I have been a fan of Mona Simpson since I read Anywhere but Here lo those many years ago. She understood the perspective of an unsettled teenage girl, as well as that of the girl’s mother. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Casebook only solidifies the love.
When we meet Miles Adler-Rich, he is a grade schooler who discovers while eavesdropping that his parents’ marriage is fracturing. He overhears his father say that he has an interest in another woman. Miles’ curiosity is piqued, to say the least, and thus begins his journey into domestic spying.
As Miles grows up, his fascination with his mother only increases. I don’t mean in an Oedipal kind of way, although I’m sure Freud would disagree; Miles seems to truly want to understand her more than anything. What kind of woman gets left by her husband, forced to raise a son and two daughters (twins whom Miles refers to as Boop One and Boop Two), and doesn’t give up? That’s the thing about Miles’ mother: she never stops believing that better is just around the corner. She refuses to allow the divorce to defeat her.
Mirroring this somewhat is Miles’ friend Hector’s parents, also divorced, but perhaps not as amicably as Miles’. Hector joins Miles in the spy game, which becomes increasingly vital and fascinating to the boys as Miles’ mother begins to date. Mims’ Man Friend is a nerdy guy who lives on the opposite coast of Miles and his California home. But Mims likes this guy, and Miles considers it his job of sorts to suss out Eli.
There are comic moments in Miles’ espionage, as well as within his family and friends. But there is a sort of bittersweet sheen to this story, a sense that Miles will uncover some things that could lead to heartbreak and loss of innocence. We watch Miles grow up into manhood, and Simpson expertly delivers those changes of voice that must occur as a character matures. With each nugget he finds, Miles grows a little, and Simpson reveals this with delicacy and affection. She even completes the intricate feat of allowing adult Miles to comment on child Miles’ thoughts and experiences.
Of course, Miles does uncover some somewhat unsavory details about some of his spy subjects. He finds them disturbing enough that he calls in an investigative expert, Ben Orion, who fills in the gaps left in Miles’ life by his divorced parents. Ben Orion is more than just a supporting character, though. He helps not just Miles, but Miles’ family. I found myself wishing I had a Ben Orion in my life.
Miles also sees his hero worship of his father take a dent, although not an awful one. As Miles himself observes, he’s okay with his father’s lady friends because he doesn’t feel threatened by them. One of the few “good” things Miles’ father does is maintain a strong relationship with his children, and even with his ex-wife, and that makes a powerful impact on the boy.
There is a little mystery here – what’s up with Eli? – but the heart of this story is Miles, a boy growing into a man and all of those attendant issues. Remember when you discovered that your parents weren’t the mythical, mystical masters of the universe you thought they were? It’s something you observed and experienced over time, right? Perhaps Miles’ realization is less organic, but its lessons are as real as any you’ve experienced.