Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Fiction Review: Celine

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Peter Heller is the best-selling author of The Dog Stars and The Painters, both of which are at the top of my want-to-read list because I have heard such rave reviews. He is also the author of a new novel, Celine, which is a bit of a departure from his usual literary fiction. Celine is a mystery novel with an unusual heroine, a stunning setting, and plenty of character development. And I learned this weekend when I heard Peter Heller speak at Booktopia that Celine is based on the life of his own mother.

Celine is a 69-year old woman who lives in Brooklyn with her partner, Pete. She is a woman of many talents and eccentricities: she makes unusual, dark art that often includes taxidermy; she speaks flawless French and is an excellent shot; and she has her PI license and solves mysteries. Most of the cases that Celine takes on involve reuniting families, and sometimes she doesn’t even charge her clients. Her reasons for that particular specialty are based deep in her history and are slowly revealed through the novel.

One day, a woman named Gabriela calls her. Her father, who was a world-renowned nature photographer who worked for National Geographic, was supposedly killed by a grizzly bear near Yellowstone when Gabriela was in college. His body was never found, though, and Gabriela has always wondered what really happened to him. Since she lost her mother at the age of eight, the loss of her father was especially devastating.

Celine agrees to take her case, and she and Pete set off for Yellowstone National Park, stopping in Colorado to borrow a pick-up truck camper (and some guns) from Celine’s son, Hank. This is the very definition of a cold case, since he disappeared decades ago, but Celine begins to dig into the old case, recognizing almost immediately that someone is following them, which only spurs her on. Interspersed with sections on the current investigation are flashbacks as Celine remembers her own childhood, her relationship with her father, and a secret she has kept for 50 years. As the case progresses – like any mystery novel would – we also learn more about Celine, bit by bit.

Interestingly, I have read some reviews – including one by a professional reviewer at NPR – that said it’s a good story, and Heller is a good writer…but the character of Celine is not believable. Well, guess what? At Booktopia, Peter Heller explained to us that the character of Celine is based very closely on his own mother! Yes, she really was a crack shot, had worked for the FBI, made art using taxidermy, and had her PI license. He even said this novel was based on a real case that she solved. In fact, he told some stories about his mother during the talk, and I thought they sounded very familiar…and realized they were almost word for word from the book! So, it’s pretty funny that readers are complaining that it’s too outrageous to be believable. Apparently, it’s not.

I listened to this novel on audio and enjoyed it. It is a compelling mystery, with plenty of suspense, and I enjoyed the unusual depth for a mystery novel and getting to know Celine. The narrator did a good job and made me feel like I was on the case with Celine and Pete. I also very much enjoyed the setting in and around Yellowstone National Park, as an avid outdoorsperson and a frequent traveler to National Parks myself. All in all, it was a fun journey through a mystery with more depth (and humor) than most.

332 pages, Alfred A. Knopf

And if you ever have a chance to hear Peter Heller speak, take it - he is an entertaining speaker with a wonderfully infectious laugh:

Peter Heller speaking at Booktopia at Northshire Books
 Link to Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT (best bookstore ever!):
    

Celine
by Wallace J Nichols, Celine CousteauHardcover
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2 comments:

  1. That's really funny that the one complaint reviewers have of the book is the part that is true! This one sounds interesting.

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    1. I know! I had read reviews on Amazon that mentioned that criticism and then I cracked up when he got up to speak and explained the novel was based closely on his mom's real life! You know what they say - truth is stranger than fiction!

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