Jess Walton—no one calls her “Jessica” unless she’s in trouble—is about to go from only child to oldest sibling, from step-daughter to half-sister. She’s terrified, and not only because of her understandable-but-prosaic fears about how her family’s dynamics will change: She’s scared because, 19 weeks into her mother’s pregnancy, the doctors realized that the twin boys were conjoined. Since Jess is still grieving for the loss of her beloved great-aunt—and navigating the possible end of her best-friendship—she doesn’t know if her heart can take another hit.
Under Shifting Glass is a quiet read, and Jess is an introspective, thoughtful narrator. Some readers are bound to take issue with her: She’s so self-aware, so clear-eyed in her observations and so very perceptive, that her voice occasionally reads like she’s looking back on this time in her life from middle age. I enjoyed her company so much, though, that I gave her a pass. Singer’s prose has a very distinct rhythm—and each chapter ends with a Big Thought: “...that makes me want to cry, the way things do when you think nobody understands but actually they do.”—which is especially fitting, since music is such an important, comforting aspect of Jess’ life.
Jess has always been accused of “making things up,” which allows the reader to decide how to interpret the magical realism elements in the story. I chose to take them at face value; despite others’ claims, Jess never comes across as a liar, or even as having an overactive imagination. The way she describes the world makes it obvious that she sees things differently than most people. While this sometimes results in difficulty communicating, it also grants her a degree of wonder and joy in her experience of life—the ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary—that others miss out on.
Under Shifting Glass is about beginnings (birth, family, new realizations about old relationships) and endings (death, the end of friendship**, the end of childhood); it’s about different kinds of families (blood, chosen, kindred spirits), about jealousy and about the realization that there is room in your heart for more than one person at a time. In another book, a convergence of so many storylines that drive the same themes home could easily feel contrived, but in this book, which celebrates connections of all sorts—Jess calls them ‘joinings’—it just...works.
I’ll leave you with a passage that says everything I’ve been saying about the book, and more:
All through the pregnancy, Mom’s been calling them my brothers. When the twins are born, when your brothers are born....But, I realize, standing in the hospital Intensive Care Baby Unit, that they are not my brothers. Not full brothers, anyway. We share a mother, but not a father, so they are my half-brothers. But half-brothers sounds as if they’re only half here or as if they don’t quite belong. And that’s scary. Or maybe it’s actually me who doesn’t quite belong anymore, as though a chunk of what I thought of as family has somehow slid away. And that’s even scarier.
So I’m going to call them brothers—my brothers.
*Not counting My Name is Mina.
**The friendship storyline was the only part of the book that didn’t resonate with me: Zoe is so obnoxious and self-centered that I had a hard time understanding the attraction beyond Number of Years Spent as Friends. Then again, I dimly recall that being a hugely important factor at that age.