Winner, 2018 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction
Shortlisted, 2017 Mary Sarton Award (Contemporary Fiction)
In the morning fog of the North Atlantic, Valerie hears the frenetic ticking of clocks. She’s come from Toronto to hike on the French island of St. Pierre and to ponder her marriage to Gerard Lefèvre, a Montrealer and a broadcast journalist whose passion for justice was ignited in his youth by the death of his lover in an airline bombing. He’s a restless traveller (who she suspects is unfaithful) and she’s the opposite: quiet, with an inner life she nurtures as a horticulturalist. Valerie’s thinking about Gerard on assignment in her native New York City, where their son Andre works. In New York City, an airplane has plunged into a skyscraper, and in the short time before anyone understands the significance of this event, Valerie’s mind begins to spiral in and out of the present moment, circling around her intense memories of her father’s death, her youthful relationship with troubled Matthew, and her pregnancy with his child, the crisis that led to her marriage to Gerard, and her fears for the safety of her son Andre and his partner James. Unable to reach her loved ones, Valerie finds memory intruding on a surreal and dreamlike present until at last she connects with Gerard and the final horror of that day.
“With shattering grace Giangrande divines catastrophic grief, the redemptive power of ephemeral joys, and the interconnectedness of all things as past and present conflate in terrorism’s chaos. Memory becomes balm as life, all life, is porous. Exquisite, devastating, this book is a bomb.”
— Carol Bruneau, author of Glass Voices and These Good Hands
“In All That is Solid Melts Into Air, the language of trauma is made lyrical and evocative in Carole Giangrande’s hands so that like her characters, we become witnesses again in our post-9/11 imaginations and hearts. And it is her female protagonist, Valerie, we follow with an empathic blend of dread and hope in the hours before and after the tragedy. Gardener and nurturer of the earth, wife and mother in frantic search of her son, it is Valerie whose fragmented memories, dreams and premonitions we decipher while Giangrande skillfully weaves us back and forth in time and place. As we uncover Valerie’s intertwining life stories of love and loss and shuttle from the richly depicted landscape of Saint-Pierre to a devastated Lower Manhattan, we recognize “how precious human conjunctions are” for all those of us left behind. A riveting and reflective read of the cumulative moments that mark a life.”
— Carol Lipszyc, author of The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories
“An elegy for lost innocence, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is at once extremely sad and exquisitely hopeful. Its hopefulness resides mainly in the stubborn resonance of the quotidian, and in the kind hearts and good wills of those who refuse to accept evil, no matter how often it crashes into their lives. Carole Giangrande has achieved a great deal in this short, beautiful book; confronting the incomprehensible without despair and describing profound grief without sentimentality.”
—Susan Glickman, author of The Tale-Teller and Safe as Houses
“All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is above all a compassionate book. Carole Giangrande takes that horrifying day—September 11, 2001—and filters it though the consciousness of a woman, Valerie, whose loved ones are in Manhattan as the crisis unfolds. She doesn’t know whether they are dead or alive, and Giangrande is masterful in her expression of Valerie’s surreal state of mind. The book captures with gut-wrenching acuity the anxiety, fear and distress of not only that particular day but of our current social climate as well. No one is safe anymore—was anyone, ever?—and our perceptions rule us: “The truth was that everything you looked at had to pass through the lens of what you imagined you saw. It was up to you to decide what was real.” Timely words from a timely book.”
—Eva Tihanyi, author of Flying Underwater: Poems New and Selected and The Largeness of Rescue
A café across the street from the fromagerie— that’s what Valerie found out at the pottery shop, but she didn’t recall a café at that location. Rue Albert Briand was two blocks away, and opposite the Fromagerie Leduc was a dress shop, a travel agency, and a bright yellow clapboard house that looked like a real estate office. Its tiny green lawn and garden distinguished it from the other businesses, yet even so, Valerie didn’t recall seeing this building earlier. She noticed a green planter full of geraniums under a lace-curtained window. The curtains were drawn. Next to the front door was a painted tile, the kind that shows either a house number or the name of a business. The white tile was edged in flowers, and in the centre was a bright blue exclamation point.
Too cute, she thought.
Valerie crossed the street, then walked a few metres in the opposite direction, thinking she might have missed the café. When she turned back again, she noticed a man and a woman coming out of the yellow house. They were each carrying moulded-plastic tables that they set up on the sidewalk. They went back for the stacking chairs, working until they’d set up four tables. On their last trip inside, the woman returned with two cups of coffee and the man came back with a laptop. Then he sat down.
“Welcome,” the woman said to Valerie. “We are Jeanne and Michel Brunet.”
“I didn’t know there was a café on this street.”
“There isn’t.” She pointed to the tile by the door. “We open on impulse.”
Like a lemonade stand, thought Valerie. Years ago, she and Karen used to sell lemonade and old comic books from a wooden crate that their mother set up in front of the house on Willow Road. Only this was different. You couldn’t just run a café when you felt like it. You needed a license and a visit from the Health Inspector. You were supposed to post a menu. The world hadn’t changed that much since this morning that these rules would be suspended.
Valerie remembered why she’d come.
“Have a seat,” said Jeanne.
“Would it be possible for me to check my email?”
Michel got up and pointed to his place. “Mon Plaisir. I must attend to my other clients.”
There was no one in sight.
The man went inside. Jeanne followed him. She returned with four small vases full of chrysanthemums, one for each table.
“Would you like something to eat?” she asked.
Valerie ordered eau gazeuse.
“You are not hungry?”
“My son is missing in New York.”
“Je suis desolée.”
Jeanne brought her some sparkling water, then went inside. About to log on, Valerie glanced at the laptop, at the white, sunlit table crossed by a long shadow. Standing before her was the pilot. He looked at her with troubled eyes.
“You are busy,” he said.
“I must find my son.” Her hands rattled the keyboard. “Please sit with me.”
She was afraid to receive bad news alone.
A slow connection. She had a moment to find out who he was.
His name was Jean-Claude and he worked for Air France. He’d flown from Paris to Montreal, then booked a local flight for an excursion to Saint-Pierre before returning home. Now he was stranded, unable to fly. When Valerie told him that she was from New York, he pulled out an address book and pointed to a name.
“My sister-in-law,” he said. “I have tried calling, but I cannot reach her.”
“She’s in Brooklyn. She’s safe.”
“My brother is not safe.” His brother worked in one of the towers, he explained.
“He might have escaped.”
“Mais oui. We are so close, my brother and I. We often walk in Central Park, along the grande allée. He might have gone there.”
“He may be trying to email you.” She glanced at the screen.
“I am interrupting.”
“No. A remote connection. Much too slow.”
“Only last week, I saw my brother in France,” he said.
Anxious now, she asked him about his family. His children were grown, he said. She watched his eyes as they moved across her hand, as they paused at the ring on her finger.
“Where is your husband?” he asked.
“He’s in New York, also.”
“He is all right?”
“He’s gone looking for our son,” she said.
“Your son is missing?”
“I’m sure they’ll find him.” Her voice seemed unnatural to her, too bright. “I’m sure there’ll be email.”
“Forgive me. I mustn’t stop you—” Jean-Claude looked away, the pain in his face undisguised. “It is insanity,” he whispered.
“We’ll be all right,” she answered, unsure what she meant, or what anything meant—two fearful strangers, a sidewalk café on a deserted street, the silence wracked by a tolling bell.
“If I were home, I’d be working in the garden. Keeping busy.”
“Yes, there are things we must do at times like this,” said Jean-Claude.
“What must you do?” she asked.
“I must fly,” His voice became intense, as if he meant right now. “It will make all the difference in the world.”
“Will you find—?”
“I want to answer these people back.”
She imagined fighter-planes, and the thought distressed her.
“No, I do not want revenge,” he said.
Her hands remembered the soft leaves of Marguerite’s geraniums, and again she heard her mother’s voice, her murmured benediction. Blessed plant. Yet the towers burned. She imagined him cleansing the sky of its suffering. Yet after her visit to the Peace Factory, she’d had enough strangeness for the day. She glanced at the screen.
“I’m online at last,” she said.
“When you are done, would you share lunch with me?”She told him that she couldn’t imagine relaxing over lunch when her son was missing.
“Of course,” he said. “I understand.”
“But stay while I check my email.” Valerie looked around. The street was empty. The air felt as soft as the inside of a flower. The bells were tolling in the silence.
As soon as she went online, it felt as if Jean-Claude had dissolved into air.
There were two emails from her son.
The first had an attachment. Some photos from dad, read the subject line. It was sent at eight-thirty a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, just before the first attack. Dad took these yesterday. The photos included a beautiful view of the North Tower with the Hudson River in the background, the scene Gerard had described on the phone the previous night.
The second e-mail was sent at eight fifty-five a.m. local time, ten minutes after the first plane struck.
I’m safe, Andre wrote. James is waiting to be rescued. We’ve spoken. He’s bearing up.
I’m watching this unfold from the adjacent tower. I love you. Andre.
“The adjacent tower” was the one that had just collapsed.
He was out of there like a shot, I’ll bet, thought Valerie.
Keys tapping under Valerie’s fingers.
Cher Gerard, Andre emailed me just before you spoke to him this morning, before the second plane hit his bldg. Plse keep in touch. If you can’t get through on the phone, email me, I can connect.
She logged off.
Before Jean-Claude could ask what was wrong, she got up and started running east along Rue Albert Briand. Up ahead, she saw a slight figure, her motions brisk. Click-clack, staccato of heels on the pavement, a woman carrying a huge bouquet.
Only Lisette was walking in the wrong direction. Not toward home.