Rockaway Beach, 2001. Sarah, a painter from southern California, retreats to this eccentric, eclectic beach town in the far reaches of Queens with the hopes of rediscovering her passion for painting. Sarah has the opportunity for a real gallery showing if only she can create some new and interesting work. There, near the beach, she hopes to escape a life caught in the stasis of caregiving for her elderly parents and working at an art supply store to unleash the artist within. One summer, a room filled with empty canvasses, nothing but possibility.
There she meets Marty, an older musician from a once-popular band whose harmonies still infuse the summertime music festivals. His strict adherence to his music and to his Jewish faith will provoke unexpected feelings in Sarah and influence both her time there and her painting.
Rockaway is a time capsule love letter to a quirky, singular town, in a time before an entire community was brought to its knees in the events about to occur in September 2001, and to an entire town that faced tragedy again when it was summarily devastated eleven years later by Hurricane Sandy. It is the startling new fiction by a writer praised by
Tara Ison is the author of the short story collection BALL, the novels THE LIST, ROCKAWAY, and A CHILD OUT OF ALCATRAZ, a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Awards. Her essay collection REELING THROUGH LIFE was the winner of the 2015 PEN Southwest Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Her novel of WWII Vichy France, AT THE HOUR BETWEEN DOG AND WOLF, will be published in February 2023.
Her short fiction, essays, poetry and book reviews have appeared in Tin House, BOMB, Salon, O, the Oprah Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Nerve.com, Black Clock, Publisher's Weekly, The Week magazine, The Mississippi Review, LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous anthologies. She is also the co-writer of the movie Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead.
She is the recipient of a 2008 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship and a 2008 COLA Individual Artist Grant, as well as multiple Yaddo fellowships and Pushcart Prize nominations, a Rotary Foundation Scholarship for International Study, a Brandeis National Women's Committee Award, a Thurber House Fiction Writer-in-Residence Fellowship, the Simon Blattner Fellowship from Northwestern University, and a California Arts Council Artists' Fellowship Award.
Ison received her MFA in Fiction & Literature from Bennington College. She has taught creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Goddard College, Antioch University Los Angeles, and UC Riverside Palm Desert's MFA in Creative Writing program. She is currently Assistant Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University."
The thing that really got to me about Rockaway was its perfect depiction of the ache in a creative person's soul when the muse or the desire or the confidence has fled, for whatever reason. I have gone through painful phases in my life when I could not bear to put myself out there in essays or poetry or drawings, and during those periods, I never felt whole. I remember the acute terror of returning to creative work when I emerged from those dark times, and so when Sarah took her first tentative steps back to painting, I was right there with her. To me, Tara Ison captures the truth of that experience in a way that all the myths about art and inspiration have failed. I loved that.
It's true that Sarah is not always likable, but to me, that made her all the more real and true. I am not always likable, either. Neither is anyone I know. Neither are many famous and oft-praised literary characters. I want real characters in all their rawness and imperfection, likable or not. I actually found it easier to embrace Sarah seeing how flawed she was.
I, too, was surprised about the bare hint of foreboding about 911, but I think it works. I could discern Sarah's fate from the impending United flight and the date on the calendar, and Sarah could not, and that is part of what makes the story so evocative of a particular moment in history--when things hung in the balance, and nobody knew. That is how it would have been for a "real" Sarah preparing to fly home at the time. The moment when Sarah casually mentioned her United ticket, I was transported back to that year and that time, before everything changed. In retrospect, I cannot un-think 911 out of my experiences leading up to that day. To witness a character on the cusp of that huge historical moment without knowing it ... that is the "innocence" so many writers have said Americans lost after 911 (accurately or fairly or not). The scene brought me back to something--a mindset, a state of being--I never thought I would see again and never thought to even try to see again. I gasped. I love how Tara Ison handled it.
This is one of those books that I want to return to in ten years and see what I think about it then.
In the interest of full disclosure, Tara Ison was one of the faculty in my graduate program, but I know she would want nothing less than an honest response, so that is what I have given.
I'm really disappointed in this book. I'm sorry I bought it instead of getting it from the library. I don't think Sarah is a particularly likeable character, despite her caring for her parents. She's downright sarky and nasty. The end of the book made no sense to me at all. Are we supposed to guess that she gets on a plane on 9/11 and gets killed? I mean, why set the book pre-9/11 and then not even mention the big day? What a letdown. And she throws all her expensive paints away, and probably ruins Marty's hot tub? Anyone else notice she's an alcoholic, just like her mother. Like I said, what a disappointment.
Read my review on New York Journal of Books First. See my additional remarks in an article that appeared in a different and now defunct publication and begins with the next paragraph.
Looking for a good beach book? Try Tara Ison's third novel Rockaway, published today by Soft Skull Press, and find out if Sarah, a thirty something secular Jewish Californian and aspiring painter, can find romance with Marty, a newly Orthodox aging rocker old enough to be her father. Also see if despite the distraction that is Marty she gets any painting done on what is supposed to be a working retreat on the east coast.
There are a few details Ms. Ison seems to get wrong. For example, Jewish readers will wonder how the Sabbath candles Marty lit the night before are still burning the next afternoon (the ones sold in supermarkets only last three or four hours). Maybe he bought memorial candles instead. But that's a minor quibble.
In my New York Journal of Books review I describe Sarah as "an engagingly complex character readers will hope to see more of should Ms. Ison chose to make her a recurring character in future novels." The book is also an homage to its eponymous peninsular section of Queens, New York, and is set during the summer before the attack that destroyed the World Trade Center and eleven years before the peninsula was heavily damaged in Super Storm Sandy.
profoundly depressed but naïve, this sheltered, san diego sunshine girl just refuses to be malleable enough to drop her California attitude and let the good old borough of Queens transform her into a living person, who toughs it out and braces discomfort of any sort with a can-do attitude, or else!! she's an anti-Semitic, irreligious Jew who is deeply unsettled by Orthodox tradition and New York City edginess, which she is more accustomed to denying and concealing in herself as a Southern Californian. She is approached and acts like she's forced to befriend neurotic, inappropriate, and desperate locals, who are aging hippie-types or formerly so. She seeks utter perfection, and delves, probes, and analyzes up a literal storm with secret outrage when she doesn't get what she demands out of herself. She fears any sort of normality as much as she does changes and even routines of any sort. a trip to the grocery store is an ordeal enough, but it becomes borderline tragic when she skins her knees and breaks her wine bottles. she is mad at the world and desperately need to grow up, maybe joining the Peace Corp or doing a year a volunteer work at a Haitian orphanage. A thoroughly dispiriting and exhausting book that left me feeling empty and angry.
This was a lovely read, but it left me yearning for more. I never quite knew where the story was headed, and as a result I felt like I was drifting in the ocean, waiting to see where it would take me.
I enjoyed the idea that we are all trapped by our circumstances to some degree. Even Sarah's friend Emily, with her perfect, enviable lifestyle, is limited by her children and her organic garden and her perfect husband. Watching Sarah struggle with her own desires and ultimately try to break away from what binds her was a treat, though this moment did not resonate with me as strongly as I would have hoped.
Ison's work is hard to describe, but I encourage you to dive in. Her sentences are so well-crafted, but I don't notice the writing - she puts me inside the story. It might be another girl discovers herself story, but in Ison's deft hands, it's so much more. Read it!
Tara Ison's work succeeds on its own terms, and the terms are always clearly defined. This novel is no exception. For me it is the most impressive of Ison's three novels. Here she takes the biggest narrative risks, and all of them pay off. I can't elucidate without spoiling the plot and ending, but suffice it to say that the main character's arc of development is quite unusual and completely believable.
Sarah is a woman who does not want what her family, friends and culture believe she should want. More to the point, she doesn't really desire what she herself believes she should. This is a book about a woman trying to become herself and making a proper hash of things along the way. However, her mistakes are not of the ubiquitous sex, drugs and rock 'n roll variety.
In the end, Sarah is not defined by her relationships, by her child-bearing status, or by her own ideas about herself. She is defined by her refusal to bend to anyone's expectations, not even her own. There are marvelous passages on friendship, parent-child relationships, spiritual ambivalence, dating, motherhood, and art. As usual, Ison's prose is beautiful, surprising, and spanking clean. I gave the novel four stars because I save five for masterpieces. This is a first-rate novel, one of my top ten of the year. Can't wait for the next one.
Poor, poor Sarah, an artist running away to the seaside to paint a picture.
Or was that an excuse to get away, to reinvent herself.
Of course it was well written, but the plot left me, a little murky, what happened, that wasn't fully explained, I would have liked more background detail with the plot, when the main character couldn't have been more real to me. I understood her, I felt her pain.
The ending left me miffed. Is that it! After that build up. My pace maker almost overloaded. I was left out in the cold in just the last few pages.
I'm with a lot of other people. I should go back and read it in ten years. See if I feel the same way.
Again I was disappointed in a "best book" pick from Oprah magazine. I was grabbed by the review that said it was "a sheer joy to stay in the company of Ison's voice." I couldn't care about the main character. The thing I really disliked was her description of her aging,helpless parents---they were 62 years old!
I did not like this book but I did finish it quickly (= one star). I was curious about how this story would play out but my scientific soul must be showing because I simply could not relate to the listless, creative block and angst of the main character.
I've tasked myself with trudging through a stack of books that I've started and just can't finish... This book has been in the pile for years and I've picked it up and put it down too many times to count. Today I finally slogged thru to the end. I find Sarah the main character "lost" in life, a struggling artist that never finds herself. The saving grace is that it is a short book (under 200 pages) and the vivid imagery of the last few pages was brilliant writing and I thought to myself " finally! "
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I loved this book; its subtlety. Certain things about Sarah creep up on you; Ison’s use of the metaphors of paint and religion and childbirth are weirdly effective despite the fact that so many writers use these same metaphors, and to not as great an effect.
I read this for my Art Club Book Club, for which we try to pick a book about an artist, usually a painter. This one is about an artist, but she spends the whole time not painting. It was not what we expected, and the main character could have been any type of artist, or even not an artist at all, but it was a very good book about a person who was stuck and had not been allowed to grow and evolve. Very good use of symbolism. The book also centers heavily on Judaism. I have read so many books lately with Judaism as a part of it, I am going to make that a shelf.
Sarah, the main character in this novel is a painter but I could never figure out if she had ever painted anything. In her 30's she has never really grown up but the story tells us that she takes care of her parents who can't do without her although she had not been living with them. The author is very good with colorful descriptions.
I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.
An ok read, but I found myself distracted by how foreign the place she was describing is from the Rockaway I've lived in my whole life. I am willing to allow artistic license, but the reference to the A train traveling "under" Jamaica bay suggested artistic laziness. The author may have spent a little bit of time on the westerly end of the west end, but she really didn't have much of a feel for anything beyond that. (less)
While the prose in this book was delicate and finely tuned, the author didn't have a lot to say about her characters or their motivations. Books should leave us wanting more. This book made me want to move to the next one. Bad choice, Oprah.
I enjoyed the religious aspect of the book and her search for her muse. However, the last chapter just erupted and then ended. It felt as if something was missing. I was into it until the final chapter and then I got a little lost in the artist mania.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.