YA author Shepard’s debut adult novel (Pretty Little Liars, 2008, etc.) concerns a girl who feels trapped by her genetics.
When an eccentric teacher introduces Summer Davis to the concept of determinate DNA, she becomes obsessed with the idea that her genes permanently tie her to her mentally unstable father and to her mother, who abandoned the family. As her father descends into mental illness, Summer becomes the family caretaker, putting off her career in genetics to care for him and then for her great aunt Stella. The dusty, Wal-Mart town of Cobalt, Pa., where Stella lives, is Summer’s father’s hometown, and the scene of an emotional secret he has kept from her her entire life. The narrative craftily and eloquently builds the suspense. Even though Summer’s inability to step into an independent life can be frustrating, she is a deftly drawn and sympathetic protagonist, and her complications are achingly real. As Summer falls into a routine with the quirky, sagacious Stella—a gem of a character—Stella forces her to emerge from her morose fatalism and start learning that she can choose her own life path. The story follows Summer from a high schooler to a young woman in an emotionally raw narrative arc that does not shy away from difficult questions nor force happy endings. The author also offers a moving portrait of New York City in the pre- and post-9/11 years.
A quietly captivating novel.