This moving, meditative novel takes readers deep into the Rust Belt in 2014. Jean and her thirty-something ex-stepdaughter, Leah, haven’t seen each other since Leah was a child, for reasons Leah doesn’t entirely understand. When they finally come back together, they are confronted with their own biases about the sad, beautiful place that shaped them. It surprises Jean, a Jewish woman, that some young men in her Allegheny Mountain community would ever embrace violence, Trump, and the KKK. But Leah, who has spent most of her adult life in Peru and New York City, is surprised that other young men struggling with poverty, drugs, and a lack of direction aren’t violent racists.
Take What You Need alternates between Leah’s and Jean’s perspectives and timelines, filling in gaps of information that neither woman knows she is missing. Whom the reader will find more relatable will vary, but Jean is particularly unforgettable. Spunky, independent, and (mostly) warm, Jean is an ambitious, self-taught metalworker in her sixties. She has spent nearly her entire life living in her childhood home; and she uses her father’s old tools — along with scrap metal from an estranged family’s yard — to create ceiling-high metal towers that swirl with glass shards and personal, political, and sometimes funny phrases. Novey’s descriptions of Jean’s work will make the reader wish that her “Manglements,” or totems to authenticity and the imagination, were real.
Idra Novey has welded together distinct perspectives and experiences that illuminate a particular sliver of America. It’s a complicated and loving portrait that readers will remember long after they’ve turned the last page.