In Van Zanten’s (On Thin Ice, 2012) novel, a family with adopted children faces issues that threaten to tear them apart.
Sisters Shayla, 10, and Abby, 6, are too young to remember why they were taken away from their mother, Nora. All they know is that, one day, their social worker, Bernice Harrison, chaperones them to Nora’s funeral and then adopts them. Years later, three members of the Harrison family grapple quietly with their problems: Shayla, now 17, develops a shoplifting habit, worries that her two best friends like each other more than they like her, and wonders if her crush, Eric, reciprocates her feelings. Then Shayla’s half sister, Anna Michaud, contacts her, offering to introduce her to her birth father, Gabriel, and Shayla is thrilled at the prospect. Meanwhile, Bernice’s husband, Tom, grows increasingly attracted to his 25-year-old receptionist, Marla, and begins an affair with her. Bernice, for her part, feels besieged on all fronts. She worries that Shayla’s biological father, a shiftless addict the last time she saw him, won’t be a good influence on the young woman. (She and Shayla have dramatic, dayslong fights on the matter.) She also feels increasingly distraught about her marriage, as Tom keeps “working late” and declines to have sex with her. As Bernice’s, Tom’s, and Shayla’s troubles deepen and harsh truths come to light, the family’s bonds are tested. Despite Bernice’s unique position as Shayla’s former social worker, the story’s central problems—teen angst, infidelity—are fairly quotidian. But that very normalcy makes Van Zanten’s story all the more engrossing, as the characters work through their turbulent feelings and find solutions through mature discussion. Along the way, the author sensitively renders their emotions: “she pushed away thoughts about those confusing times of long ago; a pervasive sense of weariness always surfaced.” However, the reasons why Marla is attracted to her middle-aged boss are never explained, and the way that Shayla talks can be distracting: “Omigod, this is so excellent; like, I will have my dad back!”
An often emotionally insightful portrait of family life.