The Gin Closet, the first novel by 26-year old Leslie Jamison, begins strikingly: "On Christmas I found Grandma Lucy lying on linoleum. She'd fallen. The refrigerator hummed behind her naked body like a death rattle." This is a promising opening: dramatic but short of bombastic, lyrical without showing off. But Jamison's novel, over time, becomes considerably less sure of itself than it first appears. While the author displays keen powers of observation, a clumsy structure and a lack of focus keep her book from achieving cohesiveness.
The novel is narrated in alternating long sections by Stella, a New Yorker in her twenties, and her aunt Tilly, who has been estranged from her family for decades. While caring for her dying grandmother, Stella learns of Tilly's existence and decides to seek her out. She finds her aunt drunk and deteriorating in a trailer in the Nevada desert. Stella, well-meaning idealist that she is, becomes determined to turn this woman's life around, most significantly by moving Tilly to San Francisco to stay with her son, whom she had (and gave up) during her time as a prostitute. The plot is driven by the question of whether Stella's efforts can undo her aunt's lifetime of self-destruction.
The answer's ability to surprise you will depend on whether your expectations are Fitzgeraldian (no second acts in American life) or Oprah-fortified (second acts and new cars!). In either case, getting to the conclusion takes some effort. The most significant issue lies in the disparity of believability between the two narrative voices Jamison employs. The voice of Stella is absolutely convincing, and one imagines it's not terribly distant from Jamison's own—she's a recent college graduate with sharp observations about the melancholy of personal assistantship, the persistent scourge of eating disorders, and the strain of being a good daughter and sister. But Tilly's voice—which eventually assumes the bulk of the narrative weight—never seems quite plausible, often sounding like a self-consciously rustic variation on Stella's default poetic mode. "You tell yourself you remember every little thing about a place but really you forget most of it," Tilly says. "The land goes on for miles and miles and there's nothing to swallow the cold or send it back where it came from." Jamison's attempt to inhabit the brain of this troubled older woman is admirable, but it sounds like an echo of Joyce Carol Oates or Joan Didion rather than a fully distinct character.
The novel also suffers from a busy abundance of surface detail and anecdote that distracts from the central narrative. One sentence about trying to teach Tilly to type provokes a two-paragraph memory from Stella about a fifth-grade typing course; dinnertime small talk, the content of television shows, and, always, childhood memories, crowd the pages. One gets a creeping sense that Jamison is pulling things directly from her notebooks to fill out the story. There is also an underdeveloped incest subplot that probably should have been pruned.
While The Gin Closet doesn't entirely succeed as a novel, there are dozens of strong moments that reveal Jamison's skill. The best might be a wicked portrait of a woman Stella works for: "Mrs. Z wrote books about things like women having sex and women getting old and old women having sex.… I listened to her voice piping aphorisms like song lyrics into the phone downstairs: 'It's not about staying young. It's about loving old.'" Deft portraits like this will make Jamison a voice to pay attention to in the years to come.
Andrew Martin in a member of the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books. He has written for Openlettersmonthly.com and Interviewmagazine.com, among other publications.