An estranged mother and daughter reunite amid a maze of secrets and lies.
Alabama novelist Kaiser’s debut begins with Pearl, a troubled, reclusive mother of four grown kids who becomes distressed to discover that her youngest daughter, Abigail Whitney Stewart— a “love child” and the family’s “bad penny”—has returned to the county for unknown reasons. An aging widow obsessed with amassing real estate and maintaining her privacy, Pearl keeps abreast of the town’s gossip through her oldest and best friend, Doesie Mayfield, who informs her that Abby has come back. Abby, meanwhile, has spent her life moving from place to place with her husband, buying and selling houses. The most recent one is near her childhood home in Mobile Bay, Alabama, and the perfect place to unearth the secrets from her and her mother’s sordid past. That history, a melodramatic, serpentine affair, constitutes the book’s midsection in a hefty block of flashbacked chapters from 1954 as Pearl escapes an abusive marriage to raise her four children as a single mother, then relocates the family while she befriends and leases property from a cabal of wealthy local politicians. As the impressively written story chugs along, Kaiser builds narrative layers upon the tale’s foundation, expanding the characterizations of the children, Pearl, and the people she meets as she constructs and opens a lavish inn on her new property. As the establishment explodes in popularity, Abby’s plucky personality and blooming education keep Pearl on her toes, but soon, a series of childhood rapes forms a searing secret that begins to destroy Abby from within. Events escalate quickly: Pearl believes she is being bilked out of her business and exiled from the county while Abby emotionally divorces her mother, her brother and sisters, and the town itself after a contentious court case. Though thoroughly enjoyable, this tale suffers from the uneven appropriation of past and present narratives (and a few loose ends, including that the contentiousness between Pearl and Abby is never explored well enough to make the reader really believe they are enemies). Furthermore, the full circle of Abby’s emotional journey concludes somewhat hastily.
Unencumbered by gratuitous sex or violence, this engrossing Southern yarn delivers embittered characters, long-held histrionics, simmering resentments, and a plot that packs a deceptively potent punch.