Susan Nussbaum's writing is glaring. Her debut novel, Good Kings Bad Kings, shines a very bright, focused beam of light on those all-knees-and-elbows teenage years—a time period painful enough without being compounded by her main characters' frankly unlucky lot in life. The rotating teenage and adult narrators of her novel live and work together in a Chicago institution—in this case, there is little cause to call it a 'home'—for disabled adolescents. It's an ignored but no less real part of our society that, unfortunately, could still use some illumination. The teens' lives are difficult: There is abuse. There is want. There is frustration. But this very bright, focused beam of authorial light that Nussbaum wields glows golden at its edges. In tandem with neglect and greed, there are moments of deep compassion and humanity. And through the whole novel, there is incisive humor, language and dialogue applied so deftly as to make one wonder how Nussbaum could access the seemingly direct thoughts of a hormonal and precocious tenth-grader.
Partly, the answer is that Nussbaum herself uses a wheelchair, a perspective that no doubt informs the irresistible details of Good Kings Bad Kings. Nussbaum also is a playwright and actor, which explains the sense of timing, drama and concreteness that grounds the novel and makes it such compulsive reading.
But compulsive reading does not mean easy reading; there are moments as I read that I could feel my stomach pull with anxiety and care for the children and staff of this hardscrabble, linoleum-enclosed world. Thankfully, Nussbaum's characters are triumphant, not always in a happy-ending, conquer-the-world-and-come-out-on-top sense, but in a much truer way. She gives them authentic voice and a brazen individuality that forces readers to accept and ultimate celebrate their humanity.
As a debut novel, it's as masterful as they come—and I'm not the only one who thinks so. Barbara Kingsolver adds this to the book's back jacket: "This is fiction at its best…The story's sharp eye allows no one to take shelter, and it doesn't flinch…A stunning accomplishment." High, and deserved, praise indeed.
Good Kings Bad Kings reminded me that few people lead easy lives, but even in difficult circumstances, there is beauty, joy and humor to be found. The book inspired me to whip up one of my favorite sweet-tart drinks of summer: a rhubarb shrub. Shrubs are a colonial tradition that's come back into vogue along with canning, pickling and other forms of preserving. It's a fantastic way to use fruit at the peak of the season, and is pretty much fool-proof no matter which fruit you use. Try substituting berries, peaches, plums or any other of your favorite fruits if rhubarb isn't your thing. I like rhubarb, though, because it's bittersweet and plays well with the acidity of the vinegar. The finished shrub can be mixed with gin or vodka and club soda or ginger ale, or with just sparkling water for a refreshing non-alcoholic cocktail. Cheers!
COLD RHUBARB SHRUB
- 1 cup rhubarb (ripe, chopped)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
Pick up some rhubarb at the height of its season, or use berries or stone fruit if rhubarb isn't available. When selecting fruit, riper is better; even if it seems too ripe to eat, it will work well for this recipe. Chop the fruit into small pieces, about half an inch by half an inch. Place the fruit in a medium-size mixing bowl and add sugar. Mix a bit with a spoon. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few days. The sugar will leach juices out of the fruit, creating a sticky liquid. Stir every day or so. After a few days, when the sugar is mostly liquified, add the vinegar and stir with a spoon. Strain off the solids and seal the liquid in a jar. It's ready to use, but the flavors will blend even more over time. Shake lightly before using.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: We're giving away a copy of August's book club read. Enter here!