In Renee Swindle’s new novel, Shake Down the Stars (August 6, Penguin/NAL), Piper Nelson’s life has been in a slow but steady downward spiral since a tragic death in her family five years before. While Piper used to be a dedicated teacher and role model for the students in her high school English classes, she has dipped into new lows. She falters in her responsibilities, not only to them, but in her relationships with family and friends, and the time she dedicates to amateur stargazing – all in service to bottles of scotch and casual sexual encounters with strangers. This the only solace Piper feels she deserves, and really it’s more of a punishment. It’s only when her ex-husband, with whom she maintains a close and intimate relationship, impregnates his new girlfriend, that she breaks down and start making the breakthroughs she so desperately needs.
Shake Down the Stars is more raw and emotionally complicated than I expected in its opening scenes when Piper contemplates settling down with an Edith Wharton novel to avoid attending her spoiled sister’s engagement party (her fiance is a none-too-brilliant, but wealthy, football star/R&B singer – haha, insert eye roll). The novel immediately takes a surprising turn, and I was hooked. Piper presents herself as tough, but slowly reveals her secrets – the part she played in a tragic accident, the complicity she has never admitted, and the guilt that she’s hidden and still carries so heavily.
Swindle creates a wonderfully complex character in Piper. She is a good person – she cares about her students, worries about her nieces, and yearns for a stronger relationship with her mother; but she is also in the grips of an addiction and still heavily grieving – she lashes out, is selfish, self-destructive and inappropriate. Piper isn’t in a comfortable place and her actions certainly don’t always offer comfort to the reader. Swindle doesn’t shrink from the gritty reality of Piper’s choices, but she also treats her with warmth, humor and compassion. Though I read of some of her exploits with hand splayed over my face, I was rooting for Piper – in awe of her journey.
Swindle has written a deeply moving story that encompasses discordant parent/child relationships (even when the child is now an adult), sibling bonds and rivalries, and the strength to be found in dealing with your losses and rebuilding your life. There were a lot of things that I really adored about Shake Down the Stars. Early on in the novel, Piper makes a new friend so ridiculous as to almost be a caricature of lame and off-putting, but who has surprising depth, and is someone she needs to have in her life. This novel is filled withe character who run the gamut in being different and fully fleshed out, with both flaws and endearing qualities.
I love that the people Piper knew, and the friends she made were diverse in racial and cultural identity. Piper has a place in a lot of worlds (as many of us do) – the inner city, the rich and ridiculous, the church folks, the grief groups – and guess what, you find a variety of people in those places. I was constantly surprised by where she went, who she met and how she brought them together, and I loved that. I also loved that Swindles’s brand of tragic and dysfunction included laughs, drama and “WTF” moments. Life has a way of not stopping, no matter what happens, so it is wonderful to read a book that respects that there are other emotional highs and lows in the midst of pain and loss that are worthy of treatment. Skillfully rendered, utterly charming and engaging, Shake Down the Stars is a true gem. Highly recommended.
Yesterday, Renee answered eight question on Out of Twenty. Stop by and check it out.