Monday, May 16, 2016

The Ones Who Matter Most by Rachel Herron

If you are in the mood for a kind of emotional mystery story, and a heartfelt tale of mother love, you should pick up Rachel Herron’s The Ones who Matter Most. It is sure to evoke tears as well as joy and laughter.

Abby Roberts is rehearsing her line as she awaits her husband’s arrival home from work. She’s about to tell him she wants a divorce, not because she doesn’t love him anymore, but because the most important thing in the world to her is having children; she has had three miscarriages. Her husband is sympathetic, but with each miscarriage, he cools more to the idea of being a father, and finally admits he is opposed to adoption or pursuit of some sort of medical solution to their failed attempts. When Abby goes to the family doctor to try to understand why she is not getting pregnant again, she is shocked to find out that her husband has had a secret vasectomy. So, all of her careful planning, the lovemaking at just the right times of the month have been a joke. And then when she does announces to her husband her desire for a divorce, he drops dead from a massive heart attack, not from the shock of his wife’s request, but simply because his heart has given out.

So begins this novel of love and loss. In the midst of her grieving over the death of her husband and her dreams of having a family with him, she discovers that her husband was married before, and not only married, but that he had a son with his previous wife. So the man who has told her he thinks he is not suited for fatherhood, in fact already has a son, a family he has left behind. Driven as much by curiosity as rage, she goes to the home of her husband’s ex-wife and there meets his beautiful son Matty. Fern, Matty’s mother, is less than happy that this new wife shows up on her doorstep. She is a bus-driver who from one month to the next is not sure she can make her mortgage payment and put food on the table for Matty and his paternal grandfather, who has chosen Fern and Matty over his own son when the son chooses to leave his wife and son.

I’ll try not to give away too much of this story, although it is the story of Fern and Abby, and what Fern sees as Abby’s attempt to steal from Fern her son, or, at any rate, to infiltrate her family, that occupies the rest of the book. It is a book that is profound not for its philosophical or political insights, but because of its close look at family and of the ones who matter most.

Abby offers her husband’s insurance money to Fern, but Fern is offended by the offer, sees it as an attempt to buy her way into Fern’s family. To make matters worse, Fern’s brother meets Matty, and they have an instant attraction for one another. So, thinks Fern, not only does she want my son, she wants my brother as well. She wants my family, and she can’t have it.

Perhaps parts of this complicated story of love and family stretch the reader’s credulity, but in the end I felt it to be a lovely story of the redemptive power of love. The women characters are strong and drawn convincingly. Each of Abby’s attempts to help Fern and to get closer to Matty has some sort of disastrous consequence for Fern, leading finally to her losing her job as bus driver and her ability to provide for her family.

What shines through in the novel is the intense power of mother love and the healing power of family. Perhaps I will not be giving away too much if I tell you that Fern and Abby finally manage to cobble together a new and very different kind of family. I don’t think it hurts to know sometimes that a novel is going to have a happy ending, especially since so many novels are so emotionally painful to read.

And that’s probably enough.  I suppose this is an overly sentimental story, but one that appealed to me a lot, and also one that will give you a couple of days of interesting reading and a good feeling inside.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Lies And Other Acts Of Love by Kristy Woodson Harvey

My momma always told me that honesty was the most important thing in life. But I’ve never understood why people are so hell-bent on honesty. It’s not the truth that sets you free. The truth is the thing that destroys lives, that shatters the mirror. The truth is selfish and shameful, and better kept to oneself. In fact, I’m quite sure that the only thing that paper-clips any of our lives together are the white lies. They are the defibrillators that bring us back when we were on the brink of succumbing to the light. 
So begins Lynn White’s (known by all as Lovey) discourse on marriage and families. Kristy Woodson Harvey’s little novel Lies and Other Acts of Love is a light-hearted but serious look at love and relationships, and the role that honesty and what she calls white lies both hold together and shatter families.

This is not a great book; there is an economic snobbery about it that offended me some throughout, and yet I found myself entertained and sometimes deeply moved by the relationships described in what appears to be a rather intimately autobiographical novel. There are two narrators: the matriarch of the family, Lynn (Lovey) who has five daughters, and Annabelle, a granddaughter who is as stiff and unforgiving as her grandmother, Lovey, is fluid and compassionate and forgiving.

Like so many modern novels, this one flips back and forth both between narrators and between epochs. Lovey tells her story of how she came to love and marry Dan (aka Daddy D) in the 1940s, and Annabelle speaking in the present, describes her deteriorating marriage to a musician, Ben, and her attempts to unravel family secrets that threaten to explode her rosy view of what she sees as the perfect marriage and family of her grandmother, Lovey and Daddy D.

In the present, with all their daughters raised and most of them married, Lovey’s beloved Dan is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and she is doing her best to care for him at home. In one of his rare moments of lucidity in the middle of the night, Dan wakes to ask Lovey, “Can I get you anything?” And when she replies, “Not a thing, sweetheart. Are you all right?” His reply, “As long as you’re here, I’m perfect.”

The description of the love between Dan and Lynn (Lovey) is, I think, the high-point of this novel; Lovey is a wise and caring person who treats her daughters with great respect, encouraging them to live their own lives as they see fit and to trust their instincts; she  does not insist on always getting at the truth, realizing that there are times when attention and caring are more important than the truth.

Annabelle, on the other hand, is rigid and uncompromising in her pursuit of truth, although in the end, with the help of her grandmother and an Episcopal priest she begins to work for, she begins to see that some things (for example, keeping families together) may be more important than omissions and white lies. Through questioning and snooping, Annabelle gets closer and closer to revealing a truth about the distant past that could shatter the lives of those in her close-knit family.

This little element of mystery in the book makes it more enticing as a story, as well as raising questions about the relative importance of truth compared to loyalty and family solidarity.

While there are parts of the book that are soap-opera sentimental, and some religious overtones that this reader found to be detracting from the quality of the story as a whole, the insights into what makes relationships good ones and on just how deceit can quickly destroy a relationship are worth the sentimentality and the not so subtle evangelical elements.

Lovey notes that while the death of her 89 year old husband is not tragic, it is devastating, and as she says, “It is, most of all, a death of the self.” Just so, the partner who is left is no longer who s/he was in the partnership, and yet there is no new, whole person to replace the self that is lost.

Another theme that is taken up in the book, and I think dealt with quite skillfully is the need for friendships outside of marriage.
You should never worry about moving to a new town with your husband, according to Lovey, because, in reality, your husband is the only friend you need. That was a lovely sentiment, but, as I was learning, maybe not a totally true one. I loved Ben madly, but I needed friends.
I think many relationships cave in on themselves precisely because there is too much weight put on them and not enough importance attached to friendships aside from the marriage. Annabelle certainly comes to realize this, but as is so often the case, she does not really see or act on the need for friends until her marriage is crumbling, which makes it all the harder to seek out support and counsel from others. Fortunately she does have her wise old grandmother, Lovey. Although she almost loses her, too, by being too insistent on the perfection she wants, by keeping Lovely (and her grandfather) on pedestals that cannot be maintained.

I had read a dozen or so war novels and psychological thrillers before stumbling on this little book which is both light-hearted and deceptively deep. I was ready for it, and found it delightful. I have been talking about Kristy Woodson Harvey’s 2016 novel, Lies and Other Acts of Love.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Seventeen year old Elizabeth Stone, Izzy, knows that in less than a year, she will be aged out of the foster care system and on her own. In 1995 she finds herself on the grounds of the now shuttered Willard State Asylum. Peg, her new foster mother, with whom she has gotten along well, has asked her to come to the old asylum to help safeguard anything that might be worth keeping before the old buildings are condemned.  Izzy’s own mother, Joyce, is locked up in a psychiatric center for having killed Izzy’s father, shot him in the head while sleeping, and this visit to Willard brings back memories of visiting her own mother before finally begging her grandmother not to take her back there again. Izzy lives in constant fear that she will somehow inherit her mother’s psychosis.

Izzy’s story is one half of this 2014 novel by Ellen Marie Wiseman, What She Left Behind. The other half is that of Clara Elizabeth Cartwright who in 1925 is eighteen years old when she is sent to an expensive and exclusive home for nervous invalids, because she refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her, and threatens instead to run off with her Italian immigrant boyfriend.  Later, when her father’s fortunes turn for the worse in the depression, and he will no longer pay her fees for the expensive institution, she is sent instead to the state asylum. The story-line of the novel switches back and forth between Izzy and Clara, although the primary emphasis is on Clara and her attempts to escape her imprisonment in the asylum.

Although Wiseman makes it very clear that this is a novel, it relies heavily on the research Wiseman did including Women of the Asylum: Voices From Behind the Walls 1840—1945, and The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital, by Darby Penny and Peter Stastny.

This is a chilling tale to say the least. While Izzy struggles with yet another new beginning in foster care, her work at the asylum with her foster mother draws her more and more into the past and the treatment of patients, especially women, who lived and died in mental institutions. And it also causes her to rethink her own mother’s institutionalization and the events that led up to it.
Izzy wondered what horrors the hulking building had witnessed. What dreadful memories had attached themselves to the bricks and mortar and clouded glass forever part of the structure, mortared and sealed with blood and tears? Just as pain and anguish would always be part of who she was, the memories of thousands of tortured souls would live on in Chapin hall and the surrounding buildings of Willard State. How could this place ever be anything but a reminder of lives and loved ones lost?
Izzy comes to discover that nearly half of the fifty thousand patients at Willard died there. There are many times in the novel when I became angry with the author as she time and again holds out a hope to the reader that Clara will finally be able to convince one of the doctors that she is not sick, does not belong at Willard, only to dash that hope, and then raises the hope that perhaps her loving and dedicated boyfriend will find her and help her escape back into the world.

Clara discovers one woman at Willard who had been committed by her husband when he caught her kissing another man.

Clara remains rebellious, continues to insist to the doctors that she is not crazy, does not see visions or hear voices, and that they must release her. Instead her denials get her labeled as delusional and resistant to treatment, finally leading her to solitary confinement in the Rookie Pest House. That confinement serves to convince Clara of just how dangerous it is to resist or struggle. When she is released back into the general population, grateful not to be chained to a bed twenty-four hours a day, she becomes much more circumspect in her attempts to escape.

Izzy, who is relatively happy in her new foster relationship with Peg, stops cutting herself, and finds new ways  to deal with the bullying that occurs at her school. The asides on bullying by ‘mean girls’ is an intriguing story on its own, as is the slow unraveling of the story of just how her mother came to shoot her own husband as he slept. Izzy has always accepted the claim that her mother is simply insane, and she worries that her own cutting and acting out are early signs that she, too, will slip into insanity. I will leave this little side mystery to the reader to discover, since clearly it is Clara’s story that Wiseman most wants to tell.

In an afterward, when the author is asked what inspired her novel and how researching asylums made her feel, she replies:
It was difficult reading about people in the past being institutionalized, in many cases for the rest of their lives, because of emotional or economic distress. While some patients were truly ill, many were sent to asylums under circumstances we view differently today; poverty, homelessness, depression, homosexuality, alcoholism, and emotional distress due to divorce, family disputes, abusive relationships, and the loss of children. A person could be committed for something as simple as being unable to find work. 
Women were especially vulnerable to being institutionalized for the long term. Husbands could commit their “troublesome” wives, while male doctors were more than willing to oblige. Many women also worked as domestics and were in close contact with their employers; any bad behavior or dispute could be contrived as mental illness. By the end of its first year of operation, Willard housed four times as many women as men. In one case, a woman sent to Willard because of depression spent the remaining seventy-five years of her life there, until she died at the age of one hundred and one. Immigrants with few community connections were sometimes sent to asylums while their families in the old country had no idea where they were. Many “mad” patients were sent to public asylums from other state hospitals, arriving in groups of a hundred or more, crammed into trains and buses, unaware of where they were being taken. Nearly half of the 54,000 individuals who entered Willard died there.
Like many of the real life patients of Willard, Clara was submitted to forced sterilization, “a common practice in state mental hospitals from about 1910 to the end of WWII, when it was largely stopped because of embarrassing comparisons to Nazi policies.

Quite apart from the social significance of this novel, the stories of Izzy and Clara are interesting and well told in themselves, although for this reader it will be the social commentary that sticks with me.