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by Peter Heller
Knopf, March 2017
352 pages
ISBN: 0451493893

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Peter Heller is an amazing writer, focusing on and bringing to life both characters and settings. In this, his third novel after THE DOG STARS and THE PAINTER, he brings us a character based upon his recently deceased mother. The labor of love this entails is apparent, as an almost too large for life New Yorker heads to the Montana/Wyoming border to find a missing parent for a client. Celine, the 68-year-old protagonist, is a contradiction in terms. At the same time that she wears Armani scarves, she also packs heat and knows how to use it. Her husband, Pete, is taciturn enough to be a true Westerner.

Celine has developed a PI practice in New York, where she is approached by a young woman (Gabriella) trying to find her supposedly deceased famous photographer of a father. The scene at the start of the book where Gabriella loses her mother as she is saved by her father is outstanding both for its imagery of the savagery of the ocean and the pathos of a man having to choose between his wife and his daughter. This intense scene is followed by many, many pages of character development with little forward motion of the plot. It is only mid-book that the plot picks back up as Celine and Pete are on the trail of Gabriella's father, sometimes trailing and sometimes following an FBI agent.

Throughout the book, Heller provides us with fully fleshed out and highly interesting characters in both Celine and Pete. I do have to admit that Heller's occasional reference to Pete as "Pa" was jarring enough to bounce me out of the story, even though it was supposedly Celine's nickname for him. Celine, as a very short, elegant New Yorker suffering from emphysema, takes on the baddest of the bad in a way that inspires respect and somehow even seems plausible. Pete supports her, but basically lets her take charge in the rough and tough Western world where they have ended up on this investigative journey.

And really, the descriptions of the West are where Heller truly soars. His evocation of the land of Yellowstone is enough to place the reader firmly there, and his way with words has the reader sitting with Pete and Celine in a Western bar surrounded by members of a motorcycle gang. The isolation of a small Western town, with bears menacing the few inhabitants, is deeply felt. And while most readers will never have met a college educated tracker at his rundown trailer enhanced with car parts and other welded-together enhancements, Heller makes one feel as though this guy lives just around the corner. There's a certain amount of good humor in the way Celine meets this and other characters, but also a great deal of respect for individual choices. On a deep level, this book celebrates individual choices with good nature.

There are so many things to love about this book. You might be captivated by Heller's descriptions of the landscape of the West. Or you might fall in love with the quirky but realistic characters. Maybe it will be the underlying sense of the kindness of strangers. There is something for everyone in this book, which has risen to the top of my reads thus far this year.

Sharon Mensing, retired educational leader, lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors in rural Wyoming.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, March 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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