A Massachusetts landlady befriends a tenant’s feisty daughter as they both unravel painful family secrets in this debut novel.
At the age of 72, Lena Barzetti has settled into a comfortable routine in 1999 as the longtime co-owner of a property company in Cambridge. She still goes into the office a few times a week, searches for vacant buildings to buy, and doesn’t get mixed up in other people’s business. A wild young girl arrives on the scene in the form of Kalayla Leeroyce, a biracial, green-eyed spitfire with an outrageously smart mouth. Lena discovers the girl lives with her mother, Maureen, in the same apartment building as she does, right across the hall. Knowing Maureen doesn’t have much money or free time, Lena tries to help Kalayla, including giving her a book with a black girl on the cover. Kalayla is hardly impressed and ruefully notes: “Tomorrow she’d probably be bringing me a book about a white girl ’cause my mama was white.” But she warms up to Lena and her home cooking and suggestions about activities. Kalayla’s father is dead and Maureen has told her that her own family, the O’Rourkes, died in a gas leak. As that story slowly falls apart, Kalayla has to confront painful realities about interracial marriages and their effects in the present day. Similarly, Lena has dealt with loss for decades, including two sons killed in Vietnam and one who disappeared after moving “out West.” Her abusive husband, Joey, is dead, but the bad memories persist, and she longs to find her missing son. Lena, Kalayla, and Maureen live in an old school, rough-and-tumble world, but there is also kindness, which they cling to as they confront the pasts they’ve tried to bury. Nicholas’ carefully layered novel excels at creating lifelike families with complicated, even sordid histories that touch on complex social problems. Marriages can be for business relationships; violence is a fact of life; and people can die young. The way that the author weaves in the memories with the present-day story is skillfully done and lends a good deal of authenticity to the characters. But the book can be slow going at times, and the middle section tends to drag. A more concise writing style would have strengthened the vivid journey toward the fully realized conclusion.
An eloquent tale about real-life people with difficult problems.