Over six novels in seven years, Nell Zink has honed a talent for prose that’s assertive, even breezy in the face of ostensibly sad subjects: toxic relationships and environmental destruction, racism and prejudice, dysfunctional families and poverty, disease and death. So it’s fitting in a way that her latest, “Avalon,” is a kind of modern fairy tale, a light-footed Cinderella story that documents a young woman’s rise from a wretched existence in stylish, witty fashion.
Bran (short for Brandy) is our heroine and narrator, a college-age woman who starts this story by sketching out the tragic details of her life so far. As a child, she lost her mother, first when she took off for a Buddhist monastery, and later, for good, to cancer.
Having never known her real father, who fled home to Australia soon after she was born, Bran ends up in the custody of Doug, her common-law stepfather. Doug is a member of a locally infamous family, the Hendersons, who operate a rundown, rambling nursery that’s a haven for undocumented workers, a longtime hangout for Hells Angels and certainly no place for a parentless girl to grow up.
Sleeping in a lean-to on the property, Bran is made from adolescence onward to earn her keep by helping take care of the plants. The nursery is ruled by Grandpa Larry, a cranky biker who rants about government intrusion and refers to all of the nursery’s dozens of laborers as either “Roger” or “Eric.”
Despite the general air of lawlessness that prevails on the Hendersons’ property, Grandpa Larry ensured that she was never physically or sexually abused there. Still, as she reaches high school and makes friends with more normal family circumstances (and regular teenage things like cellphones, cars and bedrooms), Bran starts to sense that it might be time to move on.
Loosely plotted and chatty, the gist of “Avalon” tells how first friendship and then romance, along with shared interests in art and knowledge, help Bran transcend her squalid circumstances. In high school she befriends Jay, the only child of a wealthy family, and together with schoolmates Henry, Will and Fifi, they take over their school’s literary magazine.
Zink lovingly lampoons the way that teenagers bumble toward identity and character: “Henry regarded himself as an ethical person with a right to sit in judgment because he knew first aid,” she writes.
Jay heads to UCLA after high school. Bran can’t afford college but she keeps up the friendship, and that’s how she meets Peter, a fellow student on whom both Jay and Bran develop intense crushes. As Jay shifts from dance to film studies, Bran starts to take her tentative steps toward autonomy.
Peter emerges as Bran’s potential Prince Charming, and what little narrative momentum that “Avalon” achieves — Zink is best for readers who don’t mind a lot of digression in their novels — lies in finding out whether Bran will get her happy ending.
A comparative literature major with curly black hair, Peter is almost comically erudite for his age — are there really 19-year-old boys in the world so comfortable monologuing on Edward Said off the cuff, or debating concepts of fascism and utopia with ease?
But it’s easy to forgive Zink this flight of fancy in a book that’s so fun to read. And you don’t have to believe a fairy tale to enjoy it.