Book Review: CASEBOOK by Mona Simpson

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.

casebookAt the beginning of Casebook, from PEN/Faulkner Award nominee Mona Simpson (Off Keck Road), teenage narrator Miles Adler-Hart and his twin sisters are told their parents are divorcing. The separation isn’t as bad he’d feared, as the adults have remained amicable. The kids and their mother’s lives start to really change, however, when Irene begins dating an elusive man named Eli Lee.

Eli claims to work for the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC, but travels regularly to see Irene in Santa Monica, Calif. Eli showers her with sweet talk and, as Miles notes with dismay, orders red-pepper flakes for her in restaurants. Miles wants his mother to order for herself. He and his best friend, Hector, suspect Eli is not as he seems, and the boys decide to do some snooping, including listening in on her phone calls. Their amateur tactics don’t get enough results, so they eventually hire a sympathetic private investigator, Ben, and discover things about Eli they wish they could unlearn.

It’s a bit precious for Miles to call his mother “the Mims” and his twin sisters “the Boops,” and Sherlock Holmes fans might be further distracted by the mother’s full name being Irene Adler, but Simpson’s coming-of-age tale is otherwise striking for its restraint, effectively conveying a sense of heartbreak. Miles observes that Eli’s life story is sad, but “in a way that had no poignancy.” Casebook itself is poignant, showing that pain can transform us, and sometimes we have to go through it to find what we need when we least expect it.

Nerd verdict: Case of heartache and healing, told with restraint

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