A lot of popular fiction these days seems to fall into a category I would call “wish fulfillment”—that is, books where nice things happen and people end up happier by the end. I just read two of those, and while I enjoyed both of them, they left me feeling a little…flat? It’s not that I don’t like a happy ending, but when it telegraphs itself throughout the book, one has to wonder: Did I really need to read this book?
The first was People We Meet on Vacation, by Emily Henry, author of the popular Beach Read, which I covered in a previous post. The title is a little misleading, because the person Poppy “meets” on vacation every year is her best friend Alex; the two shared a car ride home from college and have gotten together every summer for the subsequent 10 years to go on a vacation. (Poppy has engineered her career so as to become a travel writer, which makes the vacations much easier to navigate financially!) This yearly trip persists despite all complications, including moves to Chicago and then to New York for Poppy, job changes, other (dating) relationships for both—no matter what, Poppy and Alex have their trip.
The relationship is described by Poppy as 95 percent friend-zone and 5 percent what if? and this is probably a situation to which it is easy to relate for most people. I’ll bet if you think back, there was always that one person about whom you wondered, What if I acted on my impulse to change this relationship? but never quite dared. This premise, with inner waffling by Poppy to which we are privy, and some outer signs from Alex, to whose mind we are not welcomed until much later in the book, is what makes the whole thing work.
Like Beach Read, the main strength of this story is the witty banter between its two protagonists. Sometimes the back-and-forth from past to present trips with the accompanying descriptions both external and internal get a little wearying; but with the always tantalizing possibility that this trip is the one during which things will shift or change, the motivation to keep reading is pretty strong.
No spoilers, but it’s a feel-good book so you can probably guess what happens. In fact, the book’s cover blurb touts it as “a sparkling new novel that will leave you with the warm, hazy afterglow usually reserved for the best vacations.” Not exactly a cliff-hanger. So if you are going to read this book, you have to do so for the journey, not the destination, so to speak, which is kind of funny when referring to a book about travel.
The second book I read was The Heirloom Garden, by Viola Shipman and, while this book had more depth and less wit to it than Emily Henry’s books, it was still within that realm of predictability that made the inevitable ending simultaneously satisfying and anti-climactic. It’s about Iris Maynard, an old woman alone, who lost her entire family early in life and walled herself off, both figuratively and literally, from all but the minimum human contact. She is a botanist who lives behind a tall fence enclosing a beautiful garden that she has both preserved and extended from her mother’s and grandmother’s initial efforts. She grew up in the house where she lives, while her grandmother’s old house sits next door, and this one she rents out.
I’ll bet you can almost write the story in your mind from these beginning details—I could and did. A young couple with a daughter move into the rental house. The daughter, Lily, is the same age as Iris’s Mary was when she died; the husband is suffering from PTSD from his time in Iraq, while Iris’s husband never returned from World War II. The child is irrepressible and worms her way into Iris’s life and affections; the wife, Abby, is an engineer whose career has, like Iris’s, been fraught with misogyny; and the husband and Iris share agoraphobia and a lack of the will to live. Everybody’s issues and natures work upon everybody else’s, with the inevitable outcomes.
I’m not saying this book isn’t well written—it is—or that the situations aren’t powerful and poignant—they are—but…they are also so predictable. The highlight of this book is all the abundant detail about horticulture, and the “relevance” factor of dealing with PTSD. But again, the journey (touching moments and interesting information) has to become more important than the destination, because that is a foregone conclusion. You can say that you don’t know what will happen—will Iris come out of her shell? Will Casey come back into the world?—but really, you do. So I guess the point of books like this is the feel-goods you get as you read them.
There is, of course, a story arc to every tale, whether it has a happy ending or not, but for some reason the predictability of contemporary fiction like this is rubbing me the wrong way right now and I’m wanting more. Maybe it’s time to go back to science fiction…
Aging, dying, living
The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett (released as Eudora Honeysett is Quite Well, Thank You in the U.K.—a better title, in my opinion) is supposed to be a feel-good read. I chose it because someone on the “What should I read next?” Facebook page compared the writing of Annie Lyons to that of Linda Holmes, author of Evvie Drake Starts Over, which I liked quite a bit. I somehow got it into my head that one person had written both books, but learned my mistake after reading it, then looking up “other books by Annie Lyons” and then “Evvie Drake” on Goodreads.
I scrolled through Goodreads reviews checking to see if anyone at all had hated this book, and found only one “did not finish” (DNF) in two pages of reviews—that person called it A Man Called Ove rip-off. Otherwise, universal fours and fives out of five stars.
I have to say that it was an engaging narrative, with interesting, well-developed characters who made me care, and an alternating timeline that clearly explained how we had gotten to where we were at the opening page. Where Eudora was…
Eudora Honeysett is 85 years old. She is (that dreaded word) a spinster, and lived with her mother, Beatrice, for most of her life, caring for Beatrice until she died—after a series of incidents and illnesses—all by herself in a hospital bed. This experience shone a light for Eudora on exactly how she didn’t want to end up; so, since she is alone in life, without friends, siblings, or other relatives, and the effects of the aches and pains and obstacles of old age are beginning to become burdensome rather than just annoying, she decides that she will take steps to ensure she gets to go out on her own terms. She contacts a clinic in Switzerland that will give appropriately vetted patients “a good death” at the time of their choosing, and makes every effort to get them to see that they don’t need to doubt her motives or mindset—she is not depressed, she is simply done.
I think I have to vet my books more thoroughly and quit reading this kind. I had an almost identical, visceral reaction to Dan Mooney’s The Great Unexpected, which is much the same theme, although Eudora remained mostly in control of her environment while Mooney’s protagonist, Joel, was already stuck in the nightmare of the nursing home Eudora dreads.
This book, like that one, posits that the infirm elderly can still find something to live for, if they open themselves up to life. In Joel’s case it was rebelling against his environment and reconnecting with his family; in Eudora’s, it is the acquisition, despite herself, of two new friends: Rose, the relentlessly inquisitive but also consistently kind 10-year-old girl who moves in next door and decides to adopt Eudora as her new best friend; and Stanley, an elderly widower who rescues Eudora when she faints and falls on the sidewalk in their neighborhood while out for her morning walk. Eudora tries hard to resist their interest in her, since she is determined to carry out her plan, but neither of them (especially Rose) will take no for an answer and, despite her best efforts, she finds herself caught up in their lives and drawn into a world with which she has been largely unfamiliar in the course of her life of disappointments and hardship. She discovers that people can be kind, that connections can feel welcome rather than burdensome or obligating, and that love is to be treasured, not avoided for fear of being injured.
The book was, I must admit, heart-warming, charming, and all the other accolades bestowed upon it. But my frame of mind while reading it somewhat poisoned the well for me, and I looked ahead, as with Mooney’s book, and wondered about my own fate. I have always possessed what they call “rude health”—I have had no operations (save a tonsillectomy at age 13), take one medication, and am never ill. I assumed, up until this year, that I could continue to rely on my robust constitution until I departed life in my 80s or 90s or, who knew, achieved the century mark like several of my immediate ancestors have done. But a recent health problem with a discouraging diagnosis has resulted in a major loss of mobility and suddenly, at age 66, I am wondering if an independent life will remain sustainable, or if I will end up trapped and alone as Eudora dreads and Joel experiences.
I think it’s time for some bibliotherapy: Georgette Heyer, Dick Francis, some good escapist science fiction? Four stars from me for Eudora, but I don’t really want to talk about it any more!
Old age, friendship, rebellion
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I picked up The Great Unexpected, by Dan Mooney. It was billed as “charming” and “poignant,” and compared to such books as A Man Called Ove, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, and books by Mitch Alblom. There were definitely some of the same elements present; but it was also both depressing, and depressingly real, and I wasn’t in the greatest space to read about someone’s sad last years.
Joel Monroe, 76, is counting down his days in a nursing home. After independent life got to be a bit too much, he and his wife, Lucey, moved into the home together and, as long as he had her, everything was okay. But she quietly expired one morning while waiting for her cup of tea, and since then Joel’s experience has begun a downward spiral into thoughts of suicide. His entire life as a younger man had been centered on his work and his relationship, and he has no hobbies or pastimes to occupy him. He is plagued by the sense that no one at the home—nurses, aides—and no one in his family—his daughter, Eva, and grandchildren Lily and Chris—sees him as a vital human being who has earned respect for his long, productive life. He resents being treated like a child, from being required to passively take his medications to being refused access to the world outside the gates of Hilltop Nursing Home “for his own protection.” Everyone involved wishes Joel would just settle quietly into his role as elderly dependent, do as he’s told, and not make waves, but Joel feels angry, out of control, stifled, and grief-stricken.
After his roommate who followed Lucey also dies, Joel is made to share his room with Frank Adams, stage name de Selby, a former soap opera actor. Frank is genial, outgoing, quick-witted, and perceptive—everything that Joel is not—and he rapidly gets under Joel’s skin and provokes him into confiding his thoughts of suicide. Rather than acting shocked and horrified, Frank agrees with Joel that he should be allowed to exit his life if and when he pleases, even offering to help him plan his grand gesture, and this solidarity cements a preliminary friendship between the two. But although he is ever the listening ear for Joel, Frank has issues of his own with which he has never dealt, and soon the friendship grows in both directions. Frank encourages Joel to take back some of his dignity by exhibiting some “bad” behavior, source of much of the charming bits of this story.
On the up side, this book is much more than the sentimental, sweet story of yet another curmudgeon won over by life. It’s sincere, lovely, and touching, and tells a wonderful tale of friendship that acknowledges and supports. On the down side, if you are a person of a certain age, as I am, with the eventual prospect of being unable to care for yourself sufficiently to live alone, this is a slightly scary guidebook to what that experience could hold.
We all know that our society doesn’t treat the elderly well; once they exhibit the least infirmity, they are ignored, discounted, and shunted aside. We have all had the experience of visiting a nursing home and walking its halls lined with old people dressed in pajamas and robes sitting forlornly in their wheelchairs, of “rec rooms” featuring TV talk shows and board games to fend off boredom, with that indefinable commingled scent of piss, Lysol, and whatever is cooking for dinner. And we have also seen how the young and fit begin to talk down to the elderly and infirm as if they were irresponsible children or even beloved pets. Although Dan Mooney is never preachy in his approach, he paints a pretty clear picture of the emotions of an elderly man with few resources who doesn’t know how to fight against this encroaching, patronizing lifestyle.
Yes, I’m being just a tiny bit dramatic here; but I identified with Joel a lot more closely than was comfortable, and thought for the first time about what could be in my future if I don’t manage to fend off physical infirmity or mental laxness. So while I would recommend this book as both a worthwhile and an entertaining read, be aware that it may push some buttons for those of a certain age. On the other hand, if you are a young person reading it and are so motivated to take another look at your aging relatives as individuals of worth instead of as problems or burdens and to consider what they are due in their maturity, then all to the good!
Two by Hepworth
One of the few benefits of not sleeping much is that you end up reading a lot! So I got through The Mother’s Promise, by Sally Hepworth, in less than 24 hours (my library loan was about to run out), and I’m happy to say that it restored my faith in her. I loved her book The Good Sister but disliked and was puzzled (and bored) by The Mother-in-Law. This one took me back to an excellently researched and well told story about interesting and dynamic characters. I then went on to read The Family Next Door, and was similarly pleased by that experience, although it was a bit different again.
The Mother’s Promise was a sort of psychological exploration of what happens to people who don’t have a social network—and by that I don’t mean Facebook friends or Instagram buddies, I mean an extended family of relatives, or a close group of friends on whom they can call when disaster strikes. Alice is a single mother of one daughter, Zoe. Zoe’s father is not in the picture—in fact, Alice refuses to either disclose his identity or give away any information about him. It’s always been just Alice and Zoe—there are no grandparents, no siblings on whom Alice can rely, and no close friends. Part of this isolation is because Zoe, 15, suffers from crippling social anxiety and being her parent, her advocate, and her protector has been a full-time job for Alice on top of her means of making a living. Although they have sometimes struggled, up until now they have managed to make it work on their own. But Alice has just received some disturbing news from her doctor that will immediately and significantly affect their lifestyle and, on top of worrying about her own health, Alice has to wonder: How will Zoe, who melts down at the least sign of a challenge, cope with this?
Alice ends up throwing herself on the mercy of two strangers—a nurse and a social worker—in her desperation to find some stability for her daughter. But the results are mixed, and bring up long-buried issues in all their lives that must be confronted alongside Alice’s emergency situation.
One thing I particularly liked about this book was the portrayal of Zoe—the examination of her problem and the creative ways in which she tries, despite her fears, to address it. This part of the book felt particularly real and valid to me, and provided a somewhat hopeful coming-of-age vibe to an otherwise rather grim story line.
The Family Next Door, while also exploring family dynamics, has quite a different personality from either The Good Sister or The Mother’s Promise, but was likewise an enjoyable read. Of the four books of Hepworth’s I have read, the style and narrative of this one reminded me most of a Liane Moriarty book. Part of that is that it is centered in a small community and involves multiple families, with partnerships and parenting all under scrutiny, somewhat similar to Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.
The story takes place on a suburban street called Pleasant Court, with the obvious implications. Three families in the neighborhood know each other, but only from a distance, where everything seems perfect. They know their neighbors by their professions, by their number of children, by who is driving carpool—all the surface details that you gather when you live on the same street—but up to now, meaningful interactions have been rare. Then, Isabelle Heatherington moves to Pleasant Court, and her very presence stirs something up for each of these families, even though it’s not necessarily her intention to do so. Isabelle is single and childless, and shows an inordinate amount of interest in Fran, Essie, and Ange and their children and, in turn, the three moms become somewhat obsessed with Isabelle in various ways. Information begins to be exchanged, alliances are formed and dissolved, secrets are revealed, and marriages are perhaps in jeopardy, or at least in question. And then…things take an unexpected turn.
This is a mostly fascinating look behind the scenes of three suburban marriages and what happens when closely held secrets and ideas begin to erode those partnerships. When Isabelle moved to the neighborhood I halfway expected this to turn into the relationship cliché of husband(s) straying with the new woman, but the real reason for Isabelle’s presence is much more interesting and surprising. I said “mostly fascinating” because there are points at which the story bogs down as we get a little too much day-to-day detail about what characters are thinking and perceiving about their spouses, their children, their mothers, their friends…perhaps some of it was unnecessary. But it certainly does set things up for some entertaining scenes!
I enjoyed both of these books and would read another by Hepworth; but I’d like to somehow be able to ensure it was like the three I enjoyed and not similar to the one I did not! I guess I will have to switch from the reviewer to the petitioner and ask for recommendations for myself.
I was first introduced to Melina Marchetta when I was a young adult librarian. Although she is probably best known in YA circles for her books Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca, or perhaps her Printz-award-winning On the Jellicoe Road, all of which identify as realistic / contemporary fiction, I first encountered her in the guise of a fantasy writer, with her series the Lumatere Chronicles. We read the first book, Finnikin of the Rock, for high school book club in 2010, two years after it was published, and although I enjoyed it quite a bit, I didn’t really recognize the brilliance of her prose until she came out with the two other books in the trilogy—Froi of the Exiles, and Quintana of Charyn. I won’t go into the details of what the series is about (it’s kind of complicated), but these books are filled with heartache, pain, adventure, mystery, magic, and madness, and the characters, world-building and story-telling would be hard to surpass. It’s one of those series about which I tell people: “You have to read the first one in order to know what’s happening in the subsequent books, but those make it well worth the effort.”
After having read nearly all of Marchetta’s YA books, I was pleased to see, in 2016, that she had written her first for adults. And although Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil contains a bunch of teenagers as significant characters, it is from the adult viewpoint that the story unwinds, and the adults in the story have the typical hard time fathoming the teen mindset. The book was primarily a suspense novel (reviewed here), which proved to me that Marchetta can write pretty much anything successfully.
I was pleased, then, to pick up her latest offering, The Place on Dalhousie, published in 2019 but just discovered by me. It is contemporary fiction, focused on relationships (both romantic and familial), and is fully as compelling, if somewhat more low key, as anything else she has written.
The book is a little bit confusing at first, because there is a “time out of time” quality to the meeting of two of the protagonists. Rosie is living in a small town on the coast of Queensland, serving as caregiver to an elderly woman, and the two are caught up in a natural disaster when the town is flooded. Jimmy Hailler is also by chance in a kind of time-out there, and it is his work helping to save the stubborn villagers from the rising waters that brings he and Rosie together for a cautious two-week interlude fueled by the disaster. Then Rosie returns to Sydney to her childhood home, which is in dispute: Her father built the house for she and her mother, Loredana, but her mother died of cancer when Rosie was 15, and her father married Martha 11 months after Loredana died, sending Rosie off in a fury. A few years later her father also died, and now she is in a standoff with her hated stepmother over the ultimate ownership of the house.
The story picks up 15 months later, when Jimmy tracks down Rosie and arrives on the scene to discover Rosie living upstairs, Martha downstairs, and a battle raging about whether to sell the house. Rosie, a prickly, difficult young woman at the best of times, is suspicious of Jimmy’s motivations in finding her so long after she initially reached out to him, and the remainder of the book, centered on families both interconnected and divided, compromise, love, and identity, proceeds slowly and cautiously to explore not only their relationship but those of almost everyone involved. I don’t want to give away too much, because a huge part of the enjoyment of the book was in discovering the details as you went along. But there are great characters here (she writes women of all ages particularly vividly), and a lot of humor and pathos in the telling of their stories
I thought Jimmy’s name sounded familiar, and when I checked reviews I soon realized that he was one of the characters introduced in Marchetta’s book Saving Francesca, when he and the others were in high school, and the one character of the group notably missing from the sequel, The Piper’s Son. Many refer to him as the most sympathetic or compelling character, and are thrilled to see him turn up in a later incarnation. You don’t have to know any of that or have read the other two books to enjoy this one—it definitely stands on its own. But for those who loved the YA books, this is a culmination of those stories, and some also hold out hope for additional books with the others—Frankie, Tara, Tom, Justine, and Siobhan—as protagonists.
If you do feel moved to read the two YA novels as foundation, you won’t have wasted your time. Marchetta’s writing is severely underrated outside her native land, and it would be lovely to think that I have convinced more people to appreciate her fully.
Coming of age w/dogs
I somehow never picked up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, back in 2008 when it was published and getting all the buzz. I had started my first job in my new career as a youth services librarian, and was far too exhausted ordering books for the library and trying to get current on children’s literature to read much of anything for my own pleasure. I was buying some remaindered books from bookoutlet.com recently and saw that it was available, so I included a copy in my order and started reading without knowing anything about it.
It reminded me, with its gorgeous prose, descriptive scene-setting, and intriguing characters, of a few other books I have lately read—This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger; The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni; and Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. Like those books, it has a young protagonist with a challenging facet to his character, and is both a coming-of-age saga and a snapshot of the times and locale in which its events take place.
In This Tender Land, the boys are orphans being raised in a reservation institution during the depths of the Depression; in Sam Hell, the protagonist is born with red eyes, an odd genetic marker that is a target for bullies; in Crawdads, Kya grows up in isolation in the North Carolina marshes after being deserted by her family, and is regarded with suspicion by the rural community surrounding her. Edgar Sawtelle is more fortunate than these others, in that he has two loving parents and a meaningful life working on his family’s farm in northern Wisconsin, breeding and training dogs for sale. But Edgar has his challenge, too: He was born mute. He hears, but is unable to speak, scream, or make any kind of verbal noise. He is fortunate to meet a woman early in life who teaches him and his parents to sign, and he and his mother go on to make up their own peculiar gestures for all the dog-related trainings, which he does silently with his hands while she verbalizes.
When Edgar is a teenager, his uncle Claude comes back into their lives (he has been in prison), and as soon as he is on the scene, things begin to change. Edgar’s father and his uncle quarrel almost constantly, his father’s native caution coming up against his uncle’s rash impulsiveness. It begins to seem like they are all doomed to live in a constant state of turmoil. Then Edgar’s father dies unexpectedly, leaving he and his mother to carry on the ambitious and taxing breeding and training program with the family’s dogs, and Claude begins to insert himself into the business as his mother, bereft and grieving, reaches out for help. When Edgar has an astounding realization about Claude’s character and actions, he lashes out with tragic consequences and flees into the woods with three of the dogs from “his” litter. But he can’t stay away forever, and is ultimately forced to face the consequences of his flight.
The book has been called a riveting family saga and a compulsively readable modern classic, and I couldn’t disagree with either of those descriptions. Edgar is an immediately sympathetic character, beset by frustration and grief and unable to make himself understood. The story is so moving, in both its triumphs and tragedies. There are those who quibble that the details of the dog breeding and training involve way too much description and attention, just as some readers disliked the lengthy descriptions of nature in Crawdads and asserted in each case that these were flaws of a first-time writer; but I actually enjoyed learning about this trade, and also specifically how it was undertaken by a boy who was mute and couldn’t call out his commands. Others decry the hint of magical realism and/or the anthropomorphism involved in having a few chapters told from a dog’s point of view. But for me, the characters of both the humans and the dogs come to life on the page and are so distinct and compelling that it’s hard to leave them behind when the book is over.
I honestly don’t know what to say, however, about the resolution of the book. I kept expecting, despite all the portents, for it to be a heart-warming boy-and-his-dog story, and up through about 75 percent of it I hung onto that; but the last 25 percent devastated me. After it was over, I went back to Goodreads and discovered that the author had patterned the book on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It might have been good knowing that, going in! I can’t say that I wouldn’t have read it anyway; but perhaps I wouldn’t have invested so heavily in my belief that there would be a redemptive, if not precisely happy, ending.
I have probably said too much for either proper readers’ advisory or a book review; but it’s hard to get over the emotion that was provoked by this book. It’s beautiful, evocative, and tragic. I would still say to read it, but hold a tiny part of yourself in reserve from wholly committing to the characters.
I picked up a Kindle copy of The Truth According to Ginny Moon, by Benjamin Ludwig, partly because it sounded like a good story and partly because it was discounted to $1.99 and I was looking for something realistic to bounce back from my prolonged immersion in fantasy.
This is not an easy story to read; I don’t mean that from the standpoint of time or vocabulary, but rather because the heroine, Ginny, is so overwhelmed by frustration at unmet expectations that her constant state of tension, confusion, anger, and sadness, all further accentuated by the characteristics of autism, is hard to bear in prolonged doses. But what kept me reading was knowing that what was hard for me to read must be impossible for Ginny to experience; I almost felt compelled to continue for her sake, as if she was a real person and needed me to advocate on her behalf!
The story opens when Ginny is 14 years old. She grew up in an untenable situation with a flighty, impulsive, irresponsible drug addict of a mother and her dysfunctional rager of a boyfriend. Ginny was removed from the household at the age of nine, when she showed a “failure to thrive” that included malnutrition, bruises, and evidence of broken bones and possibly worse violations in her past. She then went through several foster situations and finally ended up with Brian and Maura, who have adopted her. But the birth of their baby, Wendy, triggers profound and unsettling memories for Ginny, causing a drastic shift in her demeanor that baffles everyone who knows her. Ginny seems to revert to a younger age, obsessing over her Baby Doll that she left behind at her mother’s apartment; she ultimately finds a way to contact her birth mother (who is forbidden to see her) so that she can find out if they found the Baby Doll after she left, and if it is okay.
This initial innocent action on Ginny’s part turns her world upside down, as she tries in vain to communicate her fears to those around her—her new parents, her therapist—while they must deal with the intrusion of the birth mother, Gloria, and others from Ginny’s past, and become increasingly frustrated by Ginny’s continuing erratic and difficult behavior.
I can’t speak to the accuracy of the depiction of autism as expressed in Ginny. I tend to think that a lot of her situation, while exacerbated by the functional issues of the condition—emotional disconnection, apparent lack of empathy, inadequate socialization, extreme sensitivity to external stimuli, compulsive habits—could equally be blamed on PTSD from the unendingly stressful situation in which she was raised. But regardless, she is the fascinating narrator of her own story, and seeing everything from her perspective gives the reader a glimpse into what it must be like to try to navigate the world as such an unusual person. The literalism, the skewed but also sensible logic, the heartbreaking self-analysis as those she loves seem to reject her, all come together to create a truly heroic individual who is confronting her demons despite her despair. Bravo to Benjamin Ludwig for giving this child such a wonderful voice.
As with other recent choices, this book came to me through the multiple raves of members of the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook group. Like the others I have read, I did my best not to learn what it was about until I decided to pick it up myself.
The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is a coming-of-age tale with something of a twist: Sam is born with ocular albinism, which results in him having red eyes. Everyone who encounters him does a double-take, starting with his father, when he takes one look at his new-born son and exclaims, “What in the Sam Hell?!” Their last name is Hill; they christen him “Samuel,” and the nickname sticks.
This story was so engaging, from page one. Sam’s mother is definitely the heroine of the early years, as she fiercely stands up to all the people who discriminate against Sam because of his weird appearance, starting with Sister Beatrice, the Catholic school principal who wants to exclude him from her school because he “may be a disturbing influence.” His mother is quick to point out the inherent lack of Christian charity in this attitude and the concomitant opportunity for her students to practice tolerance and, when this fails to accomplish her objective, takes the story to a friend at the local newspaper. Score one for Mom—Sam is admitted on day two. It’s not a blessing to Sam himself, however, who is shunned, mocked, and called “devil boy,” and eats his lunch alone on the bleachers. His salvation comes in the form of Ernie Cantwell, the only African American kid in the school, who makes common cause with Sam, and Mickie Kennedy, whose mid-term banishment to Our Lady of Mercy is a blessing in disguise for all three of the children over the length of their extended friendship.
As a child who was targeted for being fat (despite the fact that there were at least three other kids bigger than me in my grade), I completely sympathized with Sam’s plight as a bullied outsider, although no one acted against me beyond hurtful words. But after a while, I wondered just how bad he really had it, especially when he became old enough to choose to wear contact lenses that hid his secret from the world, a luxury not afforded to those with more obvious “flaws.” I appreciated Mickie’s perspective on Sam’s “disability” when she finally delivers it to him, and wished that this had happened earlier in the story: When bad things happen to Sam and he is bewailing the results of “God’s will” (as his mother has always insisted on calling it), Mickie points out to him that despite his red eyes, Sam has grown up with two loving, involved parents, friends who have always had his back, and pretty much every other advantage, while Mickie lived with an alcoholic mother whose dysfunction caused Mickie to be the adult in the household from age 12. This perspective is a bit arresting for Sam and causes him to rethink some things.
The writing style flows easily, and the characters in this book are so personable and real that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them, up until about 15 percent from the end. The book began to drain me of interest when Sam lets guilt over a terrible circumstance he could not have foreseen nor prevented run his life off the familiar track into a prolonged period of atonement for a nonexistent “sin.” Although he does eventually have an epiphany that brings him back to himself, I felt like the book turned sentimental and overtly religious, and I didn’t like the dragged-out ending, although I appreciated the author’s final conclusions (shorn of the religious overtones).
I found out in the afterword to the book that Robert Dugoni writes a mystery series about which many people rave. I can well believe, from his writing chops in this book, that they are good, and will regard this as my fortunate introduction to an excellent writer. Someone with fewer buttons to push regarding Christianity will no doubt love this book, as attested to by the many five-star ratings on Goodreads; I’m not sorry I read it—the characters will remain extraordinary in my memory—but I do look forward to enjoying some of the author’s product not focused on religious themes.