Recent Reading: Other Birds by Sarah Addison Allen

Okay, my fundamental reaction to Other Birds was, This was surprisingly delightful.

And I say “surprisingly” because I honestly wasn’t sure about it at first.

When Other Birds begins, it’s just suffused with melancholy and sadness. We have several point of view protagonists carrying the story — here’s the setup:

When Zoey Hennessey comes to claim her deceased mother’s condo at The Dellawisp, she meets her quirky, enigmatic neighbors including a girl on the run, a grieving chef whose comfort food does not comfort him, two estranged middle-aged sisters, and three ghosts. Each with their own story. Each with their own longings. Each whose ending isn’t yet written.

So we have Zoey, who is chipper and upbeat, but her mother died when she was twelve and her father has barely tolerated her since he remarried. She does, however, have an invisible pigeon, so, I mean, there’s that.

Then we have the “girl on the run,” which is a dreadful description because Charlotte is not a girl; she is a young woman, and “on the run” is a serious exaggeration. Charlotte has a terrible past, however, and it’s true that she doesn’t want her past to catch up to her. Zoey and Charlotte are the two main protagonists.

Then there’s Mac, who is an award-winning executive chef at a successful restaurant —

— anybody else pause at that? Because that is just as great as you’re imagining. No, it’s more great than that. Mac is a wonderful character and I want SO MUCH to eat at his restaurant. But he was orphaned young and raised by the woman who taught him to cook, and she passed away some time ago — she was really old — and Mac has had trouble letting go of her. You recall the ghosts from the description, yes?

But moving on. Lizbeth Lime, who is seriously mentally unstable. Her sister, Lucy Lime, from whom she is bitterly estranged. Lizbeth’s son Oliver, who is hanging out with the wrong crowd way across the country. Also Frasier, who is the manager of the condo building called the Dellawisp, which is also the name of the little turquoise birds with the orange beaks, which live only here, apparently.

I’m not crazy about the cover, by the way, because while I’m all for artistic license, the birds look very wrong to me. Birds are unlikely to be so utterly mono-colored. Here, for example is an actual turquoise bird:

This is a turquoise dacnis, which is a type of honeycreeper, I believe. Photo by Dimitry B on Unsplash.

No real birds have solid, unchanging color all over. The birds on the cover look weird, like plastic toys. Cheap plastic toys. Personally, I made a real effort to visualize the dellawisps pretty much like the turquoise dacnis, because they’re described as really small and perky, and to me the dacnis looks right for the role.

Back to the actual book. As I say, initially the story is sad. It’s not that Zoey is sad, exactly. She’s actually really happy! She wants to live in her mother’s condo and get a feel for her mother that way. She wants to explore a new town and meet new people and she’s happy about the idea of starting college in the fall and really, Zoey is a charming protagonist, very easy to spend time with. But there’s this sadness in her past. I will just add that her mother’s name was Paloma, in case that suggests anything to anyone about the invisible pigeon.

Charlotte is in a tougher spot. She’s coping, but it’s tough.

Mac is not just a great chef with a difficult childhood behind him, he’s also shy and kind and did I mention I love Mac? But there’s all this sadness in his past. Everyone has some kind of sadness behind them …

… and then the story moves on. Zoey is so outgoing that she pulls Charlotte into a friendship, and then Mac, and it turns out Mac has been attracted to Charlotte for years — you probably recall that Sarah Addison Allen writes romances — and Oliver starts texting with Zoey and is reluctantly charmed and everything pulls together and is thoroughly touching and satisfying. Here’s a great exchange between Oliver and Zoey shortly after they meet in person:

“If you come, I promise not to scream your name and run into you, like I’ve done twice already,” she said. “Think about it.”
“I don’t know, that’s a nice way to be greeted.”
“You say that now, but wait until I do it to you in public.”
He stared at her before saying, “You’re exactly how I imagined you.”
“Thank you,” she said, delighted with the idea of him imagining anything about her. But then, “Wait. Was that a compliment?”
“Yes,” he said, “it was a compliment.”

Such a delightful moment, and Zoey is such a hopeful, upbeat person.

I see from reviews that I’m not the only one who felt this novel opened with a sad, difficult feel to it. Some readers, I see, did not like this book, partly because of that, but I do wonder if that means they stopped partway through, because, again, see above, completely delightful moment, and that certainly does show you how the story moves gently past the sadness in everyone’s past.

Other comments refer to the way that nothing exciting happens. Well, to be fair, I don’t think the story was super exciting and in fact the most exciting element could have been removed and that would have worked exactly as well as far as I’m concerned. Excitement is not what this story is about and not what it needs.

I think I would say that this story is understated, and that it’s essential theme is grief, and recovery via found family. I found it deeply touching. I don’t know that this is my favorite book by Sarah Addison Allen, maybe it isn’t. But on the other hand, maybe it is. It stuck in my head long after I finished it.

I’ll end with my favorite lines from the novel:

Stories aren’t fiction. Stories are fabric. They’re the white sheets we drape over our ghosts so we can see them.

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10 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Other Birds by Sarah Addison Allen”

  1. That sounds quite beautiful. I would not have picked this up based on the cover, but now I’ve added it to my TBR. I actually like the stylized birds, maybe because I like that sort of graphic design. All that saturated blue, plus the birdcage, made me think it would be a tragic book though.

  2. It took me a couple of days, but I finally got to this book and yes, I liked it a lot. I would characterize it more as magical realism than any type of fantasy. The chapters in italics reminded me of the endings of some of the chapters in GGK’s last book, only much better done, which is like a knife to the heart of my younger self, Bc how could anything be better than GGK? But it was. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. I’m happy you liked it, Alison, and now you’re kind of making me want to go read something by GGK. I’m behind with him — I don’t think I’ve read any of his more recent books. That’s kind of startling to realize, as I love most of his novels!

  4. His latest books don’t have the same emotional heft to them as his earlier books, they feel to me as though he’s trying too hard. However you may love them! I was struck by an earlier comment by someone here who hated Tigana, which is among my favorite of his. We are all so very different, in the best of ways.

  5. That being said, it’s such a great feeling when a book you’ve really liked is liked by others! Like, Jackson Pearce’s new book. I’m so, so glad you liked it!

  6. I was perfectly in the mood for this book this last weekend. I just could not get it out of my head. I thought I might have to wait for it (the ebook has quite a long waitlist at my local library), but it turns out the paper copy was readily available.

    And I loved it. It really is beautiful, in that understated way. I agree with you that “the story moves gently past the sadness in everyone’s past,” and “Excitement is not what this story is about and not what it needs.”

    All of the relationships are fantastic. The way Zoey and Charlotte kind of start off on the wrong foot, but both continue to make an effort? Superb. The way Mac and Charlotte have hardly spoken to each other in 2 years, but Zoey nudges them just enough? Sweet. Even the way Zoey is just in everybody’s business, unapologetically.

    I was especially drawn to Mac and Camille’s relationship, but also Oliver and Frasier (that moment at the end!). They’re so resilient and kind, despite what they’ve suffered. And Mac just had this way of asking the right questions or saying the right thing (except goodbye), and being so firmly himself, while still grieving and struggling with the question of love.

    It’s not what we see in most other work. It’s not dramatic. It’s not angsty. There isn’t any misplaced misunderstandings or shouting or violence for the sake of drama. (I’m so tired of how those things are exaggerated “because conflict!”)

    A commenter here linked that post on protagonismos, and it’s been on my mind since. (thanks, Kim!) I wasn’t expecting the multiple POV to work so well (for me) in this story, but it does, and precisely because they’re all influencing each other, and not in that braided each-POV-is-its-own-protagonist way. I mean, the story as a whole is not one character’s story, and it’s moved along in big and small ways by each of the different characters.

    The themes about found family (“they’re out there”), and about not every story needing to be told were resonant, and so well woven into the whole work.

    Thank you for reviewing this! I would’ve missed out if not for that.

  7. Also, I don’t know if you’ve read Pachinko (it was… good, but I do not recommend), but I wanted to throw this part about family secrets at that book. Strongly.

    “There were only two times in a person’s life when a family secret should be revealed— at the very beginning, or at the very end. When a bomb like this is dropped in the middle, it forces the person to spend the rest of their life struggling to live a life redefined, because everything they’d ever known as truth was suddenly false. This secret had gone on for so long that sharing it with [the person] now would only derail [them].”

  8. Mona, thank you for your great comments! I thought that was a really interesting and often true comment about family secrets. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another story make that particular observation, but I think Sarah Addison Allen has approached that observation several times in her novels.

    Which yes, are magical realism more than fantasy, especially this one.

  9. Just finished reading this book and I loved it, for all the reasons already articulated by earlier commenters.

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