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Family, for Better or Worse
Today we review three very different novels about families, none of them easy. The families, that is!
Koren Zailckas is well-known for her memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood (Viking, 2005). Mother, Mother is her first novel, and it introduces a doozy of a family dynamic. The story includes elements of suspense, psychological thriller and even light horror. Reading an interview on bustle.com, I was struck by the author’s understanding of the fascination with fiction about families troubled by mental illness. For those who grow up in “normal” families, it is a chance to see what it might be like for those who do not. And it gives those growing up in difficult circumstances the knowledge that they are not alone. Zailckas also mentions the appeal of similar perennial teen favorites The Bell Jar, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Girl, Interrupted.
In Elizabeth Jeffrey’s latest, a good suggestion for “Downton Abbey” fans waiting for season 4, young Stella marries into a difficult family. And then finds herself a pregnant widow. Given the choices available to women in 1920s England, she is forced to depend on her in-laws.
Australian novelist Toni Jordan describes Nine Days as “a novel with nine first-person narrators and a mixed-up chronology.” It was named Novel of the Year by Australia’s independent booksellers and made the Kirkus list of Best Historical Fiction of 2013. The photograph on the book cover was the author’s inspiration. Did this couple reunite at the end of WWII? What was their story? The truth is lost to history, but Jordan’s novel gives them new life.
ZAILCKAS, Koren. Mother, Mother. 352p. Crown: Random House. 2013. Tr $24. ISBN 9780385347235; ebk. ISBN 9780385347242.
Adult/High School–Zailckas turns from memoir to fiction in this novel that reads like the juiciest Lifetime movie. While under the influence of hallucinogens, 16-year-old Violet may have injured her younger brother, William, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. After being committed to a mental institution as a result of the attack, Violet tries to piece together what actually happened and also determine the whereabouts of her older sister, Rose, who disappeared a year earlier but has reached out to her via a letter. Violet and William tell the story in alternating chapters, but both are rather unreliable–Violet because of her fuzzy, drugs-addled memory, and William due to his own skewed perspective and issues. But as the title lets readers know, this is only Violet and William’s story insofar as they are the children of their narcissistic mother. Mrs. Hurst is a fictional bad mother for the ages. Readers get hints at the depths of her manipulation, but Zailckas’s strong sense of pacing shows the character being even worse than initially suspected, right up to the over-the-top climax. Deliciously fun suspense.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
JEFFREY, Elizabeth. For Better, for Worse. 224p. Severn House. 2013. Tr $27.24. ISBN 9780727883018.
Adult/High School–Stella Nolan, a nurse in a convalescent home, is visiting her wealthy in-laws in World War 1-era England after the death of her husband. She quickly figures out that she was only invited out of duty. Her horrid, conniving, and disapproving mother-in-law does not make her welcome until they all learn that in spite of the fact that the couple was only married for six weeks before John’s death, Stella is pregnant. She is invited to live with the family, and since a pregnant war widow in the 1920s has few options, Stella accepts. Intrigue and drama ensue as she learns more about her new family, about the husband she knew so briefly, and that new love may be possible. The stories of the servants who work for this grand family are equally compelling, and readers are quickly caught up in this upstairs, downstairs drama. This book does an excellent job of intertwining the social mores of the period with a good story. Reminiscent of both Downton Abbey and Maeve Binchy’s novels, For Better, for Worse keeps readers involved in the stories and lives of the upper crust and the working class who surround them. While not ostensibly a romance novel, the book does involve two couples that readers hope against hope will find each other, and the characters will appeal to fans of this popular story style.–Jake Pettit, ASF, Mexico City
JORDAN, Toni. Nine Days. 304p. Text, dist. by Consortium. 2013. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781921922831; ebk. $15.95. ISBN 9781921961120.
Adult/High School–Taking readers from the verge of world war in 1939 to the present and a teenager bemoaning his overbearing mom’s unwillingness to let him have a television in his room, Jordan demonstrates how three generations of one family from Melbourne, Australia, have many individual stories. As each family member is given a chapter, secrets are exposed, and long-held sadness and silence are revealed. Nothing is as it seems, and only through each character’s account of “their day” can readers come to fully understand an entire family’s history. The heart of Nine Days is Kip Westaway. As a 15-year-old dropout, he is barely tolerated by his recently widowed mother and sneered at by his overachieving twin brother. Kip’s courage and capacity for love set in motion all the stories that follow. Teens will relate to how often his good intentions and desire to do the right thing are misinterpreted and judged, and cheer when his heroics are finally recognized. Those who gravitate toward more sophisticated historical fiction, like Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (Scribner, 2009), will enjoy this novel. The Westaways are faced with unplanned pregnancies, poverty, peer pressure, and unrequited love, themes that will resonate with the right readers. The absence of violence or gratuitous sexual situations make this title a good choice for younger teens.–Meghan Cirrito, formerly at Queens Library, NY
Filed under: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Weekly Reviews
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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