A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony MarraThe balance I strike between crafting and reading is a zero-sum game. I’ve learned there’s no use wishing it weren’t.

I’ve been knitting and sewing and gardening a lot over the last few months, and reading very little. But I still jumped at the chance to read this month’s From Left to Write book-club book, because I had a feeling it would be worth the commitment. Boy howdy, was I right.

I’ll admit off the bat that though today is the deadline for book clubbers to write about the book, I haven’t finished it. As I said, zero sum game and I’ve been making lots of stuff. But there’s another major reason I haven’t finished the book and that’s that it’s so beautifully written, so poignant and stunning and breathtaking, that I’m taking my sweet-ass time with it so it lasts as long as possible.

Anyway, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, though it takes place in Chechnya and is as much about the ravages of war and dictatorship as it is about the characters both major and minor, makes me think most about neighbourliness.

One of the things I feel truly lucky about in my life – lucky because this is something utterly out of our control – is that eleven years ago we moved onto a block that happened to be very neighbourly. We were greeted by neighbours when we moved in. Over the years, we’ve been in and out of each other’s homes, shared in countless joys and calamities, and watched each other’s kids grow up. The girl from three doors down who was five when we moved in now babysits for Owen. We have a block party every year, and many summers we all organize a yard sale on the same day.

Over the last couple of weeks, though, we’ve kicked it up a notch in our knowing of our neighbours. A week and a half ago, Greg and I went to the Kits High School production of Spamalot, because the teenaged babysitter was in it. We sat with friends from down the block, and we all sat behind the teenager’s parents. It was wildly fun, and ended with the collective realization that we should really all get together more – not just when we happen to bump into each other or our kids are all out playing.

And yesterday, we went to another neighbour’s wedding, with yet other neighbours from the block. Over the years, we’ve cut each other’s grass, trimmed each other’s trees, brought food when illness struck or babies arrived, and now we’ve celebrated all together, too.

We care about each other in the way that proximity and familiarity allow us to – it’s a different manner of caring than the caring that is practiced for and with people you don’t see nearly every day.

Reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena has been a good complement to my thinking about this, my gratitude for my neighbours. Like family, we didn’t choose each other. But we accept and respect each other, we learn from each other, and we value the role we all play in enriching each other’s lives. And more than simply enjoying each other, we’ve grown to rely on each other. This reliance and intertwining of neighbours is a major theme in the novel, and, as it happens, in my life this spring.

It’s possible this book will end up in the very top group of my favourite novels. Not since reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – an entirely different sort of novel but one that gripped me in this rare and wonderful way – have I deliberately taken so long to read a book. The buzz you may encounter about Constellation is all true. You may not usually seek out historical fiction (I don’t) or tales that take place very far from home, but I think every human’s life can be enriched by language as stunning as Anthony Marra’s. I’ll let you know if I change my mind after I eventually finish the book, but I don’t anticipate I will.

This post was inspired by the novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra. In a war-torn Chechnya, a young fatherless girl, a family friend, and a hardened doctor struggle with love and loss. Join From Left to Write on May 20 as we discuss Anthony Marra’s debut novel. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.
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Thien-Kim Lam

I’m glad you’re enjoying the book. I agree, it’s beautifully written. I hope to find a neighborhood like yours one day.


That is truly a gift, to have great neighbors! I am also not quite finished with the book, but I am really caught up in it and am anxious to see where it goes.

Bay Staley

I wish I had such a neighborly situation! I found out my neighbors call me “the girl that doesn’t leave her house”…I might be getting a reputation for being unfriendly. Whoops! ;)

Nancy Cavillones

I have been blessed with friendly neighbors, whether it’s just one person next door or a whole floor of neighbors. It’s nice to have that little sense of community!

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