screenshot93 Marjorie Celona’s Y:A Novel is simultaneously jostling, sad, and hopeful.

From the book description (because it says it more succinctly than I can): ““Y. That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass. The question we ask over and over. Why? . . . My life begins at the Y.” So opens Marjorie Celona’s highly acclaimed and exquisitely rendered debut about a wise-beyond-her-years foster child abandoned as a newborn on the doorstep of the local YMCA. Swaddled in a dirty gray sweatshirt with nothing but a Swiss Army knife tucked between her feet, little Shannon is discovered by a man who catches only a glimpse of her troubled mother as she disappears from view. That morning, all three lives are forever changed.

Bounced between foster homes, Shannon endures abuse and neglect until she finally finds stability with Miranda, a kind but no-nonsense single mother with a free-spirited daughter of her own. Yet Shannon defines life on her own terms, refusing to settle down, and never stops longing to uncover her roots—especially the stubborn question of why her mother would abandon her on the day she was born.”

Shannon tells both her story, and the story of her parents and her birth.  The alternation between Shannon’s current life and the time leading up to her birth works well, and I wasn’t sure it would when I first started reading the book. Shannon is definitely precocious, and it is a little disjointing to have a sometimes very adult story told by a child so wise beyond her years.

I started the book with a little trepidation- whatever it was I read that made me order the book led me to think I would find it heartbreaking and sad.  Parts of it were indeed heartbreaking, particularly the story of little Eugene.  I don’t think, however,  it vilifies the foster care system the way the preview of the book that I read made it sound like it would.  It seems like the system itself did a reasonably good job for Shannon within the parameters they have. It does show a need for continued reform, better vetting of foster parents, and more support for children in the system.

Here’s the thing. Through much of the book, I was ambivalent about Shannon.  I felt sorry for her in many respects, but I also got exasperated with her sometimes.  That being said, I believe Shannon’s actions are largely, though not completely, justified by the turmoil she feels from knowing she was abandoned and struggling to find a sense of belonging and permanence.  By the end of the book, though, I felt satisfied. I felt like Shannon would be OK, that she would go on to a reasonably good and stable life. Given her start, that may be enough to hope for.

For a debut novel, I think Celona did a wonderful job. She gave us flawed characters in a desperate situation.  No real villains, but tragic people making bad decisions and living with the consequences.  While at best a mutedly happy read, I do call Y: A Novel wholly satisfying.