Friday, July 12, 2019
Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera
Gertrude, Annie, and Retta. Two white women, one black. All living in South Carolina at a time when things were particularly difficult for everyone. Three classes are represented. Gertrude is a very poor, rural white woman. Childlike almost, though with four babies to raise. Retta is the daughter of a slave, free herself. She works for Annie, a wealthy Yankee woman with more than her share of suffering. Various factors exist that are different for each woman. One deals with an abusive husband, another has lost her only child. The third is estranged from some of her children.
Throughout, despite the freedom Retta now has, the South still has a racial divide (that exists even today). White women could not be friends with black women, even if all the factors were there to make them close. Friendships with each other had to be hidden from scrutiny. This shocked me and bothered me to no end. Friendships develop naturally and are treasured: to think finding a kindred spirit would be frowned upon because of race is incomprehensible.
I enjoyed the dialogue and the pacing of the story. It has almost constant suspense. Sweetness in seeing Reeta's lovely marriage, and pain at Gertrude's suffering. It is engrossing and is embellished with many accurate historical details that enrichen the narrative. I loved how the women were detailed and their distinct voices and actions that make them unique and fragile make all three easy to relate to.
I also liked how complex the women were, so much so that if you took away the racial differences, their stories would still work in how they are drawn out and created with such dimension. These are women dealing the hand they are dealt. No one has any aces in this game.
I adored Retta. She was so kind and knew what to say to everyone to keep things running that I wanted to be her. She had patience, intelligence, and empathy. Yet, she wasn't perfect and so all the more endearing.
I don't want to give out spoilers, as I think the story deserves to be read and enjoyed.
However, you may want to stop reading if you don't want spoilers (I will be as vague as possible). But still, go if you need to! Order the book!
(Leave now or dare to see some clues). SPOILERS below. Run! Or not. It's up to you!
Okay, you're still here. Are you sure you want to?
Here's the thing. The author brings tremendous suspense up to almost the very last page. And then the denouement takes place in about five pages. It's quickly wrapped up. Neatly. Too neatly. After the time put in reading it, anticipating the rising action, the drop at the end was disappointing. Frustrating.
Another problem I had with it is that there's a very obvious problem one of the women has in her family that is so easily apparent that one has a hard time suspending disbelief that it takes her so long for her to realize the problem. It was foreshadowed so much that it came as no surprise as the secret was revealed. I knew what was coming in one of the first chapters and I'm not that smart.
Following that same secret is that the author has to resort to a tired literary trope that has been done far too much. "Women's literature" resorts to it extensively, so much so that the extreme trauma becomes almost ho-hum. Maybe because the problem is universal and known that it feels like a cheap shot to throw that in as something to be considered a surprise. Basically, child molestation and incest is the big secret. Yes, it's heartbreaking and I too am a victim so I'm sensitive to it. Yet, too often authors throw it in as the big "reveal" in a novel when they could work harder and be more original.
Incest is incredibly common. Always painful to discuss. Yet we live in a Law & Order: SVU age where this crime is spread across the TV and news all the time. So why must it always be expected to be a surprise? The woman, Annie, was ignorant of her husband's brutality that led to her daughter's estrangement, her son's suicide, and her other son's emotional state (his father bullies him). I'm not saying she's to blame, as I don't fault mothers in real life. Mine never knew. What I'm saying (poorly, I apologize for not being succinct) is that the author chose to "go there" for her conclusion. I like her writing but I think it was a lazy move. Why not craft something more original?
I say this because I think as a society, even in the age of #metoo, is that we've become immune or desensitized to the true horror of it. It is not a surprise anymore to see it as a plot twist. Frankly, it's too easy.
So, having written hundreds of reviews, I can say this was one of the most difficult I've done. But as to the novel, I'm of so many mixed thoughts. I don't want to dissuade a reader and at the same time, I wish the author had given their readers more complexity in the plot.
I pictured this becoming a movie, since the author has Hollywood roots and I can imagine it being done. Being done well would be difficult, I think. I always like books better. And given the telegraphed clues of the molestation, I think a film audience would roll their eyes at the delayed revelations.