The Fortunes of Jaded Women*****

The Fortunes of Jaded Women by Carolyn Huynh, is hilarious and oddly touching. It’s the best debut novel of 2022, and it isn’t as if there was no competition. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Mrs. Mai Nguyen was born in Vietnam, but has lived most of her life as a Californian. When we meet her, however, she has flown to Kauai, the home of a renowned Vietnamese psychic. The psychic tells her that the year ahead will be a pivotal one, the one in which she must repair her relationships with her sisters and her daughters. There will be one wedding; one funeral; and one pregnancy.

Well, now.

Nobody likes to be estranged from a family member, and yet it happens. But all of them? Both sisters, and her daughters, too? (No brothers, and no sons, either.) But surely, it isn’t her fault; after all, there’s the curse.

Chapter four is when everything kicks up a gear, and I have seldom laughed so hard. Mrs. Minh Pham is the first to arrive, and she has my attention from the get-go when she slips the waitstaff some money and explains there could potentially be a “small, tiny, little shouting match, with a propensity for small, tiny, little objects to be thrown through the air.” Mrs. Pham is the middle daughter, and is accustomed to being the mediator in any dispute. She takes all the precautions she feels are wise; she parks near the door for a fast getaway if necessary. She removes the sharp utensils as well as the chopsticks from the table, and requests paper plates and plastic cutlery. “Mai had a reputation for throwing things.”

As the women arrive at the dim sum restaurant, they flash their fake Louis Vuitton handbags and immediately set about trying to one-up one another with regard to social status and affluence, and especially—oh yes, especially—that of their respective daughters. Within three minutes, a donnybrook ensues, and the other diners, who are also Vietnamese and well acquainted with the curse of the Duong sisters, begin placing wagers on the winner. The sixty-something sisters commence throwing things at each other and are gently escorted out of the restaurant. They head for a bakery, and they get kicked out of there, too. Finally, the three of them end up on a park bench, their hair and clothing in dishabille, and yet none of them makes any move to leap up and go home.

These are not spoilers; this all takes place within the first 17 percent.

The chapters change points of view, moving between the sisters, their elderly mother, and their daughters, all in the third person omniscient. The fascinating thing is, these crazy behaviors, and the ways that they mold and shape their daughters and their relationships, all fit perfectly.

Although the setting changes, from Orange County, California to Hawaii to Vietnam to Seattle and beyond, this story is character based, and that’s my favorite type of novel. The skeezy men they date—mostly white boyfriends with Asian fetishes—make it even funnier.

The ending is perfect.

This is one of those rare galleys that I may actually read a second time for pleasure. One thing I know for sure is that Huynh is on my radar now. I can’t wait to see what her next book looks like!

Elvis and Me, by Priscilla Presley****

Priscilla Presley is the ex-wife of the king of Rock and Roll. I was a teenager when he died, and neither I nor most of my peers were fans; in the event his name did come up, we’d invariably ask, “Wait. Do you mean young hot Elvis, or old pudgy Elvis?” But I do love a good memoir, and those written by or about musicians are high on my list. My thanks go to Net Galley and Macmillan Audio for the review copy. This audio version of the author’s 1985 memoir is for sale now.

The relationship between Priscilla and Elvis took place in a completely different time, with completely different sexual mores and assumptions. That said, this was still a truly messed up pairing. Today, Elvis would probably be considered a predator, but within the context of the American South in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was regarded as a romantic, and women threw themselves at his feet. A quick online peek at old film and television clippings says it all.

Priscilla grew up in a strict but loving household. Her stepfather, the only father she knew, since her own died when she was an infant, was a military man, and so the family moved often. It was while they were stationed in Germany that one of Elvis’s employees saw Priscilla and invited her to meet with Elvis, who was doing his own tour of duty.

I have to feel for the bind her parents were in. On the one hand, she was just fourteen years old, and Presley was twenty-four, a grown man. On the other hand, if they refused to let her go, she would never have forgiven them; this was an invitation that literally millions of girls yearned for. Seeking a happy medium, her stepdad set boundaries: they were to be chaperoned, never alone together, and he wanted her home at a certain time. He groused about the fact that someone other than Elvis would be transporting her, but the reason was a legitimate one: Elvis could not drive himself anywhere without the car being mobbed. It was genuinely unsafe.

Rather than being the single event that the family anticipated, Elvis made their visits regular ones; when her parents balked, Elvis spoke to them personally, turning all of his charismatic charm on them, and telling them everything they wanted to hear. Most of it was untrue, of course, but the one thing he adhered to was not having sexual intercourse. During this time period, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy was alive and well, and any girl or woman known to have sex outside of marriage was likely to be ostracized by former friends and in some cases, family. It’s hard to imagine now, but at that time, no birth control pill had been invented, and a pregnancy outside of marriage was likely to ruin a young woman’s entire life.

Priscilla reads this memoir to us herself, and that makes it much more fun to hear. As we age our faces and our bodies change a lot, but our speaking voices change very little. Remembering some of the silly moments from that time, the author lets out a brief, girlish giggle, and it’s almost impossible to believe that she is now a grandmother.

Priscilla acknowledges that this was a monstrously unequal relationship. Elvis dictated whom she could talk to, what she wore, and sometimes even what room in the house she was supposed to be in. At one point, when he is going to be touring for months on end and she will be left at home with his grandmother, she goes out and gets a job. She’s so proud of herself. He makes her quit immediately. When he phones from the road, she had by God better be there. Priscilla compares this to Pygmalion. He has all the power, and she is in his thrall before she has even had a chance to grow up.

I have read two other Elvis biographies, and as dreadful as all of this sounds, the other authors were less gentle. In fact, this is part of Priscilla’s stated reason for deciding to tell her own story.

There are advantages to reading this particular biography. The official version of events is often what is published, but Priscilla is positioned to know the real story, more often than not. For example: when Elvis is drafted, the official story is that, although stars of his caliber are often offered soft assignments that involve singing to the troops, or making inspirational training films, Elvis insisted on doing the same job as every other American man.  On the other hand, Priscilla states that this is all his manager’s doing, because it will make Elvis appear noble. Enough new songs were taped in advance for there to be regular new releases on the radio throughout his tour of duty; toward the end, Elvis feigns illness because he’d prefer to be in the hospital being swarmed by nurses than marching around and getting dirty.

Her memory of Elvis, despite everything he put her through, is mostly a tender one. The spiral that led to his death, his issues with mental health, back before much was known, coupled with the immense number of strong prescription drugs he used to wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night—or to NOT go to sleep at all, and just stay up, night after night—set him up for relationships with unscrupulous characters, and nobody could rein him in, because he was the King.

Recommended to those that like vintage rock music or well-written memoirs of famous musicians.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle, by Jennifer Ryan***

Jennifer Ryan has created a niche for herself as a novelist that writes stories for and about women during World War II, set in England. In this one, a group of villagers form a club for the purpose of recycling and reusing wedding gowns, which are otherwise impossible to procure due to war rationing. We have three main characters and a manageable number of side characters. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

I experienced an odd mix of reactions to this novel, at various points. At the outset, it’s an information dump tied together by story components. That’s okay; I’ve seen it before. We get it over with so that we can go forward knowing the relevant facts.

Our main characters are Cressida Wescott, a London fashion designer driven back to the manse of her birth when both her home and business are struck by Nazi bombs; Grace Carlisle, an underconfident vicar’s daughter who’s about to enter a marriage of convenience to a much older man of the cloth; and Violet Wescott, niece of Cressida, who is desperately in search of an appropriate Royal peer to marry, because she deserves nothing less. Through circumstances, the three become close friends. Using Cressida’s professional experience and the generous donations of women in the village, and eventually beyond it, they are able to create lovely dresses for themselves and others, with the understanding that each dress must be passed on to another bride once the first user’s nuptials are over.

By the 40% mark, my notes say that although this story is becoming a bit predictable, I am so in love with these three women that I don’t mind at all. There are some bumps along the way, to be sure. For example, Violet is aghast when she is called up by the British government to serve her time doing war work. On the one hand, I had never known that (many) British women were drafted during this conflict to serve in noncombatant roles, so this is interesting; on the other hand, it takes about ten pages for Violet to transition from the world’s most obnoxious snob, to a positively egalitarian one-of-the-girls. There’s no process, no development; it’s as if Houdini has appeared suddenly, drawn his cape over her, whisked it away, and presto, she’s a different person. At this stage, however, I make a note to myself and then resolve to enjoy the rest of the story.

At the same time, I am becoming uncomfortably aware, having read three of Ryan’s four novels, that these books follow the same formula: different women are thrown together during the war in order to solve a problem of some sort; we have a character from the lower income bracket; another character is a wealthy woman; and there’s a complete brat that will nevertheless be transformed and redeemed by the story’s end. Group hug.

There’s another concern here, too; Violet is assigned to drive a brash American officer around London. Every time she does so, the guy hits on her, and not subtly, either. He stalks her, he harasses her, and so she falls for him. Better make her a dress.

Have we not progressed beyond this hazardous trope?

The story has a hurried quality to it. At first, as I note that every time someone is happy, they grin—never smiling, smirking, chuckling, guffawing, or giggling, they grin, grin, and grin some more—I chastise myself for picking at a perfectly lovely story and I move on. But it gets worse, and by the end, I run a quick search, thanks to my digital galley and my reading app’s features—and discover the word has been used 51 times.

Editor?

By the time we reach the conclusion, everything seems so obvious that I wonder if someone’s AI did most of the work here. And yes, of course that is hyperbole, but it’s also a disappointment.

Those that haven’t read anything by this author and that love historical romances may enjoy this book, but by the merciful end, I confess that I no longer did.

The Matchmaker’s Gift, by Lynda Cohen Loigman*****

“The heart is big enough to hold both grief and love.”

I read Loigman’s debut novel, The Two-Family House, followed by The Wartime Sisters, and I loved them both, so when Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press invited me to read and review The Matchmaker’s Gift, I leapt. Once again, Loigman has me at hello. This outstanding historical novel is for sale now, and you should get it and read it.

The story is told from the point of view of two protagonists, a woman and her grandmother; they were close, but Sara the grandmother has died, so her story is told in the past, beginning in 1910, when she arrives in the U.S. as a child, along with her family. Abby is her granddaughter; her story begins in 1994. Their stories are told alternately, but both are in the third person omniscient and told in a linear time frame, so I am free to lean back, relax, and get lost in their stories, without any confusion or doubling back to check things.

Sara was a matchmaker, although she initially had to be very careful, because Jewish tradition dictated that matchmakers be married men, and she was still just a girl. But she was gifted with visions of a sort, and could tell who belonged together. And so she was forced to create matches “in secret, pairing people together like a rogue puppeteer.” She never missed. And upon her passing, she leaves a cryptic message indicating that upon her death, Abby will inherit her special talent.

Abby is nonplussed by this, and even as she grieves her beloved grandmother’s death, she is confused as to what she should do. She’s a divorce lawyer, for heaven’s sake! Is she to toss her education and become a modern day yenta? She hasn’t even found a man for herself yet, let alone for others.

It’s always a joy to find a story that diverges from the well-worn path, and novels involving Jewish matchmakers—or any others, for that matter—are thin on the ground. But that is only a small part of this novel’s appeal. I love Sara and Abby; I almost feel they are my friends. I feel their sorrows and admire their courage and integrity. When either of them meets with unfair opposition, I want to smack their detractor with my cane.

But there’s something extra that’s infused into Loigman’s stories, an intangible but unmissable warmth. Nobody can teach anyone this. I can count on one hand the number of authors that can write heartwarming stories that don’t follow formulas or insult the reader’s intelligence. Loigman is one, and this makes her golden.

When I was halfway finished reading this glorious novel, I saw that an audio galley was available. I was a bit cautious, because I had already developed a firm sense of how these women sounded in my head, and I was afraid I might not like the narrators’ interpretations, but my concern was unfounded. I had a road trip ahead of me, and I listened to the next forty percent as I drove, and there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t love. Narrators Eva Kaminsky and Gabra Zackman do a lovely job, and I have never had such a seamless transition from the digital galley, to the audio, and back again.

Highly recommended, and bound to be one of the year’s best loved books.

Patricia Wants to Cuddle: The Audio Version, by Samantha Allen and a host of excellent narrators

Note: after hearing the audio version, I changed my rating to 5 stars. 5 stars shouldn’t be reserved for Shakespeare, for Toni Morrison, for Elizabeth Strout. 5 stars means the book is among the very best in its genre; Patricia Wants to Cuddle is among the best humorous novels being published this century.

A further note: this is the first time I can recall an audio book making a narrative easier to follow rather than harder. The presence of multiple, very skilled readers (Cindy Kay, Justis Bolding, Laura Knight Keating, Susan Bennett, and Jasmin Walker) makes it easier to tell the Catch contestants apart.

It is great to encounter my favorite parts a second time; within the last twenty percent of the book, the figurative language involving a weathervane and a turkey absolutely slay me.

Below is my original review.
________________________________________

“You have to watch out for the quiet ones.”

I had an ugly upper respiratory flu, and this excellent novel was exactly what the doctor ordered. My thanks go to Net Galley, Recorded Books, and Zando Publishing for the review copy. Patricia Wants to Cuddle will be available to the public Tuesday, June 28.

As the story begins, we are midway through filming “The Catch,” which is a reality television show similar to “The Bachelor.” Our cast includes the four lucky women to have made it this far; producer Casey; a handful of crew members; and oh dear, Jeremy, a scuzz bucket if ever there was one. Jeremy is this season’s catch. We also have a handful of locals, since we are filming on location; included is a bashful cryptid in the woods, a lonely creature that reacts very badly to stressful situations. As you may guess, Patricia is that cryptid.

These people are on Otter Island, a fictional addition to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. Think deep woods, rain, and glamping. And…what the hell was that, just now? Too big to be a bear. And why are the sheep so agitated?

Baaaaa.

The contestants are mostly not interested in love; they are interested in publicity, for various reasons of their own. The shooting schedule leaves them sleep deprived on an almost permanent basis, and so given the premise of the show—competition, not cooperation—it doesn’t take long for the women to turn on one another.

Samantha Allen is new to me, but she’s on my radar now. This story is snicker-worthy at the outset, and by the time we reach the climax, I am howling with laughter. Part of the joy comes from the plot and pacing, but the biggest laughs for me are those that combine these outrageous events with some of the funniest figurative language I have ever read. In fact, were I to rate this story solely on its humor, without rating the more traditional elements such as character development, this would be a five star read.

This book will appeal most to those that lean to the left.

Recommended to those that love darkly hilarious fiction.

A Ballad of Love and Glory, by Reyna Grande****

“We Irish know what ’tis like to be oppressed by an aggressive neighbor.”

Reyna Grande can really write. This is the first of her novels I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

A Ballad of Love and Glory encompasses two genres, romance and historical fiction. It’s the story of John Riley, an Irish immigrant to the USA in the mid-nineteenth century, who is met at the dock by military recruiters that want him and his compatriots to serve in the US army, fighting the war against Mexico. Riley arrives half-starved and worried sick about the fate of his family that he left behind. The promise of soldier’s wages is enough to persuade him, and he enlists.

It’s also the story of Ximena, a Mexican naturopath whose husband is killed by Texas Rangers. She follows the army to help care for the wounded; she and Riley are drawn together.

As for me, I am drawn to this tale by my love of military history, whether nonfiction or fiction, and by the unconventional point of view regarding the U.S. land grab. At the time of the annexation of Texas, followed by the war against Mexico, most Americans accepted the official explanation and believed that the war was initiated by Mexican aggression toward U.S. citizens across the border. Some, including an up-and-coming politician named Abraham Lincoln, saw threw the ruse and understood that the whole thing was a pretext on the part of the US designed to capture Texas, California, and points in between. This is the background information that I bring with me as I begin reading this novel.

The title and book cover both focus on romance, and if a friend hadn’t mentioned this story, I would have passed it by; most romance is too sappy for my tastes. But an entire brigade of Irish immigrants that jump sides in the midst of the conflict and fight, instead, for Mexico? I have to read this!

Grande honors historical truth in her storytelling, and as such, this is one sad read. The Irish soldiers are treated more savagely by the American-born officers than I had known, and Grande gives us plenty of detail. And although I know, when I begin reading, exactly who wins this war, it’s hard to face the inevitable once I am bonded to these characters.

That said, I do think Grande does a better job with the military end of this thing, and of developing John Riley in other regards, than romance. There’s this tension between Riley and Ximena, because he is a married man with a child back home—and I can guess immediately how this conflict will be resolved. Until that resolution, the tension, part of the “honor” mentioned in the title, is drawn to nearly ridiculous proportions; at one point, as the two are straining passionately toward one another, they both stop simultaneously, whip out their rosaries, and start saying Hail Mary’s together. I threw back my head and laughed!

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful novel. If you enjoy historical fiction; unconventional points of view; working class fiction; or tales of forbidden love, this book is for you. If you are in need of a good ugly cry, this book is your catalyst.

Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, by Sarah Bird***

I’ve been a big fan of Sarah Bird’s historical fiction since I read Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, which was published in 2018. When I saw that she had a new book coming out, I was excited and couldn’t wait to start reading it. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and McMillan Audio for the recording. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Evie Devlin; the setting is in Texas during the Great Depression. This is a time before government relief exists. Jobs for capable men are scarce, and for women, nearly nonexistent. Evie’s father is dead, and her mother has let her know that she won’t support her efforts to become a nurse. When hard work and determination land her a scholarship, Evie is over the moon, and she makes her way to St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Galveston. The director is not happy to see her; she disapproves of scholarship girls in general—a low class of girls, she believes—and in particular, a Protestant one! What is this world coming to? However, Sofia Amadeo likes Evie, and she wants her admitted, and since the Amadeo family’s money and power drive absolutely everything in Galveston, the director is forced to let Evie in. She and Sofie become roommates first, and then the closest of friends.

We follow Evie through nursing school, but on graduation day, she hits a snag and is sent away without her pin, which is the equivalent of a license to practice. Now homeless and nearly penniless, Evie is adrift, until she learns about the dance-a-thons that feature cash prizes. She was forced to dance for money as a small child and doesn’t care to do so again, but when she sees what passes for a nurse in the show—basically someone off the street recruited to play the role of nurse, but with no training of any kind—she persuades the manager to hire her instead. From there, romance and all sorts of other entanglements and complications ensue.

For roughly the first eighty percent of the book, I am enthralled. The plot is fascinating, the historical accuracy commendable. Soon this becomes my favorite galley. And this is why I feel such a colossal sense of disappointment, almost a sense of betrayal, in fact, when the ending is cobbled together with feel-good revisionism and wishful thinking. Without going into spoilerish detail, a member of an oppressed minority becomes Evie’s focus, and suddenly we roam so far from the historical truth that we never find our way back again. And make no mistake: the actual truth is ugly. But if you’re going to write in the kitchen, you have to be able to bear the heat. Or, something like that.

Sarah Bird is a badass writer. Just reading her figurative language alone gives me joy, and I am hoping fervently that this bizarre departure is an anomaly. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

As for the audio, Cassandra Campbell does a serviceable job, though the Italian accent sounds a bit like Dracula. This is a common issue, I find, and so I’m not terribly concerned about this aspect. Everything else she does is right on point. If you are going to read this book—which, sadly, I cannot recommend—I’d say it’s a toss up as to audio versus print. Go with whatever you’re most comfortable with, but do it free or cheap if you decide to acquire it.

Chevy in the Hole, by Kelsey Ronan***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Chevy in the Hole is Kelsey Ronan’s debut novel. I love strong working class fiction, and the title and book cover spoke to me. But while it shows a good deal of promise, it’s also a cautionary example of how, in trying to do too much, one can do too little. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copies. This book is for sale today.

The protagonists are Gus Molloy, who is Caucasian, and Monae Livingston, who is Black. The book opens as Gus is being revived with Narcan on the floor of a dirty restroom in Detroit. We follow him as he meets Monae, a student working at a farm outside of Flint. Their stories are told alternately with bits and pieces of the lives of their predecessors.  

The story is promoted as a love letter to Flint, and a tribute to the resilience of its people; it’s a story of “love and betrayal, race and family.” And we do surely see all of those things, but as soon as one aspect or another is touched on, I wink and poof, it’s gone. Gus and Monae are both sympathetic characters, and I can’t help pulling for them, but I suspect the author could have developed them more fully had we not spent so much time and detail on fragments of their parents, grandparents and so on.

If the author’s purpose is to use these characters from the past to showcase the various struggles through which Flint has gone—sit-down strikes, Civil Rights marches, and now, this horrifying industrial sludge that has polluted the town’s drinking water—it could have been done in a paragraph or two, or through some other device than shifting the point of view. The frequent changes of character and time period make it confusing as heck, particularly while listening to the audio version; that’s a shame, because Janina Edwards is a warm, convincing reader.

But we frequently shift from one protagonist to the other, even after they are married, and all of these people from the past have to be sorted by both time period, and by which protagonist they are related to.  A story like this should flow. As it is, it’s work listening to it, and had I not been granted a digital review copy as well to refer to, I might have given up.

My other frustration is that both the labor history and the Civil Rights issues—with Black people shut out of company housing in the past, and the issues with cop violence as well as the pollution that is visited most within the Black community—are huge. The pollution problem is immense, and ties back into both of the other issues. This book could be a powerhouse, a call for change to reward to the plucky souls that have stuck with this place through hell and high, toxic water. Instead they present almost like postcards; oh, look at this! Now look at that! Okay, never mind, let’s go on back to the present.

That being said, the author’s mission is an ambitious one, and her word smithery is of high caliber. I look forward to seeing what else she publishes.

If you choose to read this book, I recommend using the printed word, whether digitally or as a physical copy.

Wish You Were Here, by Jodi Picoult****

Diana has a high pressure job, and so does her boyfriend, Finn. Thank goodness they’ve made reservations in the Caribbean for a two week vacation. Sun, sand, cold drinks, turtles. But when the pandemic hits, Finn can’t get away. He tells Diana to go on ahead.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Nothing goes as planned for Diana. As her boat conveys her to her destination, everyone else is leaving, rather than arriving. The island is closing, an emergency measure against the pandemic. But Diana is a typical American tourist, and she knows that she has already paid for her stay, so once she is there, of course they’ll accept her…right?

The first few chapters depict our protagonist as such an entitled, smug tourist that I nearly give up out of distaste. But between the promotional blurb and my familiarity with Picoult’s work, I continue, knowing there’s a good chance that Diana will develop into a more likable character. She does.

Soon after she arrives, she runs into a handsome but irate local tour guide turned farmer, and as soon as they collide and conflict erupts, I figure, Ho hum. She’ll end up in bed with him. What else is new? And since this is near the beginning, I will tell you this much: sure she does, and plenty is new! As Diana is forced to live differently, with her luggage lost, very little wifi, no cell coverage, and nobody at her beck and call, she learns some things about herself.

Picoult is early to emerge within the growing body of pandemic fiction—hmm, will this become a genre, sub-genre maybe? And this makes Wish You Were Here all the more appealing.

Again, just before the halfway point, I think I can see how this is going to end, but I couldn’t be more wrong. At about the two-thirds mark, everything changes, and I marvel at the author’s audacity. But she makes it work, and I cannot tell you anything else without ruining it.

Because I was running late with my review, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened alternately with reading the digital review copy I was given. Marin Ireland does a solid job as reader; as to which version I recommend, it’s a complete toss up, so go with your usual preference.

Recommended to Picoult’s fans, and to those that enjoy fiction.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson****-*****

“I was not the first person to go through the world living two separate lives, one out in the open and the other locked up inside a box.”

Elly Bennett dies and leaves a detailed recording for her children. Wilkerson’s novel is about Elly’s life, but more than that, it’s about secrets. Everyone in this book has one or has been impacted by one in a major way, and for most, both are true. Elly and her late husband had a whopper, and they built their lives and their family around it. Their two children are Byron and Benny, and Benny’s secret is all consuming for much of her life; it has had a role in estranging her from her once-adoring older brother and parents. Meanwhile, there’s a child—now grown to middle age—in Europe that is herself a secret, and whose very identity has been obscured by one. Elly’s closest childhood friend carries a particularly potent secret, and so does the nanny that raised her. Even the lawyer that handles the estate has one.

When is it safe to let go of a secret?

I was invited to read Wilkerson’s debut novel by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, and I thank them for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and everyone is talking about it. You’ll want to get in on it.

Our story unfolds with seventeen year old Coventina Brown, known as Covey, quietly launching a plan to join her boyfriend, Gibbs, in London. He’s gone there to go to school, and when she’s done with school, she will join him. That is, until her father, who has raised her alone, gets into big trouble with a loan shark, a local thug who now holds title to her father’s store and his home, and now wants the one thing this father has left: Covey. If Covey marries this nasty old man, the debt will be squared. Most fathers would send their daughters to safety, and then square their shoulders and solve their problem, even when their own lives hang in the balance. But alas, Johnny Lyncook is not most fathers. He’s not a particularly nice man. As one of our characters will observe later, “A shit is a shit, young or old.”

Covey escapes on her wedding day (at which Black Cake, similar to fruitcake, is traditionally served), and her experiences from that time forward will form the foundation of her own life, her (future) husband’s, and their children and other loved ones.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, with the point of view changing by chapter, along with the time period. Readers will find themselves wretchedly confused if they fail to note the chapter titles, which are the key to everything that follows. The result is a story that is assembled like building blocks, and although it works out in the end, with everything coming together for a satisfactory resolution, I am frustrated at times, because just as a character begins to take shape for me, we leave them and join someone else.

I would have enjoyed more integration and perhaps a wee bit of streamlining. For example: we learn that Johnny, Elly/Covey’s father, is ethnically Chinese, and that there are a lot of them in the Caribbean, but there appears to be no reason whatsoever to include this. It is as if Wilkerson wants to include every interesting fact about life in the Caribbean, and so there are components her that add nothing to the narrative. It’s a distraction. The story is complex enough without tidbits thrown in for no benefit. There are some small credibility issues as well. Two people within the story become famous enough to be recognized on the street, and receive breaks that they ordinarily wouldn’t; one is a distance swimmer, and the other an oceanographer. I can imagine how one or the other might be charismatic and photogenic enough to achieve this, but two? Name a famous oceanographer. Name a famous distance swimmer. See what I mean?

Nevertheless, this is in many ways a story for our time, and as such, it will make meaty discussion material in book clubs and in classrooms.  When is a person black enough, and must a biracial person choose one side of their heritage over the other? How much information do adoptive parents owe their child, and when should they provide it? What about biological parents? When is it acceptable to keep secrets related to their children’s heritage, and when not? There are MeToo and other women’s issues at play, and there are issues of race. You could probably read this thing three or four times and still come away with observations, ideas, and questions that you hadn’t found the other times.

I am grateful that this story never devolves into a cookbook.

As debuts go, this is a strong one, and I look forward to seeing what else Wilkerson publishes. I recommend this novel as a welcome distraction from the stormy months ahead.