Book Review: The Exceptions
Grand Central Publishing, 2012
It would be unfair to call David Cristofano’s fantastic new novel The Exceptions some kind of sequel or follow-up to his equally-fantastic previous novel, The Girl She Used to Be, although something of the kind is probably inevitable. And surely Cristofano himself must expect this, since he’s done something very few writers have tried: he’s essentially written the same novel two times in a row, each from the perspective of a different character. Imagine if Charlotte Bronte had first written Jane Eyre and then a year later written Edward Rochester – same exact plot and events, but with a different narrator.
In The Girl She Used to Be, sweet, feckless Melody McCartney tells her own tragic story: how when she was just a little girl, her parents accidentally witnessed a murder by members of the infamous Bovaro crime family and were whisked into the Witness Protection Program, where they were moved from featureless small town to featureless small town out of fear that the gang family would kill them to prevent them from testifying. Melody’s parents are eventually murdered, but she survives and is buried even deeper in the Program, shuttling from handler to handler, never able to trust anybody or reveal anything about herself for fear of detection – until one day a rough, handsome young man who knows all about her enters her life and changes it forever. He is Jonathan Bovaro, sent by his family to kill her – but he’s in love with her and pretty much always has been, and thus Cristofano sets the pieces in motion for a story that’s a little bit syrupy, a little bit predictable, and yet wholly engrossing.
In The Exceptions, we get the same story all over again, only this time from Jonathan’s point of view, starting when he was a young boy and fell in love with Melody even before her father saw the thing he shouldn’t have seen, extending through the years when his family’s hunting surveillance of hers became a weird kind of vicarious dalliance. When the Justice Department steps up plans for the McCartneys to testify, Jonathan is there in the various living rooms and restaurant kitchens as the pressure mounts:
Killing was never taken lightly in our home, and I could read the stress the event was causing in my father’s demeanor, his concentrated focus and near silence. Justice had played their hand well, for we were no longer going to kill individuals; we were going to kill witnesses, and the potential punishment would be all that more severe. This meant choosing wisely, eliminating only those we were certain would be testifying, the ones most likely to want to see us pay.
Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather didn’t just create the tradition of mafia-writing in American fiction – it also established the tradition that such writing should be squawkingly, almost ineffably bad, and virtually every mafia-novel ever written since has followed that tradition. It’s been left to TV cinema to capture the mob’s weird, greasy longing for legitmacy, the straining of venal barbarism against its own nature – in fiction, there’ve been mostly stock villains and gunfights.
Cristofano is a writer who takes everything seriously, however (in 2012, there can hardly be a higher compliment to pay to a novelist), and he takes the Bovaro family seriously. These are not nice people, but from the very first page of The Exceptions, they’re distinctly real people, and our author does a first-rate job of making the reader yearn for Jonathan to free himself of them – without ever making that yearning easy by turning him into a paste-board saint. Instead, Jonathan is every bit as flawed as Melody, from the banal money=power mentality he absorbed from his family to the curious provincialism (spot-on caught by Cristofano) that tends to inflict all long-time residents of the Big Apple, criminal or otherwise:
My entire family lived within these lines, every cousin, aunt, and uncle, each as thick and rich as their Italian accents. There was no reason to leave, and it never really occurred to us to try. The fact that people came in – from Jersey, Connecticut, upstate – made perfect sense. This was not merely the center of our world; it was the center of everything.
Fiction-proficient readers will see the broad-strokes outline of The Exceptions‘ climax coming long before they reach it. Cristofano is too smart not to believe in redemption, and he’s too stalwart a stager to give us (twice!) a hero and heroine who will fail at the last if nerve and courage and long-shot hoping can count toward success. But the slight reliance on formula in these proceedings is their least important feature; this is a book that will make you think, that will keep you reading, and that will stick with you long after you finish it. It’s that true rara avis: intelligent popular fiction. If Grand Central Publishing had any of the old what-makes-Sammy-run, they’d issue The Girl She Used to Be and The Exceptions next year as the two halves of an old-fashioned paperback flip-book. Readers shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for that, however – buy and read these terrific books in any form that comes to hand.