By Jenna Blum
Dutton, $25.95 384 pages
Karena and Charles Hallingdahl are twins. Karena, from whose point of view “The Stormchasers” is told, is kind, clever and hip - an all-roundgood girl who grows up to be a terrific journalist. Charles is also smart: in fact, he tests out as a genius; unfortunately, he is also bipolar, veering from being sensitive and fun to being wild, willful and just plain mean. His love in life is stormchasing in Tornado Alley - and he is good at it, because he not only knows all there is to know about cyclonic storms, but he also seems to intuit where they are going to touch down and therefore the best place to watch them.
Weather seems a good analogy for Charles‘ condition. After all, weather can be benign but also threatening, even deadly. Does his bipolarity explain why Charles is so good at figuring out how a storm will resolve? He suggests so: “What do storms have to do in order to produce tornadoes? They cycle, right? HELLO! Sound familiar? Not like I have a disorder or anything … BUT I’m going to prove there’s a link between storms that rapid cycle and ones that produce tornadoes because I’m a rapid cycler myself. In fact, I am the closest thing a human being can be to a storm.”
Karena finds this idea appealing rather than an explanation of Charles‘ condition. Jenna Blum keeps it in view as metaphor, but she avoids the temptation to push a simplistic explanation of a complex disorder too far. Instead she explores the impact of Charles‘ condition on his own and Karena’s lives. In the process, she also portrays storms so evocatively that anyone who has been amazed that people actually go out there and chase them will be amazed no longer.
Her novel begins when Karena - now in her late 30s - hears that her brother has been in the hospital and given her name as next of kin. For 20 years, she hasn’t known where he is. Elated at the possibility of finding him, yet distraught at the thought that he might be seriously ill, she goes to the distant hospital only to discover he has discharged himself. She has only one way to find him: To chase the same storms he may be chasing with hope of crossing his path. Karena doesn’t want to do this because after a traumatic storm-chasing experience with Charles on their 18th birthday, storms have terrified her.
Nevertheless, she signs up with a company that specializes in storm-chasing vacations. In the process, she meets Kevin, who turns out to be a former storm-chasing buddy of Charles. Not surprisingly to novel readers who can spot a love interest when he is introduced early on, Kevin and Karena fall in love.
The second section of the novel flashes back to the twins growing up in a tiny Minnesota farming community. Charles was the bad boy of the town; his parents were beside themselves over him. So, often, Karena, the more so because as twins they were so close that Karena could help Charles, even when their parents had thrown up their hands in despair. But during one fateful storm, she can do nothing and tragedy ensues. It’s a tragedy that she cannot speak of, and it affects her subsequent relationships, including the one with Kevin. It doesn’t help matters when they locate Charles and he moves into Karena’s Minneapolis home.
Jenna Blum pays out her narrative artfully, letting different lights play over it so readers never lose interest in Charles or in the storms he studies so devotedly. Her cast of characters include the twins’ mother, Siri, quietly and efficiently smoking herself into an early grave, and Kevin, a high-school science teacher whose own fascination with storms helps make stormchasing a reasonable passion rather than an effect of mental illness.
The weakest character in the book is Karena because the story is told looking over her shoulder so readers rarely get to see her from a distance. Siri appreciates her help with Charles, and Charles adores her - not surprisingly, because she has always stood by him, speaking up for him even when it creates problems for herself. In the course of the novel, we see her once again put everything on the line for him.
In other words, her behavior is saintly, but saintliness is such a trump card that it nullifies other suits in Karena’s hand. Only toward the end of the novel, when Kevin is so furious with her that he breaks off the relationship, do we get a more rounded sense of her. Other perspectives on her would have been welcome sooner. On the other hand, her brother, though in many ways the plague of his parents’ lives - hers, too, in a sense - is drawn with great insight and sensitivity. Charles is a fascinating multifaceted person, not simply a bipolar patient. Ms. Blum also sketches a varied cast of stormchasers, who though minor are sufficiently lively and credible that they help make the fascination with storms understandable.
Charles, the storms, the picture of the twins’ teenage years in Minnesota, the lives of stormchasers on the road, and Ms. Blum’s narrative expertise make “The Stormchasers” a gripping read. Storms will never be quite the same again.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.