Stavros Stavros Mavrakis had a rough night. He was “in bed, cold, with no woman but plenty of woman troubles” and “dreaming of home,” Crete. The island missed him. It “was going through a tough time economically without people like him,” hardworking New Jersey diner owners with a nose for business and solid family values. But what follows, in Annie Liontas’ sly and generous debut novel Let Me Explain You, is no contemporary exploration of the Greek crisis—more a madcap unfolding of a family crisis. In his dream, Stavros encounters the Goat of Death. The Goat strikes the ground 10 times with his hoof: 10 days. Stavros rises, shaken, and drives to work, where his daily routines allow him to dismiss the vision as irrelevant. But then his longtime second-in-command Marina visits him in his office and announces, “There is a goat here for you, Stavro.”
This is the launch pad for a 350-page meditation on family myths and realities, King Lear as warbled at My Big Fat Greek Wedding by a drunken singer with a dry sense of humor. What do you do when the Goat of Death arrives at your doorstep? For Stavros, the answer is: Write a blistering email in broken English to all the women in your life, telling them what they’re doing wrong and how you, in your patriarchal wisdom, would fix it.
Start with your oldest child, Stavroula, now in her 30s. She is your mirror image: bullheaded, gumptious, no-nonsense, intuitive with food. She’s in love with the daughter of the restaurateur whose kitchen she runs. Tell her to grow out her hair, emphatically spiky, for “there is a way to be for the normal society, and you are not it.”
Next comes Litza, who, “Litza, let me explain you something. Litza, you have problems.” Furiously beautiful, damaged, as volcanically explosive as her dad, Litza gets married and then divorced a week later, smashes a stool into the diner’s glass dessert case for seemingly no reason. What she needs is God; you must tell her to go to church.
The youngest daughter, Ruby, as precious and self-contained as her name, dates a guy “with the facial hair of an onion,” but is “otherwise doing OK. ” Remind her that her father’s mustache “is a fist” and not to “go marrying some losers.” (In fact, she’s just eloped.)
As for Carol, the ex-wife, the ambitious Starbucks manager who dumped you when you acquired a mistress, she did not honor you on Earth, but let her do so now as you enter the hereafter. Tell that “nothing-nobody Dick Hunter,” that “Venti Mocha Whip-cream White Whore,” to wear only black for a year.
Around Stavros’ life purl other women who, for all their neon-edged characterization, don’t make it into the letter. (The book intercuts scenes from characters’ pasts and presents.) Rhonda, the mistress, entrances our man because she is large, smart, achieving, and black—she kicks him to the curb when he treats her like a sexy curiosity rather than a person. Dina, biological mother to Stavroula and Litza, is a victim of child abuse who slides into drug addiction and represents a frailty Stavros can’t abide. Marina reigns in the diner’s primeval kitchen, another Cretan transplant, granite-faced, superstitious, with an internal monologue that occasionally breaks into the text like light from an older, poetic world. (“Work is the moon that hangs the day,” she reminds herself at one point, waking up before dawn.)
And so we think we know what to expect from the novel in our hands: a man and his women, or his woman troubles. “Let me explain you,” Stavros will pronounce, and we will spend the rest of the book laughing at the mansplainer, at his pride, bluster, and blindness, while cheering on the true heroes, his daughters and co-workers and exes. They will wrestle with his complicated legacy, finding patches of identity free of his shadow and other patches where the shadow drops a welcome coolness. Liontas’ challenge will be to make us care enough about Stavros to keep reading, to humorously or poignantly expose his vulnerabilities, until some tender fantasy of family kicks in, and the clan gathers, and we find out alongside the pateras and everyone else whether he lives or dies.
Let Me Explain You is very much the book I just described. But it also wants to be more than that book. Yes, it is a funny and moving confection, a gently ironic critique of masculinity in which a father’s desperate desire to be known and loved masquerades as a last-ditch attempt to elucidate the world for his family. Yes, it’s also an immigrant tale punctuated by extravagantly sensuous odes to good food. (“The blackberries were a peal of bells hanging in a church tower, moon unveiling their shoulders.”) But there are turns of phrase and expansive, double-jointed moments that speak to Liontas’ bigger, weirder ambition. She picks up not-so-fresh ideas about clarity and authenticity, then teases them into snarls: When Litza cracks the dessert case with a stool, it’s tempting to read those transparent shards as the novel’s last word on explanation itself, even as the boundary between inner and outer falls away and the “tragic” wreckage of cake that spills forth makes the air smell of sugar. Let Me Explain You, stuffed with sadly predictable beats and eerie, riddling sentences, as thematically familiar as it is tonally tricky and unique, is, well, hard to explain you.
Maybe that’s intentional. Liontas strews her own prose with aborted explanations: “Litza knew not to suggest that they drive together, so.” “And he saw how well that went, so.” The flattening effect—each so like blinds snapping closed, or a door slamming—reveals how neatly an explanation can shut things down, deflect an opportunity for true connection. Elsewhere, the rhetorical effort of making oneself clear proves bathetically futile. “He tried again to make her understand what he was actually wanting,” Liontas writes of Stavros, who hopes Carol will leave work and spend the afternoon with him, though she’s already said that he will have to wait until her shift ends. “It was a very simple, pure thing, which he was confident he could make her realize. All I am asking, he tried again, is that you come with me to some few places now.” But of course Carol already knows what her ex wants. She requires not clarification but respect—and the extent to which Stavros can’t figure out the difference is his entire problem.
My favorite kind of failed explanation in Let Me Explain You is a disorganized flight of image and feeling dressed up as logic. “Being alone in the last days of life,” Liontas writes, her free indirect discourse so artful we feel comfortable wandering through a diverse array of heads (this one is Stavros’), “was like being the last star in a galaxy, watching one neighbor star after another blink into nothing, until even the faraway nub stars are just light-years … and all Stavros is left with is debris from the first cough of creation.” Then, triumphantly, as if arriving at an irresistible conclusion: “And does Stavros look like a cough? No.” That’s that! I wrote in my book’s margin, delighted by the swerve from lyrical self-pity to swaggering nonsense. Q.E.D.! Faced with the melancholy and loneliness of the universe, Stavros fights back with certainty, bravado, an actual Q and A. It’s as if Nietzsche had decided to tackle the hollow brevity of our time on earth by guest-starring on Clarissa Explains It All.
Reading this novel, I kept thinking of the archaic meaning of explain, the 17th-century sense in which the word literally described “the unfolding of material things.” (In a 1664 English discourse on His Majesty’s timber, for instance, forest buds “explain into leaves.”) There’s a way in which the idealized, elusive “explanation” Stavros seeks—not to mention the more eloquent expressions of identity he inadvertently coaxes from his daughters—is really about growth, unfurling. Litza yearns for a child. Stavroula and Ruby wish to make manifest the inner contents of their hearts. No one is satisfied with a static final answer from on high—for Liontas, the deepest truths and best-lived lives have a tendency to continually explain, or unfold, themselves.
To be totally known and totally loved is an old but powerful fantasy. Maybe the only thing more potent is love that flourishes in the cracks where knowledge fails—love that accepts limits and mystery, that gets it wrong over and over but keeps flowing like the tide. If Let Me Explain You pushes a hair too hard for transcendence toward the end—a funeral service transpires on Easter Sunday, a heavily foreshadowed twist is not as wrenching as it wants to be—I also admired the way the novel loosened as it went, leaving its tense comic register for something sparer, stranger, more fablelike. Dreams and allegories seep into the plot; italicized voices start chanting at the beginnings of chapters, which are named for Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief. Perhaps going mystical was not the right move, but at least it was a move, an attempt by a book suspicious of simple journeys to unfurl its sails a bit before docking at the final port.
Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas. Scribner.