An ailing anti-government radical plots to reunite with two sisters he loved in childhood.
As girls in Cooper County, West Virginia, Dinah and Grace were left largely to raise themselves as their mentally ill mother was institutionalized and their alcoholic father took up with a wealthy widow. When the sisters come to the aid of Richie, the widow’s bullied son, he becomes infatuated with them, especially the elder sister, Dinah. Written in nonlinear chapters that alternate among Dinah's, Grace's, and Richie’s perspectives, the book recounts the trio’s adolescence, when Richie becomes an Ayn Rand devotee, a calculating entrepreneur (he sells drugs at school), and, most chillingly, a sexual opportunist, assaulting Dinah when she is unconscious one afternoon. Now, in middle age, Dinah is married to one of Richie’s old associates, Ray, and has moved away. Though Dinah and Ray are newly committed to Jesus and raising five children, Richie makes Ray one last offer of work to lure Dinah close. Grace, who still lives in West Virginia and is struggling with depression, anxiously anticipates Dinah’s homecoming. Willis (A Space Apart, 2017, etc.) has written a timely story, especially given that Appalachia was thrust into the spotlight after the 2016 presidential elections by books like Hillbilly Elegy. Willis’ Appalachia is a mixture of well-intentioned but ineffectual liberals, born-again Christians, and would-be domestic terrorists—all the ingredients for a potentially fast-paced drama. But even readers with a high tolerance for time and perspective shifts will struggle to put the narrative pieces together here. And the novel’s biggest ask may be that the reader have sympathy for—and buy into the possible redemption of—a fascistic narcissist like Richie.
The book’s heart seems like it’s in the right place, but the muddle of plot and character makes it hard to get behind.