The return of a handmade porcelain doll that belonged to a child kidnapped 40 years ago kicks off a series of dark revelations.
Ephron’s latest (There Was an Old Woman, 2013, etc.) follows three generations of small-town South Carolina women through the unraveling of a buried truth. Sorrel Woodham, called Miss Sorrel by one and all, is a serious amateur doll maker and doll collector. Her best friend and partner in these pursuits is her bossy, gossipy next-door neighbor Evelyn Dumont. Way back when both women’s husbands were still around, Miss Sorrel had two daughters, Lis and Janey. Then 4-year-old Janey was taken from the front yard where the girls were playing, and Lis, now 46, has been living with the guilt all this time. The pressure of the combined anxiety of her grandmother and mother have driven Lis’ daughter, Vanessa, to pursue her postdoc in dream research far away in Providence, Rhode Island. “Hope of finding out what happened to Janey had long ago faded,” yet Miss Sorrell still serves Janey’s favorite banana pudding every year on “Remembering Day,” the anniversary of her disappearance, and runs an ad in the local paper offering a reward for the doll Janey was carrying when she was taken. The reward started at $100 but has since been adjusted for inflation to $5,000. As the book opens, a woman in tight jeans and a junky car shows up with what may well be the doll, but she is spooked by Miss Sorrel’s intense reaction and beats it out of there without the reward. Shortly after that, Miss Sorrel’s kiln, used for baking doll heads, explodes. At this point, young Vanessa really has to come home and help out; interestingly, her dream research will come into play.
Diverting, if a little too easy to figure out. Would have been a great vehicle for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, including all the slightly creepy dolls.