In this novel, the lives of a mortician, dentist, and retired biology teacher become agonizingly tangled in a small town in Appalachia.
Nathan Ashcraft, Tim Sawyer, and Sarah Lawrence are all outsiders in Wentz Hollow, Kentucky. Nathan, the town’s gay mortician, was born there. But he left not long after Sarah, his well-intentioned high school biology teacher, outed him to his parents, only to return when he is informed his father, Bart, has Alzheimer’s disease. Tim is a dentist from Seattle, a gay man as well, who had all the family support Nathan never did, pursuing rural dentistry to help reduce his student loan debt. The cheerful nature he puts on to hide his discomfort in the Appalachian hollers makes him a friend of Bart’s, despite his dementia, though he finds himself more attracted to Nathan’s boorish brother, Johnny, than the funeral director. Sarah is retired but still lives in Wentz Hollow. Her days as a self-proclaimed “fiercely liberal biology teacher, a free-thinker, an activist” who mixed abortifacients for girls in need are long over. Now, she lives with regrets over how she exposed Nathan and fantasizes that he will somehow find happiness with Steve Malone, his still closeted, now married high school love. Yet when Steve’s stillborn child is brought to the mortuary, Tim’s and Sarah’s secrets will force Nathan to reexamine the past. Eads nails the interconnectivity of small-town dramas like a neighborhood handyman who deftly wields a hammer. The pacing is excellent, doling out the story’s big reveals naturally and often turning moments that initially seem inconsequential, like a stop for coffee or a request for a cheap, ceramic urn, into impactful or heartbreaking scenes. The tale is told nonlinearly from the points of view of all three protagonists, though Sarah’s is in the form of a memoir-turned-letter to Nathan, a clever device that not only fits the character, but also keeps the narration from being complacent or repetitive. There is so much tragedy in the novel—involving family, love, identity, idealism, and more—along with just enough hope, that few readers will be able to keep their tears off the page.
An adept and heart-wrenching rural drama with devastating LGBTQ+ themes.