The Lauras, by Sara Taylor (2017)

Contemporary Fiction
The Lauras by Sara TaylorAlex’s mother hits the road in the middle of the night after a final fight with her husband. It’s not the first time she has taken off, but this time it’s with pubescent Alex, who struggles with Ma’s decision to leave without telling Dad where they are going. It is the start of a years-long journey crisscrossing the United States as Ma reconnects with significant people and places from her past, settling debts and scores and fulfilling long-ago promises. The title refers to the Lauras Ma has known throughout her life, giving Taylor a useful device for slowly revealing key events in Ma’s own story. The book is narrated in the first person by Alex, some 30 years hence, though it is set in this century. The reader slowly comes to realize that Alex’s gender is never revealed, and we eventually learn Alex is gender-neutral. Within this novel, this life decision simmers in the background, only occasionally erupting into a big problem as Alex ages from about 13 to 16 over the course of the story. It is a testament to Taylor’s accomplished writing that this is never an awkward issue; it is truly enjoyable to see how Alex, Ma and Taylor all handle the matter! I will say it was a sobering reflection for me, as a reader, to realize how much gender plays into my understanding of a story. I was probably 15 or 20 pages in when I found myself flipping back to the start to see if there were clues to Alex’s gender, and not finding any, forcing me to confront my own biases as I read through this brilliant novel. As Alex explores a burgeoning sexuality and physical attractions, does it matter if the sexual organs are inside or outside the body? Does a punch in the face hurt more if you are a girl? Is a sexual assault more or less offensive based on the victim’s sex? Wow. And while Taylor effectively causes the reader to ponder such questions, she is also revealing how challenging life is for both Alex and Ma as they set temporary roots and then take off again once coffers are filled, or once Ma has accomplished her goal. Alex slowly finds independence in a life that is deeply dependent on Ma’s goals and whims. And over time, as all children do, Alex comes to realize that Ma is a person in her own right, with her own stories and experiences that she shares on her own schedule. Despite being the narrator for the novel, Alex’s role is as the biased hearer of Ma’s stories. In the same way, Alex gets to tell this story, and it is the reader’s perspective that will influence its interpretation. Though it is at first glance a coming of age story, The Lauras is best appreciated by an adult reader. Older teens will find much appeal as well, though I suspect they will return to this book in later years, after a bit of life experience can provide a more nuanced understanding. Highly recommended. My thanks to Crown Publishing for the advance reading copy provided through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
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