There are very few fiction books that focus on a female protagonist that choose to focus on the female relationships in her life without going all “beaches” on us, focusing on how she needs to “get the man” (either back or stealing him from a friend), or focusing on how she has totally fallen down on her knees and will never recover until some extreme twist of fate changes her life and suddenly she’s saved! SAVED!

Let me save you time. That doesn’t happen here.

Some events in life are quiet, painful, thoughtful, and, by turns, beautiful. Parker is a 29-year-old who is a part of the boomerang generation. She works in a job she doesn’t despise, and yet she finds herself lacking partnership in her friendships and her romantic relationships. Her ties are weak, at best, with everyone in her life including her parents. The exception to this is the amazing bond she shares with the grandmother who raised her. When Dotty, her grandmother begins to exhibit signs of memory loss as well as the inability to care for herself, Parker’s carefully constructed life does begin to crumble and the question is begged: to whom does an adult child turn when there are no parents who are emotionally able to catch her fall and there is no support system other than the person who is ailing?

In Parker’s case, instead of leaning on the weak supports she has, she turns inward in a way that I have rarely seen in a novel. We tend to despair from the notion of an extrovert who has the ability to reach others or at least who has others that care about reaching her ignoring that help. In this case, Parker is left to go on her own until events with Dotty reach a bitter climax. Letters in Cardboard Boxes explores intergenerational friendships and how the most unlikely places provide us support in times of need. We never truly reach Parker and, frankly, that’s just how she’d prefer it. In the process, though, we get a story that winds us through some realistic life events that someone will need to hear and process.

If you are looking for a serious read that allows you to just feel the differences in relationships between women, this is the novel for you.

Note: I received this novel for free in exchange for my open and honest review of it.

An interview with the author:

I have just a few questions for you.

1. So many books with a female protagonist tend to lean towards a relationship focus due to the surge of “chick lit.” What made you decide to focus on the inter-generational relationships between Parker and her grandmother and Parker and Tanya?

Abby Slovin: I think the importance of these relationships is often undervalued in our society, particularly because we seem so averse to aging and its effects. But, I wanted to stress the value of these kinds of relationships to foster a better understanding of the world and ourselves. Also, it tends to put our own lives and problems into perspective when we have access to a much longer timeline.

I also created these relationships to toy with the concept of age. I’ve characterized these particular characters to not act “their age”; Dotty is whimsical and eager; Tanya is wise and mature; Parker is somewhere in the middle. I like to toy with the reader’s expectations of what a “grandmother” should act like, a “teenager”, a “twenty-something,” etc.

2. Do you have personal reasons for choosing the disease of Alzheimers and was it difficult for you to write about a subject that affects so many as the Baby Boomer generation begins to hit this stage?

Abby Slovin: Mainly, it felt like a story that needed to be told. My reasons were not necessarily personal, but I felt strongly about developing a story around loss. My decision to further develop this loss into Alzheimer’s had a lot to do with the nature of the disease. I wanted Parker to struggle with identity and her sense of security as she loses her grandmother and, to me, the idea that her grandmother also loses her memory and a sense of self provides a metaphor for what we all go through as the generations before us are lost. We lose that sense of a longer timeline, we lose a lot of our own history when this happens.

3. Frequently in the novel, Parker treats Jimmy the way men are frequently portrayed as treating women in novels: as someone to be used when needed and then discarded. What motivated you to give Parker the power and what were Parker’s reasons for detaching from Jimmy?

Abby Slovin: I think in a way, they both use each other. Jimmy’s behavior is consistent throughout the story, though. His relationship with Parker is always about convenience. For Parker, I think we see a very different person in the beginning of the novel. Someone who is conflicted by Jimmy’s treatment of her, his sort of indifference to their relationship. She definitely grapples with it more in her own head, and with her friend Jill, in the beginning. But, as her grandmother’s deterioration worsens, she reaches for anyone to fill that void, and ignores the red flags she saw before simply to have that feeling of loneliness subside. Its only once she finds the love letters from 1941 that she realizes she needs something more from a relationship. These letters, and her relationship with Jerry, remind her that she deserves something more.

4. Parker has a reluctant relationship with her parents that is never fully developed in the novel. Was there background to the story that we did not see or that went unexplained?

Abby Slovin: I think there are a lot of unspoken moments in this relationship between Parker and her parents, simply because their absence produced a lot of empty space and silence. Towards the end of the novel, Parker’s mother provided a little insight on their behavior, saying that she thought if they devoted their lives to something they truly loved, they would somehow make a difference in the world. I think this is a motivation people can relate to, and despite it not totally explaining the behavior, provides some good insight on her parents. I’m sure that their behavior seemed inexplicable to a lot of readers and am always very interested to hear how people respond to them. But this is how some people really live their lives.

5. Parker struggles with embracing her adult self and dealing with the decisions she must make that overwhelm her. This is noted as she frequently escapes into her home and into herself when things get tough. Did you draw on any cultural references to give Parker this coping mechanism or was this part of her character as an integral part of the character’s nature? Why?

Abby Slovin: That’s a very interesting question. I think the decision to retreat — both into herself and her home — has a lot to do with the way Parker has coped with problems before. And without her grandmother — her anchor and confidante, I think this reaction becomes even more pronounced. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on whether there is a stronger cultural reference here. I think there could very well be.

Jillian: Well, Parker is on the cusp of Generation ME and part of that generation is the strong desire to be a boomerang kid and go back to the safety and cocoon of your parents home until the world feels safe enough that you can take it on your own when you are an adult. This age of safety keeps falling further and further back. Parker’s been on her own for a while, but never really comfortable, and she’s never had what most people would call a normal social relationship with her peer groups. Her grandmother is her one true friend and I suppose the cultural context I was looking at was “to whom do you boomerang when things get tough when your parents are emotionally and physically unavailable and you are required to step up and be an adult.” Parker initially falls apart at this concept, as most people of her generation would. She retreats into herself, breaks off contact with her one friend, turns her paramour away, stops seeing Tanya and avoids the world as much as she can. All signs of this point to depression or other mood issues, but the one luxury Parker has never had was allowing her parents to make everything all right. Her grandmother always did that. For me, I always look to a social context and I thought that perhaps you were making a point about how, generationally, there are some anomalies that are not always easily solvable.

Abby Slovin:That’s an excellent point! I think the boomerang concept is exceptionally appropriate in this context, particularly because it seems so likely that Parker’s response would be complete immobilization (and retreat) when the person “to which we boomerang” is no longer there.

Very interesting analysis, Jillian…

Jillian: I didn’t mean to super analyze your stuff, it’s something I do innately. Sorry about that.

Abby Slovin: No need to apologize at all! What you’ve brought up is fascinating.

I wonder…how do you find the overall process of grief portrayed in the novel? Does it seem to adequately describe some of the stages people typically go through? And how did you react to the character Tanya?

Just curious… :) I would very much respect your opinion. In many ways, the story is meant to be felt in a literary sense, but I’m always interested in hearing how it compares to certain “realities”, so to speak… **NOTE: some of what Ms. Slovin asked about was removed as it was personal discussion between the author and blogger. :)

Jillian: I think Parker hits the first stages of it and she is in the middle of Acceptance when we leave her. The denial stage is very, very strong in her and I think that Kubler-Ross would approve as most people stay in that stage for a long, long time. Parker absolutely refused to see the truth in the diagnosis and even thought she might be able to bring her grandmother back with triggering her. Her failure was heartbreaking and painful for me to read because it’s common. I don’t think she finishes her process with us, which is perfect because it’s not a fast process. Had you tied it up in the neat bow that I normally love I probably would have felt dissatisfied with that.

Tanya’s situation is more complex. She is a mature girl because she is forced to be mature. I wanted more insight into her situation (which I supposed might be a lovely possibility for a spin off), because I never really understood what made her tick. I got that she was compensating for what she needed at home, but her dedication to others was an outlier to the kinds of things you general see. Personally, I thought that was the point. I wanted to see more of her grief in regards to the loss of her homeless friend, who seemed to be her only true friend outside of Parker and Dotty. Her general acceptance and “It is what it is” attitude was a little unrealistic, but it could also be her own form of denial in that if she ignores all of what is surrounding her, she can survive. An odd defense mechanism, but a true one. Realities are so much stranger than fiction. It is very easy to escape into the real issues people have. It’s one of the reasons I love my job. If you’ve never been to an anon meeting (any of them will do), I highly encourage it. It’s one of the few therapies that are open to the public that allows an insight into the mechanisms people have.

I appreciate your willingness to embrace the strengths and weaknesses in your characters and in your craft to make it more dynamic. So many forget to do so.

[End of interview]

Thank you so much to Abby Slovin, Author of Letters in Cardboard Boxes for allowing me to interview her about her novel. I’ll bet you are interested in knowing more about it now, right? How about your own copy?

1 lucky blog reader will receive an audiobook version of Letters in Cardboard Boxes, courtesy of Abby Slovin.

It can be yours if you win.

Here’s how to enter:

1) Leave a comment before March 01, 2012 at 5pm CST telling me you want in!

2) You can tweet this giveaway and/or link it on facebook and/or link to it on your own blog for extra chances to win! You can do this as often as you like, but it only counts once. (1 entry each, but you must link them here SEPARATELY or they will not COUNT separately as I will be using a number randomizer to choose the winner–please do not spam your friends to win the contest as most sites frown on that)

3) You can put a blueshelled.com blog button (seen in the sidebar-along with code to add it to your blog or website) on your blog or website, or if you already have one, you qualify, for 3 extra entries. I will verify this before your entries will count. Let me know it’s there and where I can find it. It’s pretty!

Things to know:
**Comments posted after the deadline won’t be included in the drawing.
**You must have a valid way of contacting you in your entry (which means you must leave your email address on the entry so I can send you a notice saying “YOU WON!”)
**If your email address bounces back to me, I will leave a post on my blog for 5 days and you will have the option to contact me for your prize. If you do not, I will re-draw for the prize. I am not responsible for anything that happens once this stuff leaves my hands. If it gets lost, doesn’t work, etc., I’ll feel really bad, but I can’t replace it.
**I will be using a randomizer to choose the winner of the giveaway. As long as your entries fit the criteria, you are eligible.