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.

The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel*****

theroanokegirlsAmy Engel makes her debut as a writer of adult fiction with this title, having begun her career writing fiction for young adults. The Roanoke Girls is smoking hot, a barn burner of a book, diving into some of society’s deepest taboos and yanking them from the shadows into the bright rays of Kansas sunshine, where the story is set, for us to have a look at them. It’s not available to the public until March 7, 2017, and frankly I don’t know how you are going to wait that long. I received a DRC for this title from Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the purpose of a review.

Lane grows up in New York City, raised by a mother that shows no sign of warmth or affection, a woman that seems to either cry or sleepwalk through most hours of most days. When she hangs herself, Lane bitterly wonders what took her so long. But then a surprise comes with the social worker assigned to her case. It seems there are grandparents in Kansas, who not only are willing to have Lane, but that actually want her.

Soon Lane finds herself being driven up the private drive to Roanoke, the family manse, a rambling, welcoming hodgepodge of a house, complete with a same-age cousin waving with manic joy from the front porch. Allegra is spoiled, and now Lane will have all the same luxuries. The ostensible farm on which they live is more of a gentleman’s farm, as it happens; the real money comes from oil. And so Lane, who has scraped for every scrap of clothing and food alongside her struggling mother for 16 years, suddenly has the whole world at her beck and call. Allegra takes her to their grandfather’s study and shows her where all the credit cards are kept, and she assures her this is not something they are sneaking or stealing; it is assumed that if they want something, they can buy it.

It seems almost too good to be true…and it is.

There is so much simmering just below the surface, unspoken but thick and almost tangible. Take, for example, the portraits of the Roanoke girls that have gone before them, whose photographs line a main hallway. The collection begins with Grandfather’s sisters, continues with their daughters, the mothers and aunts of Lane and Allegra. What has become of all of them? Allegra explains:

“Roanoke girls never last long around here…In the end, we either run or we die.”

Lane’s picture isn’t included among those in the hallway, and she isn’t sure she wants it there. And as time goes by and the contours of the family’s pathology become clearer, Lane decides it’s time to save herself, and she hits the road, covering her tracks to the best of her ability. She stays away until ten years later, when her phone rings. Her grandfather tells her that Allegra has vanished; they need Lane to “come home” to help the family search for her.

Lane’s interaction with her grandfather is mesmerizing. When he calls her with the news of Allegra’s disappearance, the first thing she asks is how he got her number. Yet once she is back in the Roanoke house, she recognizes that

“…behind the secrets and the horrible truth, under the shame and anger that beat like a heart, there still lives a terrible kind of love.”

The fascinating, intimate narrative Engel weaves is a thing that can’t be taught. There’s no degree, no series of workshops that gives a voice such clear authority. She plays out the story’s thread in careful increments, and the bone-c hilling tone is heightened rather than lessened by the fact that we have a very good idea of exactly what happened to Allegra. I know whodunit halfway through the book, but it doesn’t matter. The author binds me to Lane’s story in a way that is completely undeniable, and I have to see this thing through with her. Toward the end of the book, instead of commenting to myself about aspects of the book or particularly compelling passages to quote, I’m engaging with the text itself. More than once my notebook simply says, “No.”

The reader should know that there are triggers all over the place. Those that are in a sensitive place may want to have someone else read the book first and tell you whether they recommend it to you. But for those that want a chiller of a mystery, and for those that care about women and the ways that society turns people into products for consumption, this is a must read. Or you could just read it because it’s brilliant, and no one else is writing anything like it.