By Christina Baker Kline
Genre: Adult Fiction
Molly Ayer is a ward of the state that has spent the latter part of her life shuffled from one foster home to the next. Her father died when she was younger and her mother is a convicted felon and drug abuser. Molly has spent the majority of her life trying to be someone she is not, so that she could better disappear under the radar and slink her way through high school and various homes. This works to her advantage until one day, when she is caught trying to steal a used and battered copy of Jane Eyre from the library. She’s on the brink of her eighteenth birthday and instead of facing charges, she agreed to fifty hours of community service. She doesn’t know until afterward that her service will be done at the home of 91-year-old Vivian Daly. Her job? Cleaning out and organizing the enormous attic, which contains over eight generations worth of Vivian’s history.
Naturally, Molly thinks this will be a chore of epic proportions. It isn’t until she starts spending time with the elderly woman that she discovers how eventful and traumatic Vivian’s life story is. She was originally born Niamh Power, of Ireland. Her parents immigrated to America when she was eight years old, only to have misfortune follow them. When her family dies in an apartment fire, Niamh is sent on the orphan train to cross the country, hoping to find parents, or at least a way in which she could support herself.
This story is a dual time narrative, in which we get to see both Molly and Vivian’s (or Niamh’s or Dorothy’s) history. In the present day, Molly is trying to develop into a confident young woman, but with no friends or family to call her own, she’s having trouble adjusting. Vivian’s story, which takes place in the early twentieth century, is a detailed account of what happened while she was aboard the orphan train and what happened after she was adopted by her first family. Not only do we get to see her grow up, we also get to see the woman she ultimately became and how it affected her later in life. While both women might be different, they both have encountered great loss and they bond with each other over this.
I liked the unlikely friendship that they both developed over the course of the story. It was interesting to see that even Vivian, at her old age, could change and accept that she could finally risk loving someone again. The two main characters really brought the best out in each other. Another plus for the story was the dual time narrative. I’m a sucker for that sort of story – as well as historicals in general, so this was a nice, refreshing read. One of the most poignant passages from the book definitely sticks with me, even after I’ve finished it: “the people who matter in our lives stay with us, they haunt our most ordinary moments. They’re with us in the grocery store, as we turn a corner, chat with a friend. They rise up through the pavement; we absorb them.” As someone who has experienced a fair amount of loss in a relatively short lifetime, I could certainly relate to how both Vivian and Molly felt.
For the most part, I enjoyed the book. The historic aspect as particularly appealing and the friendship they developed was sweet. But there were a few parts of the book that bothered me. First of all was Molly’s foster parents, Ralph and Dina. Dina constantly makes snide comments about how Molly’s too much to put up with and that she costs too much to deal with and how she’s no good. And Ralph doesn’t do much to defend Molly. Um, what? I get that they’re foster parents and all, but aren’t foster families kind of monitored and licensed? Who the hell let them have a child if they hated children or detested the job so much? Dina was just so overly hateful and mean that it almost seemed over the top, at least for an adult novel. Not only that, but I felt that we didn’t really get to learn that much about Molly. I loved the historical aspects of the novel, but with the majority of the writing focusing on Vivian, we didn’t get to see much of Molly’s inward character growth. I think the novel could’ve been better executed by having a dual first person narrative. That way, we could’ve been in Molly’s head more and better understood her thoughts and emotions as the book progressed.
Not only that, but 2/3 of the novel is spent in Vivian’s childhood. I get that this is where the majority of the drama happened, but her adult life is just skimmed over, as if it had no impact on how she became the lonely old woman she was. A whole love story is told in maybe forty pages and when the love interest inevitably dies I felt nothing at all. And that really disappointed me. I think if more time had been spent developing this part of the novel, it could have been very touching and emotional. Instead we’re left feeling cheated.
Overall, this book was good and I’m glad I picked it up. But is it one of my favorites? Not by a long shot. This book was sweet and offered insight into a unique part of history that we might not otherwise know about, but the characters were a little flat and it ended abruptly. I think if it had been a little more fleshed out, it would’ve been better. If you are interested in the early nineteenth century, I’d say give it a try. But if you are looking for just a general, good historical, there are other places to look. My suggestions: The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kiss or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. THOSE are historicals worth having on a shelf!