Ledger of the Open Hand – Review
By Jessica Raven
If you are an avid attendee of the Fog Lit Festival, you may recall Leslie Vryenhoek’s reading from her novel, Ledger of the Open Hand, at the Words & Wine event in 2015. At that point in time, her book had just been released – and now it has been nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award!
Of course, this nomination came as no surprise to any of us. Ledger of the Open Hand is beautifully written, crafted by an author with a clear talent for both witty humor and tear-jerking heartbreaks. With each page that the reader turns, they have no idea which of the two they are about to encounter and that is part of what makes the story so enthralling.
It begins when the main character, Meriel-Claire, starts her freshman year of college. Here, she meets her whimsical roommate, Daneen, and her entire life changes. It is a story we all know well – a bookish girl meets a popular girl, and the popular girl teaches the bookish girl how to be just like her! If you require a point of reference, just listen to “Popular” from the Broadway musical, Wicked.
Except, in Vryenhoek’s book, she takes this age-old story trope, and she does something completely new and unexpected. While Meriel-Claire does get the makeover treatment, the book has nothing to do with her sudden ascent to university campus superstardom. Instead, Ledger of the Open Hand tells the story of her dysfunctional family, and what happens when they welcome Daneen into their home, and into their lives, with open arms.
By far, the characters are some of the most complex and fascinating that I have ever come across. Daneen is your traditional popular girl; pretty, rich, and a little self-absorbed; but she’s also incredibly intelligent. Behind the mascara and lip-gloss is a critical thinker, and a novelist in the making. While she may not be the most moral person, that is what makes her relatable – because none of us are infallibly moral. Even the best of us have our flaws and lapses in judgement.
Perhaps even more relatable, though, is Meriel-Claire. Each and every person who has attended university (or any type of post-secondary education, for that matter) will relate to the overworked young woman telling us her life story. She has concerns that we have all shared: meeting deadlines; maintaining a positive GPA; balancing family, friends, and academia; and what to do after graduation. Add your typical young adult issues, such as struggling with body image and relationship troubles, and you’ve possibly just found the most relatable character of all time. This was incredibly smart writing on Vryenhoek’s part, because readers are automatically more likely to identify with a story if the main characters are reminiscent of themselves.
In making her characters accessible to the audience, she helps readers to really consider the theme of her novel:
What is love worth, and what does it cost?
It isn’t a topic that many people would consider without a bit of nudging, because it is a difficult one to ponder. Yet, through her inventive storytelling, Vryenhoek helps readers find an answer. She points out how much of our culture is rooted in “Disney-planted, pop-music enhanced ideas about love”, and she makes us question whether those are the correct ideas. The way Vryenhoek goes abut doing so is brilliant. After all, what better way to demonstrate the materialistic, shallow ideas about love that young people have been presented with than by showing us the world through a young woman’s eyes?
But what makes Ledger of the Open Hand so special (and absolutely award worthy) is how Vryenhoek takes such complex, difficult life questions and displays them in a fun setting. Readers will absolutely love the blast from the past featured in the book, as much of it takes place in the 1980s. While the story is deeply moving, I was incredibly pleased to be able to find humor in Daneen’s big hair and fashion choices, and Meriel-Claire’s references to classic love ballads and films like Footloose. Personally, I think there are far too few books set in the ‘80s; it was such a fun time! If I could, I would give Vryenhoek an award just for not being afraid to take the plunge.
Setting her book in the ‘80s was a brilliant plot device not just because it is entertaining, but because it also makes a comment on society that many of us need to hear. While the world seems to be changing constantly, at a pace that we all struggle to keep up with, this book is proof that some things will always stay the same. We will always struggle with adjusting to adulthood, we will always make mistakes and have regrets, and a necktie around a doorknob will always, always be the universal sign for “do not disturb, man!” The technology may develop and fashion trends will come and go, but human nature will always be a constant.
The books that have been nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award are all incredible in their own way, but I will absolutely be rooting for Leslie and Ledger of the Open Hand. She uses her book to teach a unique lesson about love that everyone could stand to learn, and she does so with such creative storytelling. Not to mention, she was right here at our very own Fog Lit Festival! The pride that we feel for her being nominated is immeasurable.
“She is one of the loveliest people that I have ever met, and we would love it if she came back to Saint John!” says Andrea Kikuchi, a member of Fog Lit’s board of directors.
We wish Leslie Vryenhoek the very best of luck with her nomination for Ledger of the Open Hand, and look forward to hearing the results later in the year!