Leon’s (A Theory of All Things, 2010, etc.) evocative novel centers on two aging sisters, one mentally challenged and the other her caretaker, whose home is unexpectedly joined by two more family members.
Septuagenarian Grace knows something is wrong with her even before the doctor confirms it. Cancer. She can’t stop worrying about what will happen to her older sister, Baby. For nearly her entire life, Grace has been caring for Baby, feeding her, dressing her, taking her to the bathroom, administering her insulin shots, keeping her supplied with her beloved crayons. She can’t imagine who would be willing or able to care for her large, opinionated, mentally disabled sister who laughs like Santa Claus and assigns colors to everything around her. Grace even tries, unsuccessfully, to take matters into her own hands. Out of the blue, their niece Lily arrives on their doorstep along with her young son, Walter. They arrive from New York City bearing little besides scars: Track marks can be seen on Lily’s thin arms, while Walter carries the recent memory of being surrendered to the Department of Social Services. The four try to get used to one another as they gear up for the yearly family Fourth of July gathering, where carloads of aunts, uncles and cousins descend on Grace’s house, the family home where she and her siblings grew up. The story is told over the span of three summer months, and Leon switches perspective among the four main characters, each of whom experiences memories and flashbacks that help illuminate his or her character. The use of imagery is masterful, from Grace’s memories of Baby as a girl, kept cruelly in a cage by their parents, to Baby’s many interpretations of color. Leon’s descriptions of the small town, the house and the landscape create a sense of place that is vivid and tangible. With a clear, perceptive eye, she explores the tension of family relations, the realities of aging and dying, the gnawing need of addiction and the complexities of mental illness. Leon’s characters are filled with humanity and individuality, and readers will no doubt hope for even more from her.
Quiet, lyrical and probing—a jewel of a novel.