by Ann M. Colford & r & Seattle author Stephanie Kallos caught my attention even before the first page of her debut novel, Broken for You. The book opens with two quotations: one from a noted antiques collector about the human stories contained within decorative objects; the other from the Christian rite of consecration -- the breaking of the bread. Taken together, the quotes form a thematic talisman for the novel, which was published last year to critical acclaim and is now nominated for a Quill award.
"I never got bored exploring brokenness," says Kallos, who reads at Auntie's on Tuesday. "The idea of brokenness is very rich for me. It took so long for me to write the book, and it was very useful for me to have a metaphor I could cling to."
The novel begins with Margaret Hughes, a wealthy 70-something matron who lives sequestered in her family's Capitol Hill mansion surrounded by priceless European china and figurines. The antiques, along with the family fortune, came from her father's dealings with the Third Reich during the 1930s and '40s, and Margaret can still hear the ghosts that reside within each piece. Cursed by the death of her only child and the subsequent dissolution of her marriage, she finds security and solace in relating to things rather than people.
When matters worsen and she's diagnosed with a brain tumor, Margaret decides to open a crack in her walled-in existence before she dies. Through this rupture in the fa & ccedil;ade comes Wanda, an elfin but tough-as-nails stage manager with a predilection for bathroom crying jags. Wanda's past is no less tragic than Margaret's, and the two begin a slow and halting dance of kinship. When the younger woman displays a knack for creating art from broken dishes, their shared story is set in motion -- a story that acknowledges and accepts brokenness as a necessary part of life. Along the way, the two draw others into their circle and form a makeshift family from the shards of broken relationships.
Although Kallos doesn't own a collection quite like Margaret's, she collects Italian pottery and understands the attachment that people can form with beloved objects.
"I've broken things and been heartbroken about it," she says, laughing at the unintentional pun. "But it makes you examine how you feel about objects that are broken and people who are broken. In the book, I feel that I didn't so much answer those questions as raise them."
One aspect of the plot that has raised eyebrows as well as questions is the intentional breakage of much of Margaret's collection. Kallos says many readers expressed outrage at such willful destruction -- while others staged their own plate-breaking parties.
"Some women have really been angry with me," she says. "They say, 'I could never break my grandmother's china.' So I say, 'Think about the context. If you learned that your grandmother stole them from people she had murdered, would that give you a different idea, a different relationship with them?' I love it when they're mortified, and I love it when they go out and start breaking things. The reaction is fascinating and it leads to some interesting discussions."
Kallos is a 20-year veteran of the theater, and her experience shows -- not just in her choice of Wanda's profession but in her ear for dialogue.
"I love the muscularity and physical potential of language and meter," she says. "I want readers to hear language that evokes feeling as well as content. I write very much with my ears engaged. I write with sound in mind, with rhythm in mind."
As the plot unfolds, coincidence and serendipity play major roles; a few voices have critiqued the story as contrived, but Kallos isn't concerned.
"My life experience is chock-full of coincidences," she says. "I have uncanny, truly unbelievable things happening to me all the time. It's part of the truth that I know in my life, although I know it's not true for everybody. For some, the book seems far-fetched and I can't argue with that, but my worldview does support that kind of connection. It gets back to a theme I'm preoccupied by, which is how people connect."
Americans don't like to talk about brokenness. We're raised to be the best and the brightest, to grow up big and strong and to value objects that model our image of perfection. Our pop culture and political speech is littered with triumphal metaphor; weakness is shunned. And for a supposedly Christian nation, we certainly don't live up to the example of humility and vulnerability presented in our holiest scriptures.
At the heart of this story lies the notion that broken objects reveal their stories more openly and easily than those still locked in an image of perfection. Extending the metaphor further, it's only when we acknowledge our own brokenness that our stories emerge and the mosaic of our relationships comes together from the pieces. Kallos captures these ideas in her quirky community of characters, and their brightest lights shine through all the cracks.