That striking title sets the scene for an out-of-the-ordinary coming-of-age novel set in a fundamentalist Christian family in Arco, Idaho in 1970. The Quanbecks renounce dancing, movies, alcohol and everything else that represents regular teenage life for thirteen-year-old Jory. She and her sisters are sheltered from the world within their church and Christian school. That sense of being set apart only grows stronger when seventeen-year-old Grace comes back pregnant from a short mission trip to Mexico. Grace swears it was an immaculate conception and she, like Mary, has been entrusted with carrying God’s child. Is she telling the truth, is she repressing a traumatic event, or is she mentally ill? Val Brelinski keeps that question largely open throughout her strong debut novel.
Grace’s actions will have a lasting effect on Jory. The girls’ parents – their father a Harvard-educated astronomer and their mother a virtual shut-in who relies on prescription anxiety pills – decide that Grace will live away from them and the community, and Jory will keep her company. Dr. Quanbeck buys a small house next-door to Hilda Kleinfelter and withdraws both girls from school so word can’t get around. Jory will attend secular Schism High, where she gets an education in teenage socialization that includes the Homecoming dance, liquor and an accidental LSD trip. Hilda becomes a sort of surrogate grandmother to the girls, and Grip, a deadbeat ice cream van driver in his twenties, is their new best friend.
Brelinski is sensitive to the ways in which religion and romantic infatuation influence her characters’ choices, and even when things get a little bit uncomfortable – like when Grip and Jory steal a kiss – the plot feels true to life. The choice of close third-person narration from Jory’s perspective, rather than first-person, thankfully keeps the book from resembling a teen diary. This is the best of both worlds: we get Jory’s thoughts, but in more sophisticated literary language. The novel also blends biblical metaphors and Dr. Quanbeck’s astronomical vocabulary to good effect, as in this lovely passage near the end:
The universe had opened up and revealed its own perfectly blank face to [Jory’s] own, returning her gaze with a flattened emptiness that stretched on and on and on—a world so wide and featureless and open, so dark and formless, that light never pierced it: no sun, no moon, no stars. And it now seemed entirely possible that two girls … could stumble mutely on across the face of it forever, seeking a home, and a resting place, and finding none.
In a book full of memorable characters, I found Grace and Dr. Quanbeck to be the most compelling ones, mostly for how logic and superstition collide in their thinking. Like the father in A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray, one of my favorite novels from last year, Dr. Quanbeck could almost seem like the villain here for the choices he imposes on his family, but the picture of him is nuanced so that you can see how desperately he loves his family and wants to protect them from worldly pain.
Along with Issy Bradley (set in Britain’s Mormon community), the novel reminded me most of We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen, another picture of family life under strict religious guidelines, and How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer, a love story with astronomical overtones. Much as I liked it, I did think Brelinski’s novel was about a quarter too long; both the middle section – where Jory is negotiating her newfound freedom – and the dénouement felt drawn out. It would be interesting to see Brelinski’s talent for characterization and scene-setting applied to short stories or a much shorter novel. I also thought the initial decision to set the two girls up in their own home felt slightly far-fetched.
All the same, I appreciated this balanced picture of family life. The Quanbecks are never just oddities or your stereotypical dysfunctional family, but as idealistic and messed up as all the rest of us. As Mrs. Kleinfelter puts it, “Most [families] are pretty much the same, I think. Good and bad mixed together in a small bag. Or a small house.”
I received early access to this book through the Penguin First to Read program.