by Judith Ryan Hendricks
Harper, 478 pages, $14.95
We Santa Feans have been paying close attention to goings-on at the Roundhouse these last few weeks, but it's time we pay attention to a different kind of law: The Laws of Harmony, the latest novel from Santa Fe resident Judith Ryan Hendricks.
The complex novel opens in Albuquerque, where Sunny Cooper's life is turned upside-down by the sudden death of her fiance Michael. Things just continue to go wrong - she finds out that Michael's business practices were a little unkosher and her car tires get slashed, for example - and she escapes to San Miguel Island in California and attempts to start a new life. But, as any of us who have tried to run away from anything have inevitably learned, you have to make peace with your past before you can get over it.
The first part of the book, which takes place in Albuquerque and Taos, is a charming and accurate look at New Mexico without cheesy mentions of big turquoise bolos or hot air balloons (while those things are nice and all, people who actually live here often have other priorities). The humdrum of a middle-class Albuquerque life comes across perfectly, for better or for worse.
What makes The Laws of Harmony stand out from other novels set in northern New Mexico, however, is that a lot of Sunny's backstory takes place at Armonia, a commune outside Taos where the narrator grew up, calling her parents Rob and Gwen and peeing in a five-seater outhouse. Dirt floors, Free Box clothes, drunken DT'ing Vietnam Vets and big hulking delivery-trucks-turned-family-vehicles paint a unique and lively picture of a place that, as far as Sunny is concerned, could drop off the face of the earth without too many hard feelings from her.
Though it's only the first part of the book that has the local interest thing going for it, the story and characters are intriguing and keep the reader eagerly turning pages. We get to know a huge cast of unique characters and start to glimpse pieces of their backstory; Sunny continually mentions a scar on her arm, dangling the proverbial "carrot on a stick" as to where she got it. When drunken fishmonger Mick shows up on Sunny's porch on San Miguel Island and proceeds to vomit all over her landlady's peonies, we want to know what he'll do next. Sunny takes a job at a bar with a tough-talking Texan cowgirl named Freddie who tries desperately to be Sunny's friend - and we want to know if Sunny's antisocial nature ever gives in.
Like what you're hearing here? Hendricks will read this Sunday, February 15, at Collected Works Bookstore (208-B West San Francisco St., 988-4226) at 4 pm.
SFR will also be sitting down with Hendricks on Thursday for a chat about the new book, so stay tuned Friday for an exclusive q&a with the author!