In this debut novel, a woman learns a truth as old as literature: she can’t escape the past just by moving away and up.
This hardscrabble story opens in 1947. Maggie Coyle and her little sister, Janie, huddle outside their shabby house while their mother labors to give birth. Welcome to hell, or its suburb, Mahanoy, Pennsylvania, a coal town where their father can be found either gasping in a mine or drinking in a bar. The baby daughter is stillborn; worse, their mother then becomes catatonic. The girls are bereft. A determined Maggie vows to flee all this—the boys working in the mines and half the girls getting pregnant in high school—and seemingly does. She earns a scholarship that leads to a nursing degree and freedom. Janie, meanwhile, finds mindless work in the parish rectory. There she meets Father Timothy, a young priest with a past as troubled as the Coyle girls’. Janie bears a daughter, who’s given up for adoption (the priest never even knows that he’s the baby’s father). Meanwhile, Maggie meets a brilliant, young surgeon (with a tumultuous past, of course). They marry, have six beautiful children, and Janie comes to live with them in a big house in Philadelphia. After many years of being the greatest aunt God created, Janie contracts cancer. From here on, the story, a tale of guilt, anger, and anxious expiation, focuses on Maggie. She has a wonderful husband and children who love her. (But do they adore Aunt Janie even more?) Maggie cannot forgive herself every sin she imagines, until finally the reader wants to shake her. In lesser hands, Maggie would be almost a parody of the morally tortured martyr, but with strong writing, a wonderfully modulated pace, and tenacious introspection, the novel delivers a complex portrait. Crawford paints with a really dark palette, reflecting life’s myriad tragedies. At one point, Maggie, in a tearful conversation with her father, angrily recalls her mother: “I remember her hair. I remember brushing her hair. She’d let me and Janie do it, always telling us how good it felt...I remember you making her cry. I remember that, too.” The author knows the human heart to a scary extent. This is a remarkable debut, and readers should look forward to Crawford’s next work.
An intense, perceptive tale of two sisters grappling with a turbulent family history.