Wright (Broken Strings, 2013, etc.) crafts a multigenerational tale centered on the women in one Scottish-American family.
As the novel opens in 1912, Jessie Menzies has just graduated from high school in the small Scottish town of Leven. The festivities are short-lived, however, as she learns that her Aunt Grace has died in the United States, leaving behind a husband and children. In short order, Jessie travels there to help with the kids—a job that has her putting down roots in the Vermont town of Cherry Valley. Jessie starts teaching English to new immigrants and eventually forges a relationship with a Polish man, leading to a daughter, Grace, being born out of wedlock. The story is divided into four parts, and the first two trace Jessie’s story as she builds a life in the small town with assorted, lively friends and family. Victoria, one of the “babies” Jessie came to look after, narrates the third part, set mostly during World War II. Tired of life in small-town America, Vicky has an affair with a married college professor and becomes a pilot to help the war effort in Europe. The story of Grace, Jessie’s love child, makes up the last part of the novel. Allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland surface throughout; Vicky, for example, with her sheer will and zest for life, is depicted as the story’s “Red Queen.” But while Lewis Carroll might have stated in that tale that “Queens never make bargains,” the author effectively shows how the Menzies women have no such luck. Constrained by the demands of family, time and place, even the one weapon they have—sexuality—often backfires. Yet Wright shows how they constantly adapt to unyielding situations and somehow manage to make their places in society. The novel ends just after the end of World War II, a celebratory time that made way for new beginnings; the story concludes with this ray of hope as the next generation gets ready to take over the spotlight.
An often illuminating novel that lays bare the societal constraints faced by generations of women and the stark realities they bore with grace.