Joan Opyr’s novel, Shaken and Stirred (Bywater Books), has a familiar premise: A young woman with a dysfunctional and sometimes traumatic upbringing travels home to watch a family member die while she makes peace with her past. Part family drama and part romantic comedy, this is the story of wise-cracking narrator Poppy Koswalski and her alcoholic grandfather. A new take on a clichéd story, the book’s strength is its authentic characters.
Poppy, grandfather Hunter and best friend Abby are particularly compelling. Hunter is an abusive—but fiercely loyal—drinker. Though Poppy’s most vivid memories of him involve drunken violence, there are good childhood memories that she can’t quite shake. Abby, by turns hilarious and heartfelt, helps Poppy navigate her complicated emotions as Hunter slips away.
The city of Raleigh itself functions as an important character. Opyr’s attention to local detail is impressive. She accurately portrays multiple local haunts, from the anarchic atmosphere of the city flea market to the trendy Southern fusion cuisine of Irregardless Café. The flea market stands as a working class reminder of generations past, while the restaurant—built to attract a growing upper-middle class demographic—reminds us that the city, like most of the book’s central characters, changes and grows.
Opyr deftly captures the experience of growing up white and working class in Raleigh on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, as Poppy navigates between her racist family of origin and increasing political consciousness. The class tensions that Poppy remembers from childhood remain intact in spite of Raleigh’s growth. The details are carefully woven, down to the internal tension between grandmother Nana’s racist rhetoric and her changing views. Throughout, Poppy carefully attends to the region’s racism, pointedly observing how it shapes those she loves, white and black.
Not every character is equally well-realized. Poppy’s mother, no minor player, is almost entirely defined by her anger at Hunter. She’s a mere plot device, along for the ride just to demonstrate how offensive Hunter can be. High school pal Kim is presented as a central character, but there is very little substance about her. Most confusingly, the pages devoted to Poppy’s relationship with first love, Susan, tell us little about Susan herself. Poppy is attracted to Susan’s charisma and confidence, but it’s never clear why she falls so hard or why Susan walks away.
The narrative is unevenly paced—and not always tight. Indeed, the first several chapters hint at potential substance abuse troubles for Poppy, who pops prescription pills left and right. Yes, she’s just had a hysterectomy, but often she just takes pills to facilitate sleep. It seems careless to leave this plot point unresolved, particularly in a drama about family substance abuse. And Hunter’s drunken rampages can be long and repetitive, bogging the reader down in conflict without advancing plot or character. His death, around which the book is organized, seems rushed and almost coincidental. Shaken and Stirred has numerous imperfections, but its wit, humanity and occasional wisdom make it an overall worthwhile read.