REVIEW: GONE SO LONG, BY ANDRE DUBUS III

 

Daniel Ahearn lives a quiet, solitary existence in a seaside New England town. Forty years ago, following a shocking act of impulsive violence on his part, his daughter, Susan, was ripped from his arms by police. Now in her forties, Susan still suffers from the trauma of a night she doesn’t remember, as she struggles to feel settled, to love a man and create something that lasts. Lois, her maternal grandmother who raised her, tries to find peace in her antique shop in a quaint Florida town but cannot escape her own anger, bitterness, and fear.

Cathartic, affirming, and steeped in the empathy and precise observations of character for which Dubus is celebrated, Gone So Long explores how the wounds of the past afflict the people we become, and probes the limits of recovery and absolution.

 

My Thoughts: The story opens as Susan starts writing about her childhood experiences, and about some fleeting memories of her father’s visits to his parole officer. Throughout the book, her creative moments reveal much about her own life and trauma.

Alternating narrators for Gone So Long include Susan, her father Daniel, and her grandmother Lois.

All the narrators sweep back and forth in time, offering a slowly evolving tale of what has happened to each of them.

I especially enjoyed Susan’s voice, and while Danny/Daniel appealed to my sense of a character seeking redemption, it was hard to get past what he had done.

Lois, Susan’s grandmother, was somewhat unlikable, but I could also enjoy parts of her shared moments and admired how she had created a successful antique store. She seemed judgmental, but as the story moved along, we could see her trying to be more empathetic.

As we follow Daniel on his journey toward his daughter, and as we accept his flashbacks as his way of acknowledging his sins, we can finally hope that father and daughter will connect in some way. But there is also a hint of a combustible reunion that will turn everything on its head. I held my breath as the pages turned, wondering what the characters would do next, feeling their joy and sadness along with their regrets, and anticipating how their paths would eventually cross. 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: EDUCATED, BY TARA WESTOVER

 

Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills” bag. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged metal in her father’s junkyard.

Her father distrusted the medical establishment, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when an older brother became violent.

When another brother got himself into college and came back with news of the world beyond the mountain, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. She taught herself enough mathematics, grammar, and science to take the ACT and was admitted to Brigham Young University. There, she studied psychology, politics, philosophy, and history, learning for the first time about pivotal world events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

My Thoughts: An inspirational story of one young woman’s struggle to break away from the constrictions of her childhood, Educated brings the reader right into the world she inhabited from her early years. Her first person voice was not filled with self-pity, but revealed an inner strength and a persistence that would serve her well in the years ahead.

As I followed her journey, I identified with some of her experiences. I had not been kept out of school as these children had, but so many of the attitudes that surrounded me growing up were very isolationist, so I could empathize with her plight.

Despite the authoritarianism of her family life, there seemed to be a true caring spirit that surrounded them all, and the actions of the parents seemed to come from a strong belief system.

However, there were aspects to the family life that chilled me: specifically, one of her brothers tormented her regularly. Perhaps his behavior served as an impetus that led to her eventual escape.

I was also struck by instances of family events that were recalled very differently between family members. I am also familiar with this tendency to either deny or conveniently forget the more disturbing elements of family life. Each individual’s perspective would vary, perhaps as that person’s coping measure dictated.

What happens ultimately to our narrator was in equal parts sad and uplifting: turning away from the belief systems and the tyranny of her youth would allow her to finally be her true self. A brilliantly written 5 star read.

***

REVIEW: FREEDOM’S CHILD, BY JAX MILLER

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Most chapters in Freedom’s Child: A Novel begin with this opener: “My name is Freedom,” and then reveal bits and pieces of her story. We learn quickly that Freedom Oliver is not her real name; that she is in the Witness Protection program; and that she is hiding from some dangerous people.

Currently living in Painter, Oregon, and spending most nights in a bar, regularly getting drunk and arrested, one might think that her goal in life is self-destruction. But no, she has a larger purpose, and it governs most of her days. She wants to find the children she lost many years before. The children whom she knows were renamed by their adoptive parents as Mason and Rebekah Paul.

In Goshen, Kentucky, where the Pauls live, we see a glimpse of the life of their evangelical world and realize that they have dark secrets and a deadly plan.

In upstate New York, the Delaneys are set on revenge. Matthew Delaney just got out of prison, where he served time for killing his brother Mark, a cop, and the husband of Nessa Delaney, now hiding out as Freedom Oliver. The matriarch, Lynn, and the three brothers, Matthew, Luke, and John, are scary people that one would not want to encounter. The descriptions are vivid, and I can easily visualize what lies ahead for Freedom when/if they find her. Also headed toward Freedom is the kind brother, Peter, wheelchair-bound with Cerebral Palsy.

Multiple narrators show us the collision course that will bring the dangerous Delaneys into Freedom’s new life, just as she is headed to Kentucky to search for her daughter Rebekah, now reported as missing. A cop from Painter, James Mattley, is also looking for Freedom and her daughter, too; he has a soft spot for her and is hoping to find her before the others do.

Will Freedom find her daughter in time? Can she outrun the Delaneys? When she finally reaches Goshen, what will she discover about the small child Magdalene? The story is fast-paced with intriguing characters, and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen to them all. Themes of violence, dark legacies, and redemption kept me reading, even as parts of the story and the writing style bogged down for me at times. Recommended for those who enjoy stories that could be ripped from the headlines. 4.0 stars.

REVIEW: SAVE YOURSELF, BY KELLY BRAFFET

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Patrick Cusimano, his brother Mike, and Mike’s girlfriend Caro live in the Cusimano family home, disturbingly connected to one another and indelibly marked by the dysfunction that led their father to drive drunk and kill a child. An act that resulted in his incarceration. Afterwards, their lives totter along haphazardly in a dark and dismal house that contains the detritus of their father’s pitiful life. They move like automatons in their routine and deadly lives, filled with an unrelenting sense of their betrayal to him and to each other.

Layla and Verna Elshere are the teen daughters of a man whose ministry rules his life. A man who cannot see beyond his disappointment in their choices and his frustration about his inability to change them. Layla’s Goth girl persona is her way of flaunting the path she has taken, and when Verna takes on some of her sister’s mannerisms and behaviors, even as she is also targeted by cruel classmates, she is soon free falling, caught up into the band of outcasts led by a young man named Justinian. She is bound to find an unimaginable darkness and an unexpected fear and pain that will drive her further away from hope and home.

Broken lives moving along a parallel path to nowhere. How will they all end up on a collision course that will change their lives forever? Who, if any of them, will still be standing at the end of the day?

Save Yourself: A Novel is a depressing tale of lives speeding off the rails, of emotions that control the choices of the characters, and the inevitable and unstoppable tragedy that will ensue. Four stars.