Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The History of Us by Leah Stewart

Leah Stewart: Cincinnati:: Anne Tyler: Baltimore

Leah Stewart*

     I met Leah Stewart at October’s Books on the Banks celebration and The History of Us matches her modest, intelligent, and humorous attitude.  She teaches at the University of Cincinnati and she focuses on Cincinnati in a manner similar to Anne Tyler with Baltimore.  The History of Us starts compellingly in 1993 with a newly hired
tenure track Harvard History faculty member learning of the deaths of her sister and brother-in-law and the need for her to return to Cincinnati and care for their three small children.

     Stewart then skips forward seventeen years to the youngest child leaving to dance in a New York company.  The back-story of the parents’ deaths and the sacrifice that the aunt made to raise the children is referred to occasionally, but the circumstances of their upbringing doesn’t concern Stewart so much as the choices that intelligent, educated, middle-class people make in their twenties and forties to realize their personal and professional aspirations.  I’ve made it sound dull, whereas it’s a really good read.  

Dexter and Friend Watch the Family Home
     The characters feel authentic, especially in how Stewart presents their dilemmas of either staying in or leaving Cincinnati, pursuing the artistic/creative careers they love or settling for safer, perhaps more lucrative professions, and whether to commit to the familial and romantic relationships in which they find themselves.  Cincinnati plays a major supporting role in this book, not only specific neighborhoods and landmarks, but the feeling of mixed pride and insecurity for many who live here and, to a lesser extent, in the rest of the region.  

     It’s the type of writing that will have many readers thinking ‘I’ve done or felt that way’ and rooting for the characters (as stand-ins for themselves, perhaps) to find the courage to pursue what they want.  It’s a smart and sensitive crowd-pleaser that doesn’t try anything stylistically inventive.  I wish the copy editor had caught a couple of typos in the paperback edition.  Bravo to Leah Stewart and here’s hoping she keeps featuring Porkopolis.

*Photo by Jesse Fax for CityBeat.

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