After a tragic accident, a young mother finds inspiration in the 19th-century diaries of her great-great-grandmother in this debut novel.
Readers meet Rachel Tate in her favorite room, the kitchen, preparing a sumptuous weekend breakfast for her husband, Hayden, and their three young sons: 8-year-old Jake, 5-year-old Randy, and baby Ollie. Before the day is over, Hayden drowns rescuing Randy, leaving Rachel devastated. For weeks, she is barely able to climb out of bed. Then her mother, Meredith, asks for help. It is time to move Rachel’s grandmother, whose heart is failing, into her parents’ house, and here begins the protagonist’s discovery of her family’s maternal history. First it is the uncovering of an old photo of Anna and Sal, Rachel’s great-great-grandparents. Then she finds three journals Anna kept during her first years as a young bride, farming the arid plain outside Pueblo, Colorado. It turns out that Anna also lost her first husband, John, in an accident. She was left with an infant son and a child on the way. As Rachel reads the diaries to Gram, she begins to appreciate her grandmother’s mantra: “We’re Murdocks. We can do hard things.” Crystal moves beyond the confines of the diaries to narrate Anna’s story in greater detail, skillfully interrupting the primary tale of Rachel’s gradual progression with chapters devoted to Anna and her struggles. The author’s attention to the particulars of Anna’s daily chores brings the late 19th century to life and serves as a nice counterpoint to Rachel’s 21st-century conveniences. Generally well-crafted prose and realistic dialogue in this promising first novel are occasionally overwhelmed by Crystal’s obvious fondness for similes: Rachel’s “eyes felt like hard boiled eggs rolled in sawdust” and “Fear filled Rachel’s limbs like water-soaked timbers.” And there are a couple of small errors, as when a diary entry involving Anna’s first husband is incorrectly dated “1891,” by which time John would have already died. But foodies should enjoy Rachel’s passion for cooking and her devotion to complicated meal preparation, which will leave readers reaching for the nearest snacks.
An engaging read about a widow unearthing her family history.