I judge books by their cover. I’m not proud of it, but I just can’t help it sometimes. I, like anyone else, will often skip right to my favorite book sections when I visit any bookstore, automatically dismissing any book that doesn’t look like my cup of tea. Yet, for me, there is also something therapeutic about taking a slow stroll through a bookstore. With the creative cover art and the colorful and coordinated patterns of their spines, I find perusing books in bookstores akin to admiring art in art galleries.
So, while I only truly give serious consideration to my favorite sections, simply wandering around the bookstore and taking a brief look at anything and everything brings a sense of calm and relaxation to mind that lowers my reading habit boundaries to give a little more thought to different books.
However, like many, my ever-expanding “want-to-read” list often prevents me from picking up a different book. I’m hesitant to read something different when it would take time away from reading a book that I know I would most likely enjoy. Admittedly, having never read any work of Gothic fiction, “The Stars Are Not Yet Bells” by Hannah Lillith Assadi, a story of an elderly woman who is facing dementia and confronting a lifetime of heartbreak and betrayal to uncover the truth about her past, would fall into that unfortunate category of overlooked books. Simply because I have never read anything similar, I can already imagine myself walking into a bookstore, seeing the melancholy deep blue cover that signals wine-mom-book-club material and wholeheartedly judging it by its cover.
But that is not to say there is anything inherently wrong with the book, the cover or the author (it did turn out to be lovely). Despite this new release being only her second novel, Assadi has already begun to make waves in the literary world after her first novel, “Sonora”: Published in 2018, it received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and earned Assadi the honor of being named a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree.
Yet, regardless of such glowing acclaim, I sadly wouldn’t have looked at it twice since I normally gravitate towards works of science fiction, fantasy and nonfiction. So, having never read anything similar to this book, I approached this read with some degree of trepidation; I wasn’t sure what to expect or whether I would enjoy it. But, in hindsight, overlooking this book would have been a mistake. As I was about to learn, dealing with an “other,” something that was different and not easily understandable, is a concept that works of gothic fiction often deal with and one that, when encountered, can bring wonderfully unexpected value to your life.
Assadi lived up to the hype, producing a poetically stunning and heartfelt story of love, loss and loneliness. What unfolds is a sad but nuanced story exploring the mind of a woman suffering from dementia as she craves to remember the days past. The line between past and present is slowly slipping away from narrator Elle Ranier, yet she remains determined to remember her past and the series of unfortunate events that led her to her current state. Likewise, the reader travels alongside Elle through the slow and careful reveal. Despite abrupt jumps between past and present, following the story is never difficult as Assadi wonderfully keeps both Elle and the reader on the same pace towards discovery, remembrance and closure.
It was the beauty of Assadi’s writing that never failed to astonish me, encapsulated in elegant prose with lyrical, resonant language, chock-full of rich descriptions with haunting imagery and sensory detail. For Elle, it’s the senses that bring back memories of the past: the sounds of the rainy New York City days of her childhood, the enamoring smell of a lost lover, the startling frigidity of the Atlantic Ocean or the earthy must of the sultry summer island Lyra, where Elle spends most of her adult life. With such vibrant descriptions, Assadi provides a character that from the outside appeared as an empty shell, but from the inside was far from empty. Coming from a seemingly unassuming mind, such intricate and powerful descriptions only lingered with me longer, simmering in my mind throughout the day.
“Otherness” in gothic fiction refers to any person or thing that is seen as being different in some fundamental way by the in-group. Elle constantly experiences encounters with an “other” in her hazy, hallucinations of a lost lover or of the tension that develops between Elle and her family, born of the difficulties that arise when watching a loved one wither away. One day she fondly remembers her husband and children; the next day, they are strangers in a strange house. To Elle, everything outside herself is an “other,” as all that she has found comfort and happiness in during her life has slowly faded away.
The most gratifying experience with this book was its connection to my personal life. As I dived deeper into Elle’s troubled mind, I was reminded of my own grandmother’s dementia. My abuelita lives in Mexico, so I don’t see her very often. The last time I visited, her dementia had only just begun to sink in. Back then, I would always receive a call from her on my birthday, but now I no longer do. My only way to gauge my abuelita’s mental state now is to rely on what my mother tells me from her more frequent trips to Mexico, as she seeks to hold onto every last bit of the woman she remembers.
As I toured the beautifully intricate mind of Elle and the family turmoil that developed, I felt as if I was getting a glimpse into the experience of my abuelita. I now feel as if I can understand and empathize with her more and also with the struggles of my extended family in Mexico that deal with the repercussions of her dementia every day. I gained something I didn’t necessarily think I was missing, but that I now deeply appreciate.
At least in regard to my reading habits, with this book, I had encountered an “other.” It’s a book I would have immediately assumed wasn’t my cup of tea. But after reading this book, it made me question — what is my cup of tea? I like to think it’s something I read for pleasure and an escape. My typical fantasy and science fiction reads deliver just what I need for an escape, but don’t often expand to new or different insights; I stick with them anyway for the sake of familiarity. But I also want to learn, to refine my beliefs and to gain new perspectives. Well, if that’s true, then this book is one piping-hot, delicious cup of tea! By reading something different — something I was unsure about — I found a fruitful experience that I didn’t expect but will most certainly cherish. I’ve now learned I’ve been shortchanging myself by only breezing past those overlooked sections — I should be taking in the whole bookstore.
It’s all the more sweet when a book you don’t expect to connect with reflects something you didn’t know you would appreciate. So if you’re like me, the next time you peruse the shelves of a bookstore, maybe give a second thought to those sections you brush aside. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.
Daily Arts Contributor Noah Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.