While reading April & Oliver, the debut novel by Tess Callahan, I frequently went back and forth between thinking it was superb and wondering if I was being conned. Notably, I couldn’t put the book down during this debate. I was certainly caught up in the intrigue and the danger. Upon realizing how mistrustful the content of the story made me, I began to pay more attention to Callahan’s craftsmanship. Having finished the novel I am still not sure if I have been played, but I have to admit that I not only fell for the dramas of the characters but fell a little bit in love with them too.
April and Oliver are cousins, kind of. Their fathers grew up calling April and Oliver’s Nana “Mother” but neither shared the same father or mother. April and Oliver’s proximity and age led them to be inseparable. As children they appeared to have internal radar that kept them aware of the other’s location.
The novel begins with the death of April’s younger brother Buddy. His death brings the family together again and April and Oliver begin to become reacquainted after years of separation.
As teenagers April and Oliver’s approach to their lives had already begun to diverge. April developed quickly, into a bold, sexy and vulnerable young woman. Oliver, on the other hand, exhibited almost excessive responsibility. Despite being an exquisite and talented pianist, he quits the instrument he loves cold turkey and sets off for Stanford, bound for a life less uncertain than that of a composer. Despite Oliver’s desire to protect April from herself and her unfortunate choices in men, as a teenager Oliver is helpless and she is soon lost to him.
When Oliver returns, it is with his fiancée. Bernadette is overwhelmingly kind and beautiful. She is in many ways the antithesis of April, but is canny enough to recognize that the place April holds in Oliver’s past is one that threatens the stasis of her own relationship with him. Because of the attachment to April the reader develops early on, it is difficult to not automatically reject Bernadette as inferior.
Plenty of drama ensues. April has a severely troubled and jealous lover who fails to leave her alone. His presence in the novel is frightening and April’s attraction to him reveals a number of weak spots in her character.
The tension that constantly undercuts the exchanges between characters, and particularly between April and Oliver, is well managed by Callahan. There is not a single dynamic between two people in this narrative that is repetitive. Each relationship is charged in a different and believable way. The most striking is the intensity of feeling between April and Oliver. Their mutual attraction is palpable but at the same time contains an element of danger. The extremity of their differences might possibly be the ideal complement to the other’s nature, but Callahan ensures that the opposite is just as likely.
The author marvelously constructs intricate qualities of both the primary and secondary characters in this novel. I felt I knew these people well and I had a lot invested in the decisions they came to and their respective fates. Again, I do not know if this is partly because I was conned into needing to know about them due to the high level of personal drama in this narrative. Ultimately, I do think there is more to the novel than the sensational aspects of it. Callahan’s ability to tell a good story is finely tuned, and the depth of her character construction suggests an impressive understanding of the intricacies of emotion that make people tick.