MEANDERING FAMILY SAGA — A REVIEW

Aaron and Madeline Maciver began their married life, just as many other couples from their time, believing they had many years ahead of them.

But one day Madeline was tragically injured in a bicycling accident that left her brain damaged, reduced to a childlike state.

After a period of rehabilitation, Aaron developed a relationship with Julia, the nurse who helped care for Madeline; their relationship morphed into a marriage—after Aaron terminated the marriage to Madeline.

What was most unexpected was Aaron and Julia’s decision to take Madeline into their home with them, where they cared for her as if she were their child.

Mac Maciver is the narrator of this family saga, moving back and forth in time to chronicle the stories that spotlight family moments, the connections that bind people together, and the flaws that often tear them apart. Set against the backdrop of the times, from the Viet Nam war to the Iraq conflict, Mac introduces a series of family members, from Cousin Buddy to his own wife and daughters many years later.

Through the years, Madeline is a constant presence, even though friends and neighbors find the family dynamics strange at best and bizarre at worst.

How does Julia cope with the “extra” wife in her home? Is her tendency to control things a way of coping, or is it something more? What will a romance for Madeline do to alter the dynamics of this unusual family?

Jane Hamilton’s prose is remarkable, revealing the emotions, the setting, and the characterizations with clarity. In this excerpt, Mac and his sister Louise are returning from a visit to their home, during which some events have forced them to see what they had not realized before:

“Below us as we lifted off lay the flat grid of the gray city, the desolation of the urban landscape. We were leaving it behind as we’d done before, but this time was different; this time the entire scrim had been pulled away from the home front, and we could see the outer world that all along had been part of us. I would have liked to return to our cozy, selfish ignorance, but that seemed no longer possible; from now on we’d walk hand in hand with our entitlements, nursing them along, feeding them up….”

As much as I enjoyed the characterizations, the prose, and the unusual plot of When Madeline Was Young, I found myself drifting off course, easily distracted, and losing my way as the narrator rambled and meandered in his effort to tell the stories of his family, some of which seemed irrelevant. Therefore, I’m awarding three stars.

CONVERGING LIVES ON A COLLISION COURSE — A REVIEW

Family connections, secrets, and the love of place are the primary themes of Lisa Unger’s Heartbroken: A Novel. And intriguingly, Heart Island, the Heart family’s summer home, is the place where they vacation every summer.

For Birdie Heart Burke, however, the island is so much more than a vacation home. She would stay there all year long if she could. At 70+, Birdie has many wonderful memories of childhood times here…and she also ponders the bitter rivalries in her life that insert themselves into those memories.

Birdie’s husband Joe doesn’t care for the island, nor do he and Birdie have much to link them any longer.

We open to Birdie’s thoughts and feelings, and then move along to other characters, such as Birdie and Joe’s daughter Kate. Mother to Chelsea and Brendan, Kate has made many poor choices, including her first marriage. But finally she is in a good place with husband Sean…and the secret she holds close to her heart. A secret she plans to share when they go to Heart Island.

On another side of town, and in a parallel existence, Emily struggles. She has always had the feeling of loss for something she cannot quite define, and her quest for love and acceptance leads to tangled love relationships: especially her current connection to Dean, who veers between caring and loving and harsh emotional abuse. Like the lab animal reinforced intermittently, however, she keeps hanging on, waiting for the loving part.

These three very different women will find themselves on a collision course within a short time.

Without giving away too many hints about the storyline, which comes together subtly, I must say that parts of it moved slowly, unlike Unger’s other fast-paced suspense tales; however, the richly layered characters kept me interested. Then at the end, events sped up and I felt as though I was in an Unger story at last.

Yet after the denouement, the story continued for a bit, showing the reader “aftereffects” that leveled me out a bit after the previous intensity. An unusual yet emotionally satisfying story: four stars.

VIOLENCE, REVISITING THE PAST, & SECRETS — A REVIEW

Violence was an ongoing part of Hannah Benson’s childhood. Then, on one tragic night, she ran as if her life depended on it.

Now, twenty years later, a call from her past brings everything about that life front and center. Grady Steadman, her old boyfriend, is now the Sheriff in Clearfield, Virginia, and his news is about to change her life again. Her mother has died, and her sister’s daughter Anna is now in need of her care. Yes, her sister Lucy died five years before. But nobody could find her to tell her about it.

Going back to Clearfield will undoubtedly also bring back the memories…And the secrets Hannah has been keeping could threaten everything she has worked so hard to build.

Throughout this enticing story, I could connect with Hannah, her niece Anna, and even with Grady. Each brought something special to the story about building new lives and protecting a future…in spite of the past.

But what will Grady do to resurrect the dark secrets Hannah is carrying? How might the events of that one night destroy the new family Hannah is building with Anna?

The secret hovering over everything in the pages of What Happened to Hannah: A Novel was obviously something big, but I guessed most of it early on. Then when the final pieces fell into place, I thought: that was it? I was a bit disappointed at how the dark foreshadowing throughout suggested so much more. And lest I introduce spoilers, that’s all I’m saying. But I wasn’t happy at how the secret finally unfolded and how it left me feeling…deflated.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the story and would recommend it to those who relish family drama and the unfolding love match that inevitably brings a happy ending. But…3.5 stars.

DECONSTRUCTING A FAMILIAL LANDSCAPE — A REVIEW

When Jane Nelson seemingly spins out of control one day and drowns her son Simon, and attempts to drown his twin sister Sarah, her husband Tom, a professor, is blindsided. And then, once Jane’s trial has ended, and she is charged with insanity, Tom faces charges of “failure to protect.”

As his attorney prepares Tom for trial, they begin building a defense based on the complexities of nature and nurture, hoping to uncover the precursors to Jane’s condition, while at the same time, showing that there was no way that Tom could have foreseen the tragic events, or how anyone could have predicted Jane’s behavior.

The title of the book JANEOLOGY could describe the very process of investigation via retrocognition, in that it deconstructs the genetic/psychological landscape of Jane’s ancestry, beginning with her mother, Victoria, who was murdered, leaving Jane motherless at age ten.

This unique exploration into the precursors of Jane’s behavior was a fascinating trip via a psychic Mariah, who is a relative of Jane’s. Through objects in an old trunk, Mariah takes the reader (and Tom) back, showing us a history of mental illness, abuse, and violence. In Jane’s immediate family of origin, she lost her father to divorce early on, and she was left with a sociopathic mother who used men and her daughter to satisfy her own needs. Her mother’s murder when she was just ten could have planted the final seeds that led to the tragedy.

But as the attorney has pointed out, many people have terrible childhoods and do not grow up to murder their children. What set Jane apart? Therefore, while examining the many layers of familial history might seem like “overkill,” instead they show us that the inbred violence in her history was like a ticking time bomb.

An interesting “epilogue” fast-forwards to give us a glimpse of Sarah’s future.

As I closed the final pages of this unique suspense tale, I was reminded of my own history as a social worker who dealt with many of these issues in my daily life. Evaluations by therapists and studies of the family dynamics led us to our conclusions. Harrington’s approach is unique and fascinating and makes for an interesting story. There were parts of the historic study that were lengthy and rambling, leading us far astray of the legal situation in which the father found himself. In the end, we were left with as many questions as answers. Four stars.


SWEEPING SAGA HIGHLIGHTS THREE GENERATIONS — A REVIEW

From the very first page until the last, I could not stop reading this wonderfully vivid family drama. We meet each of the characters, one by one, in individual chapters devoted to them. In the first one, we meet Alice Kelleher, the matriarch, whose story really begins in a childhood filled with her father’s rages and her desire to escape. We then come to know, gradually, over the unfolding chapters in which she stars, about the loss of her sister Mary while they were on the cusp of their young adulthood, and how that moment informs the rest of her life.

Alice’s husband Daniel has been dead for ten years at the beginning of the story, and during the aftermath of that loss, she has been estranged from Kathleen, her oldest and Daniel’s favorite. Alice’s bitterness over this favoritism colors their relationship. But Kathleen, sober for twenty years, is happily ensconced in worm farming in the Napa-Sonoma Valley of California, with her recovering alcoholic partner Arlo. Her daughter and eldest child Maggie lives in New York enjoying the writer’s life, but struggling with her relationships. Something happens before that final summer of this story that will change everything for her.

Second daughter Clare is absent from the story, except as described by the others. Her absence says a lot about her relationship to the others.

Patrick, the youngest and only son, is visible through the eyes of his mother, sister, and wife. He is an “entitled” man who cannot believe that life isn’t always going to go his way.

In the summers, each family member descends upon the beach house and cottage in Maine, land that Daniel won in a card game. The subsequent cottage and then larger home came later. But the Kelleher family considers this their vacation home. They almost take it for granted, even as they meticulously divide up their time there. Each sibling has a month during the summer to really enjoy their “tenancy” there.

But what happens during this last summer in Maine that will change everything? What event for which Alice has decided to do penance will finally bring the lot of them into conflict and change their lives forever? Seeing how this conflict comes to a head and also visualizing it from each point of view brought forth the most palpable realization that, while family bonds are strong, they are also fragile. What connects family members is not always enough to withstand these tests. But maybe, despite their differences, this big Irish Catholic family, whose religion is another bond that sustains, even as it sometimes divides them, will find the key to what defines and ultimately saves them.

I loved the colorful characters and their stories in Maine. From the war torn years to the present, the effects of time and loss upon a family felt like something that could have happened in my own family. I could feel the tensions as the conflict built between the family members—and then, in one moment, see how forgiveness can transcend the pettiness. Even as I kept turning pages to see what would happen next, I also felt the sadness, the loss, as I knew that my time with the Kellehers would soon end. Five stars!

THE UNLIKELIEST OF FAMILIES — A REVIEW

From the moment that Adele Brannon and Kamryn Matika met in college, they were best friends. They thought nothing could come between them, but then Adele did the unthinkable. She slept with Kamryn’s fiancé.

By the time Kamryn learns this fact, though, a few years have passed. And Adele is the mother of a child named Tegan.

When the betrayal is revealed, Kamryn breaks up with Nate and walks out on her friendship with Adele.

Years later, and after a series of unanswered letters from Adele, Kamryn finally responds to one that is truly a desperate cry for help, returning to London to a hospital room where Adele lies dying.

Her request will turn Kamryn’s life upside down—but unexpectedly, it will also finally make everything right.

After Adele’s death, Kamryn returns to her home and job in Leeds, accompanied by her “best friend’s girl” and tries to carve out a life and family for herself and Tegan. At work, though, she has a new boss, Luke, who immediately grates on her nerves and arouses all kinds of emotions.

What will happen in the first year of this newly created family that will finally convince Kamryn that she can have the love she’d always desired? Who will be there for her, and what will eventually happen to cement the bonds formed on the day she took her friend’s child home?

My Best Friend’s Girl was a wonderfully emotional tale of love, friends, and the unusual forms that family can take; it was a page-turning delight that held my attention all the way through and earned five stars from me.

THE POWERFUL PULL OF THE PAST

Cassie Madison has successfully reinvented herself in New York as an advertising executive and the fiancée of a man with whom she shares dreams of a life of work and mutual goals.

A late-night phone call takes her back to her small town roots in Walton, Georgia, to see her dying father and the family she fled from all those years ago.  The only thing more frightening than losing her father, however, is seeing her sister Harriet—the one who betrayed her and stole her fiancé to marry him herself.

Now Harriet and Joe Warner have five children and the desire to make up for lost time.

But from the moment her father dies, and then leaves the family home to her, Cassie is fighting hard against the pull of the past, the home and its memories, and the growing attachment she is feeling once again for her family.

Then there’s Sam Parker, a boy who witnessed many of Cassie’s humiliating childhood moments.  He’s good looking, charming, and the local doctor.  But he’s also pig-headed, a bit of a chauvinist (in my opinion!), and has no trouble telling Cassie how wrong she is about everything.  Fighting the growing attraction between them while also trying to hold onto the self she reinvented is Cassie’s biggest task.

As the story unfolds, more is revealed.  Surprising events are afoot as developers try to reinvent Walton, with opponents lining up to say their piece.

Then a secret from the past casts new light on some townsfolk.  How will this secret affect the fates of the town and its people?  And will Cassie find the answers she seeks?  Will she discover what she truly wants when she finally listens to her own heart?

Surprisingly, this book tugged at my own belief systems and values as well.  I found some of the characters very annoying—like Sam Parker and Harriet Warner—with their tendency to tell everyone how they should feel and what they should do.  They also occasionally framed their remarks in sentiments like “follow your heart,” but they were quite forceful in trying to impose their own beliefs.

Then I realized why these behaviors were so annoying to me.  I had grown up in a similar community, and while it was not in the South, it almost could have been.  Small rural villages throughout this country have some traits in common.  I fled from these roots just as Cassie did, so a part of me wanted her to stick to her reinvented self.  But gradually I came to realize that, for Cassie, she hadn’t really wanted to leave the community behind as much as she wanted to distance herself from the emotional pain.

In the end, the very root of her pain became the source of her healing.  As a result, I have awarded Falling Home five stars.

DEFINING MOMENTS THAT ALTER OUR LIVES….

Seven-year-old Leo lies in a hospital bed, comatose, after a seemingly minor accident followed by surgery. By his bedside, his mother Nova recalls the moments of their lives together. But once upon a time, long ago in her own childhood, she and her best friend Mal were like two sides of one coin. Their bond was strong and one that they thought would never be broken.

Through flashbacks, we see the journey of Nova and Mal, how they gradually forged separate lives in their adulthood, while still maintaining a very strong connection. When Mal met Stephanie, however, things changed—just a bit. And when he married her, Nova knew that their relationship, with its strong friendship bonds, had morphed into something else—a friendship that now included the three of them.

The collision course that severs the connections between them begins when Stephanie and Mal want a baby, but Stephanie cannot have her own; they know that adoption will not be possible because of Stephanie’s history and emotional problems. They approach Nova, asking her to carry their baby. After much thought and considerable anguish, Nova agrees.

Eight years later, Nova is raising her son Leo alone. What happened and how did everything go wrong?

Answering those questions fills the pages of this compelling novel that probes below the surface, peeling back the layers to finally reveal the hidden motivations that altered all of their lives.

Will Mal finally meet his son and join the others at his bedside? Will his presence heal the wounds? And will the tragedy finally change the future for all of them?

The characters were richly detailed, with all the flaws and strengths of real people. Sometimes I felt very frustrated with each of them, as their inability to clearly communicate their thoughts and feelings to each other led to the breakdown of their relationships. None of them revealed the complete truth. When Mal told Nova that he and Stephanie had changed their minds about the baby, he would not (or could not) tell the whole story. When Stephanie said she no longer could take the baby, the reasons she gave were not completely true, either.

And afterwards, while Nova was raising her son alone, she didn’t share any of the details with her family, her husband Keith (whom she married after her son was born), or even her closest friends.

Told in the first-person narrative of Nova, and then Stephanie, we gradually come to understand each of the women. Alternating first-person voice is not unusual, but in this novel, each chapter began without anything to identify whose “voice” was spotlighted. Sometimes it took two or three paragraphs to figure it out, which altered my enjoyment of the story. The flow was not as smooth as I would have liked.

Because of this somewhat confusing writing style, I decided to award four stars. I would still recommend it to anyone who enjoys tales of friendship, family, and the defining moments that change our lives.

CREATING FAMILIES — FLAWS AND JOYS

In Portland, Oregon, the (fictional) Chosen Child adoption agency operates with a specific mission in mind: families can be created. To the social workers who work there, including Chloe Pinter who directs the domestic adoption program, the mission is one that almost supersedes everything else in their lives. Their hours are unpredictable, interrupting many moments of personal interaction. Chloe’s relationship with her fiancé Dan is precarious at times because of the demands of the job.

But Chloe forges ahead, connecting birth parents to adoptive ones with a zeal that seemingly consumes her.

In this tale about creating families, the alternating chapters focus on individual characters, from Chloe, to individual birth parents, and to a couple that once tried to adopt, but now has a birth child.

Each exploration reveals the emotional drains as well as the eager anticipation of each character, whether that character is one waiting for an adoptive child or is a birth parent struggling with the pain of giving up a child. We come to empathize with the pain, the struggles, and finally the joy that comes when everyone achieves his/her goal.

But the story does not end with the “chosen family” riding off into the sunset. We also see the regrets of the birth parents, the struggles of new parenthood for the adoptive ones, and even a case of postpartum depression that almost leads to disaster.

Hoffman’s portrayal of the birth/adoption process was realistic, delving into the flaws of all the characters with sensitivity. Social workers, as well as birth parents, are human and subject to errors in judgment. These insights added depth to Chosen: A Novel, which resulted in a five-star review from this reader.

A SINGLE MOM’S PLIGHT AND CHALLENGES

Single mom Marta Zinsser and her nine-year-old daughter Eva have moved from Manhattan to a Seattle suburb. Marta’s new advertising agency is one she can run out of her backyard guesthouse, and she hopes that she’ll be able to “have it all”—business, parenthood, and being a supportive daughter to her ailing mother who lives nearby.

What Marta didn’t count on in this new life is that daughter Eva wants to be popular, and she wants her mom to be “normal.” In some ways, Eva has taken on the role of “mother” and tries to prod Marta into belonging. But Marta prefers to wear combat boots, ride her motorcycle, and live by her own rules.

However, Marta finally agrees to sign up to volunteer for school room mother and other activities. But she has to confront, on a regular basis, what she considers the snotty attitude of the “perfect” moms whose role in life is to stay home and focus all of their energy on the parenting game.

When Eva becomes increasingly critical of everything Marta does and blames her for her own problems, Marta is reminded of how she felt when her own “perfect” mother tried to turn her into a debutante. Squeezed between the two generations, Marta is conflicted and stressed.

And then the unexpected happens—she meets a gorgeous hunk of a man named Luke who sweeps her off her feet. But can she give in and trust in what the two of them can build? Or should she run the other way? And should she reassess everything about the way she has perceived her world and her role in it?

Odd Mom Out was compelling on so many levels. The characters were so richly developed that I felt I knew them. When Marta struggled, I felt her pain. When the snooty people played their games, I wanted to smack them. And in the gorgeous Seattle settings, I felt as though I, too, was riding the ferry or gazing at the Space Needle.

I’ve been to Seattle several times and love it there; reading this book swept me back into that world and I was an armchair traveler enjoying the ride.

Five stars was the highest number I could award, but I would give more if I could. I really loved this book.