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City of Light
By Carlo Wolff

The Full Cleveland
Terry Reed

Simon & Schuster, 244 pages, $22

Add Boyce Parkman, the heroine of Terry Reed’s debut, The Full Cleveland, to your cache of memorable fictional girls. She is the kind of person you’d like your daughter or kid sister to be: an imaginative, curious type who’s not only attractive—her recognition of her sensuality is key to this novel’s appeal—but also eager to cure the world’s ills. Boyce is the narrator of this engrossing, affectionate triumph of style, locale and voice. The Full Cleveland is much more than the cliché of white patent-leather belt and white shoes long associated with Cleveland, a grindingly poor, formerly grand northern Ohio city. It is a richly imagined coming-of-age novel about a family even more loving than it is dysfunctional. While its focus is Boyce, evolving from cute tomboy to chic young adult, it also is a story of relations and friends, and coming to terms with—if never completely accepting—one’s social status.

It’s also a tale of suburbanization, downsizing and marginalization.

Boyce’s dad, an ad man who comes from a wealthy family and has a taste for Scotch, loses the family home in the wealthy suburb of Shaker Heights and winds up in a cookie-cutter development on the shore of Lake Erie, his new house more subdued, straighter and smaller. As Boyce ascends, her father falters, giving the book its poignant, rueful infrastructure. While her father isn’t as fully realized as Boyce, his decline underlines how she comes to terms with her complex, occasionally cruel, but more often kind, world.

The Full Cleveland crosses the sensibilities of Frank Capra and Carson McCullers in a fresh way, establishing Reed as a writer capable of making the specific resonate on a grand, but never pompous scale. Reed’s emotional territory reminds one of Anne Tyler’s Baltimore and Richard Russo’s upstate New York. You can visualize what Reed writes about. You’d probably like to visit.

The book is full of telling character detail. Mary Parker, the poor girl Boyce befriends at her upscale school, gives Boyce confidence in her own intellect, daring her to be different. Mary dresses in black, turns Boyce on to going to the movies in downtown Cleveland, and teaches her how to steal. Their theft, and subsequent return of the booty, is one of the best scenes in the book. Also memorable: Dotti and Ditto, the eccentric twins Boyce rooms with at the boarding house where her prudish mom sends her after she discovers that Boyce has had a taste of sex.

Even the major characters have quirks: Boyce’s dad owns horses named after drinks. Here, Boyce talks to Cabot, her artistic little sister:

“Dad named our horses after alcohol,” I told her one night. I was trying to sit still, modeling for her. When she didn’t even stop drawing for a second when I told her what Dad had done, I said, “Cabot. Heads up. Your horse is an alcoholic.”

She frowned and kept drawing. Except eventually she said, “That’s not a very nice thing to say about my horse.”

“Cutty Sark and Chivas Regal. That’s scotch. Jimmy Beam is bourbon.” Jimmybeam was an extra horse. Mother sometimes rode him. “He got his inspiration from the liquor cabinet.”

Dad is gentry manqué and Protestant. Mom—make that Mother—is beautiful and Catholic. As the children grow older, friction supplants faith. Meanwhile, roles change. A startlingly rendered scene sets Boyce and Mother at dinner in a posh New York restaurant. Father is slipping and Mother is losing her faith in him:

Mother now laughed the light but tortured laugh that is almost obligatory with public tears. “Forgive me, darling. I can’t in good conscience drag you into this. I’m not even angry with him anymore.” She put her napkin down. “There. It’s over.” She leaned and patted my hand. “You’re very sweet.” And she stood to excuse herself.

I took the opportunity to grab her arm. “Is it divorce?”

The man at the next table looked over, looked her over, and waited to hear it. Mother freed her arm. “Of course not,” she said, glancing at the man and then blaming him on me, giving me The Look, then gliding off, completely poised, toward the ladies’ room. The man at the next table and I met eyes and both looked at a wall.

Reed probably lived through this, surmounting it by turning herself into a fly on the wall of memory. Walls and dorm rooms and cars—the blue Buicks, the “Dream Machine” Mercury—speak eloquently in The Full Cleveland, a memorable, smart homage to a childhood and a place that richly deserve such honor.

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