In this debut novel, an artist in Michigan must reconcile her dark family history with her creative aspirations.
Upon graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago and receiving only tepid encouragement to apply to graduate school, Juniper Kowalski moves back to her impoverished, sub-rural hometown of Gobles, Michigan. In doing so, Juniper worries she is setting herself up to succumb to a generations-long fate of “static poorness” and abusive, abandonment-ridden relationships. Juniper lives in her dead grandmother’s old trailer, works a housekeeping job at a local hotel, and spends her time off drinking at a bar with friends or visiting her chain-smoking mother who toils at a Subway inside a local Walmart. As Juniper moves about the bleakness of Gobles daily, she is plagued by the distance growing between her current life and her Chicago existence as well as by the accompanying stalemate she has reached in her art career. But this stagnancy is soon interrupted by a startling encounter at work. Juniper, in the middle of her room-cleaning rounds, is rendered love-struck by an out-of-town hotel guest named Kirk Janoski, a handsome, charming art history professor with a wife. Juniper and Kirk catapult into a passionate love affair that results in the protagonist becoming pregnant. Upon discovering the pregnancy after Kirk’s heartbreaking departure, she decides to keep the baby without telling the father. This decision launches Juniper into the process of mourning her family legacy. In doing so, pregnant Juniper—to her delighted surprise—energetically reconnects with her drive and begins creating art again, a reunion that challenges her profoundly in unexpected but vital ways. In her novel, Duncan demonstrates literary potential. Her writing is lovely in places; plots and subplots are vivid and generally well managed; and certain complex emotional experiences—especially those related to pregnancy and the creative process—are dexterously portrayed. That said, the characters—though written with appreciable tenderness—have an overall trite quality and the narration regularly slips into overexplaining. In addition, the prose sometimes devolves into clichés. At one point, the author describes a touching Christmas scene involving Juniper and her mother: “That moment was like a present with a bow.”
A juicy, occasionally literary rendering of a complicated young adulthood that shows promise but lacks writerly refinements.