Justin Kramon’s debut novel, “Finny, ” chronicles twenty years in the life of one Delphine “Finny” Short, a witty and precocious young woman whose hyper-observational skills and sense of humor transcend her years. We meet Finny when she’s 14, suffocated by her parents’ expectations of how a young lady should act and isolated by her feeling that she will never be good enough. “It’s unfortunate but true that people judge you on your looks,” is her mother Laura’s excuse for giving Finny very particular instructions on how to sit, how to comb her hair, how to speak. Her father, Stanley, is a lawyer who likes to quote the work of “great men”: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Jefferson. Even Finny’s brother Sylvan provides no real friendship, as his idolization of their father causes a chasm between them. While her family’s tendencies are laughable, Finny’s sense of isolation is serious. “I always feel like I am doing the wrong thing,” she says.
And then she meets Earl, a 16-year-old boy who is honest, funny and patient with Finny in a way that makes her feel finally understood. They fall in love. When her parents find out about their relationship, Finny is shipped off to boarding school, and soon after, Earl must move to France to live with the mother he’s never met. Their relationship ends and a reunion seems unlikely, but there’s more in store for Finny and Earl than even they can dream.
“Finny” is, at its core, a love story. However, since it spans two decades, there’s room aplenty for Kramon to play with his peculiar cast of Dickensian characters. For instance, there’s Poplan, the boarding-school dorm matron, who is serious about hygiene and loves nothing more than a good game of Jenga. There’s Earl’s father, Menalcus, a once-successful pianist whose career was ruined by his tendency to fall asleep in the middle of a performance. And Judith, the pathological liar and heiress from New York City whose recklessness often puts Finny in dangerous situations.
Kramon, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, writes with an originality that is both entertaining and refreshing. His words are frank and simple, there’s no trace of a writer’s ego here. And though the story ends neatly, as if tied with a bow, there’s nothing trite about it. In fact, it just makes me want to see more from Kramon, and I suspect I won’t be disappointed. (Naomi Huffman)
By Justin Kramon
Random House, $15, 366 pages