Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Why you should read Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Because life’s a bitch, and then, if you are very, very lucky, you die.

Book size: Medium. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a series of eight short stories, each of which starts and ends abruptly, so reading it is a bit like riding a roller coaster that pauses at the top of every hill. On the bright side, the scenery below you is very beautiful.

The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Mostly Spoiler-Free:

There are secret rules and forces at work in the world, and you know very few of them. They exist in all times and in all places, and each one grants certain powers — and terrible choices.

In nineteenth-century Nebraska (“Proving Up”), homesteaders uncover a demon has been feeding on the bones of those children who have been sacrificed to source a living from the dry, unforgiving ground. And while they could flee, how are they supposed to give up the dry patch of earth they’ve already spilled so much blood to claim? Meanwhile, in Meiji Japan (“Reeling for the Empire”), young girls bought from their families and locked in a factory discover that a mutagenic tea will soon transform them into monstrous silkworms. And while they could free themselves, what will happen to their country’s economic explosion if they do?

In modern America (“The New Veterans”), a massage therapist learns she has the power to steal traumatic memories from her clients and keep them for herself. She can ease their pain, but does she have the right to take the things — the hideous things — that make them who they are? And in Italy (“Vampires in the Lemon Grove”), a pair of vampires discover blood no longer nourishes them, and, maybe, never did. As they struggle to slake their thirst on lemons in a sun-dappled grove, they wonder if they should feed on the beautiful young people around them or cling to one another for whatever dry comfort they can give.

There are more stories, too, set in other countries and other times, yet each concerns a pivotal moment: a person learns a terrifying secret about the world, and reacts. Some of the characters in these stories are empowered when they discover these secrets. Some are devastated. Some don’t survive the process. And often, we never learn what happens to them at all. Stories sometimes cut out in the middle of a scene or a conversation, or just on the verge of the climactic event we’ve been waiting all story long to witness.

Fiction often indulges the nosiest versions of ourselves, but life operates more like Vampires in the Lemon Grove.


 

The Characters

Clyde and Magreb, the vampires (from “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”). A long-married couple in the way that only vampires can be, Clyde and Magreb have witnessed the rise and fall of a dozen civilizations together and designed their immortal lives around one another. However, while Magreb saves Clyde from eternal loneliness, she is also the one who plants the thought in his mind that blood might not actually satisfy vampire thirst — a thought that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy the moment she points it out. As a result, Clyde is left desperate, thirsty, and unsatisfied in a sleepy lemon grove, wondering whether or not he would be better off without her.

Kitsune, the silkworm reeler (from “Reeling for the Empire”). The young but determined daughter of a family crippled by debt, Kitsune is the only since-transformed worker in the silkworm factory who was not forcibly sent there by a husband or father. On the outside, she is resolute, focused, and cynical about her metamorphosis. On the inside, she is consumed by regret and self-loathing — so much so that the silk she spins turns sticky and black.

Beverly, the masseur (from “The New Veterans”). Derick Zeiger comes to Beverly in great pain and frustration, driven half out of his mind by the loss of his friend in Iraq. The time of his death is tattooed on his back, and crossing right through the middle of it is a glowing silver wire — the trip wire to an IED that Derick still swears he could have spotted in time. A pathological self-sacrificer, Beverly is determined to help him even if doing so means destroying herself, as she meddles with things she has no right to meddle with.



 

The Themes and Ideas:

Regret and loss. This book’s treatment of regret is fascinating in its regard for individuality; in each character’s life, it plays a completely different role and has a completely different power. For Kitsune, the silkworm girl in “Reeling for the Empire,” regret and hate fuel her to a strength she never knew she was capable of possessing. “The New Veterans,” meanwhile, examines the role shame plays in a person’s identity, and how when you extricate a person from their regrets, you steal their life, too.

It’s easy to write a story about how sad and miserable regret is, but much harder — and more interesting — to write about its power and possibility.

 
Dreams and ambition. Another theme that ties these stories together is their examination of the cost of great ambitions, and the legacies they leave behind. The clearest example of this theme is “Proving Up,” which tells the story of settlers desperately clinging to the dream that, as per the Homestead Act, they can own their drought-ridden farms — if they manage to survive on them for five years whilst meeting a torturous list of arbitrary conditions, which are approved by a mysterious government inspector (who may or may not exist). It’s a quixotic existence, but one their hope will keep them trapped in forever, no matter how many lives they lose in the process.

In other stories (like “Reeling for the Empire,” where Kitsune sold her freedom for five yen), hope and ambition are equally toxic. In others, like “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” ambition plays a more complicated role: a teenage boy discovers seagulls stealing his neighbors’ destinies (in order to construct nests made of tangled fate), driving him to act on his hopes before it’s too late. And in other stories, like “The Barn at the End of our Term,” which tells the story of a group of deceased U.S. Presidents who have been reincarnated as horses, ambition is simply pointless: something to chew over like cud in the afterlife, with no tangible effect on the world after we’re gone.

Just as when it discusses regret, this book has no clear answers when it discusses ambition. Instead, it highlights the shades of ambition people experience, even if those people are horses.

 
Monsters and loneliness. Clyde, the vampire from “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” muses there must be “a loneliness particular to monsters… the feeling that each is the only child of the species.” That feeling — that fear that your problems are not just unique but unfathomable and immune to reason — underlies much of the magical realism in Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Like a lot of magical realist writers, Russell likes to literalize metaphors — to use magic and fantasy to tell real-world stories. But even more than that, the fantastic nature of these stories sets a tone of unreality, creating the feeling that the world you thought you knew no longer makes sense, a feeling echoed by many of the characters.

The stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove are linked by the extreme loneliness that follows disorientation: the fear that not only does the world make very little sense, but also that you may be alone in it, the only person who sees it the way you do. At the same time, they are also interested in the power which accompanies this loneliness, and the courage it takes to face it.


TL;DR:

The world is full of monsters, and you may be one of them.

 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

Still, I’m not convinced that you were right, Dai — that it’s such a bad thing, a useless enterprise to reel and reel out my memory at night. Some part of me, the human part of me, is kept alive by this, I think. Like water flushing a wound, to prevent it from closing. I am a lucky one, like Chiyo says. I made a terrible mistake. In Gifu, in my raggedy clothes, I had an unreckonable power. I didn’t know it at the time. But when I return to the stairwell now, I can feel them webbing around me: my choices, their infinite variety, spiraling out of my hands, my invisible thread. Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose. It’s become my sanctuary here in Nowhere Mill. A threshold where I still exist.

 

Side Effects of Reading Vampires in the Lemon Grove May Include:

Weird science, weirder magic, and an inexplicable hatred of minke whales.

 

Further Reading:

If you liked…

…Karen Russell’s haunting brand of magical realism, try her first short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. While Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a very adult book, full of icky, grown-up ideas like regret and legacy, St. Lucy’s focuses almost exclusively on children, which allows it to explore a totally different set of themes in a similar style. It’s also a good introduction to her dreamy alternate version of Florida, where many of her works are set.

…stories about nightmares and fantasies made into metaphors, try Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s collection Rashomon, which, yes, includes the story that was the inspiration for the Kurosawa film of the same name. Nobody tells a story about the deep darkness of the human heart like Akutagawa, and he uses just enough magic and fantasy to make your skin crawl without making you forget the real-world subtext.

…dark, poetic retellings of stories and legends, try anything by Angela Carter (you can find most of her stories in the collection Burning Your Boats). Carter’s specialty is gory, sexual, feminist fairy tales; and who doesn’t want more of those?