Book Review: Nest (Esther Ehrlich)

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Title: Nest

Author: Esther Ehrlich

Genre(s): historical fiction, middle-grade fiction

Length: 336 pages

Published: September 9, 2014

Rating: ★★★★★

 

Overview:

2018 has been the year of unexpected reads. I decided in the winter that I was going to branch out and choose books from genres I’d never touched. Nest by Esther Ehrlich was one of the first, picked up on a fluke because (much like the protagonist) I love birds and couldn’t resist the cute cover, despite the fact that it was middle grade fiction and I’m years removed from that age. The synopsis looked promising but I had no idea that the story would be full of depth, tackle hard issues like chronic illness, mental health, and death, and handle those subjects with delicacy.

Nest is the story of the Orenstein family: Mr. Orenstein, a psychiatrist, Mrs. Orenstein, a dancer, Rachel, the elder daughter, and Naomi (called Chirp because of her love of birds), the younger daughter. They live a happy life in 1970s Cape Cod until Mrs. Orenstein falls ill and is diagnosed with MS. Unable to cope, she becomes deeply depressed, and the rest of the family has to grapple with how to handle the changes that follow.

 

Style/Voice:

Nest is written in first person, and it’s usually tricky for adult authors to capture the voice of younger protagonists. But Chirp’s voice and personality is present from the first paragraph and is not only realistic for an eleven-year-old, but also energetic and compelling enough to pull readers into her world. You don’t have to be the same age to feels as if you’re walking in her shoes and feeling what she feels. Here’s an example from the beginning of the first chapter (p. 3):

“I should have taken the shortcut home from my bird-watching spot at the salt marsh, because then I wouldn’t have to walk past Joey Morell, whipping rocks against the telephone pole in front of his house as the sun goes down. I try to sneak around him, pushing so hard against the scrub oaks on our side of the road that the branches scratch my bare legs, but he sees me.
“Hey,” he says, holding a rock and taking a step toward me. He doesn’t have a shirt on; it’s been broiling all week.
“Hey,” I say, real friendly, like I’m not thinking about the fact that I’m a girl and he’s a boy who might pop me with a rock, since he comes from a family that Dad says has significant issues.”

What I love most about Ehrlich’s style, aside from the readability, is that she uses specific details to showcase Chirp’s personality and hint at deeper meaning while maintaining the innocence a child’s perspective has. It’s clear to readers that Joey’s family is probably abusive just from the first page of the book, but Chirp mentions it with a brief statement that’s almost humorous. I can imagine a younger sibling or cousin talking the exact same way. Chirp’s voice and perspective really come into play later in the book when even more serious content is present; it gives balance to the sadness while also highlighting just how sad and real the issues are. Because I won’t tell spoilers, I can’t go into much more detail, but the prose of this story is that of someone who has a lot of skill and knows her characters well. It’s still a book aimed for middle-school age kids, so readers who want a more complex or raw style aren’t going to enjoy the prose as much as I did. However, compared to other middle-grade novels I’ve read, this one has a richer voice and easily sucks you into the story.

 

Characters:

The characterization of Nest’s cast is simple, but that isn’t to say it lacks depth or interest. The Orenstein family, at first glance, appears fairly typical: father, mother, and two daughters. But each of them has a distinct personality, background, and struggles that make logical sense within the story and make them sympathetic. Mr. Orenstein is a psychiatrist, looking at the world clinically but not without care. He struggles to deal with not being able to help his wife in her severe illness despite having worked his whole life with people who have had problems, while also struggling with how to help his daughters when they don’t want to talk to him or simply need him to be present in small moments. Mrs. Orenstein is a loving mother and incredibly vibrant before her diagnosis, but even her love for her family can’t pull her up out of depression after she loses her ability to dance. Rachel, the older sister, is a young teenager who has to begin navigating early adulthood while stepping in for her mother at home. Her anger and frustration throughout the novel is justifiable and sympathetic, instead of being cliché teenage angst.

And Chirp, who is only eleven years old when the events of the story takes place, is perhaps the most complex character (most likely because we see into her thoughts and feelings). She’s emotionally reserved but incredibly curious about the world, filled with wonder about the flora and fauna around her and often escaping into nature to deal with what’s going on in her life. As her mother grows increasingly ill, she has to learn to cope with her feelings in a way that makes sense to her, while also dealing with the frustrations that come when you’re between childhood and the teen years. Because of Ehrlich’s style of prose, the reader is sucked into Chirp’s life and able to witness her turmoil and growth—as well as the turmoil and growth of her family—through a unique perspective. In fact, the most compelling part of this story is the complex emotions that Chirp navigates as the plot unfolds.

The side characters, whether or not they appear for a short or long period of time, also feel like real people, not cardboard cut-outs standing in for a role. This is why I called the characterization of the story simple but not plain—the perspective of the novel is not one overly concerned with complex storylines, but what is present is strong. The characters may lack the intricate backstories and subplots of larger novels, but they’re compelling nevertheless. They aren’t your run-of-the-mill cast for a children’s story.

 

Plot:

The plot of this novel is character-driven, and its main focus is on the Orenstein family navigating Mrs. Orenstein’s diagnosis, deteriorating health, and changing home dynamic. At risk of giving more spoilers than I probably have, I can’t say much more. But the clean and compelling prose style paired with the interesting protagonist and point-of-view make this the sort of book you don’t want to put down. Its lack of strict plotting doesn’t mean it lacks structure; it’s a well-crafted story that almost leans literary in how it ends, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. Some may find the ending dissatisfying because of that literary element, but it is a fitting ending for the theme and tone of the novel.

 

Setting:

The setting of this novel is both a great strength and it’s only big weakness. As mentioned earlier, Chirp loves nature and particularly birds. Their location near Cape Cod provides the perfect area for her to slip away and watch the native wildlife, and many important scenes revolve around the physical places where she goes. There’s a perfect level of detail to create a vivid world while not distracting from the story. It also feels as if the author knows the area very well, so the various places that Chirp and her family visit feel meaningful and purposeful instead of disjointed. However, my only real complaint with the setting is that it doesn’t feel like a historical novel even though it’s marked as one. It’s supposedly set in the 1970s; there are some hints to it—for example, the types of clothing everyone wears or mentions of their family background since the Orensteins are Jewish—but if you aren’t paying attention it’s easy to miss them and wonder if the story is set in the 21st century. I would have liked to see more of a historical presence in the setting, but since the setting or history of the time isn’t the focus of the novel, it’s not enough to detract from the story.

 

Objectionable Content:

The book is geared for younger readers so it avoids much of any language, violent content, and sexual content. However, the book does deal with really heavy subjects: serious illness, depression, mental health institutions, suicide, death, and grief. There are also hints that a neighboring family has issues with physical abuse. The book handles all of these subjects delicately and doesn’t linger on any of the gruesome details, but readers who are sensitive to those topics should know that they are present throughout the book. It may not be suitable for some kids that are in the target age group depending on how sensitive they are.

 

Conclusion:

Nest is the type of story that is easily underestimated. The cover is peaceful and endearing; the synopsis hints at plot conflict but seems rather benign; and for an adult picking it up, it looks like a good but typical middle-grade piece of fiction. But this story packs a punch emotionally, beyond many classic and adult novels that I’ve read. This is the only book that I can remember that’s made me cry—and I cried more than once. Ehrlich handles difficult subjects with grace and precision and empathy; somewhere along the way, you forget that you’re reading a novel and get immersed in the conflicts, sorrows, and joys of the Orenstein family. This is why I wanted to review this novel, because otherwise, I doubt many readers will even hear about this book, much less pick it up and give it a chance. I highly recommend that you do, and I easily give Nest five stars.

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