Hills, in her debut novel, offers a decades-spanning exploration of the joys and sorrows of one Baltimore family.
Sara Gorman, the youngest of three daughters of a prominent Episcopal priest in the late 1950s, is shy and creative; her sister Natalie is a rebellious bombshell, and Barbara, the oldest, is a perfectionistic social climber. Their struggle to live harmoniously with one another—and with their demanding, loving and often mystifying parents—forms the main plot of this novel, but Hills weaves a multitude of subplots into the colorful familial tapestry. They include the ups and downs of the sisters’ romantic relationships; the tragic childhood of Sara’s best friend; and the zany personalities of the family’s other friends and neighbors, many of which may strike readers as overly simplistic. Malqueen, the family’s loyal cook, in particular, can always be counted on to deliver generic good advice at exactly the right time, such as, “Get in a tough spot you got to keep workin’ to get out of that spot…got to fight to set your life right.” The plot meanders like a Sunday stroll, frequently picking up and dropping plot threads. Often, Hills encapsulates years of the protagonist’s life into a single paragraph; as a result, it often feels as if Sara has just come alive during one period of her life when she’s suddenly whisked away to another. There are also confusing shifts in time, which makes it slightly difficult to keep track of characters and their respective ages. Still, much of the prose is original and witty; Sara’s narration remains a pleasure throughout, even when the story lacks structure, and the artfully drawn tensions within the Gorman family get at the heart of every family’s complex truths. When Sara observes her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, for example, she says, “I actually liked this new, funny, free-spirited woman singing on the roof better than the woman I remembered from my childhood.” Anyone who’s ever been baffled by the messy emotions that come with family ties will likely relate to Sara’s story.
A sprawling, unfocused tale, but one held together by authentic emotional insights and an engaging protagonist.