So this book is an emotional journey. There was a point near the end when I thought I’d have to throw it out the window in a rage, which would have been a shame, since I was reading it on my phone on my lunch break in my sixth-floor office. Luckily, the windows of my office don’t open and I was able to read the next chapter when I got home and calm down. But let me go back and tell you what it’s about.
Set mostly in 1969, this novel by Caroline Leavitt is the story of three sisters. Lucy, the youngest, is free-spirited. Responsible and studious Charlotte is the middle sister, but she believes she’s the oldest. And that’s because Iris, many decades older, tells them she is a distant relative when they are brought to her after their parents’ death when they are 5 and 7 years old. Iris doesn’t want them to know about the family their father abandoned, and the younger and younger women he picked up over the years. Iris, in her 60s, adopts the girls and raises them as daughters.
The novel opens with the revelation that Lucy is running away with her English teacher. William is popular with the students for his unorthodox methods, but the administration is keeping a close eye on his classroom antics. However, he still manages to meet Lucy on the sly and convince her that they are in love. So on the last day of school, he takes her away to a run-down house in the middle of nowhere. He takes a job at a school where students get to choose their own curriculum, and Lucy stays home alone because William fears what will happen to him if their relationship is discovered. When she’s 18, they can go public.
This relationship is clearly and unequivocally abusive, and it only gets worse. William controls what Lucy eats, where she goes, what she wears, who she talks to. And then it gets worse again. And then more. But I’ll get back to that.
Meanwhile, Charlotte and Iris are back at home in Boston grieving the loss of Lucy and not getting much help from the police at finding her. She’ll come back when she’s ready, they say. No one knew about her relationship with William, so no one thought to look for him. He’d just moved away, as people do. Charlotte goes to college at Brandeis, and Iris struggles with aging. Life goes on, but always with a shadow.
And then it gets worse.
I’m not going to reveal precisely what happens, but if you’re familiar with patterns of abuse and how things escalate, the conclusion of Lucy and Will’s relationship won’t be a surprise. It is a gut-punch, though. And the process of picking up the pieces is challenging. It’s a difficult kind of thing to recover from, and some of the particulars in this case make it horrible in a very specific way. Charlotte expresses some sentiments in this regard that I found especially raw and honest, and I appreciated seeing these them in print.
As I mentioned, however, there was a moment when this book entirely enraged me in a way that is unusual for me. This involved some epic gaslighting that I feared might end up being the author’s version of the truth. The fact that I was so furious speaks to my absorption in the book. However, the rage only lasted the afternoon because I was eventually able to get back to the book and see what Leavitt did with the revelations, and I was appeased. There was perhaps a little unnecessary tricksiness involved here, but there was also catharsis for a character who needed it.
The book ends, as books about horrors often do, with hope. Life does keep going. Plans may need to be tenuous because things happen that we can’t imagine, but we can keep going and maybe even find joy where it’s previously been denied.