The Lightness, by Emily Temple

Trigger warning for child abuse.

One of the trickiest lessons I’ve helped to teach budding English majors—apart from initiating them into the mysteries of Boolean operators and the inner workings of databases—is that all narrators are concocting their stories. Some are liars. Some are delusional. Some just want others to like them. Even the ones without obvious motives pick and choose what to tell their audience. I’ve read all kinds of narrators but I don’t think I’ve ever met one quite like Olivia, the narrator of Emily Temple’s debut novel, The Lightness. In the years since the events Olivia recounts, it’s clear that she has spent that time educating herself to make up for her shocking obliviousness and naivete.

The Lightness centers on a summer when Olivia attends a Buddhist/spiritual summer retreat for troubled teenage girls. The camp, known as the Levitation Center, is not just a place for Olivia to find her center and brush up on her meditation skills. It’s also the place where her father disappeared years ago, shortly after divorcing her mother. It’s clear that Olivia always wanted to be close to her father. Unfortunately, her father is more interested in trying to detach himself from all earthly desires instead of bonding with his troubled daughter.

We learn over the course of The Lightness of Olivia’s damaged relationships with her parents but most of the story follows what happened after Olivia started to become involved with a strange, alluring girl named Serena and her tight cadre of friends. Serena is the queen bee of the Levitation Center. She’s basically grown up there. Serena is convinced that she can find a way to levitate, just like the rumored lamas and yogis and monks of the past. Within the spiritual practices of the Levitation Center, Serena appears to have created her own little cult that takes what it wants from Buddhist tradition, while leaving behind the whole profound compassion and enlightenment thing.

Through the adult Olivia’s eyes, we see all of the places where young Olivia could have chosen differently. There were plenty of moments when Olivia could have listened to a less cool girl’s warnings about Serena or when she could have heeded the warnings of her own instincts. Adult Olivia provides thick lashings of foreshadowing as she tells her story. So much so, in fact, that the last few chapters are unbearably tense.

The Lightness is a unique look at the lengths that some unhappy teen-aged girls will go to be something other than who they are, to be special. Serena is willing to court death in her quest for special Buddhist powers, never pausing to consider that she doesn’t know nearly as much as she thinks she does. It was hard for me to not pity Olivia, in spite of her bad decisions. It’s a rare teen girl who doesn’t want to be thin and pretty and popular. What was interesting to me was that, even though she has learned a lot since the summer at the Levitation Center, Olivia still finds her teenage self a mystery. Some readers might not like that The Lightness leaves some things ambiguous. I don’t have a problem with this. Ambiguity leaves room for me to think about all the questions that the novel raises. What does it mean when Westerners appropriate Buddhist traditions? What balance should a practitioner strike between their drive for enlightenment and their terrestrial obligations? Is the heart of a teenager always unknowable?

I would recommend The Lightness to readers who like their fiction erudite and thought-provoking.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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