After the Rain by Norma Fox Mazer (Morrow Junior Books: $11.75; 224 pp.)
An elderly man sits on a park bench, looking pensive. Perched by him is a young girl, her sweet face surrounded by a cloud of dark hair, her arm around him. Standing behind these two, his hand protectively on the girl’s shoulder as he gazes at her raptly, is a very handsome, broad-shouldered guy. Although you’d never guess it from the pretty faces on the jacket of “After the Rain,” Norma Fox Mazer has created a bunch of characters as real and sometimes as grittingly irritating as sand in your shoe.
The girl, we read, is Rachel Cooper, 15, who dreams of being a writer and of being kissed before her next birthday. What Rachel sees when she looks in the mirror is not the girl on the jacket but “a pair of large, slightly bulging green eyes; a peaky little face, and wiry, impossible hair. . . .”
The old man is Izzy, her grandfather, “a big, bulky man with wild gray eyebrows. His hands are rough, grayish from (working with) cement. . . . His teeth are stained from years of smoking, and some of them are gone. . . . He pops his bridge out of his mouth, then back in.”
The guy? That’s Lewis Olswanger, “tall and thin, a narrow fellow; he has tight blond curls and large, prominent ears,” definitely not as cute as his picture.
What would the artist have done with Rachel’s parents? Manny, her father, “A baby whale in yellow sport shirt, voluminous checked pants.” Shirley, her mother: “Her behind is enormous, her legs long and thin"--like a moose, Rachel thinks. Her parents are old (Rachel was born when they were in their late 40s); they do infuriating things, like calling her “Mouse.” Embarrassed by them, she turns instead to brother Jeremy, 20 years her senior, the brilliant misfit, off somewhere screwing up his life. “She thinks of him as the most--maybe the only--interesting person in the family,” and she writes him long letters that he never answers.
Within the circle of this idiosyncratic family, Rachel moves securely, going to school, hanging out with her friend Helena, getting to know Lewis--who is as bright and funny and decent as Rachel herself--and visiting her grandfather. The routine of weekly visits to Izzy escalates when the family learns that he’s dying. Rachel begins to go to see him every day, and gradually everything else in her life, including her blooming friendship with Lewis, takes a back seat.
Relentlessly, without knowing why she does it but only that she must, Rachel chips at the old stonemason’s crusty exterior. Izzy is Rachel’s challenge: “Driving nails into cement is probably an easier chore than carrying on a conversation with Izzy.”
The book is really about Rachel’s attempts not only to talk to her ailing 83-year-old grandfather but to like him. Loving Izzy isn’t easy. The cranky old man has succeeded in alienating nearly everyone. And his world centers grudgingly on his daughter Shirley and her family, all of whom bend over backwards to please him but rarely succeed.
Rachel persists. Every day she goes to take a walk with him, whether he wants it or not. At first, he seems to resent her visits. Then he appears to accept them. Eventually he comes to want them.
Mazer is a dab hand at writing excellent books for young adults--13 novels and collections of stories, most of which have garnered some kind of prestigious award. This is not one of her best. Mazer elects to tell the story in present tense for the feeling of immediacy that it brings, but the trade-off is that the book sometimes reads like a film script, a relentless string of choppy phrases: “The living room is bare and clean. A table, chairs, a TV, a small bookcase, an old gray couch. Two windows facing west get afternoon sun. Rachel’s parents and her grandfather sit down.”
More critical than the narrative style, however, is the low-tension level. You never really worry that Rachel won’t do the right thing. You’re pretty sure she’ll be kissed before her 16th birthday. There are no surprises.
Never mind. Put up with the style, forget about the lack of conflict and enjoy the characters.