A new arrival shakes up a group home for at-risk teenagers, in this strongly plotted and characterized latest from veteran Hower (A Garden of Demons, 2003, etc.).
Narrator Ruth Sullivan knows a fair amount about dangerous behavior from her own promiscuous, drug-addled past. Husband Mike fathered a child with an African woman before Ruth met him in Tanzania, where they ran a school before getting married and returning to the States. So they’re nonjudgmental (but not enabling) about the five girls who live with them in a state-funded residence on the bleak outskirts of New York City. Hower’s former counseling experience shows as he swiftly and cogently sketches the personalities and grim histories of overweight Darlene (whose mother is dying of AIDS), sexy Mafia daughter Gina, perennial runaway Sally (fleeing abusive parents), Native American Rose (a recovering alcoholic), and 16-year-old former prostitute Valecia. None of them are prepared for May, who blows in after “a disagreement with the cops at the Greyhound station” and tells a pack of lies about everything from her racial background to her age. She’s abrasive and provocative, leading the others in a brawl at school that gets her arrested again, but she’s also oddly vulnerable. When she brings home new boyfriend Paco, a paroled convict now counseling drug-addicted kids, the emotional and social complications set in motion threaten to destroy the home and the Sullivans’ marriage. Hower does a particularly good job of delineating their marital tensions (not enough sex, lingering resentments from previous infidelities, etc.), but he also shows the affection and commitment that still bind the couple, though neither can say for how long. His matter-of-fact portrait of the girls’ and Paco’s struggles quietly makes the point that their problems stem as much from poverty and lack of opportunity as from any personal failings. Inevitably, violence sparks the denouement, but Hower also suggests there’s hope for characters we’ve come to care about.
Solid, old-fashioned fiction updated with frank language, sex, and an underclass milieu: a natural for any reading group not wedded to middle-class domestic dramas.