Lustbader’s angst-ridden novel revolves around a young man with a burning need to resolve his child-abuse–riddled past.
Jody Kowalczyk doesn’t look Polish like the rest of his family for a good reason: He was born Christopher Cannavarro, the illegitimate son of a 15-year-old Italian girl whose father refused to let her terminate the pregnancy. Unloved by everyone except his Aunt Marie, Chris spends his earliest years hearing from his volatile grandfather how much he is hated and unwanted. His mom, Marian, talks to him as if he is dirt, and, after Marie collapses and dies while teaching him to play the piano, Marian is forced to take custody of young Chris. Enter Scott, a former Vietnam medic and drug addict. After badly injuring the child, Scott waxes remorseful, but the incident sets off a pattern of physical abuse that eventually, after Marian abandons the two of them, results in sexual molestation. Society, his teachers and everyone else in the world appear to be oblivious to the child’s searing ordeal, which is told in a series of memoirs written by the older Jody, who tells his story to an elderly Italian woman, Tess. Through Tess, Jody reconnects with Ella, a woman he met as a teenager and has never forgotten, and her young son, Evan. In a distracting and extraneous side story, Jody’s adopted brother, Brendan, becomes engaged to a stylish but self-destructive young woman named Fern, who comes between the two men and upsets the fragile balance that has kept them together. Lustbader’s graphic tale of abuse won’t please readers who prefer the seamier details of their stories on the subtle side, but she nails the mental and physical horrors of living without love, approval or basic comforts. And, although Jody’s childhood is over-the-top terrible, few will fail to be moved by the child’s plight.
Lustbader’s refusal to allow Jody any happiness whatsoever will prove a disappointment to many readers.