Lucas and his daughter have never been particularly close. Vera was born when Lucas was just 17, and he’s never really been a part of her life until she became a teenager herself. Now he struggles to be the father he wants to be – not only in Vera’s eyes but also in Katya’s, Vera’s mother and Lucas’ ex-lover. When Vera suffers a mental breakdown and is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Lucas makes the dubious decision to immerse her in her family’s past by taking her to Vilnius, Lithuania. This is where Lucas’ grandmother, the infamous Grandma Sylvie, is from – where she escaped a Nazi concentration camp, survived in the forest for years, and became part of family legend. As Lucas and Vera’s trip in Vilnius progresses, we learn more and more about the family’s distant past, Lucas’ more recent past, and Vera’s present as they slowly but surely reveal themselves to be interconnected.
Vera is an interesting and novel take on the trope of the manic pixie dream girl. It would have been easy to make her one dimensional – the ‘crazy’ girl who pretends to be sane to escape incarceration in a mental institution. Her character is done more justice than that, however, chiefly through our insights into the emails and documents she composes throughout her trip to Vilnius. These documents allow us to see her thought process directly and compare it to how her father perceives it. Seeing both perspectives on Vera allows the reader to understand her as a full character – neither just as a daughter who her father is struggling to relate to or a teenager who too easily gets lost in her own head, but rather a mix of both and many other things besides.
It is not only Vera’s struggles around which this book centers, though. Lucas’ problems are just as prominent, if not more so. Throughout his time in Vilnius he tries to reconcile his past and his family legends with his present and what he discovers to be the truth of the past. As anyone with an extensive family history knows, family legends are deeply rooted in us as children. They are often comfort stories, used to remind us where we have been and where we come from. On some level we all know these stories are often embellished and elaborated upon – I’m still not 100% convinced that I have ancestors who almost went on the Titanic. But to actually discover the extent to which they are inaccurate could call into question everything we thought we knew about our family and ourselves. As Lucas deals with both his present problems with Vera and the prospect of a future full of similar problems, he simultaneously has to reconcile the idea of his past with the facts he uncovers. This self-exploration is paralleled as Lucas’ more recent past is slowly revealed throughout the book – how much it plagues him, how much he has overanalyzed it, and how much it influences his present.
In short, this is a wonderfully woven book about family history, mental illness, and how identity comes from both of them. It’s a fairly quick read that could easily be dismissed as a father-daughter bonding story. But the depth to which Thorpe explores both father and daughter’s past, present, inner life, and future make it so much more than that.
Title: Dear Fang, With Love
Author: Rufi Thorpe
ISBN: 978-1-101-87577-3 (advanced reader’s copy)
Dates read: June 23-July 3, 2016
Rating: Four stars