“Complex and haunting…vivid and unforgettable” (People), this story of one injured but indefatigable young woman is a stunning portrait of a family, a generation, and a country all coming of age.
From a quiet family farm in Montana in the 60s to the grit and haze of San Francisco in the 70s to a gypsy-populated, post-war Saigon, The Given World spins around its unconventional and unforgettable heroine, Riley. When her big brother is declared MIA in Vietnam, young Riley packs up her shattered heart and leaves her family, her first love, and “a few small things” behind. By trial and error she builds a new life, working on cars, delivering newspapers, tending bar. She befriends, rescues, and is rescued by a similarly vagabond cast of characters whose “‘unraveled souls’ sting hardest and linger the longest” (The New York Times Book Review). Foolhardy, funny, and wise, Riley’s challenge as she grows into a woman is simple: survive long enough to go home again, or at least figure out where home is, and who might be among the living there.
Lorrie Moore said, “It’s been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world.” The Given World is “an immensely rewarding and remarkable debut” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
In this Bukowskian debut, Riley is 11 years old when her older brother, Mick, is declared missing in action in Vietnam. Riley finds her whole world turned upside down by the news. As the 1960s turn into the '70s, Riley grows up and takes a number of itinerant jobs garage mechanic, bartender, babysitter as she flees her family farm in Montana and makes a new life in the Bay Area. Along the way, she becomes pregnant, hangs out with junkies and AIDS victims, and seems content to drift through life. Through it all, the hole left by her brother's absence looms large in her life. Finally, in the early '90s, she goes to Vietnam and visits the tunnels at Cu Chi to make peace with his disappearance. But news of an illness back home sends Riley to Montana for a reckoning with her parents and the newborn she abandoned two decades earlier, now a young man. Like the heroine of this novel, the narrative has a tendency to ramble. The novel's true strengths are the variety of characters Riley meets on her journey and the sense of America changing with the decades. In the end, what the reader takes away is a visceral appreciation for how many lives, both on and off the battlefield, were permanently altered by the Vietnam War.