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Book Review: And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry

And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry (St. Martin’s Press; 272 pages; $24.99).

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For Katie Vaughn, the first day of spring was always a day of firsts: the day she experienced her first kiss, the day she fell in love, the day she ran a marathon, the day she opened her boutique, and the day she vowed to love Jack Adams forever.  It was also the day she gave up her newborn for adoption in Patti Callahan Henry’s tender, sincere, and deeply poignant novel And Then I Found You, the April Book Club Selection for She Reads.

For Kate, the first day of spring held more than blooming daffodils.  It was still a day of firsts.  Kate had a ritual, a sacred ritual.  She made sure that she did something she’d never done before, something that would count as new on the first day of spring.  Six years ago she’d opened her boutique.  The year before that she ran a marathon with her sister.  Of course there was that trip to California with Norah.  Then four years ago the midnight swim in the darkest water with Rowan, the first time he’d visited her in South Carolina.  It didn’t matter what she did or said or saw as long as it hadn’t been done, or said, or seen before.

The plot of And Then I Found You is as swiftly-paced as the current of Katie’s beloved South Carolina River.  Katie is successful and in a loving relationship with her boyfriend, Rowan.  When she accidentally stumbles upon an engagement ring he bought for her, Katie comes to a crossroads of sorts.  She thought she loved Rowan, but now she finds herself unsure.  The problem is Jack, her first love and the father of Luna, the baby she gave away all those years ago.

To go on with her life, Katie feels like she has to see Jack and talk to him.  Maybe then she can have the closure she needs.  But once Katie travels to Birmingham, Jack’s home, old feelings resurface for them both.

Henry tells the story from the very different perspectives of 35-year-old Katie and 13-year-old Emily Jackson, Katie’s biological daughter.  I truly admired how Henry managed to realistically capture both points of view.  In And Then I Found You, Henry also takes us back and forth through time to provide windows into Katie’s past, crucial moments we must know to better understand her and the narrative. 

And Then I Found You is told with such honesty and heart because, for Henry, it is very personal.  Life often imitates art, but sometimes art can imitate life.

In the story, Katie has two younger sisters.  One, Tara, is a writer.  When Emily begins an online search for her biological mother, links to Tara come up over and over.  Emily contacts Tara through Facebook; this social media connection leads to a reunion.

As Henry explains in her letter to readers at the front of her novel, And Then I Found You is loosely based on a true story.  Henry’s sister placed her baby up for adoption over 21 years ago.  “It was the most heartrending, courageous and difficult decision she had ever made, and we all wept with her when she handed her baby girl to an anonymous, yet hand-chosen family,” Henry writes.  Then, one day, two years ago, Henry received “a Facebook friend request from a young girl with the same birthday as my adopted niece.  It was too much to hope for, almost too miraculous to believe.  But it was true: My sister’s daughter, my niece, found us on Facebook.”  Henry emphasizes the awesome power of social media in her story, and simultaneously inspires and moves us, yes, to tears.

Henry drew me in from the very first page, and I read this novel in one sitting, as I could not tear myself away; I had to find out what would happen.  I was surprised to enjoy this novel as much as I did.  Initially, I worried it would be too sappy and too romantic for my tastes, but my concerns were for naught.

Passionate, stirring, and full of sentiment, this is a story about first love, family, mistakes, forgiveness, and second chances.  I predict readers will fall in love with And Then I Found You, a perfect read for book clubs because it’s so easy to like Henry’s characters.  And Then I Found You is destined to become one of the summer’s hottest beach reads.  Throw this title in your beach bag but don’t forget the sunscreen and sunglasses!

For more reviews, discussions, and giveaways, visit She Reads.

Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry

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Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

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One of my favorite novels from 2012 is now available in paperback from Riverhead Trade.

 

 

In Forgotten Country, first-time novelist Catherine Chung skillfully weaves together memory, history, and Korean folk tales to tell us the beautiful story of a family who left Korea for the United States twenty years ago.  The father is dying of cancer while the younger sister has cut off all ties to her family.  Seeking cutting-edge cancer treatment, what is left of the family goes back to Korea.  In the country they left behind all those years ago, the whole family finally reconnects and slowly learns to forgive each other for past misdeeds.  Chung shows us that one person can be different people in different countries; one’s homeland, one’s birthplace, should never be a “forgotten country.”

Catherine Chung

Catherine Chung

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Book Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Penguin Press; 336 pages; $25.95).

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A pair of slippers. A car ride with one’s father.  A garden statue.  A Mickey Mouse nightgown.  A visit with an uncle.  A dream to be just like daddy.  A meeting with a law school dean.  A routine surgery. These seemingly trivial and innocuous moments carry profound meaning in Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi’s searing, significant, and intricately carved novel.

Usually, the death of a patriarch signals a family’s collapse, but that is not the case in Ghana Must Go. The Sai clan was already splintered prior to the father’s passing. The death of Kweku Sai, the afore-mentioned patriarch, brings his relations together again to air grievances and lick old wounds.

In Selasi’s tale, the patriarch’s passing leads to a kind of reckoning. Together, the remaining family members face the past, in all its ugliness, to generate healing.  Selasi underscores the importance of mending their rift; it’s now or never for the Sai family.

Kweku Sai, “an exceptional surgeon” and “prodigal prodigy,” dies from an “unexceptional heart attack” in Ghana, his homeland, at the age of 57. He leaves behind many who mourn his passing: Folasade, his estranged wife; Olu, his eldest son; the twins, Taiwo and Kehinde; and Sadie, his youngest daughter. Each character mourns Kweku and thinks back to an earlier, more idyllic time when they were all a unit.

But that was before Kweku walked away from his family years previously after losing his job. His departure left a gaping hole in the familial structure and set off an unfortunate chain of events that disrupted their whole lives.

Selasi charts this course with eloquence and ingenuity. To read this engrossing tale is to get entangled in family secrets, lies, and deceit, yet no one can turn away from Selasi’s intoxicating prose.

After Kweku leaves for Ghana, the family attempts to regain its balance. Kweku remarries and builds his dream home, often yearning for Fola, who, after battling back from the depths of despair, moves to Ghana. Olu enters the medical field and falls in love with a classmate, yet something holds him back.   Sadie, the baby, makes a foolish and career-ending move.

But it is the story of the twins, the “ibeji,” that has the most impact in Ghana Must Go. Selasi is a twin herself and knows the formidable connection between twins. Perhaps that is why what happens to Taiwo, the beautiful but adrift sister, and Kehinde, the talented but troubled brother, is so emotionally compelling.

The twins have such a commanding hold on the story that the reader cannot turn away from them. Even when an unspeakable incident changes things between Taiwo and Kehinde forever, sending both into a tailspin and upsetting the bond they share. The consequences are disastrous.  For the twins, this reunion may very well be a matter of life and death.

From Ghana to America and back again, Selasi illustrates the fragility of family ties and the high cost of betrayal and deception. Kweku Sai’s death is a watershed moment for the Sais as the family he abandoned reunites.

Spanning continents and generations, Selasi paces her novel slowly but beautifully. As she weaves skillfully back and forth through time, we come to understand each family member in his or her own, unique and indelible voice.

Selasi’s writing is wise and assured and echoes Selasi’s cosmopolitan roots—her Ghanaian and Nigerian pedigree and her childhood in London and Boston. The author is only 33, but she has already lived on four continents: Africa, North America, Europe, and Asia. Taiye Selasi is not the name she was born with, in fact. She has been Taiye (“first twin”) Tuakli, Taiye Williams, Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, and Taiye Selasi (“God has heard”).

Ghana Must Go is an excellent example of the growing Afropolitan (African + cosmopolitan) movement, young people of African descent who are making their mark on the world. Often, they are so busy building an identity away from Africa that they forget their homeland. This perfectly describes Kweku Sai’s children.

Kweku Sai’s disaffection from his family leads to the children’s estrangement from Africa.  If the children do not know where they have been, if they do not know the native land of their ancestors, then they have no idea where they are going.  Selasi seems to be saying it is all well and good to be a citizen of the world, but at what price. When Kweku Sai dies, his children must return to Ghana, the only real place they can seek atonement and fulfillment.

Subtle but stirring threads of post-colonialism run throughout Ghana Must Go.  Many of the Sais are “Othered” both in America and in Ghana. In America, many of Kweku’s colleagues and the children’s friends point out how intelligent the Sais are, “in spite of” being from Africa. Yet in Ghana, the Sais are seen as different because they have lived in America; they are more American than Ghanaian, which is another example of how the children have forgotten their heritage.

The title Ghana Must Go refers to the expulsion of Ghanaians from Lagos in 1983. At its heart, Ghana Must Go is about the struggle many immigrants face in America and the world. Deftly plotted, richly characterized, and magnificently placed in our global world, Ghana Must Go dazzles as it teaches us about family, forgiveness, immigration, and home. In chronicling one Ghanaian-Nigerian family, Selasi delivers a noteworthy and evocative debut, one that all of us, immigrant or no, will find relevant and laudable.

 

     Taiye Selasi

Taiye Selasi

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The Lost Saints of Tennessee

The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis (Atlantic Monthly Press; 320 pages; $25).

 

The Lost Saints of Tennessee is the debut novel of Amy Franklin-Willis, an eighth-generation Southerner born in Birmingham, Alabama.  She was “raised on the tall tales” of her father’s “Huck Finn-like boyhood” growing up in Pocahontas, Tennessee, and those recollections inspired her multi-generational family saga.  Although her story is set in the fictional town of Clayton, it serves as a “love letter” to her father’s hometown.  The Lost Saints of Tennessee also “pays homage” to her grandmother, who “made the best corn bread in the world, smoked cigarettes in the bathroom so she wouldn’t set a bad example for her grandkids, and made strangers feel like family and family feel beloved.”  And that is exactly what you will feel for the Coopers and the Parkers as you read this book: these characters become like your family, and you will not want to let them go.

 

Franklin-Willis tells the story in two distinct yet compelling voices, Ezekiel “Zeke” Cooper and his mother Lillian Parker Cooper.  Both first-person narratives speak to us back and forth through time from the 1940s to the 1980s, revealing the ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs, of a family.

 

Zeke is not at his best when we first meet him.  Recently divorced from his high-school sweetheart, Jackie, distant from his two daughters, and still distraught over the tragic death of his twin brother, Carter, Zeke plans on killing himself and his beloved old dog, Tucker, in a motel room in Pigeon Forge.  Because this is primarily a story about redemption and second chances, Zeke fails in his suicide attempt.  We breathe a sigh of relief, because we are already invested in the story and in its characters.

 

Little by little, it is revealed that Zeke and his mother are somewhat estranged.  He cannot forgive her for what she did to his twin, who was forever damaged after having the measles as a toddler.  There is just too much on Zeke’s shoulders, and he wants to get away from everything.  Luckily, he finds an alternative to suicide.  Zeke had briefly stayed with Lillian’s cousins on a farm in Virginia when he went to college there.  Georgia and Oz are childless and have not forgotten Zeke after all these years.  In fact, they think of him as their son and open their home to him.  On the Virginia farm, Zeke becomes a new man, learning about farming, working through his problems, and even finding a second chance at love.

 

Lillian, meanwhile, discovers she has lung cancer.  “Isn’t it amazing when you think about it—that a machine can see right through your skin, through your blood, and see what’s wrong inside?”  She must have surgery to remove her lung.  Her first-person narrative really allows you to see what the family has been through and why certain choices were made in the past.  Interestingly, Zeke sees her as a bad mother, yet as I read Lillian’s account, I came away with the feeling she was anything but.

 

Parents, Lillian tells us, are not supposed to have favorite children.  But she and her husband “took up favorites pretty early with the boys.”  Her favorite was Zeke.  Lillian had wanted Zeke to escape the confines of Clayton.  Her dream was for him to go to college.  “You see those lights up in the sky, Ezekiel?  You see the brightest one” she said.  “That, my boy, is you.  Don’t let anybody tell you different.  You’re one of the chosen ones.  God will strengthen you.  That’s what your name means.”  It was Lillian who persuaded Zeke to go to college in Virginia, and it was Lillian who kept the truth from him after a horrible accident.  That catastrophe was the turning point in the relationship between mother and son.  Nothing would ever be the same between them until Lillian’s surgery brings the whole family together.  A new chapter then begins for the Coopers and the Parkers.

 

            I did find a few faults in the novel.  Franklin-Willis is at her best when writing for Zeke and Lillian, but she tends to use too many stock characters.  For example, Jackie takes on the role of jealous, whining, unhappy ex-wife.  His older daughter, Honora, is mad at her father and seems to want to hurt him in any way she can.  So what does she do?  She turns to a boy who breaks her heart and ruins her reputation in Clayton.  Zeke’s love interest in Virginia is a divorced rich girl who rides horses.  Zeke’s twin, Carter, has the exact kind of life and death you would expect from someone with mental retardation.  The real problem with Franklin-Willis, then, is that her story is often too predictable.  She is much better at writing this family’s past than she is at describing their present.  Lillian’s voice is particularly strong, and her remembrances mark my favorite part of The Lost Saints of Tennessee.

 

If you’re looking for a feel-good story about family, love, redemption, and second chances, Franklin-Willis delivers all that and more.  The Lost Saints of Tennessee is a heart-warming debut from a talented up-and-coming Southern author.  I hope we see more of her.

 

 

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