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If you're a mother or a daughter or both, like me, you will enjoy this book. I highly recommend it.
What makes this novel so special is the incredible evocative powers Strout has. She is able to, with very few words, bring you to a time and a place, and you are there. That is not to say that the writing is in anyway "spare". Quite the contrary, this is a rich novel, but without any excess weight. Amy and Isabelle, as characters are completely real, completely believable.
Although I do give this novel 5 stars, it does have a few, minor flaws. Amy never wonders about her father, which I found a little hard to accept. Additionally, sometimes, Strout's involvement of the minor characters seemed a little forced. As a whole, however, this is an outstanding first novel and I look forward to her future works. I also think this would make a great book club book as in it there are many topics for discussion--mother/daughter relationships, parenting, youth, to name a few.
Isabelle Goodrow and her 16-year-old daughter, Amy, make their home in a small New England mill town, Shirley Falls. This is a lugubrious community where in the hot summer that Amy turns 16 and comes to dislike the sight of her mother, the river is "just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the center of town."
Their rented house is in an area called the Basin, where many blue collar workers live. Isabelle, a tentative woman who wears her hair in a flat French twist and works in the office room of the mill, would never dream of buying that house because she "could not bear to stop thinking that her real life would happen somewhere else."
Hers was a solitary existence, save for Amy. Isabelle is aloof and easily wounded, hurt when the deacon's wife disapproves of the leaves Isabelle had used to decorate the church altar. And, she is proper, always sitting toward the rear of the sanctuary as her mother had taught her to do. This propriety, blended with Isabelle's innate fastidiousness made Amy's illegitimacy even more of a shameful secret.
Amy, too, was reserved. She had but one friend, Stacy, with whom she shared cigarettes, candy bars, and confidences during school lunch hours. A good student with a love for poetry, Amy had long golden hair and a slim well-developed body which made her all the more self-conscious. During classes she would duck her head down, hiding her face behind her hair.
When a substitute teacher, Mr. Robertson, teases her saying, "Come on out, Amy Goodrow, everyone's been asking about you," there is little indication of how Amy will respond.
Yet respond she does as first she is puzzled and then exultant in the burgeoning sexuality that Mr. Robertson coaxes from her. They are, of course, discovered.
The forced awareness of Amy's duplicity and also of her emerging womanhood is a devastating blow to Isabelle, who feels she has spent her life for naught. In fact, Isabelle feels as though she has died: "Her 'life' went on. But she felt little connection to anything, except for the queasiness of panic and grief."
And Amy, too, feels betrayed as she realizes that Mr. Robertson has used rather than cared for her. ".....ever since she found his number disconnected, found out that he had gone away; she could not stop her inner trembling."
With Amy and Isabelle Ms. Strout has proven herself to be a considerably gifted writer. She has drawn vividly erotic scenes, and deftly limned some of life's most tender moments. There is every indication that she well understands and cares deeply for the characters she has created.
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