Laura McBride can tell a story. As I began her latest novel, ‘Round Midnight (just out in paperback August 21st), one of the first things I thought was how much fun it would be to have such a good storyteller in your family. I mean, I like to think that, being a novelist, I’m that person in my family, but now I’m wondering if even I could make it seem quite so effortless, engrossing, and fun as McBride.
That’s not to say that ‘Round Midnight doesn’t cover some serious emotional ground in its 372 pages, as four women from varying walks of life cross paths at an old Vegas casino called the El Capitan. Its founder, June, the oldest of the four, leaves a boring marriage in 1950s New Jersey behind, enchanted by the feel of a Vegas that was growing from the ground up. “This world felt fast and free and stripped clean of the conventions that had closed in on her in New Jersey….the future was [in Las Vegas] in the atom bombs and in the magnesium plant and in the dam south of town.” As in McBride’s first novel, We Are Called to Rise, the utterly specific and imaginative world of Nevada features as a major character in the novel. Families drive to lookout points to entertain themselves watching nuclear detonations on the proving ground; you can get a divorce in six weeks, no questions asked (and June does); there’s something to do day and night on the Strip, and June and her new husband, Dell Dibbs, gamble in more ways than one by opening their new casino and headlining a black singer, Eddie, who grows close enough to both of them to cause the family some trouble.
From this starting point, other women come onstage. There’s Honorata, a mail-order bride from the Philippines who’s rendered with a realism and careful empathy that make her story riveting; hers was my favorite in the bunch. There’s Coral, a music teacher who has grown up in Las Vegas but still hasn’t solved the mystery of her unknown biological parents. And finally there is Engracia, an undocumented immigrant who carries a recent and tremendous grief; her presence helps bring closure to all of the womens’ stories.
Each of the women has started out in a different place, and circumstance decides much of their fate; that, or blind chance, which take a front seat for each woman in at least one point in their lives (and perhaps, for Las Vegas, that’s completely fitting). But they do make their own decisions, especially Honorata, and these decisions are satisying to watch unfold.
The characters are vibrant and their voices distinct; McBride has a fantastic ear for dialogue. She renders even minor characters in bright and memorable color. Malaya, for example: she’s Honorata’s daughter, and how about this– even traditional, Filipina Honorata allows her daughter a partially shaved head and a snake tattoo. Yet her kidness and vulnerability are made plain through her relationship with her neighbors on the cul-de-sac where the major action of the last quarter of the novel unfolds. Or Jimbo, Honorata’s almost-husband, who ordered her by mail: a sad, yearning, basically kind man who can’t navigate the basic social structures of love and marriage easily enough to do so without some major strong-arming and dubious logistical help.
Book clubs, people looking for a deeply satisfying late-summer read to carry the old heart into fall — ‘Round Midnight is your book, fast-paced enough, and satisfying enough, to carry you into another season and another frame of mind.
McBride, Laura. Round Midnight (Touchstone 2017).
Buy ‘Round Midnight here