(Reviewed by Terez Rose MAR 1, 2007)
“I’m sick. I might die,” seven-year-old Estella confesses to her younger sister Connie, in the prologue of Kristy Kiernan’s debut novel. “I have eyecue. It’s bad. I have a lot of it.” When Connie rushes to her beloved sister and friend, Estella holds up her hand. “Don’t. It might be catching.” And thus begins Catching Genius, the irresistible story of two sisters whose relationship and lives are irrevocably altered after one is diagnosed as a math genius.
Fast-forward thirty-five years. The sisters, who haven’t spoken for eight years, must meet, as per their mother’s request, to pack up the family’s Gulf Coast home and ready it for sale. Both sisters are reluctant—their lives have taken divergent paths and Connie still harbors resentment over the way Estella and her genius “stole” their father’s attention and affection. Connie’s youthful attempts to regain her father’s attention by playing the violin—which she learned to do with great proficiency but never brilliance—fell short, relegating her to the sidelines throughout her youth.
The two sisters, now pressed into each other’s company, must address the memories and contentious issues that separate them, as well as dealing with new issues springing up. Estella, currently a math tutor, suffers from a mysterious malady. Connie is struggling with her husband’s infidelity and the challenges of raising two boys. Her teenaged son, an increasingly hostile stranger, is failing math, of all subjects. Carson, her youngest, has been listening to the music Connie still plays and performs, absorbing it and creating his own. When Carson’s music teacher raves about the boy’s prodigious talent—both as a clarinetist and a composer—Connie, well aware of the havoc such a diagnosis can wreak on a family, reacts violently, rejecting both teacher and his words.
Kiernan writes about family, forgiveness and the allure of the Gulf Coast with authority and assurance, producing a smoothly plotted story peppered with revelations that lead to a rousing, heartfelt finish. Alternating points of view between the sisters help the reader understand the key issues of contention and misunderstanding. Connie’s troubled relationship with husband Luke is brilliantly depicted—complex and achingly real. Likewise, Connie’s mother is well portrayed as a firm but loving matriarch who’s lively, outspoken, and reacts to her daughters in a way that is never clichéd or overdone.
Humor punctuates the story nicely, lending levity to tense moments, such as the scene where Connie speaks with a lawyer over the phone regarding her husband. She stands in her living room, surrounded by the orchids that Luke has enjoyed presenting to her, always first “running his fingers along the lips, caressing the throat, gazing at me slyly.” Upon hearing the details of his financial irresponsibility, however, Connie tears up the entire orchid collection, in a Hitchcock-esque frenzy, that afterwards leaves her staring at the petaled carnage:
"All around me plants lay unrecognizable, a battlefield of awful dismembered limbs. My fury settled into something approaching satisfaction when I realized that at least I no longer saw sex when I looked at the orchids."
Estella’s method of narrating—short musings that are focused, economic, almost geometric in their precision, offers the reader fascinating glimpses into the mind of a gifted mathematician. She experiences and processes life through the filter of her numbers, a trait Kiernan depicts brilliantly:
"I walk back down the stairs. Passive-aggressively. Purposely hitting every squeak I know—there are six of them.
Three facts about six:
Six is the first perfect number.
All numbers between twin primes are evenly divisible by six.
Six is the product of the first four nonzero Fibonacci numbers."
This kind of writing is what makes Catching Genius rise above the pack in the crowded women’s fiction market. Clearly meticulous research was required, but the novel never suffers from an excess of academic explanation or mathematics jargon. Kiernan’s successful melding of math and lyrical prose lends the novel invisible depths that provide an intellectual as well as emotional charge to the novel.
Kiernan’s description of Connie as a violin player offers an equal amount of insider information—the hickey on the chin and neck, the clipped fingernails, the frustrations of tuning a recalcitrant violin and the sacred nature of a good bow and its hair. Music scenes between her and her fellow trio members are true to life. Connie, however, falls short of demonstrating the intensity that turns a violin player into a violinist. This flaw, whether the author’s intention or not, is perfectly in line with the story. Connie admits she isn’t the most dedicated violin player, and is never to be found immersing herself in the hours-long daily task of scales, études and arpeggios that most violinists see as mandatory. She leaves her violin—a Stainer—behind in the car (violinists, cover your ears… in Atlanta, in the summer). Playing the violin is a diversion for her, not a calling. Her son Carson, however, it becomes clear, lives to play music, to experiment with music, to find music in everything. He can’t not play music. He is indeed the music prodigy in the family, an irony that affects Connie on many levels.
The story might have profited from more flashbacks, such as scenes that would have “showed and not told” Connie’s biggest grievance—that her father emotionally abandoned her in favor of supporting Estella and her gift. Aside from this, however, the story is well-balanced and focused. Chosen as an Ingram Reading Group Selection for February, Catching Genius is a novel that will appeal to music and math enthusiasts, women’s fiction readers, and anyone who wants to escape for a few hours, pull up a beach chair, smell the sea and enjoy a good story.
- Amazon readers rating:from 9 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Catching Genius at the author's site (click on Excerpt tab)
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for the Kristy Kiernan
- Reading Guide for Catching Genius
- Backstory for Catching Genius
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About the Author:
Kristy Kiernan was born in Tennessee and raised on the beaches of southwest Florida, where she learned to read by watching her mother draw letters in the sand. According to her mother, she knew then that she would be a writer.
She married Richard, an art dealer in 1995. She didn't take him up on his offer to follow her dream of writing until seven years later, and since then she hasn't stopped.
Kristy and Richard live on the west coast of Florida.