Corey Ann Haydu's newest novel, The Careful Undressing of Love, offers an interesting premise: the girls of Devonairre Street are cursed. Any boy they love is destined to die. We are introduced to Lorna, one of the
Devonairre Street girls for whom this curse is part of every day life. And to make matters in this book even more complicated and intriguing, these girls live in an alternate version of the Brooklyn we know.
Haydu gives us a world in which Times Square was bombed in 2001, the Twin Towers still stand, and the world crumbles and rebuilds in much the same way our world has in the aftermath of 9/11. This works as a significant underlying disturbance to the other moving pieces within this novel, and is handled with the understanding that one event has the power to incite change. As someone who was young when the Twin Towers fell, I've had to live through such changes; our world is also one which exists in the after.
Instead of studying the who and the why of such events in a history book, Haydu's characters must study the history of those "Affected." This small change to the realities of our world depicts a poignant look at history, and a way to further alienate the main protagonist, Lorna, as she deals with the death of her father from the tragic bombings. She must live with the notion that she is now one of the Affected, whom people study and memorize and remember. Such is a difficult idea to live with in a world where devastation is commonplace, where lemons are used to handle grief, and where tea is to be consumed with more honey than anything else. But even those things can't keep bad things from entering the lives of those who live on Devonaire Street. After all, "we can't stop the world from happening."
Haydu's literary realm is an odd world that is not quite magical realism, but which exists with a touch of those elements. While the premise is enough to intrigue any reader, the world building is rich, and real enough to feel like home. Haydu's characters are flawed and flirt wth the idea of love despite the fact that any boy a Devonairre Street girl falls in love with is then fated to die. It happened to Lorna's father, and her best friend's dad, and her other friends as well. Death has taken husbands and boyfriends, etc. But the curse doesn't feel real to the girls growing up in a world of after until a local love and friend to all on Devonairre Street is killed.
The reality of the curse seems justified.
And still Lorna doesn't believe. Lorna doesn't want to believe. She has her garden and her mother and her friends and her boyfriend who she-doesn't-love-but-maybe-sort-of-could-love. It is all complicated in the best way. And through all of the many complications within the outside forces, i.e. the curse and the bombings, there are still the complications of the human heart. Most profoundly, Haydu writes: "Maybe you never know if you're in love or not...Maybe no one knows, and we all wander around talking about it like it's something tangible and knowable, but actually we're all full of it. Maybe even the people who say they're in love are wondering is this what they meant?"
While Haydu writes with this same kind of philosophical musings in her characater, Lorna, this style never feels out of place. The Careful Undressing of Love is a literary YA novel with a lyrical language that puts many adult works of fiction to shame. There is an essence of wondering about life and the world and love that we have all felt within our youths, which,
perhaps, carry into the people we become as adults. Because there is such a lush and luxurious writing style within this novel, this will appeal to both young adult audiences and those older. After all, the best books in the world have been written about death and love and this book combines both aspects of life with a devastating sense of wisdom that only comes from losing those we most love.
And then there are the girls (and boy, they are LornaCruzCharlotteDelilahIsla), and they offer the best that an ensemble cast of characters can: variety, authenticity, and more truth than can be handled in one sitting. While I easily could have finished this book in one night, it was the kind of novel that I wanted to savor for fear that another of its kind won't reappear any time soon. Then there are the mothers of these girls and the mother to them all, Angelika, who keeps the rules of Devonairre Street so they may never forget the men and the love and the curse that tears both things from them in time. There are the rules: honey cake and shared birthdays and long hair and honey in lavender tea and gardens and benches and lemon trees and lemons for grieving and wool to keep out heartbreak and love and loss and skeleton key necklaces, which provide them with literal keys when they can't seem to find the key to the curse. They can't seem to break the cyclical nature of love and death and dying and loss and mourning the love and filling in holes with donuts for anniversaries and red and white braided bracelets and whiskey and wine and music and memories and pictures and all the items they must keep for fear they might forget. It is enough that could make one's head spin, but which Haydu writes into perfect clarity. Of course wool must be worn to funerals, and of course lemons must be offered to those suffering a doomed and damaged heart.
Then there are lines that break hearts beyond the page: "There is a quietness that is quieter than other silences. There is a line between what feels crazy and what feels acceptable, and when it's blurry, the world is a scarier place. There is a time of night when you haven't slept and anything seems possible. There is a kind of sadness that feels so heavy and tight that you would do absolutely anything to not carry it anymore." Much of the book is composed of soul-searing prose that is so beautiful it has the power to break the reader. And there is more to learn about Lorna and the Devonairre Street girls between the pages of Corey Ann Haydu's newest novel, The Careful Undressing of Love.
At times heartbreaking and inspiring, this brilliant novel is sure to keep readers thinking about the cursed girls of Devonairre Street long after the story is finished.
P.S. Writing this review, I'm listening to Lana Del Rey's song This Is What Makes Us Girls because it puts me back into Haydu's world of curses and love and loss.