The John Leonard Prize, our annual award based on member nominations and chosen by a panel of member volunteers, is awarded for the best first book in any genre. In advance of the announcement, we're inviting members to contribute appreciations of titles under consideration. (If you're interested in doing so, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line Leonard.) Below, NBCC board member Marion Winik writes on Jana Casale's novel, “The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky” (Knopf). This piece originally appeared on the website of Baltimore NPR station, wypr.org, where she recommends two books a week.
Prepare to fall in love with Leda, the wickedly relatable protagonist of Jana Casale's “The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky,” a book that examines the interior life of a millennial Everywoman as she matures over the decades. When we first meet Leda, she's a college student studying writing in Boston, dealing with her annoying friendships with women, her unsatisfying encounters with men, and the loneliness and self-doubt at the heart of it all. This is achieved by juxtaposing exterior descriptions with Leda's inner monologue. At one point. she's in a department store dressing room, miserably trying on bathing suits. She has told the obnoxious salesgirl several times that her name is Leda, but the woman insists calling her Lisa, shouting, “'Lisa, how are the sizes working for you?' 'Fine.' I'll kill you, Karen. I kill you right now, so help me god.” We follow Leda as she embarks on her first serious relationship, moving across the country for her partner's career. One of the most moving parts of the book is when she becomes a mother and we can see how she has matured in the way she raises her own child. The depiction of Leda's connection to both her mother and her daughter are filled with a love and warmth that is rare in contemporary fiction. I did a little research on this writer on the internet and found an old article from her hometown paper that explained how from a very young age she had to stop going to school because of a severe case of chronic fatigue syndrome, but after eventually earning a GED went to Emerson and Oxford on writing scholarships. This makes her debut at age 34 a very special achievement.