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Originally published Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Toews lays the eccentricities on thick in "The Flying Troutmans"

Canadian novelist Miriam Toews' "The Flying Troutmans" tells a tale of two odd-duck sisters and their struggles with the next generation of family iconoclasts.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Miriam Toews

The author of "The Flying Troutmans" will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

"The Flying Troutmans"

by Miriam Toews

Counterpoint, 275 pp., $24

Canadian novelist Miriam Toews has a big soft spot for odd ducks with broken wings.

Her newest book (and not her best) centers on 28-year-old Hattie, a woman betwixt and between — as are so many likable but unmoored protagonists in the fictional world of Toews.

Hattie has been living (or, really, just hanging out) in Paris, when she returns to Manitoba after a rugged breakup with her flaky boyfriend. She's come, reluctantly, to care for the children of her sister, Min.

Min is in the throes of a suicidal breakdown, and it's not her first. And while Min languishes in a psych ward, Hattie tries to be a surrogate mom to her niece Thebes (who is 11) and her 15-year-old nephew, Logan.

Both kids are full-blown iconoclasts, and a real handful. Before too long, Hattie is packing the pair into a rattletrap van and hitting the highway across the border to the U.S. to find their long-estranged father — who, she hopes, might provide some family stability. Or, failing that, just take the kids off her hands.

It's fairly obvious and a mite too predictable, though, that by the end of a colorful "Little Miss Sunshine"-esque road trip, Hattie will have bonded with her charges far more than she expected — and matured a bit herself, en route.

As in her earlier novels "A Complicated Kindness" and "Summer of My Amazing Luck," in "The Flying Troutmans" Toews has you rooting for people who are perched on the social fringe and having a tough time just keeping their act together on a day-to-day basis.

Ironic humor is rampant, as Logan and Thebes break every possible rule of "normality." And in a serious vein, Toews insightfully depicts the burden of guilt, impotence and resentment many a person with a close, mentally ill relative faces.

When they were kids, Hattie observes, Min would go for days without talking. "Muteness was her voice, her retreat was her attack. It was all upside down and disconcerting, and it had made me nuts."

But what is more contrived and forced in "The Flying Troutmans" is the relentless, whimsical eccentricity of the kids. Thebes, in particular, is a precocious ragamuffin with a rarefied non sequitur and an art project for every occasion. The child's wealth of bizarre obsessions, and amazing cultural sophistication, are presented as an obvious defense against her grim familial reality.

Toews lays on the eccentricities with a much heavier hand, and much more relentlessly, than in her earlier books. She really did not need to: she's such a deft writer, able to enlist sympathy for her characters in so many less obvious ways.

Misha Berson is the theater critic

for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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