In her debut novel, The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, Kansas native Becky Mandelbaum tells the story of a mother-daughter pair and also of the prairie, a landscape she reflects with detail in this passage about the melodramatic Kansas sky:
“It constantly churned above like a mood ring, stagnating then simmering then eventually boiling over into a deep purple temper tantrum,” Mandelbaum writes, “throwing out fistfuls of lighting and hail, the occasional twister, only to clear out the next morning, contrite and bashful, smiling a uniform blue as if nothing had happened. Who, me? I would never.”
She’s a heck of a writer, but that’s no surprise. Mandelbaum’s collection of short stories, Bad Kansas, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and her first novel features charming, believable characters that come alive in her prose.
The setting is late 2016, and Ariel Siskin discovers that her mother Mona’s animal sanctuary has been the target of an anti-Semitic hate crime. Estranged from her mother since she left her small town for a new life in progressive Lawrence, Ariel returns to her childhood home to try to make amends. The cast of characters includes Dex, Ariel’s charming but hapless boyfriend; his aptly named stoner sidekick, Buddy; Gideon, Ariel’s first love; and Gideon’s girlfriend, Joy. And lots of animals. And President Donald Trump—sort of.
Mandelbaum explores mother-daughter tension, relationship battles, and the power of forgiveness. Wichita readers will appreciate the occasional nods to city landmarks, such as Picadilly restaurant, and political readers will recall the tensions of the weeks following Trump’s election.
Mandelbaum is an impressive and exciting new novelist, and I look forward to reading more.