Muriel has always been the chubby, unstylish sister lost in the golden glow of her perfect, golden, beautiful, older sister Pia. Even into adulthood, she is marginalized in her family, only noticed for her faults, real or perceived. She passively avoids dealing with the toxicity of her mother and the cold perfection of her sister by living in Manhattan on her own and making any excuse she can to stay there away from them. But when her sister calls her and insists on lunch, she can't come up with a good enough excuse to skip, and that lunch will change everything. Pia doesn't act like herself at all and, at the end of the day, she drops a bombshell on Muriel that makes Muriel reconsider her relationship with her sister, how it actually was, how she wished it had been, and how she wants it to be in the future.
Alternating with Muriel's grappling with Pia's devastating secret, is the story of their parents' courtship and marriage. Lidia and Owen have never been particularly compatible in Muriel's memory and as a child she witnessed things that she shouldn't have. She has always kept her shocking secrets to herself though, despite her mother's poisonous behavior towards her and her father's complete indifference to both his daughters. The tale of Owen and Lidia's lives coming together in a whirlwind and the circumstances that led to their marriage explains a lot about their dissatisfaction, remoteness, and the separate lives they have led since Muriel was a young girl, if not about their different treatment of each of their children.
This family is incredibly dysfunctional. With parents who barely acknowledge each other, a mother who actively dislikes her, an older sister who treats her hatefully, a father who is emotionally absent, and a silent older brother who passes through her life with no more substance than a shadow, it is no wonder that Muriel feels unloved and desperately craves kindness. She is vulnerable and needy but the reader can't help feeling sorry for the terrible lack in her childhood. Lidia Sullivant is reprehensible in her treatment of her youngest daughter and Pia is complicit in the ugliness. And yet Muriel is resilient enough, inherently good enough, to offer them both forgiveness, even as their behavior doesn't substantially change throughout the book nor do they show much, if any, remorse about the way that they treated her growing up.
The novel's plot really hinges on Muriel's relationships with her mother and sister and the enormous secrets she carries for both of them. Her father and brother figure into the family dynamic very little and aside from making Muriel feel left out or abandoned, just as Lidia and Pia's closeness does, their impact on her in any other substantive way is negligible. It is hard to care about any of the characters besides Muriel and that makes it tough to read about the regrets Muriel carries with her. Not one of her family deserves an inch of emotion spent on them, especially not from her. Aside from Muriel, none of the characters was particularly complex or nuanced and the almost complete absence of her brother and father from the narrative felt like an oversight, even though she was as good as invisible to them, especially given a pivotal scene with her brother, the only scene with Logan, later in the book. The secrets are rather predictable and the ending is far too redemptive for the story that precedes it even as the reader roots for Muriel to be able to find the love she needs from her family. This dysfunctional drama is ultimately a quick and easy read about family, forgiveness, and the relationships we want versus the relationships we have with those closest to us.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.