Review - Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Amity & Sorrow
By Peggy Riley
Released: April 16th, 2013
Genre: General Fiction
Source: Advanced Review Copy

Amity and Sorrow, a debut novel by Peggy Riley, starts off abruptly with a mother, Amaranth, fleeing from a polygamous compound after it caught on fire with her two teenage daughters, Amity and Sorrow. They drive continuously for four days until Amaranth crashes the car on a farm in rural Oklahoma, and are thus stranded in the summer heat with no place to go and nowhere to turn. The girls, having never left the compound before, are experiencing the outside world for the first time and their mother is returning to it for the first time in several years. It isn’t long before the farmer, Bradley, notices the strangely dressed and eccentric family and reluctantly takes them in.

The rest of this gripping story is told from several perspectives, often switching from mother Amaranth and daughter Amity, and sometimes the author even gives us interesting insight to brooding Bradley and passionate Sorrow. Much of the plot revolves around the small family learning to cope after being stranded on a stranger’s land and how both daughters, who had never been taught anything that didn’t pertain to religion, the Bible, or housekeeping, experience the bizarre new world they’ve found themselves in. The climax of the story occurs when disaster strikes the farm and Amaranth is forced to make a very difficult decision for those she loves. For fear of giving away too much, I won’t discuss much further on the story itself, other than to say that it will keep you guessing until the very last chapter and that the mysterious origins concerning the compound and the fire are something you’ll least expect!

I applaud Peggy Riley for writing such a difficult and unapologetically honest novel. In fact, there are many points in the novel that are, quite frankly, disturbing to the casual reader. I oftentimes found myself needing to set the book aside for a moment, as the content itself became too difficult to digest at once. Polygamy, sexual abuse, and radical religion are all considered to be taboo in many modern day cultures and Riley touches upon every one of these aspects – and even others – with aplomb and truth. Her writing itself is poetically simplistic and her depictions of the compound and the Oklahoma panhandle, as well as the thoughts of each character lead me to believe that she will have a great future in fiction. I believe that this will be the first of many books to come.

Much of this book, I believe, revolves around love and what it means to be a family. There are others themes and symbolism in this book, which means that it would serve as a fantastic group read and is even deserving of a second read. But what fascinated me so much was Amaranth’s revelation about family. By joining into polygamous relationship, she had been searching for belonging and love but, throughout the story, she discovers that she never really received any of that from her husband or her forty-nine sister wives. Instead, she finds an unlikely family in Bradley, his father, and their farm hand, Dust. And, in a more difficult lesson, learns that not all love is meant to be. Sometimes, you just have to let someone you love go. Sometimes, though we hate to admit it, those we love are beyond our help and never really wanted us to begin with. It is a painful lesson, but one I respect.

It is also interesting to read the story from younger sister Amity’s perspective. She’s a growing girl of twelve, suddenly thrown from a life she knew and was comfortable with to an entirely new one. The struggles she works through are frighteningly realistic and at many points in the book I felt sorry for the young girl. Much of the book, from Amity’s perspective, is a coming of age story, a narrative of how she finds her place in the world after having been kept from if for so long. And, even at the end of the book, the reader is left wondering if she has come to any real resolution concerning her origins and where she intends to go.

Overall, a very interesting read!

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