Thom Geier
June 04, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

You Remind Me of Me

Current Status
In Season
Dan Chaon

We gave it an A

A Chicago short-order cook whose face was badly mauled in boyhood by his mom’s Doberman pinscher. A suicidal teenage girl at a home for unwed mothers. A Nebraska drug dealer whose wife, the mother of his beloved son, left him for full-fledged addiction in Vegas. A retiree who discovers that the grandson she has been raising alone has gone missing from her tidy backyard.

You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon’s remarkable first novel, begins with snapshots that recall his talent for short stories (his 2001 collection, ”Among the Missing,” was a National Book Award finalist). But then he weaves the threads into a whole that is not only satisfying but devastating: a portrait of a Midwestern middle class struggling against the particular realities of a failed ideal, redefining family in a culture of absent and adoptive parents.

The cast of misfits becomes so empathetic that their decisions — however misguided — assume the air of tragic inevitability. ”Why should it be this way?” the grandmother asks at one point. ”Why should she have worked so hard to end up with so little, to end up fat and sixty-three, a divorced woman in a flowered shirt and tight shorts and flip-flops…?” In the end, Chaon provides his characters a commodity they seem unable to acquire for themselves: grace.

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