In Yates’ debut novel, a woman growing up in a dysfunctional family and her Holocaust-survivor grandfather are shaped by their experiences of surviving pain through moments of grace.
Julianne “Jules” Finn grows up in the 1960s and ’70s in the small Cape Cod town of Withensea with her two brothers and a set of terrible parents. Her Irish-Catholic father, Howard, drinks, gambles, and hits both wife and children. Her Jewish mother, Wendy, practices self-indulgence in all its most flamboyant hippie manifestations—especially after she and Howard divorce, and the family house devolves into a nonstop drugs, sex and drinking party. Jules and her brothers “became less like children and more like neglected pets,” with Jules (as the only girl) left to do the family’s grocery shopping, cooking, laundry and cleaning, while also looking after her younger brother, Moses. When the unsupervised boy dies accidentally, Jules blames herself. In this, she has something in common with her grandfather Samuel, who carries a heavy load of guilt: He survived the Holocaust but failed to protect his grandchildren. Alternating sections from Jules’ and Samuel’s points of view follow their emotional journeys. Yates shows much skill in description, characterization and dialogue, and she’s insightful about the mental state of abused children, as when Jules learns to compartmentalize: “I began to see my life in parts. When something bad, or weird, or crazy happened, like my father having a gun and threatening my mother, I’d say to myself: This is the part where my father points a gun at my mother’s head.” Jules’ and Samuel’s voices are distinct; similarly, Yates vividly evokes time and place, whether it’s Samuel’s childhood among the apple and cherry orchards in the Ukraine, the bleakness of a Cape Cod tourist town in winter or Wendy’s psychedelic decorating style. That said, the novel loses some impact because its elements are overfamiliar from the glut of novels and memoirs relating similar stories.
Though well-written, this novel lays the misery on thick.