The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, by Janet Peery*****

theexactnatureofourwrongsThe place is Amicus, Kansas; the Campbell family has come together to celebrate the birthday of their frail, ancient patriarch, Abel. Ultimately, though, their attention is drawn, unavoidably, to the youngest among them. Billy is a walking pharmacy, but he won’t be walking anywhere for much longer if something isn’t done.

I read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. If I had paid full retail price, it would have been worth every red cent. It had me at hello, and performed a miracle of sorts by rendering me temporarily speechless; I had to gather my thoughts and look at my notes before I could comment.

But back to the Campbells of Kansas. Everyone has known for some time about Billy’s dependency issues; he’s been riding the roller coaster of addiction for many years. Billy’s father wants to take a hard line with him, while his mother, Hattie, just wants to bring him home and tuck him into the guest bedroom. Brother Jesse objects, “He’s forty-fricking-seven, Mom.”

Elder daughter Doro, who is sixty and perhaps the only sane, normal person in the family, is concerned for her mother, who is past eighty and has already had a heart attack. Doro reminds her mother that “It’s Amicus. It’s your family. Where two’s company and three turns into an intervention.”

The setting of Amicus and the time period we see as we reach back into the family’s history is well rendered, but remains discreetly in the background as it should, not hijacking the story. The story itself is based on character, not just of any one person, but of the family itself. By the twenty percent mark I feel as if I have known these people all my life. The full range of emotion is in play as I immerse myself in this intimate novel, and there are many places that make me laugh out loud.

It isn’t too long before I can identify someone I know that is a Hattie, and someone that is a Billy. Given the widespread horror of opiate addiction, I will bet you a dollar that you know someone too.

But before the halfway mark is reached, a terrible sense of dread comes over me, an aha moment I would not wish on my worst enemy. I begin to sense that perhaps I am Hattie. And within a week of having read this epic story, my eldest child calls and tells me that he’s had a phone call from his younger sibling’s dealer, a man that flatly states, “I don’t want your brother on my conscience, man. I won’t sell to him anymore, but I’m telling you, there are plenty of others that do. You gotta do something, cause he’s out of control.”

Generally, I do not include personal notes in my reviews, because that’s not generally what the reader is looking for. But here I have chosen to do so because this problem is everywhere. In the case of Billy Campbell, there’s a complicating factor: Billy is HIV positive and has been since he was 21. And again, I suspect that for many others, such issues also blur the distinction between medical treatment of some sort, and addiction.

I hope that you can get this book and enjoy it for its sly humor, brilliant word-smithery, and unmatchable character development. It’s excellent fiction, just exactly right for a chilly autumn evening in your favorite chair or snuggled beneath the quilts. But for me, it is valuable as a wake-up call, and it will do the same for many other readers also—I have no doubt.

It’s the right story, at the right time.

And Ladies of the Club, by Helen Hooven Santmeyer *****

andLadiesoftheclubThis tome was touted, at the time of its first publication, as the book written by “a little old lady in a nursing home”. May we be forever ashamed to pigeon-hole the elderly in such a manner again. What they MIGHT have said, is that this woman was a college dean of students and a professor of English. She was too busy to finish her book until her retirement. How lovely it was that she lived long enough to see it published!

In sumptuousness and richness, it is like Gone With the Wind without the racism. Most wonderfully of all, it is written in the manner in which time seems to go by, as we follow the life of a woman graduating from a women’s college in the late 1800’s. When she is young, a single year takes up many chapters, but when she is very elderly, one chapter spans years and years. As we age, time goes by so quickly.

Her use of the language is so brilliant that I now count hers as one of my favorite novels. It is thicker than some dictionaries, but infinitely more absorbing, and so I read it twice, once when I was a young mother with my first tiny babes at home; we were poor enough that I saved box tops and waited for double coupon day to buy groceries, but the Book of the Month Club was our one luxury, and they sent this. I read it again later when I was teaching. I gave my mother a copy for Christmas one year, and she loved it too.

I just may go back and read it again..
If you have grown up in the era of instant gratification and sound bites, this is not your book. This is a book to curl up with on a chilly afternoon and let the world fade away. Patience and a fairly high vocabulary level and awareness of the past will help, but give it a try if you aren’t sure. It will be worth it.