Avoidance – A Book Review
When I first picked up the book from the store, I didn’t really know what to expect. Over time, I’ve learned not to put much trust in the quotes praising a novel that one can usually find on the back cover.
But there was something about that title, Avoidance… I must have seen it somewhere. It’s a title that raises questions: Avoidance of what? Avoidance of whom? And yet, this novel’s reader will find the first definition of that term in the very first pages of the book: “Avoidance is the strongest way to show care — the best means to hasten restoration”. But, in a way, that description in itself is capable of confusing the reader even more — especially if the reader is like me and the Amish culture is something we are just learning about.
Michel Lowenthal managed to grip the very essence of this strict religious sect in the prologue of his book: sheltered childhoods, society’s expectations, absence from anything that may be looked badly upon by the church elders and last, but not least, full obedience to the doctrine of the religion they grew up with. Any diversion from the right path laid out by the church ministers would result in immediate expulsion and avoidance from all members of the community one once belonged to – even from your closest family members. The author wrote a powerful ending to his prologue, making sure that the reader would be eager to read on and find how he is “free for anything, which means nothing”.
As the author states: “ The main melody of Avoidance is about a summer camp counselor’s difficult decisions regarding his affection for a boy. I decided to write about the Amish (and ex-Amish) as well, as a kind of counterpoint to this melody, because while their situation could hardly be more different, the questions they raise are similar: What happens when our most intense personal wants are directly opposed to the good of the community through which we’ve chosen to make meaning of the world? Is it possible to achieve greater happiness through self-denial than through self-fulfillment? Is life apart from others a life worth living?”
Avoidance: The Storyline
Very early into Avoidance, the reader experiences, firsthand, life in a summer camp. It’s an experience shared by many families and the subject of a zillion US films that propagate this way of spending the summer holidays.
The story in the book is told through the eyes of Jeremy who, while still in college, becomes interested in the Amish religion and, at one point, even lives with an Amish family. From this interest, he decides to study them further. Jeremy also works at a summer camp where he takes on the role of assistant director of the camp, responsible for taking care of all preparations and assisting with whatever new campers and their families may need.
On the first day of camp, the broken wrist of a young boy occupies his attention. The boy’s name is Max. As the narrative continues on, from chapter to chapter, the author constructs a picture of Jeremy in the reader’s mind. The reader learns about his present, past and even his childhood days, when he, too, was a camper at the same summer camp at which he is now employed.
The reader also learns about how a tragic incident leaves Jeremy without a father, which translates into his thinking that growing up is a daunting and pointless task – an attitude soon changed when he looks upon his camp counselor as a role model. The author makes intriguing observations about the nature of the boyish psyche. As a result, he ends one of the chapters with the question “Did every boy have a secret self inside? Did I?”
The author splendidly describes the daily life in a mountain summer camp. His descriptions are so vivid and captivating that even those readers who have never been to summer camp themselves can feel the charm of being a camper, of belonging to a community — even if it’s only in their imaginations.
The bonds people form during their teenage years are such that years later they often yearn to again reclaim that intimate sense of friendship. This is yet another charming characteristic of the book. Yes, we go on meeting new people, striking up new friendships (or maybe acquaintances is a better term) and yet, as the author puts it “the flame never fired hot enough to solder the joint” – In that respect, the book can be perceived as a nostalgic novel, bringing its readers back to the days they treasure in some special self of our childhood memories — dreaming of that perennial, evergreen friendship that can wipe away our sentence of solitude.
Nothing is ever perfect
But at the camp, as in life, nothing is ever perfect. Soon Jeremy notices that Max singles himself out from the other boys at camp. That sparks his curiosity and, after checking his file and a short phone conversation with Max’s grandmother – he finds out that the young Max is a troubled little boy with an attitude. But who’s to blame for that? Max’s mother is rarely present in his life and the only person he deeply loved, his father, took his own life — leaving the young boy overstressed and confused. His family thought summer camp was a chance for him to get back on track.
At the same time, the young counselor, Jeremy, recognizes his own attraction to the lad – attributing it to a preoccupation with the glories of youth and something more he neither wants to consider nor acknowledge. During a night rowing trip on the lake, Max gets up the courage to admit to Jeremy that the director of the summer camp had an indecent contact with him. Jeremy is horrified when he hears these words from the distressed boy and his own attraction changes into a greater concern about Max’s safety and well-being.
Avoidance is a beautifully written book, which despite the controversial subjects it deals with, can engage readers of various backgrounds and make them think of the world and the people that surround us. As a rhetorical question, the author of the book, Michael Lowenthal, asks “Rain ruined paths could be patched or replaced. What happens to a ruined boy?”
To answer this question, one would have to read the book and do some thinking. I wonder, though, if the novel’s name, Avoidance, will become its cure as well – as such high-class literature can often go unnoticed, avoided on the shelves on the local library. Michael Lowenthal states in an interview that is published at his site “Avoidance is maybe difficult because it raises more questions than it answers”. And here is where the reader’s challenge lies – addressing these questions and resolving the moral dilemmas for themselves.
“Avoidance is about love and choice and responsibility and community and other things that affect every human, and I tried to write it with the widest possible audience in mind.”
You can find more about the book from the Author’s web site ( here)