Lawrence’s debut alternates between 1995 and the early 1950s as an agricultural pamphlet-writer gets a wake-up call from the days when she was known as Bonita Gabriel.
Jane Mitchell is plodding through a deliberately obscure life in Baton Rouge, writing pamphlets on fruit for Louisiana’s Department of Agriculture, when she gets a phone call one morning from the coroner saying two things: her father is dead, and her younger sister, Mary Gabriel, is living in a mental institution. Jane has seen neither of them for 30 years, despite all three having remained in the same city, and the novel slowly pursues the mystery of why Jane—known in childhood by her first name, Bonita—fled her previous life. Every other chapter tells the 1995 story of Jane rediscovering her sister, planning her father’s funeral, and coming to terms with the tragic (but undisclosed) events of her past. Interposed are her memories of growing up with a mentally ill sister who often runs away from home, refuses to speak, and is the object of neighborhood kids’ cruelty. Lawrence’s portrait of middle-class girlhood in Baton Rouge is vivid, especially her treatment of Bonita’s complicated loyalty to her sister. Mary’s presence frustrates Bonita’s attempts to participate in preadolescent rites of passage: she discovers boys but has to take Mary along when she meets them at the movies; she befriends the girl next door, who turns out to be Mary’s cruelest tormentor. Along the way, Bonita also catches a glimpse of a poorer man’s life, that of Orlando Dupanthis, a neighborhood watchman who seems to understand Mary better than anyone else. As a coming-of-ager, the tale is quietly compelling; unfortunately, the mystery plot throws a wrench into things. The solution to the big questions here is far from inevitable; and once it’s revealed, the novel deflates like a pierced balloon.
An evocative portrayal of a Baton Rouge childhood, but hampered by contrived “revelations.”