Mona Simpson’s sixth novel, Casebook, visits the country of divorce through the eyes of California teenager and Sherlock Holmes wannabe, Miles Adler-Hart. Aided by his sidekick Hector (living through the aftermath of his own parents’ breakup), Miles recounts their earnest, if often fumbling, effort to make sense of the emotional disturbance that inevitably surrounds even the most amicable end of a marriage and the survivors’ halting attempts to rebuild their lives. Simpson brings this all off with style, blending pathos with humor to create an appealing story.

A teen investigates his mother’s latest boyfriend in Mona Simpson’s Casebook.

Miles’ and Hector’s sleuthing attempts to pierce the veil that surrounds Eli Lee, a man they’re told works for the National Science Foundation in Washington, and who’s dating Miles’ mother, Irene, a mathematician who teaches at UCLA. As Irene’s attraction to Eli deepens, the boys discover pieces of his story that become increasingly implausible, spurring the boys to ever more daring investigative feats, from crude wiretaps to long bus treks from Santa Monica to Pasadena. Their exploits eventually connect them with a sympathetic detective, Ben Orion, who brings a cool realism to their quest.

The success of any novel that relies on the voice of a quirky narrator ultimately turns on the author’s skill in making that protagonist both realistic and sympathetic. Simpson artfully captures Miles’ longing for an emotionally stable home and his yearning for his mother’s happiness. As determined as he is to unearth Eli Lee’s story, his adventures aren’t completely single-minded, as when he and Hector establish a thriving business selling soup in their high school or when they (both straight) become active in the school’s gay and lesbian student organization. Simpson doesn’t fall short either in portraying adults like Irene, who struggles in the gulf that separates the inexplicable (to her) end of her marriage and the beginning of a new life.

Impenetrable as their parents’ lives are to them in placid times, how much more so is that the case when children undergo the wrenching experience of divorce? In this wistful and knowing novel, Mona Simpson penetrates some of that mystery, ultimately winning us over to the side of her endearing cast of characters.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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