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Review: Eleanor Kriseman’s assured debut, ‘The Blurry Years,’ an affecting coming-of-age story

With the first lines of The Blurry Years, Eleanor Kriseman pulls us right into its young narrator’s world:

"We could hear them in the walls before we saw them. My mom said it might be mice. We were eating dinner in bed. We would have eaten dinner in the kitchen but the bedroom was sort of the kitchen too, and anyways we didn’t have a dinner table."

Six-year-old Callie and her mother live in Florida, but it’s not the Florida of the tourist brochures for theme parks and posh hotels. It’s the world of a young woman trying to support herself and a child working in the service industry, waiting tables and moving from one rental to another and, a lot of the time, depending on the kindness of near-strangers. The mother-daughter relationship is a tight one, but not always happy.

This compact novel follows Callie from grade school to young adulthood. The "blurry years" are her coming of age, especially her growing awareness of sexuality, her own and other people’s. For any young girl, it’s a treacherous passage to navigate. For Callie, growing up with a half-interested mother in coastal Florida towns where middle-aged men lick their chops over 12-year-old girls at beach bars, it’s a minefield.

The Blurry Years is the debut novel by Kriseman, who lives in New York but grew up in Tampa, although under circumstances very different from Callie’s nomadic childhood — her father is a doctor, her mother one of the co-founders of Inkwood Books. (I know Kriseman’s parents socially.)

But she’s a sure-footed guide to the novel’s world, giving Callie a narrative voice whose cool tone and wry humor keep her story genuinely affecting rather than melodramatic.

Even as a little kid, Callie is aware of her situation, noting the "teachers who were nicer to me after the first parent conference." Jeanie can be a charmer, but she’s also a hot-tempered alcoholic who both loves and resents her daughter.

Although Callie affects independence, she clings to the slightest kind gesture, the most backhanded compliments. While her mother is waiting tables at the Colonnade in Tampa, another worker is friendly to the kid. "Dell had told me once that my mom bragged about me, that she said I was ‘no trouble at all.’?" If there’s a sadder brag, I don’t know what it might be.

Her mother’s perpetual restlessness means that they are always leaving people behind: Jeanie’s boyfriends, Callie’s friends. Jeanie is inclined to nasty breakups — after one, she steals her ex’s dog. Callie loves the dog and thinks her mother does it for her. No such luck.

After another romance goes bad, Jeanie wakes her daughter in the middle of the night to pack up and flee. "It was funny, the things I chose to bring, the things I forgot," Callie says. "I brought my toothbrush, as if that were something expensive and irreplaceable. I forgot my friendship necklace, the golden ‘BEST’ to Shauna’s ‘FRIENDS ...’?"

A cross-country road trip takes them all the way to Jeanie’s hometown in Oregon, where they hope to find a haven with Callie’s grandmother. When that doesn’t work out, they land with Jeanie’s still-devoted childhood friend, Starr, and her police officer boyfriend. It is for Callie a rare interlude of genuine kindness, and also a window into her mother’s past. Some of what she learns is dark, but she holds it close: "The more secrets I knew about somebody, the more powerful I felt. I didn’t have anything else."

Before long, Jeanie decides to go back to Florida, flatly turning down Starr’s offer to let her daughter stay there. "I tried to picture the days ahead," Callie says, "what would happen when we pulled out of the driveway. Everything outside would begin to blur again and it would feel familiar, which made me intensely sad, that a blur was something I could get used to."

They land in Daytona, where Callie makes a new friend: "Jazz would do anything if you dared her to. Sometimes she dared herself if nobody else was around."

That friendship and later ones in high school will lead Callie into drinking, anorexia and a disturbing but understandable cynicism about sex: "It was so much easier to manipulate a 35-year-old man who still lived with his brother over a bar into giving you what you wanted than it was to get an 18-year-old boy, one who thought he was going places, to do anything for you."

Although she learns that her own physical beauty has a kind of power, she’s just as cynical about that: "My mom was still attractive, despite what a life like hers will do to you. But that was really her only option, to keep being pretty. Pretty used to be a way out but she was past that. Now her kind of pretty was just a way to keep going."

It takes a terrible betrayal to shock Callie out of the inertia that is pushing her down her mother’s path. She has secrets of her own, and Kriseman makes us care about where they take her.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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