October 2013: Visitation Street
Something Eerie About Visitation Street
Two teenage girls escape the stifling heat of a July night in rough-and-tumble waterfront Red Hook, Brooklyn, by taking a moonlit paddle into the harbor. One washes up ashore, barely alive; the other disappears. As the locals are drawn together by the event, characters gradually reveal themselves in a mystery that is nothing short of riveting. Real Simple Fashion Market Editor Rebecca Daly moderated the discussion of Ivy Pochoda’s atmospheric, engrossing mystery, Visitation Street.
Visitation Street: Chapters 1 Through 8
I hope everyone is enjoying Visitation Street so far. At the outset I found it a pretty breezy read, but the further I go the more complex I realize it is. We are reading the story of one specific circumstance (June's disappearance) but from the point of view of several characters, which expands not only the plot, but the characters themselves as they develop through their own voices as well as through the perceptions of each other. I am wondering what everyone thinks of this as a narrative device. Do you find it particularly efficacious, or would the same story work if told in a more traditional, linear way? Also, coming from a female perspective, I often find it somewhat unconvincing when male authors write from a woman's point of view. Do you find Pochoda writes one character more convincingly than another, or are they all equally believable?
I am also very intrigued by the way in which Pochoda works the neighborhood of Red Hook into the novel. Even from the title it's clearly understood that the neighborhood will be an important part of the book. (Here is a map of the real Red Hook, in case anyone wants to explore. Click on each site from our book and zoom in for a closer look. Some of the novel's places don't really exist, but they're not far from reality. For example, there is no Dockyard bar, but just a block down from where it's supposed to be, there is a very real, very similar dive called Bait and Tackle.) To me, the neighborhood seems to be a physical manifestation of each character's situation. As Jonathan's life spirals further downward, he is described as moving through a series of neighborhoods of decreasing affluence: "After college he moved from the Upper East Side to the Lower East Side, then from Brooklyn Heights to Red Hook—a neighborhood below sea level and sinking." Similarly, Cree, who feels like he doesn't belong among his neighbors, his "friends," or on the proverbial other side of the tracks, also feels less and less at ease among his physical neighborhood. "All summer," Pochoda writes, "Cree's been under the impression that the shape of Red Hook is changing. Something about the corners, fences, alleys, and street lamps that he'd memorized in his childhood has grown unfamiliar.... Even in the darkest nook in the neighborhood, Cree feels exposed." Are there similar parallels that can be drawn for Val and Fadi? How else does the presence of Red Hook function within the book?
Another concept I'm intrigued by is that of consequence. As Pochoda puts it, "All your actions have a consequence, an equal and opposite reaction." It's clear to see what this means in terms of June's disappearance and Val's subsequent guilt and grief, but how do you think this is true in terms of each of the other interwoven characters?
Finally, I can't wait to see how the mystery of "RD" or "RunDown" unveils itself. Do we think this is the "Ren" character that Cree encounters at the end of Chapter 6? And, concerning Ren, he seemed to be sitting on the boat waiting for Cree—where did he come from and what do you think his connection to Cree is?
Visitation Street: Chapters 9 Through 16
So by now, we’ve finished Chapter 16, and things are really starting to get interesting, not to mention distinctly creepy.
In our discussion of the first part of the novel, we talked a bit about Pochoda’s use of the present tense. Reader KarolynSherwood pointed out that it “excites the narrative and brings the reader right to the streets of Red Hook.” I couldn't agree more—it creates a sense of immediacy that works very well within a story about a missing girl, where time is of the essence. The story unfolds to us, as it does to the characters, in the same time, with no dramatic irony. Even more intriguing, though, are the few passages we’ve come across that are written in second person: “This is how you walk home. This is how you look for June—you follow the precise route that led you to the water that night. You see yourself from above ….” These passages occur in Val’s chapters twice so far (see Chapter 10 for this part of the book, and have a look back at Chapter 7 for the first part), but only for a few paragraphs at a time. It’s extremely rare to find fiction written in this voice, so I am extra curious about Pochoda’s decision to use it. How does it effect the flow of the novel? What does is signify? Is there a theme that connects the passages written in second person?
Another topic that came up in our last discussion is Val’s level of maturity. Reader mjfromnj mentioned that she seems to be maturing slower than her peers. In the first few pages of the novel, June accuses Val of acting like a kid because she’d rather play games than sneak out to drink and smoke. Even from her own point of view, Val often seems to feel childish—in Chapter 7, right before Val jumps off the pier, Pochoda writes, “She knows she looks like a little kid in her cotton underwear.” And as we dig into Chapter 10, “...June was right, Val realized; Val is a baby, crying there in the arms of Mr. Sprouse for everyone to see.” While Val may still be a bit rooted in childhood in some ways, perhaps especially physically, her actions and decisions seem to be based on her own sense of self and what she does or does not want. June, on the other hand, though definitely more physically mature, seemed to base her decisions only on what other people might think of her. Val strikes me as having a more fully developed personality, whereas June is simply going through the motions expected of her. How does this reflect on their levels of emotional maturity?
While we’re on the subject of Val’s impending maturity—reader Darts89 said that Jonathan “tried helping Val but got framed as a pervert around young girls.” As the plot has developed over this last section, I am wondering about those earlier accusations. Was is foreshadowing? Or, more insidiously, do the other characters perhaps know something about Jonathan that we, as the readers, do not? I’m curious about everyone’s thoughts on what is happening between Val and Jonathan. In Chapter 14, she catches him watching her from across the street—what are his motives? Is he watching her, or watching out for her? Do you find him predatory or protective? Or maybe both?
Another theme that really developed in this section is the supernatural—specifically ghosts. Gloria’s talents of communicating with the dead come more into play when Val goes to see her about getting in touch with June. Gloria is unable to connect with June, but later on, Monique is unable to stop connecting with her. And on the subject of the dead—has anyone picked up on the fact that nearly every time Ren shows up, he's described as ghostly? “He drops the hood of his sweatshirt. It takes Val a moment to realize that it’s not Cree, but a ghost-gray boy….” “[Cree] trains the telescope on the street, trying to locate Ren. But the boy is a ghost.” What is going on with Ren? He mentioned returning home to Red Hook after an absence, but no one in the neighborhood ever seems to have seen him before and he doesn’t appear to have a home. He seems to feel oddly connected to Cree—he knew all of Cree’s secret spots, he’s protecting him from other kids, he refurbished Cree’s boat. Speculating wildly here, but is it possible that there is some connection between Ren and Cree’s dead father, Marcus? Ren is also the only main(ish) character who does not have chapters written from his point of view (at least so far)—is there any significance to this?
And lastly, at first I thought the wino from the Greek diner was just an incidental kind of character, possibly there to add a bit of neighborhood flavor. But after Chapter 15, I’m not so sure. He is still insisting on his “recompensa,” his reward for finding June. He seems terrified of Ren. Is he just a crazy drunk, or does he know something about Ren or June? Or something about Ren and June?
Visitation Street: Chapters 17 Through 23
Unfortunately, due to a system glitch, we were unable to post this as scheduled on Friday. We’re so sorry for any disappointment that may have caused! On a much happier note, author Ivy Pochoda will answer any questions we may have about Visitation Street, so please post yours in the comments section below by next Monday, November 4.
By now we’ve finished the book, and what an ending! Many questions and loose ends were wrapped up neatly. I felt satisfied on behalf of many characters—like Jonathan and Fadi—and a bit unresolved where others were concerned.
I’m so curious to hear what everyone thinks of the way each character’s story ends. To me it seemed inevitable that June’s body would be found; I just didn’t have much hope for her to be found alive. I was surprised, though, by Ren’s involvement in it.
Speaking of Ren, how do we feel about the way things panned out with him and Cree? His involvement in Marcus’s death explains Ren’s behavior toward Cree, but to that end, was Cree a bit too quick to accept and forgive Ren for this?
I was also a bit surprised at Val’s conclusion. After she has a bit of a breakdown with Jonathan, confessing she pushed June off the raft, she is barely heard from again. Was she actually confessing to intentionally trying to harm June? Or is she just manifesting feelings of guilt and grief? If she had had one final chapter, after we learn the whereabouts of June’s body, how do you think she would have coped?
One last thing I was left wondering about was Pochoda’s use of the supernatural in this novel. At first it seemed so prevalent that I assumed something in the plot must hinge on it—maybe Monique’s connection with June would lead to finding her body? But as we conclude, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. What does everyone think about the significance of the supernatural in this book and its use here as a literary device?
Perhaps it’s appropriate that such an engaging and provocative novel only leaves us with more questions and the sense that nothing is ever quite finished or “over.” I hope everyone enjoyed reading it as much as I did. Thank you for choosing it!
Ivy Pochoda Talks Visitation Street
Great news for fans of our October pick (which seems to be most everyone who read it): Author Ivy Pochoda sent along answers to our questions about Visitation Street, her supernaturally tinged mystery set in Red Hook, Brooklyn. See what she has to say about her characters, and the neighborhood that not just inspired the story but pervaded it.
From reader CatKib: Did you consider any alternate endings with the major characters, Val, Jonathan, Ren, or Fadi?
Yes, I certainly did. I really wanted a traditionally “happy ending.” But sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. My first idea was to have Ren and Cree leave on the boat together. Ultimately that seemed too convenient. Ren wants the best for Cree. He wants him to expect more from his life, but he wouldn’t want Cree to run away. In fact, it just seemed a little silly to have the boys “sail off into the sunset.”
In my first draft the final chapter was much longer and we spent more time with each of the characters. But when I shortened it and left more to the imagination and explained less, it seemed to honor the tone of the book better.
From reader karingram: Were there real stories of Red Hook that lead you to write this story? Or is this novel a compilation of many of those stories?
Well now! Many of the details about the debauchery in the bar are true. I spent a ton of time in the real Dockyard. It’s actually called the Bait & Tackle. I loved all the people I met there and all the strange interactions I witnessed. I used to live across from the bar, so I was really aware of how late it stayed open, of who was drinking all night, and so on. In fact, there was a musician, much like Jonathan, who lived above the Bait & Tackle. I could see into his apartment. So I started using my imagination to figure out why he was up so late, who was visiting him, and so on. Initially, Visitation Street was an attempt to make something beautiful of all the people I met and hung out with at the bar. But then the story took me deeper into the neighborhood than I would have ever imagined.
That said, Val, Jonathan, Cree, and Monique’s stories are pure fiction!
From discussion leader Rebecca Daly: Was Val actually confessing to intentionally trying to harm June? Or is she just manifesting feelings of guilt and grief?
No! It was a total accident. She got angry, but she in no way meant for what happened to happen. She couldn’t have foreseen how her anger might result in such a disastrous outcome. But she is certainly plagued by guilt. Life lesson: don’t rock the boat (or raft).
From deputy editor Maura Fritz: The image of Fadi sliding onto the barstool at the Dockyard was kind of sad, I thought. Did you mean that as an act of resignation on his part or was it more acceptance of the neighborhood and his attempt at settling into it? Also, what was it about Red Hook that made you want to set the book there?
You think it’s sad. Oh no! I guess that’s ok. Here’s the deal. Fadi imagines he knows everything about the neighborhood. He wants to be its news source, a community center. But he’s not really from there. He’s an outsider. And although he cares deeply for the community and is, in his own way, deeply entrenched in it, he’s not of it. He’s a little afraid of the bar because he doesn’t understand it. In a way, the Dockyard is a competitive cultural hub to Fadi’s bodega. It’s a meeting place for gossip and news. When he goes to the bar in the end, he’s making a decision not to simply serve the neighborhood, but to finally become a part of it. At the beginning of the book, he complains (well, I complain on his behalf) that people see him every day but they don’t know his name or much about him. The same can be said for his knowledge of the community. He loves Red Hook’s residents, but he thinks he knows them better than he does. His decision to pull up that bar stool is a decision to become a Red Hooker.
And why did I set the book in Red Hook: I grew up in Brooklyn, not too far away from Red Hook. So many of smells, sounds, and sensations of summer (please excuse that alliteration) must have been ingrained in me. When I started to write I was determined to convey that lazy summer feeling of other people’s street noise that drifted in through all of the open windows of my childhood. When I was growing up much of my spare time was spent outdoors playing on the street—epic, block-long water fights, baseball games, feeble attempts (at least on my part) at skateboarding. So I spent a lot of time thinking about the way summer sounded and went from there.
When I started writing Visitation Street, I primarily set it in the bar where I spent way too much time. For me—and for better or for worse—this was the nexus of my Red Hook. It was a real meeting place, a melting pot of people from all walks of life—something you simply don’t see anymore in properly gentrified Brooklyn. I thought about how the bar sounded from the inside, how it sounded to those passing by, and how it sounded filtered across the street into my apartment.
But soon my story led me outside of the bar and took me deeper into the community than I had been before. And I was able to extend my own experiences of growing up in Brooklyn to those of my characters.