Whether or not you agree with Tolstoy that all happy families are the same, it’s generally true that they’re not very interesting to read about.
Helen Edwards and Jenny Lee Smith alternate in telling the stories of their lives. While they grew up near each other in England, they had drastically different childhoods. Jenny was an only child, much adored by her adopted parents, a little lonely but had a happy childhood. And while I’m happy for her, it’s not interesting to read about. (Perhaps if I were a golf fan, I would care more, as she became a professional golfer.)
On the other hand, Helen had a narcissistic mother and a violently abusive father. As she grew up she was continually told that the family’s unhappiness was her fault. Her parents were domineering and manipulative. To be honest, her section wasn’t very fun to read either. I pushed through it faster because I kept hoping to get to the part where Helen escapes. Where she stands up to her father and her mother and begins her independent life. But she never does. Even when she gets married and has children and Helen and her husband have their own home, they continue to allow her parents to live with them. There’s a scene where Helen’s father insists that Helen wash the dinner dishes at six o’clock every night. (Mind, this is in a home belonging to Helen and her husband.) When Helen protests, saying that’s the time when she puts her children to bed, her father insists. It turns out her parents have conspired so that Helen’s mother can put the children to bed every night. And Helen complies. She does the dishes and her husband helps her and her abusive mother puts her children to bed. It was heartbreaking and frustrating to read. Obviously, I struggle to understand it because, non-confrontational as I am, I’m pretty sure my response would be, “Screw that, I’ll wash my dishes when I want and I’ll put my own kids to bed.” It’s hard for me to really fathom how a lifetime of abuse can wear your will down. And since this is a true story, there isn’t really any salvation or justice. The bad guys don’t get punished, they just get older and die and then the heroes are free but they’re pretty tired by then and have already given up or lost too much.
So this was a sad story to me but I think it’s ultimately supposed to be a happy one. As you can see, the front cover gives away the dramatic conclusion. That these two women were twin sisters, one given away to a loving family, one kept and abused. I think the drama of the story would have been greater if the reader wasn’t quite sure of the connection between the two, or of who grew up with their “real” parents, but it’s spelled out on the back of the book and I think that was a poor choice. There are a few twists and turns as Helen and Jenny begin to untangle the lies and secrets that have shaped their lives. There are a lot of unanswered questions and that too is like real life.
Next Book Review: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney