Katie's life is falling apart: her best friend thinks she's a freak, her mother, Caroline, controls every aspect of her life, and her estranged grandmother, Mary, appears as if out of nowhere. Mary has dementia and needs lots of care, and when Katie starts putting together Mary's life story, secrets and lies are uncovered: Mary's illegitimate baby, her zest for life and freedom and men; the way she lived her life to the full yet suffered huge sacrifices along the way. As the relationship between Mary and Caroline is explored, Katie begins to understand her own mother's behavior, and from that insight, the terrors about her sexuality, her future, and her younger brother are all put into perspective.
Funny, sad, honest, and wise, this powerful multigenerational novel from international bestseller Jenny Downham celebrates life like no book before.
Though the story is about three women–Mary the grandmother, Caroline the mother, and Katie the daughter–we get the direct points of view of only Mary and Katie. Katie suffers under the thumb of an overbearing mother and the bullying from classmates after her best friend Esme told everyone that Katie tried to kiss her; Mary’s future is up in the air after her live-in boyfriend dies and it becomes clear she has serious memory loss.
The entire book is fantastic, but flashbacks to Mary’s teenage years and adulthood are a particular highlight. You know the women in history who seemed to be born in the wrong era entirely? That would be Mary, the girl born with a fire that’s still burning bright when she’s old and living with Alzheimer’s. Despite heavy stigma toward girls who gallivanted around town with boys, Mary did just that to her heart’s content because no one else’s opinion mattered. Stigma toward young, unwed mothers? Pfft. The only reason she gave her baby daughter Caroline up to her twelve-years-older sister Pat because Mary knew she couldn’t care for her.
That choice is the one that truly sets the events of the novel and the unraveling of decades’ worth of secrets in motion.
Caroline is the clear antagonist as she tries to remove the old woman from her life as soon as possible, but she reveals herself as a fully realized character too with good reason to dislike her birth mother so much. Once her story emerges toward the book’s end, you start to understand her point of view. Readers have the benefit of seeing Mary’s side of the story first and knowing how much she loves her daughter, but Caroline isn’t a mind reader. What she knows is what her aunt/adoptive mother Pat told her and the neglect she experienced in the few years she lived with Mary.
Caroline made mistakes. Pat made mistakes. Mary made mistakes. All three women just wanted to do what they thought was best and it turned into a family feud that lasts into the new millennium.
All of this nasty family history emerges while Katie is trying to get through school, please her strict, reticent mother, and get comfortable with her identity as a lesbian girl. Stories like Katie’s where they struggle with their sexuality and deal with bullying make me happy my own self-realization and coming out process went so easily. Her romance with another girl, as minor as it is, is sweet and realistically handled. Still, what I love most about Katie is that she’s the driving force behind ending the fifty-year feud between Caroline and Mary. Sometimes, you need a modern eye to solve problems from the past.
What Left Me Wanting:
There’s honestly so little I can say to offer reservations on the book. Its pacing is slow and not always easy to stick with, but the payoff is worth it. I’d prefer if Katie’s brother Chris had his developmental disability specified, but I can forgive it because of the nuanced characterization he gets too.
Downham pens a brilliant family saga that modern teens will eat up and it might make them consider problems in their own families in a new light too. There simply aren’t any more words I can use that will communicate how much I want you to read this book. Just look at me typing READ IT in capital letters and do exactly that: read this book.