HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN by M.J. Hyland (HarperCollins), 329 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Dublin-born, now Aussie-based first novelist M. J. Hyland has talent and an excellent premise. If she hadn't cheated at the end of How The Light Gets In, this debut novel would have been really good. Louise is a brilliant but troubled 16-year-old who gets the chance to come to the U.S. as an exchange student. She winds up in a Chicago suburb that is miles away, both literally and figuratively, from her hometown of Sydney, Australia.
In Sydney, she's loathed by her two sisters and loved, but cared for only casually, by her mother in their rundown flat. In the nameless Chicago suburb, she lives in a honkin' huge mansion inhabited by meticulous Margaret and hapless Henry and their two children, horny 17-year-old James and looks-obsessed 14-year-old Bridget.
Louise is over her head from the start, with James unable to contain his sexual interest and Bridget unable to disguise her distrust. Worse, her host parents think that welcoming Louise makes them candidates for sainthood and have no understanding of what's required to integrate a messed-up and impoverished young woman into a new and strange environment.
It's clear from the start that no good can come of this. The tension arises from not knowing exactly what will go wrong. Is the too-pretty boyfriend really a predator? Will Louise's ever-increasing gin consumption get the best of her? Will she cope with the terrifying prospect of performing in the school play?
The writing is lucid, Louise is a terrific character, and there's an especially insightful sequence in part three when our heroine is holed up in a quasi-halfway house and we see how community can be built in the most unlikely places.
Too bad the whole thing falls apart in the last pages.