I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory
Published by Knopf on June 27 2017
Genres: Adult, Family drama, Paranormal
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The nitty-gritty: A big, bold and hysterically funny multi-generational family drama, with psychics and con men, and plenty of unexpected heart.
It was true that he was unusually nostalgic for a kid, though what he pined for was a time before he was born. He was haunted by the feeling that he’d missed the big show. The circus had packed up and left town, and he’d shown up to find nothing but a field of trampled grass. But other times, especially when Mom was feeling good, he’d be suddenly filled with confidence like the prince of a deposed royal family certain of his claim to the throne. He’d think, once we were Amazing.
Spoonbenders takes place in 1995 Chicago and revolves around three generations of the Telemachus family, who used to be famous psychics. Teddy and Maureen and their three children, Buddy, Frankie and Irene, once appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, but after the tragic death of Maureen, the family put their strange abilities on the back-burner and went about living normal lives. Now grown up with children of their own, Buddy, Frankie and Irene all strive for normalcy, but how can anyone live a normal life when they can, say, see the future or tell when someone’s lying? Even worse, the family gift—or more likely curse—seems to have been passed down to at least one of their children. Irene’s son Matty has just discovered that he can leave his body, the same ability that his grandmother Maureen had.
Frankie has become a con man and after several bad financial deals, finds himself owing a lot of money to the Chicago mob. When Matty tells him about his ability to astral project, Frankie concocts his biggest scheme yet: he’s going to use Matty to help him out of his money troubles.
Meanwhile, Buddy, a lifelong bachelor who still lives at home with Teddy, is acting stranger than usual. Buddy is “touched” and mentally not quite there, but it could be because of his ability to see the future. Buddy “remembers” things that are going to happen, including his own mother’s death many years ago. Now he putters around the house and yard, starting but not finishing a string of home improvement projects, including digging a huge hole in the back yard. Buddy’s life is inexorably moving towards a very specific date and time: September 4 at 12:06 p.m., the point in time when everything disappears.
When a mysterious van starts following Matty, and a man from Teddy’s past named Agent Smalls starts poking around, asking questions about the younger family members, all these elements start to come together. Whether Frankie’s scheme will resolve itself before Buddy’s impending deadline is anyone’s guess, but one thing’s for sure: with a family full of unreliable characters, anything can happen.
Spoonbenders was completely different from the other Daryl Gregory books I’ve read, which only proves how versatile of a writer he is. Most of his other books are much edgier, and I found this book to be more lighthearted and comical, which was a nice change of pace. I have to admit it started a bit slow for me, and it wasn’t until all the threads and characters started coming together that I realized how much fun I was having. Gregory nails complex family dynamics, and he’s created one of the funniest and warm-hearted groups of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. Spoonbenders already has a television deal in the works and it’s not hard to see why. This book is extremely cinematic and screams “movie” (or TV show, in this case) from the first page.
But if you are familiar with Gregory’s other books, keep in mind that this is first and foremost a story about a family. Some of the family members may have psychic abilities, but the paranormal aspect isn’t the focus, although it does drive the story in some ways. What I loved the most about Spoonbenders was the author’s ability to get to the heart of what it means to be part of a large family, with all the awkwardness and humor you’d expect. One of the funniest moments is the day that Matty discovers he can leave his body, and it just happens to be while he’s masturbating. Well, funny and disturbing. He’s also in love with his cousin Mary Alice, and that’s pretty awkward and disturbing as well.
On the flip side, I found Buddy to be the saddest character, and I think I connected with him the most. Buddy has clearly been traumatized by his childhood and his ability to see the future. There is a scene when he’s a young boy where he draws a picture of his mother in a coffin that chilled me to the bone—and then brought tears to my eyes. I loved the relationship between Buddy and his mother, who understands his terrible gift but can only love him unconditionally because he is her child. It’s a heartbreaking situation to be in.
The story moves back and forth from past to present, introducing us to the characters and setting up the very beginnings of the Telemachus family—when Teddy and Maureen meet during a test for psychic abilities. I loved this back story because it turns out Maureen became a famous spy and was able to assist the government by spying on the Russians (although there’s a lot more to that story than I’m telling here!). This is one of my favorite story formats—jumping back and forth—although some readers may not like it. But Gregory’s transitions are seamless and it just wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t get all the drama of the past as part of the story.
I also loved that the title of the book seems to be a nod to 1970s psychic Uri Geller, who was famous for bending spoons with his mind. I think the jury is still out as to whether his act was simply an illusion or not, and Gregory’s story mirrors the idea that while some magic tricks are simply tricks, not everything in life can easily be explained.
A big part of the story in the present involves the Mafia and Frankie trying to protect his family. I don’t usually enjoy mob stories, but somehow Gregory makes it fun. The last twenty percent of the story is a fast-paced race to the finish as the family members, the Mafia and Agent Smalls all converge into an action-filled, over-the-top finish. But the author doesn’t stop there. He ends on a hopeful note that gave me goosebumps (the good kind), an ending that reminded me why I’m such a big Daryl Gregory fan. This is a big-hearted, feel-good story, and I’m so glad I had the chance to read it.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version.