NC Author Misha Lazzara’s Debut Novel “Manmade Constellations” Shines
It is said that all stories boil down to two basic plots: a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
In his debut novel, “Manmade Constellations,” North Carolina author Misha Lazzara manages to incorporate both.
The person in this case is Lois “Lo” Gunderson, a twentysomething who desperately wants to leave little Elysian, Minnesota. (Think Lake Wobegon without the charm.)
Locals say Lo is a communist. In fact, she’s a “freegane” who wants to be free from plastic waste and the consumer society, so she gets whatever she can cheaply or for free at thrift stores and garage sales. .
One day, she comes across an ad in the local newspaper: Free car for a good house.
Lo heads to the address, a haunted-looking mansion stuffed with stacks of old newspapers. There she meets Blanche, a feisty but frail old lady dragging a giant oxygen tank.
Yes, Blanche is going to give away her car. (It’s outside, more or less buried under the ice.) There is a catch, however. If she takes him, Lo must swear to head west to California to find Blanche’s son, Jason. (He never calls and almost never writes, except for the occasional cryptic postcard.) Blanche is dying of emphysema and she wants to see her son one last time.
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It takes Lo nearly 80 pages to get started. She hates Elysian, but she’s a bit of a laggard. (His “gap year” from high school to college spanned nearly a decade.) Plus, of course, the car won’t work.
Fortunately, she meets John Blank, a young auto mechanic who has just arrived in Elysian from his home in North Carolina. Soft-spoken and polite, John gets the car up and running in no time. Besides, he’s not mean. (If only he didn’t drink sweet tea from plastic bottles!)
Blanche convinces John to accompany Lo on the trip. It will come in handy if something breaks down. John only asks that they take a detour to Albuquerque so he can meet a sister he hasn’t seen in years.
They don’t know that Jason, the son, has also gone on a trip. An outsider like Lo, Jason lives in a yurt and works on a series of organic farms. But now his longtime girlfriend, who just found out she’s pregnant, has had a fight with him and kicked him out. He must find himself and understand the rest.
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The story takes a lot of twists and flashbacks. John reveals some of his darker past; Lo reveals that she wants to find her biological mother. (She was adopted, sort of. Long story.) A subplot returns to a snake-handling church in the mountains of North Carolina.
Lots of symbolism lurks beneath the surface, and the name Elysian should be a giveaway for those familiar with Greek mythology. A recurring motif involves fireflies, which Lo really likes; she spends much of the trip reading a book about them.
Lazzara received a master’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a master’s degree in creative writing from NC State University. “Manmade Constellations” is a near-perfect example of a well-made academic novel these days. With its quirky yet appealing characters, it will remind some readers of the original Anne Tyler.
By Misha Lazzara
Blackstone Edition, $26.99