Book Review: Coming-of-age meets quarter-life crisis in Fiona Warnick’s ambitious debut ‘The Skunks’

Usually when I see a book described as an “ambitious debut” I read it as a cop-out. Isn’t a debut inherently ambitious? What does that even mean?

“The Skunks” is what that means. And Fiona Warnick makes it look effortless.

A coming-of-age novel with a quarter-life-crisis thrown in, “The Skunks” is told in a stream of consciousness with a cynical sort of oddball humor that’s completely Warnick’s own. Reading “The Skunks” is like drinking a cool glass of water on a hot summer day — it’s nothing particularly earth-shattering, but it’s wholly necessary, gratifying and gone before you know it.

The story is largely told from Isabel’s point of view. She’s a recent college grad who has returned to her hometown with no real plans for the future. And one day, while house-sitting, she sees three baby skunks in the yard. The perfect antidote to her obsession with boys: an obsession with skunks.

Isabel’s just trying to do better in a world buzzing with diametrically opposing views of what that means. Her days are interspersed with fairytale-like skunk chapters. You can take the secondary story of the skunks as something that’s happening alongside Isabel’s story, or as something Isabel is writing to better make sense of her own life. It’s also possible that it’s just a really lovely story from the point of view of a skunk, which so happens to intersect occasionally with a human named Isabel.

The result is an unabashedly honest character study, humanizing and equalizing, in which skunks are just as much a part of the story as people. And by the end of it, you can’t help but have a new appreciation for both species.

It’s weird. It’s fresh. It’s a big bet that people will go along for this ride. In a word, it’s ambitious. And it pays off.

Warnick peppers the story with fresh imagery, similes and metaphors: Isabel describes her friend as having an internal rain gauge that’s always full, whereas everyone else’s leaks, leaving them craving a thunderstorm. The author also has a knack for contrasting literary beauty with the everyday, like when she describes the skunks’ tails swishing in unison “like a ballet, or a windshield wiper.”

The novel is filled with moments that are profound despite their mundanity — or could be profound if you look at it metaphorically — or just random thoughts and moments, a gentle ribbing of the reader for trying to find meaning in every detail.

But, if you can just sit back and enjoy it, the pages breeze by almost without notice. Warnick’s smooth style and the lack of formal structure make the free-flow story fly by like you’ve been swept up in a jet flow.

Who knew a quarter-life crisis could be so engaging and delightful? Who knew Skunks were so charming and thoughtful? This book passed like a dream, and was over before I knew it.


AP book reviews:

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