Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review - "Hummingbirds" by Joshua Gaylord

Set in a private all-girls high school in New York, this debut novel explores what can happen between male teachers and female students. Two teachers take different paths; likewise, two students make different choices. There is also a backstory between the two male teachers, which affects one's marriage. There are events in the story, but the focus isn't so much on plot as on the characters. What do they think and feel? What motivates them? Why do they choose to act the way they do?

Leo Binhammer is an English teacher, married to writer Sarah but still processing the affair she had a couple of years previously. Ted Hughes comes on board as a new teacher, also in the English department, but Leo knows a secret about Ted and it becomes a barrier between them. Student Dixie Doyle thinks she is worldly-wise and is constantly flirting with Binhammer, who finds it difficult to rebuff her advances despite his being her teacher. Playwright Liz Warren is the smartest girl in the class, no question, but in her private life she is a typical insecure teen. She doesn't seem the type to fall under a teacher's spell, but she isn't as immune as others think. One of the girls makes a choice that will change her, and in the end Dixie and Liz find out they have more in common with each other than they ever would have thought.

The story is told in present tense, giving you the sense that you're living these decisions with the characters. The writing style is poetic, almost to a fault at times as it seems Mr. Gaylord can't write a simple sentence without throwing in a flowery metaphor. However, he makes up for that particular shortcoming by using a cinematic technique of introducing a background character in one scene, then following that person into a scene of his or her own. He might do this three or four times in one chapter, giving movement to the narrative.

The book isn't long, about 340 pages, and it moves pretty quickly. It's not exactly a light read, although it doesn't delve too deeply into the characters either. The author obviously loves language and is anxious to use it in unique ways, so if you enjoy good writing, you'll like this one. For a debut novel it's very good. Hopefully Gaylord will write another, so let's see what he comes up with for his sophomore title.

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