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Greta & Valdin


Greta & Valdin

The family at the heart of Rebecca K Reilly's debut novel, GRETA & VALDIN, are probably most likely to be compared to J.D. Salinger's iconic Glass family (even the title is reminiscent of Salinger's FRANNY AND ZOOEY). But as I was reading, I kept casting my mind back to one of my favorite childhood series, the Bagthorpe Saga by Helen Cresswell. Like the Bagthorpes, Reilly's Vladisavljevic family is eccentric, intelligent and prone to emotional fragility, and readers' first impression might be one of a glorious, confusing, muddled mess.

Part of this stems from Reilly's approach to exposition. It takes readers many chapters to figure out basic facts such as characters' occupations, relationships and names (though the list of dramatis personae at the book’s opening helps (as it does in many Russian novels, from which Reilly also seems to draw some inspiration). There are a lot of characters, many of whom share the same name. All of this becomes clear, but for the first 50 pages or so, readers may have the distinct feeling of being dropped into a wedding or family reunion, without a clear sense of family dynamics, backstories or inside jokes.

"Reilly's writing is charmingly deadpan, and her characters are true originals. Greta and Valdin's relationship is perhaps the most touching."

However, things do gradually become clear, and readers eagerly will go along for the ride as soon as they're introduced to the distinctive voices of the title characters, who narrate most of the story in alternating chapters. Greta and Valdin are siblings in their 20s. Older brother Valdin is nursing a broken heart after the end of a relationship with Xabier (known as Xabi), who also happens to be their uncle's husband's brother. Valdin recently has embarked on a somewhat unexpected career trajectory. After years studying physics (and finally realizing that academic research made him miserable), he's now the host of a travel show on television.

Younger sister Greta, who's earning her master's degree in comparative literature, also has been unlucky in love, though that may be about to change when she meets Ell, a graduate student in biology. It's a little awkward that Ell is in Greta's dad's department at the university, but that's hardly the biggest relationship complication that arises. Among other things, Greta is concerned that their mother (a Māori youth theater producer) may be harboring feelings for an old flame. Their father (also named Valdin but always called Linsh), who emigrated from Moldova to New Zealand when he was a child, is altogether too trusting, if not entirely clueless. A specialist in marine fungus, his mind is often a million miles away from the concerns that plague the rest of his family.

If this all sounds complicated, it is, in the best possible way. The Vladisavljevic family members are smart, vulnerable and often very funny. Reilly's writing is charmingly deadpan, and her characters are true originals. Greta and Valdin's relationship is perhaps the most touching. Even as they start to look to romantic partners to form new kinds of families, they desperately need to keep one another as friends, touchstones and confidantes. One gets the sense that countless other stories could come out of this family. If Reilly hosts a family reunion, readers will be eager to crash the party.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 24, 2024

Greta & Valdin
by Rebecca K Reilly

  • Publication Date: February 6, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1668028042
  • ISBN-13: 9781668028049