In this coming-of-age novel, three teenage girls in 1960s Long Island get fresh insights into family and other problems when they read a cache of long-hidden letters.
Family dinners for Julie Ventura, age 14 in 1968 as the story begins, always include her father’s belt strap, laid across his lap as the meal starts in case of misbehavior: “Sometimes he would fold the strap over and hold the ends in each hand and then snap the strap to make a menacing sound of warning.” But Julie feels lucky compared with her friend Heather, whose dad abandoned her when she was little, leaving her in her alcoholic mother’s care. Their new friend Petra has a different burden: her family just moved back to the spooky old Victorian house where, years ago, Petra’s grandmother committed suicide, something the neighborhood still gossips about. As epochal historical events play out—assassinations, the moon landing, Woodstock—Julie navigates the dangerous, sometimes thrilling waters of high school and dating. Meanwhile, the friends discover and read letters from Petra’s great-grandmother Charlotte regarding events in 1912. They reveal surprising, tragic family secrets—and form a link to a supernatural connection among the three friends. One strength in Dodaro’s debut novel is its unusually thoughtful take on teenage romance: “Sometimes, I wanted him there to be my security blanket,” Julie comments. “But I also missed the times when I could just be with my friends without having to worry about what [he] would think or feel about every interaction I had with other people.” Dodaro’s well-rounded characters avoid clichés; Julie’s father, for example, isn’t just a brute. But the book crams in too many after-school special–type issues, with improbably wise teenagers delivering weighty lines: “It’s not the scars on your body that really matter it’s the ones that are left on your soul” or “They weren’t perfect, but they were my family. Even if I couldn’t change them, I could change me.” With the paranormal elements taking things down still another road, the novel feels unfocused.
A sensitive look at growing up in the Sixties, though heavy on the earnest messages.