Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: House of Wonder by Sarah Healy

Most of us like to think that our family is normal. Even when we are in the midst of one of those familial train wrecks that happen to the best of us, we still want to believe that everyone faces the same sorts of crazy we are facing. But what if you know for a fact that your family is different, quirky, decidedly not normal? The family in Sarah Healy's new novel, House of Wonder, is not like the other families on the street, never has been, and is less so now.

Jenna is in her late thirties and a single mother. When she left home, she left behind her twin Warren, the boy who was always considered just a little weird, a little off, not quite normal, and her mother, a one time beauty queen whose husband left her for a neighbor, and who is letting their once stately looking home fall into disrepair as she accumulates unnecessary possessions. Jenna has maintained a distant relationship with both Warren and her mother but she has no desire to actually return to her childhood home. However, when her mother calls her and tells her that Warren is missing, she has no choice but to go back and face the unhappiness and secrets held in those four walls. Warren is probably the one person for whom she would willingly return home. And when he finally shows up badly beaten and as uncommunicative as ever, she can't help but be drawn back into the home life she thought she'd left behind for good.

When Jenna sees the state of the house and the way that the once friendly neighbors shun her mother and brother, she can't turn her back on her family. The neighborhood is suffering a rash of thefts and antisocial, model airplane obsessed Warren, who almost certainly is on the autism spectrum, is the de facto suspect in most of the neighbors' minds. That the house desperately needs a new coat of paint and has strange lawn ornaments dotting the front yard, looking completely out of place in an otherwise well-groomed neighborhood, doesn't help build any neighborly goodwill either. But some of the neighbors do still remember when things were better for the Parsons family, like Bobby, the doctor down the street who, with his young daughter, has moved back in with his parents while he finishes up his residency. His belief in Jenna, his non-judgmental attitude toward Warren and Silla, and his desire to help go a long way.

The novel tells its story in three distinct time periods. The bulk of it is set in modern day but there are flashbacks to Jenna and Warren's childhood and teen years in the 70s and 80s, detailing the people they once were and how they became the people they are now. Short chapters interspersed with the larger tale also tell the reader about Silla's dysfunctional upbringing, her own mentally ill mother, her emotionally abusive step-mother, and the father who saw her beauty as just about the only thing worth noticing about her. And it is Silla's familial history of mental illness that potentially explains Warren, the boy child who was never the son his father wanted and who was overprotected by his mother. Jenna, who is typical in all the ways that Warren is not, is the center of the story, understanding her brother and learning about the past from her mother. And she is learning to embrace the differences that make her family unique. There are long hidden secrets here and as Jenna discovers them, she learns to not allow her own past to steal happiness from her future. The mystery of the thefts is not a surprise but the way that Healy writes it makes its predictability less important than it would likely otherwise be. The characters are all sympathetic and their relationships and struggles are real and emotionally complex and Healy has written an affecting novel of family ties, fitting in, and sticking out.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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