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by Sonya Terjanian
Sourcebooks Landmark, April 2018
288 pages
ISBN: 1492604011

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Styled as a "coming-of-age meets coming-of-middle-age" tale, Sonya Terjanian's THE RUNAWAYS is an exquisitely crafted exercise in tension-building and character development. Largely set in a single, claustrophobic location—a small, off-season vacation property deep in the snowbound Pennsylvania woods—the novel starts at a run but is then almost entirely propelled by the shifting personalities and conflicting goals of its two flawed yet perpetually empathetic main characters: the reckless but heart-breakingly determined-to-overcome-her-circumstances teenager Ivy, and the outwardly successful but inwardly unfulfilled wealthy marketing exec Mary Ellen.

Having grown up in the dead-end, tragically mis-named town of Good Hope, Ivy lives with her exhausted, emphysemic mother and doggedly pessimistic grandmother and knows that no matter what her guidance counselor might say, the only thing that college has to offer her is a lifetime of crippling debt. She "could see the future coming at her like a freight train," we're told, “"although really, it was the opposite of that. It was like a light moving backward through a tunnel until it disappeared, leaving her alone in the dark." It's an all-too common story among her peers: "...[I]f you didn't end up working for one of the town's three prisons, you ended up inside one of them. Or else you got a different kind of sentence, like a sick ma who needed you more and more, her need like a chain around your neck."

Ivy isn't going to take her fate lying down, however, and so one day, makes the impulsive decision to steal her guidance counselor's car and go on the run. She's headed toward Montana, "a place where it was all about survival," and where she dreams of becoming a smoke jumper—a fire fighter who jumps out of airplanes to put out forest fires.

After a dramatic fifty pages or so—once Ivy's grand plans seem to have well and truly gone up in smoke—she stumbles, hungry and sick, upon a remote summer cabin that's been left empty over the winter and takes refuge there while trying to figure out her next move. She's on the point of desperation when Mary Ellen, a successful marketing exec going through something of a midlife crisis shows up at the cabin—her art teacher's—eager to spend some time alone, working on her vanity project, a portfolio of nature photos.

It is a testament to Terjanian's talent as a writer—her gift for empathetically and realistically getting into the mindset not only of Mary Ellen, but also of Ivy, and for rendering both women so compellingly that the novel does, in fact, read like a thriller when really, it could easily be adapted as an already perfectly structured three-act play. Snowed in with no cell phone service and no one to talk to but each other, both women test out alter egos on one another—Ivy pretending to be Rose, an ambitious, but financially disadvantaged would-be writer, and corporate mother-of-two, Mary Ellen playacting that she's an unmarried, childless, and visionary artist.

These false identities can't hold up to close scrutiny, however, and when savvy Ivy starts to sniff out her would-be mentor's weak spots (without ever fully tipping her own hand, it should be pointed out), the women's lies begin to collide more and more violently. Terjanian deftly takes on American class issues and the wealth divide, exposing Mary Ellen as an armchair savior full of empty platitudes, good intentions, and little follow through without ever allowing the narrative to become snide or losing sight of her compassion for her character. The novel's last act ratchets the tension and the stakes back up to eleven, and pushes Ivy, albeit somewhat unwillingly, to become a different sort of hero than she dreamt she'd be.

THE RUNAWAYS is a thoughtful portrait of two very different women at two very different points in their lives, but both of whom are still trying to become the best version of themselves.

§ Larissa Kyzer is an Icelandic-English translator who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Reviewed by Larissa Kyzer, April 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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