Meldrum’s story about an anything-but-ordinary family in crisis stretches from the shores of a Michigan lake to the heart of West Africa.
The Slepys seem like a perfect family: Dad, Dick, is a pathologist who fell in love with Christina, who prefers to be called Seena, when he sat behind her in a college class. Their daughters, Mary Grace, Mary Catherine, Mary Tessa and Amaryllis, are both as similar and as different as siblings can be. The three Marys are blond and beautiful, as ephemeral as their Scandinavian-looking parents. But Amaryllis, known simply as Yllis, is not. Birthed in a blueberry field, she is dark, with blue eyes, and has a special gift that allows her to taste emotions and see souls. Dick, who rightly suspects he is not the father of his youngest child, suddenly decides he wants to move the family to West Africa. Seena argues against it, but Yllis detects that she really wants to go. Grace, who carries a secret with her, gives up college, and the entire family, including the devoutly religious Catherine, mean-to-the-bone Tessa and the family dog, packs up and goes. Soon they are caught up in odd dramas that include a pending marriage with a strange man, Catherine’s dive into anorexia and the growing chasm between Dick and Seena. Meldrum writes beautifully, but the characters are hard to like and care about. Dick and Seena are so caught up in their own personal dramas that they fail to intervene as the family falls apart. Yllis, who has sensed she is not Dick’s child, watches as her aloof, self-absorbed parents disintegrate in spectacular fashion in an inhospitable setting. But the family’s move to West Africa, the story of Clara, an old woman back in Michigan, and the trajectory of all their intersecting destinies make for some confusing, though interesting, storytelling.
The book opens with Seena on trial in a native African court for Dick’s murder and works its way back to that point in a colorful tale about people who don’t know how to communicate with one another.