By Carrie Brown
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
APRIL & OLIVER
By Tess Callahan
Grand Central. 326 pp. $23.99
Tess Callahan's first novel, "April & Oliver," offers up young lovers who are all bad timing and botched encounters and smoldering passion. Childhood friends, the two are separated by time and an unhappy shared history, but they come together again when April's beloved younger brother dies in a car accident. By then, unfortunately, there is another woman in the picture; decent Oliver, who is in law school, is engaged to Bernadette, who teaches disabled children with saintly joy, but it is troubled and troubling April whom Oliver can't forget. With her unstudied sexiness, vulnerability and intelligence, April exerts an irresistible attraction: She's a girl in need of protection from her own grief and bad choices, and Oliver wants desperately to help her.
In trying to persuade us of the caliber of this couple's response to each other, Callahan's prose is occasionally overwrought. There's a little too much electricity rippling across skin, a little too much warmth radiating from thighs. Oliver's jaw is chiseled, and April smells sometimes like the sea, sometimes like "grass after heavy rain." At one point, Oliver's eyes are described as "luminous as glacial ice, those radiant cobalt crevices lit from within." This kind of description focuses our attention on the least complicated (and, in the end, least interesting) aspect of love: its superficial thrill. When Oliver's brother says impatiently, "Just get it out of your systems already. It's only sex, you know," we're inclined to agree with him.
But Callahan wants the couple's attraction to be about more than sex. April and Oliver are also soul mates, and many readers will find their bumpy road compelling, a sensitive and emotional account of two people grappling with the complicated force of mutual attraction when it strikes the right people at the wrong time.
Brown's most recent novel is "The Rope Walk."