From Oprah Book Club alum O’Dell (Back Roads, 2000, etc.), the far-fetched tale of a cab driver whose long-lost sister turns out to be a surrogate-mother-for-hire.
Narrator Shae-Lynn Penrose, the author’s first female protagonist, is a ballsy, sassy delight, but the story she tells verges on ridiculous. Shae-Lynn’s sister Shannon turns up after 18 years, pregnant with her tenth baby and planning, as usual, to sell it to a wealthy couple. Shannon has run out on the sleazy New York lawyer who sets up the adoptions because she’s made her own deal with a Connecticut woman and doesn’t want to share the money. Both of these caricatures come looking for her in Centresburg, the Penroses’ hard-pressed hometown in Pennsylvania coal country; so does an equally cartoonish Russian gangster, the buddy of another guy Shannon double-crossed. How did Shae-Lynn’s sister get to be so callous? The answer lies in the girls’ miserable childhood with a widowed father so brutal that when Shannon disappeared, her sister assumed he’d killed her. Shae-Lynn has blunt, bracing things to say about the complicity of their blue-collar community, which disapproved of Dad beating his daughters but did nothing to stop him; she saw lots of domestic abuse swept under the rug during her years as a police officer in Centresburg. Dad wasn’t the only brutal coalminer, and even good men like Shae-Lynn’s beloved friend E.J., who survived a cave-in two years ago, bear the physical and psychic wounds inflicted by their back-breaking profession. O’Dell’s unsentimental, loving depiction of working-class life is as moving as ever. Also familiar, unfortunately, is her weakness for lurid plotting, which here includes the heavily foreshadowed exposure of the man who fathered Shae-Lynn’s illegitimate baby and the mustache-twirling cynicism with which he reveals his base nature to their horrified adult son.
Many wonderful scenes bear witness for people too often left voiceless in American literature, but coming on the heels of the majestic, passionate Coal Run (2004), this undisciplined novel is a disappointment.