Tag Archives: forgiveness

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!

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Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry

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Book Review: Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney

Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 280 pages; $15).

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“It had been a warm, blustery day in a spring without rain.  Henry lit a match.  The fire looked clear in the sun and he threw it down, thinking the wind had blown it out and not thinking twice, despite the drought, despite the mulch under the boxwood hedge,” Dennis Mahoney writes in his highly-charged and blistering debut, Fellow Mortals.  Henry’s trifling act of pleasure literally ignites a firestorm in a neighborhood, leaving death and destruction in its wake.

 

Accidents happen to all of us; we are, after all, mere mortals, as Mahoney suggests in his title.  Mahoney, however, is interested less in the act itself than in what happens after.  Fellow Mortals is about how we handle the consequences of our actions.

 

Yet Henry’s mishap does not affect him alone.  Henry is a mail carrier who takes great pride in his job.  He always has a smile and a kind word for everyone, even those who are not so nice.  His route includes Arcadia Street, “one of the smaller streets, a cul-de-sac with sixteen houses, tightly packed Capes with long backyards, the east-side homes bordering the woods and giving the block a special kind of privacy—rural and remote, separate from the town.”  Arcadia Street seems tranquil and idyllic, until the fire that is.

 

Mahoney employs a bit of irony regarding Henry and his cigar.  Henry “wasn’t allowed to smoke on the route.  He wasn’t allowed at all, having promised it to Ava,” his wife.  But Henry cannot resist, despite his heart condition, despite his promise not to smoke. He quickly smokes his cigar and delivers the mail.  Until something stops him in his tracks.

 

A crackle is what Henry first hears before he registers anything is amiss.  When he sees the fire, Henry immediately springs into action to save the people who live nearby.  But he cannot save everyone.  A young wife, Laura Bailey, is trapped inside her house.  Henry is powerless, and so are the firefighters.  “Pain like a hammer claw mounted in his chest, squeezing in deep and prying up his ribs.”  When the firemen bring out Laura, Henry falls to his knees.  Henry blames himself and carries around a great deal of guilt.

 

Many of those affected by the fire on Arcadia Street do not blame Henry, while others do.  All fault aside, the victims’ lives have been dramatically altered.  The fire destroyed the home of Nan and Joan Finn, two elderly sisters, and left them homeless.   The fire made Sam Bailey a widower, leading him to seek refuge in the woods where he carves art in the trees.

 

Using crisp, stark, and striking language, Mahoney explores how culpability and penance can consume a character, especially one enmeshed in a tragic and highly emotional situation.  Henry desperately wants those on Arcadia Street to forgive him.  More than anything else, Henry sets out to atone for the calamity he has caused. He is determined to help the victims, whatever the cost, even if they do not want his help.   This monomaniacal desire directs everything Henry does, from taking in the elderly Finns to befriending Sam to building a tree house for the Carmichael boys, whose mother, a real estate agent, laments over the decrease in neighborhood home values since the fire and hates Henry.

 

Fellow Mortals is truly a character-driven novel with multiple voices and perspectives.  Mahoney is an exciting and genuine new voice in fiction with a debut that is equal parts astonishing and riveting.  Because all of us are human, we can all relate to Henry.  You may have never done anything of the magnitude as the fire he caused, but perhaps you can put yourself in Henry’s shoes.  His actions are always authentic and convincing.  The same is true for the victims.  Mahoney is never critical of any of those whose lives are overturned by the fire.  In the end, we come to understand each one of them, especially their overheated emotions, just as we identity with Henry.

 

With piercing prose, characters so vivid they light up the page, and a plot so hot it sizzles, Fellow Mortals is an intense and scorching page-turner that is sure to set the book world on fire.  Mahoney reminds us that one dark and random act does not define us.  It is what happens next that matters.  As Alexander Pope famously wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

 

 

 

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Ah, the Power of Salt

The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker (Grand Central Publishing; 372 pages; $24.99).

 

 

Throughout history, salt has been an important commodity.  Some argue it can be included as a contributing factor in the development of civilization.  Salt preserved food and was a highly sought-after trade item.  The Romans even built roads to make transportation of salt easier.  We cannot then overemphasize its role in our society.

When salt gets in a wound, it stings.  Yet, interestingly, mineral bath salts can help ease sore muscles and a variety of skin conditions.  Salt can hurt and it can heal.

 

Jo and Claire Gilly, the two main characters in Tiffany Baker’s second novel The Gilly Salt Sisters, know this all too well.  Jo and Claire are sisters, and their family owns a salt farm on the Cape Cod village of Prospect.  Every December’s Eve, one of the sisters throws a packet of their salt into a bonfire.  The color of the fire tells the town’s future for the upcoming year.  “If the fire flashed blue, it meant the town would prosper in the coming year.  If it flared yellow, some kind of change was on the horizon, and a puff of black was too terrible to contemplate.”

 

Not surprisingly, many townspeople think the sisters are witches.  They are not.  Neither Jo nor Claire are psychic, they do not cast spells.  They do not tell the future, rather the salt does.  Both are complicated, complex women with both polish and grit.

 

The sisters have a difficult life and react to their circumstances in very different ways.  A horrible accident leaves Jo and Claire estranged.  Obligation and betrayal tears them apart.  One sister still bears the mark of their separation.  Because Baker tells the story from the point of view of both sisters, we are able to understand both perspectives.  Each sister stands firm in her disdain for the other.  Without the addition of Dee, the two might never reunite.

 

Baker, though, introduces Dee, a teenage girl whose mother has died and whose father relocates her to the village.  Unwittingly, Dee is the force that brings Jo and Claire back together.  It is curious that Baker also tells the story from Dee’s point of view as she alternates among Jo, Claire, and Dee.  Dee is not a Gilly sister.  Yet her role in this tale is just as significant.  Without her, the story would have a very different ending.

 

There are a lot of women in The Gilly Salt Sisters.  The female characters in the novel are strong and well developed.  The same, though, cannot be said for the men.  I wonder if this is not a deliberate tactic on Baker’s part.  Only women can touch the salt on the farm.  Only women can cast the salt into the fire.  Thus, Baker puts the fate of her novel into female hands.  Gilly men seem to be cursed.  For example, Mr. Gilly becomes an alcoholic and flees the farm, never to be heard from again.  Henry, Jo’s twin brother, meets a horrible fate while helping bring in the salt one day, a task he was not even supposed to be doing.  Baker never explains why men cannot touch the salt.  Perhaps she wants to add mystery to her novel, but it feels like a gimmick.

 

Still, Baker manages to achieve the perfect sense of place in Prospect.  Her characters are salt-of-the-earth New Englanders with a no-nonsense attitude.  She is at her best, though, when she describes the Gilly salt farm.  I can almost smell the brackish air.  I can almost taste the salt.  Baker writes about the pull of the salt.  Indeed, the salt has a kind of magnetism not just on the Gilly sisters but on the whole town as well.  The salt even mesmerizes the reader.

 

We take salt for granted today.  I know I do.  But Baker reminds us salt is the stuff of life.  She is a master at telling this quirky tale, just as she was with her debut The Little Giant of Aberdeen CountyThe Gilly Salt Sisters far surpasses her first novel.  I recommend it to fans of Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, Aimee Bender, and Brunonia Barry.  It is a story of love, loss, family secrets, rivalry, greed, redemption, and forgiveness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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