Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: A Simple Thing by Kathleen McCleary

Kids don't come with a manual.  Frankly, even if they did, they wouldn't have read it so it wouldn't matter anyway.  Marriages and relationships also don't come with a manual.  I'd make a crack about husbands not reading one either but that's just too easy.  Since there's no right answer to raising children or being a good partner, most of us just muddle along the best way we know how. 

Susannah Delaney, in Kathleen McCleary's newest novel, is trying to do just that, even while she deals with her own complicated childhood history.  Susannah's young teenaged daughter Katie seems to be going off the rails, running with the wrong sorts of people at school, drinking, and becoming closed off and sullen with family.  Son Quinn, a quirky kid interested in animals and science and other things most kids don't care much about is being bullied unmercifully at school.  Both of these things combine to drive Susannah to a desperate act: pulling the kids from school and their Virginia home to spend the rest of the year living on remote Sounder Island, one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, an island without electricity and only a handful of residents.  In doing this, Susannah leaves behind her husband Matt, a man she has loved since she was a child and whom she risks losing completely as she struggles to do the best thing she can for her children. 

But Susannah isn't just trying to rescue her chidren by moving to Sounder Island, she's also trying to face the long ago drowning death of her baby sister Jane, to forgive herself for not being able to protect Jane, and to forgive her mother for putting her child in harm's way.  Susannah has spent her entire motherhood trying to protect her own children from all the things that could be dangerous to them, to shelter them from her worst nightmares, to be the mother that she blames her own mother for not being.  But Katie, at least, is now rebelling against her mother's intense and worried love and the fears that have driven them all the way across the country to this remote place.

The woman who rents a cottage to the Delaneys is Betty Pavalak.  She's a long-time widow whose son and grandchildren live on Sounder too.  She is a charming and friendly neighbor who has her own ghosts of the past.  Sounder Island was her own way to try and repair a floundering marriage so many years ago.  She moved to the island so that her husband would be able to  live away from the city and the paper-pushing job that was destroying him and so that he would be less likely to stray from their marriage.  Despite his flaws, Betty stilled loved her husband and didn't want to lose him even starting to accept the idea that they would not be able to have children.  And once on Sounder, she managed to become pregnant and have a son even if she couldn't change the fiber of who her husband was.  But she also managed to come to peace with the path of her life as her husband worked most of the year in Alaska and she stayed behind on Sounder with their son and raised him alone.

The narrative slips seamlessly between both of these women who looked to this small island to heal themselves and their relationships.  It also moves from present to past and back again as both Susannah and Betty's whole histories unfold.  Susannah has to learn to accept her past before she can embrace her present.  As she struggles with Katie's continued rebellion and with Matt's growing emotional distance and hurt at her unilateral decision to disappear for the year, she has to learn truths about herself before she can ease up and let life unfold at its own pace, making not only her family happier but herself as well.  Betty, on the other hand, uses her wisdom and the care that she has spent the years cultivating to help Susannah and to add immeasurably to the lives of all those on the island whom she loves.

This is a novel of not just survival but of coming through hardships stronger than before.  It is about learning to let go when necessary and to let love and trust carry the day, even if doing so is one of the hardest things ever.  The back stories of both the women are engrossing although they are quite disparate in experience.  Some of the issues raised, such as Quinn's being bullied disappear handily and while there's really no chance for him to be bullied on the island, the emotional ramifications of the bullying also disappear pretty easily.  And given that Matt has been privy to Susannah's thoughts and feelings since before the accident that resulted in Susannah's sister Jane's drowning death and then also for so many years afterwards, he seems to have hit his breaking point sort of out of the blue now that she's not at home.  But their marital woes are ultimately fixed fairly easily once Susannah faces her past and absolves herself of responsibility for Jane's death.  Some of the emotionally laden situations are not developed to the extent that they might have been but in general, this novel of two women trying to make the right and best life they can for those they love is a quick and pleasing read.

For more information about Kathleen McCleary and the book visit her website, her Facebook page or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.  Also, Kathleen with be discussing A Simple Thing on Book Club Girl on Air on Tuesday, August 21 at 7pm ET if you want to listen in or participate.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Kathleen's first novel was really good - I'm sure I'll enjoy this new one just as much.

    Thanks for being on the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.


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