Nest by Esther Ehrlich

nest

I received this advance reader’s copy from Net galley in exchange for this honest review.

Touching. Poignant. Real. Funny. Heartbreaking.
There are not enough superlatives to describe this treasure of a first novel by Esther Ehrlich, written for young readers. Don’t let the designation fool you. This story will resonate with everyone–those who have a family, those who have felt alone, those who have tried to be a “good girl”, those who have been 11 years old and forced to sit in a sweltering classroom while their heart is breaking.

Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein lives in Cape Cod, circa 1972,  with her parents and older sister. She got her nickname from her love of birdwatching; I love how the author sprinkled avian facts throughout the book. Chirp’s world is turned upside down one summer when her mother is diagnosed with MS, and the dynamics of the house abruptly change. Her dad is less than comforting; Dr Orenstein, the psychiatrist, would rather open a dialogue about feelings and why they are there rather than just give Chirp a hug. Her sister Rachel is becoming distant as she is discovering boys and spending more time with her friends, instead of playing “baby” games with Chirp. And next door neighbor Joey comes from a family that finds it easier to be demeaning than understanding.

As Chirp’s mom encounters more difficulties (I can’t write any more details without avoiding spoilers) the 11 year old turns inward, sneaking away to watch her beloved birds and ponder life. Ehrlich’s prose is right on the money, capturing perfectly the emotions and fears of a girl poised on the far edge of adulthood. At times Chirp is wise beyond her years, other times she just wants her mom. The relationships between all the characters is believable and true to life, even down to the authentic banter between Joey and Chirp.

One day Chirp gets sent to the principal’s office for opening a classroom window.  Her classmates show their support on the bus ride home in a fabulous little scene that is written perfectly. Told from Chirp’s perspective:

When I sit in the bus seat next to Dawn, she says, “Want me to open the window?”, and then she pinches the locks and pushes the window down. She turns around and says to Sally, really excited, “Open your window for Chirp. Pass it on.” Sally passes it on to Tommy, who passes it on to Sean, et cetera, et cetera, and soon the whole bus is filled with the eeeeee of everyone shoving down their windows. Mr Bob, the bus driver, doesn’t say anything;  he never does. He just reaches for his blue wool cap on the dashboard and puts it on while the wind whips everyone’s hair around. 

“Heck no, we won’t go! Heck, no, we won’t go! Yay, Chirp!” Joey yells from the back of the bus. 

I know I’m in big trouble, because I got sent to the principal’s office, but I feel happy with everyone’s windows open for me. 

About 70% into the book, there is a twist that is exquisitely painful and delicate, and Ehrlich makes her writing sing like pure birdsong. There was not a page that went by that was out of place or awkward, from the first to the last. I dare anyone to read this book and not feel as if they are alongside young Chirp as she navigates through her life.

What a rare book Nest is. Read it, and come up with some superlatives of your own to describe it. It goes on sale September 9th, 2014. Buy your copy here. 

 

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