Published by Knopf
Publication date: May 24th 2016
Genres: Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Fiction
Because she wasn’t a trendsetter. No one could hope to be like her. She was one of a kind and, because of this, very much alone. About whether she was pleased with this state of affairs or saddened, I was never entirely sure. Maybe she would have liked to belong.
‘She’ is Vera, Lucas’s teenage daughter. For most of her life he’s been absent; she was the result of a wild whim to have a baby that he and her mother, Katya, acted on when they were briefly in love at age eighteen. A whim that quickly got too real for Lucas. In Dear Fang, With Love it is seventeen years later and Lucas is back in Vera’s life because she’s been hospitalized for what is being called a psychotic episode. Once stabilized, in an effort to lessen the weight of her bipolar diagnosis, Lucas takes Vera with him to Lithuania for the summer.
A smallish novel, the themes explored in Dear Fang, With Love expand far beyond its page count. There is Lucas’s grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor—the trip to Vilnius is to learn more about her life after escaping a concentration camp—but for me what stood out the most was the role of parent in the story. Lucas is an absentee father, a man who left his girlfriend and daughter behind after a failed experiment in communal utopianism. He is a man beset by guilt and an almost constant feeling of failure. Connecting with his vibrantly alive daughter is a gift he did not expect to receive and means that when she shares with him the truth of what really happened the night she was hospitalized he believes her without question and acts immediately to rectify the mistakes he believes were made.
Then there is the way author Rufi Thorpe crafts Vera and her boyfriend, Fang, and all the effervescent beauty and drama that is the teenage heart and brain. Vera’s emails to Fang are so laden with emotion and the only-the-young immediacy that it is impossible not to remember that time. That Thorpe, writing as Vera, can describe a singer’s voice as
It was like bronze and chocolate melted together and flung through the air in spangles.
is an alchemy that makes Dear Fang, With Love worth reading for no other reason. But it’s not just the heights of emotion that are so well rendered. By and large, Fang is the recipient of Vera’s emails, but later in the novel we hear from him directly and his deference and restraint hits with same impact as Vera’s uninhibited grandiosity.
The heart of Dear Fang, With Love is a spoiler so I’ll stop here. The emotions that circle around the truth are as important as the story itself. They are beautiful and tender: a father’s love, a parent’s feeling of never being good enough, being a teenager in love, the crazy wildness of the teenage mind—its flights of fancy, its ability to latch onto concepts and ideas that are ground completely out of us by adulthood—all of these are the elements that make Dear Fang achingly beautiful.