Author: Esther Ehrlich
Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein is a normal young girl, happy to follow her hobby of examining birds and twirling with her dancer mother during the humid summer of Cape Cod in 1972. Everything is summer calm until Chirp’s mother begins to have bizarre symptoms of a debilitating disease that leads her into clinical depression and worse. Chirp, forced into the ramifications of adulthood, love, loss, and pain too early tries to connect the pieces in her life, finding comfort in birds and friendship with Joey, the enigmatic boy next door who, despite the abuse he receives from his parents, proves selfless and adventurous, leading Chirp to rediscover the beauty in life and to make amends with the things that are out of control and the people that we lose.
An elegantly wrought novel, supposedly for 10 year olds and up, Nest captivates at all ages, the voice of a child seeing the harshness of the world for the first time, a haunting melody that draws readers in and makes us care about Chirp’s birds and Halloween costumes just as much as we care for the more dire events in her life. The voice is authentically one of a child on the edge of becoming an adult, seeing into the fractured adult world yet still bringing in some of the simple comforts of childhood like building a clothes nest and pretending to be a bird, sheltered from harm. The actions are haunting, simple, beautiful, and lasting.
Chirp is in some ways an outsider, a member of a Jewish (although non-traditional family), in a mostly Christian/American world and her vulnerability is enhanced as her mother begins to fall away into depression. Nest shows how little differences mean when Joey, the supposed product of a bad family, becomes Chirp’s best friend and the relationship grows as the two realize the harsher elements of life but never let go of their spirit and desire for adventure and flight.
Nest deals with some difficult topics such as clinical depression, insane asylums, and the loss of a parent to suicide. While the lyricism of the novel, its simple yet descriptive elegance, and the depths of the emotions were so poignant that my other stack of novels “for adults” languished as I become involved in Chirp’s oddly nostalgic world, I wonder if all parents would be comfortable with 5th graders (the 10 and up crowd) reading a novel that addresses these topics. I’m not sure at 10 that I would have shown the sensitivity and understood the unstated complexities of the characters’ actions to their full potential. Indeed, Nest would almost fit better in the YA genre or even the adult genre as it reminds me of A Day and a Year which is the story of a 16 year old losing her mother to suicide and dealing with the aftermath. That being said as a parental warning of sorts, I certainly wouldn’t say that children shouldn’t read this. The book verges on classic, and I expect to see it decorated with those Newbery awards or something of the kind. However, if the disposition of the child is sensitive to such topics or the parent doesn’t want the child to be aware of these topics (as this is really a coming of age story dealing with some very heavy ideas such as abuse, running away from home, death, and physical ailments) then feel forewarned. Frankly, if I had children, I would allow them to read this because it’s simply good literature and advocates for deeper emotions and a sense of understanding and compassion for those around us.
From the adult perspective, the plot was just plain good. Although Netgalley provided a very in-depth description of the novel, I was still surprised by the twists and turns the story took, particularly the nature of the mother’s condition, and how Chirp, her sibling Rachel, and her psychiatrist father attempt to deal with the situation. It was engaging on both a human level and the level of good storytelling. If all 5th grade books are like this, I’m changing genre preferences.
The novel takes place in 1972 and since that’s many years before my time (born in the late 80s), I wasn’t familiar with all of the cultural references (mostly the Cowbunga term) although I did recognize all the television shows, being a Nick at Nite fan. I wondered how children would feel about the story not being contemporary with them and then dismissed the thought. Everything feels nostalgic and real, as though the author is drawing on experience and that experience shows, creating a world that is vivid and also provides Chirp and Joey with the freedoms of a different time, meaning they could go off on adventures by themselves and discover the world and their reactions to it on their own terms. The novel concludes, having given readers only a partial journey to grief and recovery, a snapshot of a dire moment and the coming back, leaving everything bittersweet and beautiful. I plan on purchasing a copy when the novel is released officially in September. Highly recommended.
– Frances Carden