three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-TenThousandSaintsDebut novelist Eleanor Henderson is an assistant professor at Ithaca College. Her husband was part of the New York City's straight-edge punk scene (play loud, but no drug use, no materialism) that forms the core of the novel.

The Story: In rural Vermont in 1987, 15-year-old Jude and his friend Teddy follow in the footsteps of their stoner, hippy parents, spending their days skipping school and getting high. Then one night, while out with new friend, Eliza from Manhattan, Teddy overdoses and dies. In an effort to seek forgiveness, Jude travels to New York City to inform Teddy's brother, Johnny, a straight-edge punk rocker, about the death. Jude quickly joins Johnny's circle of friends and adopts the straight-edge lifestyle. The group then learns that Eliza is pregnant with Teddy's child, the result of that ill-fated night. Johnny decides to marry Eliza and claim Teddy's child as his own. As the novel progresses toward 2007, Eliza, Johnny, and Jude experience heartbreak and triumph surrounding this fateful decision.
Ecco. 400 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780062021021

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Ten Thousand Saints is a classic coming-of-age novel, with tattoos. ... Henderson is a versatile ventriloquist, taking us briskly and believably into the minds and hearts of most of her major characters. ... It's an auspicious debut, and gives us reason to hope that Eleanor Henderson will mature as satisfyingly as her subjects do." Julie Wittes Schlack

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"As wild as that may sound, wonder of wonders, the book is also carefully and lovingly created, taking the reader far into the lives and souls of its characters and bringing them back out again, blinking in the bright light. ... [Henderson] writes with great compassion but does not flinch." Salter Reynolds

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In this naturalistic and assured novel, Henderson crafts a satisfying structure, even as she reaches for those plot standards: a hidden gun, an unwanted teen pregnancy. ... On a few occasions, she presses too hard, and crosses into purple prose. And the ending dribbles, rather than bangs." Karen R. Long

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Her characterizations demonstrate Henderson's greatest skill. ... Whether readers will share the author's sympathies for her vividly realized characters, however, is debatable. ... At times, the experience of reading about ... Henderson's other ‘saints' recalls that of meeting a close friend's significant other who doesn't quite live up to the billing." Adam Langer

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Ten Thousand Saints is easy to admire for its close observation and the energy of its prose, but the novel's tone grows uncomfortably manic in its closing chapters. ... . The expanded cast gives the plot drama but thins out the characterization; a subplot about an AIDS-stricken friend feels like an afterthought." Mark Athitakis

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The ambition of Ten Thousand Saints, Eleanor Henderson's debut novel about a group of unambitious lost souls, is beautiful. ... [T]the writer seems to want to make sure that we can hear the sound she presumably hears so clearly herself. ... The dial might go to 11, but keeping it there for 400 pages can be tough on even the most sympathetic reader." Stacey D'Erasmo

Critical Summary

Henderson explores the subculture of a subculture, delving into the late 1980s and the 1990s Lower East Side, where one could be both a devoted hardcore punk rocker and a celibate, drug-free vegetarian. Against this backdrop, she addresses themes of family: how do we escape a dysfunctional one and create the one we need? Critics agreed that Henderson's writing style and her characterization are her strongest skills, and they enjoyed her look at straight-edge punk. But as with any debut novel, they found flaws: the ending of the novel is rushed; it is overwritten in places; and Henderson's eye for detail, while refreshing, is eventually overbearing. This novel is for those interested in the vitality Henderson brings to her portrayal of the straight-edge scene and the people within it.