Thursday, March 10, 2022

Like a Complete Unknown by Anara Guard


A novel set in Chicago in 1970, the year I graduated from college and moved to Chicago, was certain to attract my attention. I wondered if it could capture the city I encountered in that year of flower children, the Viet Nam War draft, and back-alley abortions we heard of in whispers. Like a Complete Unknown painted a picture-perfect portrait of 1970 Chicago. For those who didn’t live through the misogyny of those years when many doctors refused to prescribe birth control to unmarried women and some of the best restaurants didn’t allow women in their grills, Anara Guard shows the effects via a young teenage girl. Katya Warshawsky wants to be an artist, but just before she is to turn sixteen, her immigrant mother tells her she must quit school and accompany her to clean high-rise offices at night. Fearing the loss of her dream, Katya packs her art supplies and a few clothes and heads to the north side. Hungry and out of money, she leaves the YWCA which she can no longer afford and follows charismatic Harlow, a socialist dreamer, who offers her comfort and his bed. Believing herself to be pregnant, she enters Dr. Robert Lewis’s office but doesn’t return for her test results. 

Dr. Lewis, a widower, sees something in Katya after she draws a beautiful sketch of his wife from the photograph in his office. He’s determined to find Katya to see if he can help her so he enlists the assistance of a young draft dodger and begins to find his way back to connecting with others. 

The characters are beautifully composed and their hopes and fears feel realistic. The doctor still ate alone once a week at Stouffer’s and “raised a glass of ice water to silently toast the empty seat opposite him” where “the dining room was filled with coiffed and gloved ladies” giving readers both a glimpse into the world of dining in Chicago’s Loop in the early 1970s and an idea of the doctor’s loneliness. The book also contrasts that world with that of the long-haired, barefoot protestors in Grant Park just a few blocks from the formality of Stouffer’s.

Anara Guard weaves the tales of the doctor, the desperate pregnant teen, the compassionate draft dodger, and the wise and courageous waitress into a fast-paced novel with touches of the poetic.  I loved this book but didn’t love the ending. It isn’t often that I decry a happy ending, but it felt too “tied up in a bow” perfect and unrealistic. I’m sure that many readers will love it though. 

Summing it Up: Read Like a Complete Unknown to step into authentic, technicolor 1970 Chicago where you can feel the roar of the El overhead. Experience the growing pains of young Katya as she embraces who she wants to become despite having no say about her body. Celebrate the emergence of Dr. Lewis from his self-inflicted cocoon into a world where he can help others and experience love. Grasp the fears of 18-year-olds whose birthdates meant being sent to die in Viet Nam. Like a Complete Unknown will embed you in 1970 Chicago and the lives of characters you’ll love. 

A special shout-out to Richard Ljoenes for the gorgeous cover that’s a perfect depiction of the novel. 

Rating: 4 Stars

Categories: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: March 8, 2022

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San Francisco Book Review:

The moving tale of a runaway girl as she experiences the chaos, danger, and ultimately, the beauty of Chicago’s counter-culture in 1970. A gripping story that lingers in memory long after the last satisfying page is turned.” — Lois Ann Abraham, author of Tina Goes to Heaven

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