mystery within the story is one of the forces  that make it tempting to read the novel straight through without stopping for an instant.

Like the title with its reference to “lights all night long,” this luminous novel allows the light to break through your heart. There are two pages near the end that made me cry with joy. Do me a favor and after you finish this novel (and you must), go back and look at pages 325 and 334 and tell me if you didn’t choke up when you read them. Promise me you won’t look ahead, but when you do get to those pages, let me know if you, like me, wanted to find Lydia Fitzpatrick to thank her for the love and unexpected wonder of those pages.

Summing It Up: Lights All Night Long is a phenomenal story with incandescent writing. Even the least likely characters will embed themselves in you and keep you thinking about them for months. This debut reads like the best from the most seasoned writer. Read this book!

Note: Lydia Fitzpatrick will be at theHarbor Springs Festival of the Book  in Harbor  Springs, Michigan, September 27 - 29.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: April 2, 2019

What Others are Saying:

“Beyond the brothers’ crystalline characterizations, Fitzpatrick gifts her intriguing debut with elegant prose, affecting images, and rich settings.”  Booklist (starred review)