By Meg Howrey
Pantheon Books, $24.95,304 pages
Coming-of-age novels can be simultaneously enticing and boringly ho-hum. They entice because most readers already have come of age and can be charmed by reliving or reviewing the experience. They can bore because the genre is used so often, especially among first-time novelists, who have recent coming-of-age material on hand and therefore write as experts. Generally they create well-crafted, sharply observed novels that make easy reading. It’s the predictability of these tales that can trigger the yawn response.
But few if any yawns will punctuate Meg Howrey’s debut work, “Blind Sight,” which follows 17-year-old Luke Prescott as he ponders who he is. Luke’s ponderings plumb greater depths than those of most other coming-of-age heroes, addressing memory, consciousness and belief to explore how any of us - not just teenagers - come to know ourselves.
Luke’s questions about self are highlighted as he tries to write his college application essay. The form asks him “Who are you? What are you?” Luke knows a lot about his mother’s family. For generations, it has produced three daughters, only one of whom has had children - three more daughters. Luke’s mother, Sara, had Aurora and Pearl; then her husband took off for an ashram, and a brief encounter produced Luke. He is much loved by his mother and sisters and also by his grandmother, with whom they live.
But family life is not straightforward for a sole male in a household of women. Sara is a serious proponent of New Age consciousness and alternative wellness regimens. She’s a massage therapist and yoga teacher, she goes on long retreats that require total silence, arranges initiation ceremonies for her children, teaches them to meditate and to ask themselves how they feel about everything they encounter. Luke’s grandmother has her own providential views of the world and finds answers in the Bible rather than the Hindu writings that inspire Sara.
As “Blind Sight” opens, Luke is at the Los Angeles home of his father, Mark Franco, a well-known TV actor and an entirely new presence in Luke’s life. Since Sara spurns TV and knew Mark before he adopted his stage name, she never discovered that he made good on his thespian ambitions, so in turn, Luke never knew of his relationship. Now he is spending the summer with him, and what a summer it turns out to be. Mark gives him lots of stuff, takes him to Hollywood soundstages and premieres, introduces him to his other grandmother in Chicago and spirits him off to Hawaii for a vacation of walking and surfing and just hanging out.
What teenager wouldn’t love this life? Luke is too intelligent to reject its pleasures and not the least the pleasure of being with a male relative. Mark is fun, he’s helpful, and he’s gay. Luke’s a virgin. He wonders if he too is gay. His dad reassures him he’s not. And soon he’s not a virgin, either.
Not surprisingly, he has to adjust when he returns to his Delaware home, and so does his mother. As she reveals more about the encounter that led to Luke’s birth, she alters his newfound sense of who he is and also of what she is. A verbal fight with her throws Luke into an agony of unknowing just when he seems to have found himself.
“Every moment before every moment would have to be reconsidered. Every mandala swept away … He would not have thought he was the sort of person who could say those things. He would not have thought it probable, based on the evidence of himself that he has.” Luke is used to thinking about what could and should be said - he’s not Sara’s son for nothing. He is also well-informed about brain functioning and able to use his information to analyze his experience. And he knows about the concept of qualia. “Qualia is the way things seem to us. It’s one of my favorite words,” he explains.
Qualia is at the heart of “Blind Sight” as Meg Howrey slowly twists her kaleidoscope to gradually reveal different ways of seeing the same things. This gives her novel a wider dimension lacking in many coming-of-age novels. It also enriches Luke’s descriptions of his life with his family in Delaware and the delicious contrasts he enjoys in glitzy Los Angeles. Luke is a charming character: old enough and smart enough to grab adult attention, but innocent and just unsure enough to have the charm of the child.
Ms. Howrey’s other characters are often well-drawn too. She presents Sara and Mark respectfully, nonjudgmentally, letting the reader perhaps question them, perhaps accept them at face value. Aurora and Pearl, though minor characters, bounce off the pages as credible products of Sara’s parenting, while Mark’s mother, Bubbles, and Leila, the girl Luke meets at a Hollywood party, refresh and startle the reader as well as Luke.
Ms. Howrey is equally adept at pacing, alternating Luke’s voice as he makes many stabs at the college essay with a narratorial voice that deftly takes over the tale. Occasionally, the plot of “Blind Sight” creaks a little, especially as new information is revealed or ignorance is explained away, but the pace of this novel, the appeal of its characters, the challenge of its ideas about modes of understanding the self and the world will reward readers and keep them pleasurably engaged in Luke’s life.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.