This glimmering debut novel reflects on mother-daughter connections, abandonment and resilience, and dreams that endure despite the odds.
Coming of age circa 1996 in Waterbury, Connecticut, a chilly, gritty industrial city of abandoned brass factories and the workers left behind, Elsie dreams of a fast car out of town. Instead, and perhaps inevitably, she finds herself stuck, succumbing to the attentions of Bashkim, an Albanian line cook at the Betsy Ross Diner, where she slings fried foods for locals as a waitress. Bashkim, who has a wife back in Albania he says he plans to divorce, tells 18-year-old Elsie she’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen, teaches her to drive a stick shift, and promises to buy her whatever she wants when his investments pay off. Then he gets Elsie pregnant and sticks around long enough to compel her to keep the baby—a daughter, it turns out—but not long enough to help raise her. First-time novelist Aliu switches quickly between Elsie’s story and that of her daughter, Luljeta, whom we meet when she is 17 and confronting her own urge to escape her fate as a fatherless child in a dead-end town of dusty dreams. Lulu, a bright young woman who has always worked hard and followed the rules, finds herself suddenly doubtful of her own future and scornful of the mother who, while dedicated to providing for her, has not provided answers about her past. And so Lulu goes looking for them in places both unfamiliar and, ultimately, long known. Aliu’s riveting, sensitive work shines with warmth, clarity, and a generosity of spirit. Her characters are nuanced and real, capable of taking risks, making mistakes, and growing in unexpected ways.
Aliu’s writing is polished and precise, bringing her characters glowingly to life.