Filled with soulful humor and quiet pathos, Abby Bardi's boldly drawn first novel marks the debut of a joyfully talented chronicler of the quest for connection in contemporary life.
Mary Fred Anderson, raised in an isolated fundamentalist sect whose primary obsessions seem to involve an imminent Apocalypse and the propagation of the name "Fred," is hardly your average fifteen-year-old. She has never watched TV, been to a supermarket, or even read much of anything beyond the inscrutable dogma laid out by the prophet Fred. But this is all before Mary Fred's whole world tilts irrevocably on its axis: before her brothers, Fred and Freddie, take sick and pass on to the place the Reverend Thigpen calls "the World Beyond"; before Mama and Papa are escorted from the Fredian Outpost in police vans; and Mary Fred herself is uprooted and placed in foster care with the Cullison family. It is here, at Alice Cullison's suburban home outside Washington, D.C., where everything really changes -- for all parties involved.
Mary Fred's new guardian, Alice, is a large-hearted librarian who, several years after her divorce, can't seem to shake her grief and loneliness. Meanwhile, Alice's daughter Heather, also known as Puffin, buries any hint of her own adolescent loneliness beneath an impenetrable armor of caustic sarcasm, studied apathy, and technicolor hair. And the enigmatic Uncle Roy is Alice's perennially jobless and intensely private brother. As Mary Fred struggles to adjust to the oddities of this alien world, from sordid daytime television and processed food to aromatherapy and transsexuality, she gradually begins to have an unmistakable influence on the lives of her housemates. But when a horrifying act of violence shakes the foundations of Mary Fred's fragile new family, she finds herself forced to confront, painfully, the very nature of the way she was raised.
With a knack for laying bare the absurdities of daily life, Abby Bardi captures, with grace and authority, all the ambivalence and emotional uncertainty at the heart of these quirky characters' awakenings.
When 15-year-old Mary Fred Anderson's parents are charged with second-degree murder in the neglectful death of their son, Mary Fred is sent from the fundamentalist commune she's grown up in to the nearby Maryland suburbs and the foster care of a quirky 1990s family headed by librarian Alice Cullison, in this topical but uneven debut. A single mom, Alice lives with her brother, Roy, and her sullen 15-year-old daughter, Heather. Bardi has set up a high-concept collision involving several timely issues: cult religions and drugs (Roy spends his days working a scam that enables him to buy heroin, but Heather is too self-absorbed to notice and Alice too flummoxed). Despite the use of multiple narrators the novel is divided into the Book of Mary Fred, the Book of Alice, the Book of Roy and the Book of Heather characters are not fully developed because they are captive to the plot. (Bardi is good at interior dialogue, however, as when Heather muses, "I don't like anything about Sara. For one thing, she's very polite and self-confident and she talks to adults like she's their oldest friend.") The result is unsatisfactory ambiguity: Bardi wants us to take seriously the members of her cobbled-together family, but throws in a kitchen-sinkful of colorful secondary characters for comic effect; the Cullisons' neighbor Paula, for instance, is a postoperative transsexual heavily dependent on astrology. The contrast between the hardworking, literal-minded Mary Fred and the materialistic, self-absorbed Heather is potentially most interesting, but their relationship is not thoroughly fleshed out. Bardi's message may be that cult member or not, we each carry the burden of a belief system a sound enough idea, but one only sketchily developed.