Book Review: Outside the Ordinary World by Dori Ostermiller

Book Synopsis (Goodreads)

Sylvia Sandon always swore she wouldn’t become her mother. But one August morning, she finds herself walking the same prodigal path as the fervently religious yet faithless Elaine, into an affair she feels powerless to resist. Against the backdrop of California brushfires and fundamentalist mores in the ’70s, 12-year old Sylvie had agreed to hold a secret that would devour her family’s dream of happiness. Now, 30 years later, in chosen exile from her family of origin, Sylvie attempts to build a better life in small town New England. Nonetheless, she finds herself caught in the coils of history: she confronts the embers of her own dying marriage, the all-consuming needs of a teen and a toddler, and her faltering artistic career… Then Tai Rosen, the father of her most difficult student, ignites an unexpected passion and a familiar betrayal that could illuminate the past, even as it threatens everything dear…


An interest in generational relationships drew me to review this debut novel, primarily because the author claims to use biographical detail in the fictional account.

The story follows Syliva’s life as a child and as an adult, and captures her complex relationship with her mother and father, as well as her love-relationships. With Mr Robert’s appearance in her childhood life, and through her gradual realisations of what love means and what marriage compels us to, Sylvia and her family endure a wide range of experiences, some graphic and disturbing and some full of joy and happiness.

The book is beautifully written, and the stand-out aspect for me was the way the author describes the various locations in the book, her childhood home in contrast with her home as a teen, her adult house compared with the place where her grandparents still live, where she truly feels she belongs. This provided an identity of belonging between Sylvia’s childhood and her adult life that held the story together. There were some dubious metaphors, but I put this down to the American situation of the novel with unfamiliar (to me) words and scenarios. The voice comes over immediately as convincing and gripping in the narration of the story, the childhood Sylvia managing to retain the naivety of youth.

The underlying theme of the story is about repeating choices that have been made in the past, in this case by Sylvia’s mother. Whilst Sylvia as a child came across as remarkably sympathetic, the only hole in the story for me was adult Sylvia’s weakness when it came to Tai. Taking great care to set him apart as ‘different’ (partly in religious terms which didn’t work for me – I was never sure why the religious references were necessary), the story seemed to suggest that, because her mother was unfaithful, then she would somehow have the same automatic compulsion. The contention was that ‘there is always a choice’, but Sylvia seemed unable to process this information and the reader is pointed to some outside force, possibly romantic love, forcing her hand. In every other way, Sylvia seems to be an intelligent, capable woman, but we are asked to suspend belief where Tai is concerned.

This is a minor problem in a gripping page-turner. The author paints a vivid picture of how far people will go to hide their infidelity, even using their own children as a human shield. This alone would have been disturbing enough to tell us how dysfunctional Sylvia’s family is, but the author inserts graphic sexual and abusive scenes at exactly the right place to punctuate the seriousness of the family problems. The concept of family itself is turned upside down as we see how family life evolves for Sylvia’s mother and sister, and the tragedy is in the right proportion to the joy.

From the beautiful cover, which almost took my breath away, to the moving and atmospheric plot and detail, this book is a compelling read.