Where They Found Her — Book Review

Where-They-Found-Her-198x300

In order that two imperfect souls might touch perfection.
E.M. Forster
(note from Justin Sanderson to his wife, Molly)

Is it just me, or do other readers find the adjectives used on book jackets to describe the book’s contents pretty silly? Where They Found Her, Kimberly McCreight’s second novel, is called a “blistering novel of psychological suspense.” At least it wasn’t labeled “luminous” — I guess that worn-out term is reserved for literary novels.

Blistering or not, Where They Found Her is fast-paced, multi-layered, meticulously constructed, and peopled with interesting and believable characters. If you pick it up in the evening, prepare to stay up late, because you won’t want to stop reading. Readers sometimes say they read a book in a “single sitting”, and you can’t take that too literally (don’t they have to get off the couch and get a snack?), but I did read this book in one day. It’s that kind of book. To quote McCreight herself, who was actually describing Gillian Flynn’s novels, it’s “character-driven, miss-your-subway-stop suspense.”

Like so many successful suspense novels, Where They Found Her is narrated by multiple characters — another reason to consume this book in big chunks. If you read a chapter or two every day, you’ll undoubtedly get confused. McCreight skillfully adds to the varied perspectives with journal entries, records of psychiatric sessions, transcripts of online chats, and online newspaper articles (with reader comments).

The book opens with an unnamed narrator disposing of a bag of evidence in a dumpster behind a suburban tanning salon:

I have to shove hard to get the blood-soaked towels in, even harder to push the canvas bag through the thin crack. I’m afraid for a second it’ll get stuck. But when I push my whole weight against it, it flies through so fast that I almost smash my face against the edge of the dumpster. When I pull my hands out,they’re covered in blood. For a second I think it’s mine. But it’s not mine. It’s the baby’s blood. All over me again, just like it was an hour ago.

What has happened, and who is telling the story? Readers won’t find out for almost 300 pages, with plenty of detours along the way. It’s revealed in the first couple of chapters that the body of a newborn baby has been found in the woods near the college campus in the upscale suburb of Ridgedale, New Jersey.

Molly Sanderson, wife of a Ridgedale University professor and new to the staff of the Ridgedale Reader,  investigates the story — which turns out to be much more complicated than she originally anticipated, leading back to unsavory secrets in Ridgedale’s past. Molly’s own past, which includes a painful childhood and the recent loss of her baby, influences her reporting of the crime — or is it a crime?

“A crime scene? That seems to presuppose a murder. Do we know that?” I asked, pleased that I’d picked up on his jumping of the gun.

“Good point, I suppose we don’t,” Erik said. “Our source in the department was vague . . . Despite what they seem to think, the local police aren’t entitled to any sort of special treatment from us, but they’ll already be on the defensive with the university to contend with.”

Barbara, wife of the local police chief, Sandy, a high school girl with a difficult home life, and Jenna, Sandy’s troubled mother, also lend their points of view to the disturbing events in Ridgedale. These events include not only the mystery of the body found near the campus, but other, perhaps even more compelling, subplots involving the seamy underbelly of a seemingly peaceful college town. The less said about these subplots, the better — if you’d like to read a review that does include spoilers (and participate in a discussion), please visit Sarah’s Book Shelves. Sarah includes her “wrong guesses” and “lingering questions”.

In an interview on BookPage, McCreight was asked, “What’s it like writing in multiple voices?”

Extremely liberating and occasionally very tricky. My favorite part of writing is being able to live in someone else’s skin. Multiple points of view mean becoming several different “selves,” which is all the better. It also gives me the freedom to explore the narrative from several perspectives, making the process of discovery that is so integral to my writing process that much more exciting.

That said, it does take effort to keep the voices distinct while ensuring that each character’s story has a well-formed arc, internally consistent and effectively knit into the broader whole.

McCreight is adept at shifting perspectives, gradually adding clues that may lead readers to solve the puzzle of the dead newborn. Not this reader, however; I was completely surprised when I learned the identity of the parents. On rereading sections of the book, I realized I had overlooked certain subtle hints. McCreight does include some red herrings — and again, those became more obvious on a second reading. (The New York Times quipped that McCreight’s first novel, Reconstructing Amelia, is “a mystery with enough red herring to stock Lake Michigan.”)

Molly’s English professor husband, Justin, leaves little notes for Molly to find. Readers will find that these notes — all quotes from famous writers — work, as McCreight mentions in her BookPage interview, “on multiple levels”. And They Found Her works on multiple levels as well — for example, who is the “her”? Who are the “they”? The answers are not as simple as they first appear.

This novel, like Reconstructing Amelia, is a perfect crossover book for teenagers. YA readers will enjoy the fast pace, the 17-year-old narrator, and the campus setting. McCreight is currently working on YA speculative fiction (The Outliers), focusing on this question: “What if women’s greater emotionality—so often deemed a sign of weakness—was, in fact, our greatest strength?” The question is interesting in light of Where They Found Her. Molly’s emotional response to the news story she’s asked to cover actually does provide her with strength and purpose.

For more reviews of Where They Found Her, please check out TLC Book Tours.

Dog-Eared Pages: 10 Quotes I Love

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Pierce, once reprimanded me for turning down the page of my book. She informed me that this was called “dog-earing” and it was very, very bad, on a par with wasting food at lunchtime and talking in the halls — two other crimes I had committed. Now I’m almost as old as Mrs. Pierce was then, and I can dog-ear my books anytime I want. If you borrow a book from me and there are lots of pages turned down, you know that this is a really good book filled with passages worth rereading and remembering.

In high school, one of my favorite English teachers, Mr. Regan, told us that “quote” is a verb and “quotation” is a noun. Mr. Regan, the co-author of our textbook, the English Competence Handbook, devoted an entire chapter to the proper use of “Quotations”. To the chagrin of English teachers everywhere, the word “quote” has become commonly used as a noun. Even the people in charge of websites devoted to cataloging quotes seem confused. One website calls itself The Quote Garden (“celebrating 17 years online”) but lists quotations in hundreds of categories, from “curmudgeonesque” to “ladybugs”.

Ever since I left Mrs. Pierce’s classroom,  I’ve dog-eared quite a few pages. Here are some of my favorite quotes (sorry, Mr. Regan!) about books and reading:

9780385531955When a book is a time machine, taking me back and sideways to other minds and times and cities and planets but mostly forward, forward to dinnertime, to when my mother would walk in the door and the unsympathetic girl would leave and I could re-emerge into my life, and it would be only the two of us again, my mother and me, and although I felt like I barely had her at least she was mine alone — who would give such magic away?
Holly LeCraw, The Half Brother

There is something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a deep-sea diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All of this happens to me when I surface from a great book.
Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck

962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98At eight, Arthur was walking five miles every other Tuesday to Mrs. Robert J. Taylor’s in Glassville to borrow a book from her considerable collection of eighty-five volumes. He was Robinson Crusoe sneaking through the jungle, scouting for ambush. He was Gulliver negotiating the fleshy landscapes of the Brobdingnags. He was Ahab, substituting green moss boulders for the white whale and losing his leg a thousand times. For Arthur, the words gathered in waterfall thoughts that spilled off the page into the pools of imagination collecting in his head.
Christopher Scotton, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

Never did she find anything so difficult as to keep herself from losing her temper when she was suddenly disturbed while absorbed in a book. People who are fond of books know the feeling of irritation which sweeps over them at such a moment. The temptation to be unreasonable and snappish is one not easy to manage.
Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

imgresSo Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.
Roald Dahl, Matilda

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

ZHer library would have been valuable to a bibliophile except she treated her books execrably. I would rarely open a volume that she had not desecrated by underlining her favorite sections with a ball-point pen. Once I had told her that I would rather see a museum bombed than a book underlined, but she dismissed my argument as mere sentimentality. She marked her books so that stunning images and ideas would not be lost to her.
Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended. That sentence could contain anything, anything, and so it promised the kind of absolute freedom that, to Affenlight’s mind, belonged to the artist and the artist alone. And yet that sentence was also beholden to the book’s very first one, and its last unwritten one, and every sentence in between.
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding

9781410468895When I read a book, I want you to be reading it at the same time. I want to know what would Amelia think of it. I want you to be mine. I can promise you books and conversation and all my heart, Amy.
Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied LIfe of A.J. Fikry

I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church — was it then that I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory . . . Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved reading. One does not love breathing.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Do you turn down pages, highlight, underline, or use Post-It notes to remember favorite passages?

For more inspiring and thought-provoking literary quotes, check out The Broke and the Bookish, host of Top 10 Tuesday.

 

WWW Wednesday — Vacation Version

FullSizeRenderIt’s WWW Wednesday, where I (sort of) answer these questions:

What did you just finish reading? What are you currently reading? What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m visiting my mother (and enjoying some beautiful weather) in Hilton Head, South Carolina, so it’s been a treat to be able to read outside. Yesterday, I spent some time on the beach, where it was fun to see real-life “beach reading” — lots of people stretched out on the sand, reading trashy books and magazines. My unscientific survey showed that 90% of the beach readers found their reading material at a local grocery store (mass market paperbacks by Danielle Steel, David Baldacci, James Patterson, Debbie Macomber) or on the shelves of their rental house (The Red Tent, The Black Swan, The Hot Zone,The Shack).

9781594633669MThe other 10% — including my niece — were reading The Girl on the Train. (One of them was reading an ARC, and I was dying to ask her how she came by it, but I thought it was time for me to mind my own business. People were probably already wondering why I kept walking by and craning my neck to see the titles of their books.) My favorite beach reader was a little boy who dug a big hole in the sand (possibly trying to reach China), then climbed in, and curled up with Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.

the-childrens-crusade-9781476710457_lgNobody seemed interested in what my husband and I were reading, but if they had been, they would have seen that I was engrossed in The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer. I’ll be posting a full review of this wonderful book, which focuses on four siblings raised by a loving, attentive father and a neglectful mother. In today’s New York Times review, Katie Kitamura says:

How do we become who we are? There are many ways of approaching this slipperiest of questions, from the experimental rigor of cognitive neuroscience to the teasing excavations of psychoanalysis. It is, of course, natural territory for the novel, and though The Children’s Crusade follows one nuclear family, its scope is broadened by its attempts at an answer . . . After a brief prologue, in which the origin myth of the family is related in some of Packer’s best and most rapturous prose, childhood emerges as the true sacred space of the novel — not because it represents innocence, but because it might contain the key to decoding the adult self.

9780767919418Jeff’s beach book was One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson, which he’s thoroughly enjoying — even though he typically reads serious history books, the kind that have lots of footnotes. He’s been sharing fun facts with me as he goes along — for instance, that the 1920s were “the golden age of reading”. Some reviewers tend to be a little snobby about Bryson. The Washington Post disdainfully compares One Summer to a Danielle Steel novel, a Cracker Barrel pamphlet, and CliffsNotes. Lighten up, Washington Post!  A lot of us may be part of that “mass-circulation audience” who enjoy and “need more accessible, easy-to-read history”.

9781605986883My mother is not a fan of the beach, but she has plenty of comfortable reading spots at home. She’s reading and enjoying The Listener, by Rachel Basch, which I absolutely loved. Unlike so many novels I’ve read recently, every sentence in it is necessary. I feel like I read many novels that are slightly bloated . . . just a little too long, with elements that don’t contribute to the development of the plot or characters. The Listener is about our need to be known. A psychologist, the widowed father of two grown daughters, treats a college student who is confused about his gender identity. He becomes romantically involved with the mother of this student — without knowing she is the mother of his patient. Complications ensue, involving his daughters and their shared past. The resolution is not pat and tidy, but it’s perfect. I thought Tricia Tierney’s comment was apt: “Rachel is one of the smartest writers around with such a finely honed craft delivered with heart. Don’t you find yourself re-reading her sentences?” (Tricia manages events at the Westport, Connecticut Barnes and Noble and blogs at Tricia Tierney’s Blog.)

1000H-9780805095159It’s time for me to pack up and head back to Chicago — currently cloudy and 41 degrees. On the plane, I think I’ll finish reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. There’s no better time to contemplate mortality than while flying above the clouds, right? I can also indulge in a favorite travel activity, walking up and down the aisle to see what people are reading. Too bad for me that e-readers have made it much more difficult for me to snoop. I saw very few e-readers at the beach, by the way — must have been the fear of sand and water damage. I’d love to know what you’re reading — on the beach, at home, or anywhere!

Happy April Fool’s Day!

Published every weekday, Shelf Awareness is the online newsletter for independent booksellers. They publish an April Fool’s edition that has been known to fool many intelligent people. Here’s my favorite article, along with a list of headlines from today’s issue.

Summer of Discoveries: “New” Salinger, Dickens, Homer on Way

Following the discovery of manuscripts by both Dr. Seuss and Harper Lee earlier this year, long-lost works by J.D. Salinger, Charles Dickens and Homer have been found and will be published this summer, too.

salinger_033115J.D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey & Buddy & Bessie, which was written in the early 1970s, is the first Glass family novel to be published following the author’s death. According to a Hachette spokesman, the novel marks a peculiar philosophical shift from the rest of Salinger’s work and is set very soon after the events of the novella “Zooey.” The plot, said the spokesman, involves Franny “finally getting it together and getting a job.”

dickens_033115Simon & Schuster, meanwhile, will publish a Charles Dickens novella called “The Actress” this summer. Written not long after the beginning of the author’s affair with Ellen Ternan, the semi-autobiographical story apparently was never shown to anyone and hidden immediately in a lockbox. Less a story than an allegory, the novella suggests that there’s nothing weird about a prominent public figure leaving his wife of 21 years for an 18-year-old.

homer033115By far the most surprising discovery is the transcription of an untitled, previously unknown epic poem attributed to Greek poet Homer. The transcription, believed to be the work of a medieval scholar whose name is now lost, was found recently in the ruins of an abbey in France. The epic continues the story of Odysseus after his return to Ithaca. No longer contending with angry gods, being imprisoned by nymphs or waging war, the Greek king struggles to adjust to domestic life, the onset of middle age and the departure of his son Telemachus to have his own adventures.

After a fierce bidding war, Penguin Random House obtained rights to publish the poem’s English translation. Although the epic did not quite stand the test of time like The Iliad or The Odyssey, the publisher’s spokespeople have insisted that it’s still a very compelling read, as it shows a more “introspective, subtle and relatable” side of the blind poet. A first printing of three million is planned. —Alex Mutter

Click on Shelf Awareness to read the articles below, and more:

Obama Appoints James Patterson “Book Czar”

Barnes & Noble Adding Indiebound Kiosks

Algorithim’s First Novel: 7R345UR3 15L4ND

Amazon to Team Up with Indie Booksellers

European Takeover of American Bookselling

They all sound pretty legit at first glance, don’t they? Happy Spring!

10 Books Recommended to Me (Thanks, Readers!)

When I interview an author, or attend an author event and have the opportunity to ask a question, I always ask the author to recommend his or her favorite books. I’m always collecting book recommendations — from friends, family members, colleagues, blog commenters, customers, bloggers and reviewers, even strangers at airports. Of course, I can’t read all the books that are recommended to me, but certain titles come up again and again. And certain people have built tremendous credibility over the years.

Thank you, everyone, for the recommendations. Here are 10 that are on my to-read list; some have even made it to the to-read shelf in my bedroom:

9780307455925Americanah (Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie) — Several friends who are terrific readers told me I HAVE to read this book. One was “shocked” I haven’t read it and another told me it is “extremely thought-provoking”.

Amsterdam (Ian McEwan) — Thomas Christopher Greene, author of The Headmaster’s Wife, says Amsterdam was the last truly wonderful book he read — “Not new, but . . . very smart and lovely novel. Wish I had written it.” I think I’ve read almost all of McEwan’s books, but somehow I missed this one.

1000H-9780805095159Being Mortal (Atul Gawande) — Recommended by several thoughtful friends, and also by Ann Patchett (who I wish was my friend). On her bookstore’s blog, Ann says:

I’m all for people having different tastes, liking different books, but everyone needs to read this book because at some point everyone is going to die, and it’s possible that someone we love is going to die before us. Being Mortal is about having that conversation and thinking the hard things through. It’s not a depressing book, instead it’s thoughtful, probing, and smart.

The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro) — Bridget, our Penguin Random House sales rep, always has the best recommendations, and The Buried Giant is one of her 2015 favorites. I’ve loved Ishiguro’s other books and have been waiting a long time for this one.

Dark Rooms (Lili Anolik) — Several blog readers told me I absolutely must read this debut novel (which takes place at a boarding school, a setting I can never resist) — one said it’s a “perfect beach read”.

The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute (Zac Bissonnette) — Daniel, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, always has interesting book recommendations. He says “What a fun and fascinating read this is! On top of a great story and larger-than-life characters, there are actually some marketing lessons embedded in the narrative.”

9780802123411H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald) — Highly recommended by several trusted sources, including Perseus sales rep Johanna. The quotation she posted is enough to make me want to read the book, which has already won major literary prizes in Great Britain:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you will realize that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and in between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where the things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan) — It won the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but I’m more impressed by my friend Kathy’s recommendation. She and I share similar taste in books and are both fascinated by World War II.

9781908313867The Red Notebook (Antoine Lauren) — Sue, from the Cottage Book Shop, just texted me from her vacation to tell me to read Laurain’s latest: “You should pick up The Red Notebook — wonderful. I liked it more than The President’s Hat. Actually, I loved it.” Well, of course — it’s about a Parisian bookseller.

A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler) — Recommended by several great readers, including two of my favorite librarians. Andrea Larson at Cook Memorial Public Library says: “Her knack for capturing characters and making them not just real, but recognizable, is phenomenal. And she absolutely nails dialogue.”

Please keep your suggestions coming! What else should I add to my ever-growing list?

It’s Monday, March 30 — What Are You Reading?

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Cowboy boots are a must in Nashville.

After a whirlwind weekend in Nashville, I need some R and R — reading and recovery! I’d never been to a bachelorette party before, but I did know that I wouldn’t need to bring my usual quota of reading material. I managed to make it through People Style Watch on the plane before falling asleep. (I’m not falling for their suggestions on spring fashion — bellbottoms and overalls were not attractive when I wore them back in the 1970s, and they haven’t improved in the last 40 years.)

This week promises to be quiet and peaceful, with the schools on spring break and lots of people out of town. Last week was a flurry of activity in the bookstore as customers rushed in to pick up books to read on the beach and the plane.

Some readers are serial monogamists, sticking with one book and then moving on to the next. Others are polygamists, juggling several books at once. (I just Googled the term “book polygamist” to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently plagiarizing, and stumbled upon a list of “popular polygamy books”. Turns out I’ve read most of them — is that weird?) I am, and have always been, a polygamous reader. I like juggling several books — usually one novel, one or two nonfiction books, and an audiobook. I like at least one of the books to be an e-book so I can read it in bed after my husband falls asleep.

9780385538985This week’s e-book is The Folded Clock: A Diary, by Heidi Julavits. I started it last week and was immediately captivated. It’s a memoir based on the author’s discovery of her childhood diaries. The Folded Clock earned a rave review on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. Here’s what the reviewer, Eula Bliss, has to say:

“She lost herself to me,” Julavits writes of her younger self. And so did I, with great pleasure. Losing one’s self is, after all, one of the rewards of reading. The opportunity to inhabit another self, to experience another consciousness, is perhaps the most profound trespass a work of literature can allow.

9780812993158In two weeks, beloved author Elizabeth Berg will be launching her first work of historical fiction at a couple of events hosted by Lake Forest Book Store.  I started reading The Dream Lover a couple of weeks ago and sadly had to put it aside so I could finish my book club books. Berg delves into the heart and mind of writer George Sand, born Aurore Dupin, who was the first female bestselling author in France. I’m planning on finishing the book this week, because I have an upcoming interview with Berg — stay tuned!

9781250063779I just finished Mimi Malloy, at Last!, by Julia McDonnell, and I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. The title character is a sixty-something Irish-American divorcee with six daughters. Mimi has recently been forced into retirement, and is reluctantly exploring her sad family history. She’s a wonderful character, full of wit and humor, with plenty of sharp edges. (One of the blurbs aptly compares her to Olive Kitteridge.) The novel includes a sweet love subplot between Mimi and her apartment building’s superintendent, which is oddly juxtaposed with the disturbing story of Mimi’s horrific childhood. Readers looking for light “beach reading” will find that although the novel is a page-turner that reads quickly, it’s much darker than it initially appears. Even the title seems inappropriate — it sounds like the title of a children’s book about a plucky tomboy. It’s strange that the ARC I have has no exclamation point in the title, while the published book (both hardcover and paperback editions) includes an exclamation point.

9781605986883I just started The Listener, by Rachel Basch. I’ve mentioned before that I am a complete sucker for books set on campuses, so this book — about a psychologist who counsels students at a small liberal arts college in Maine — had my name all over it. I loved an earlier book of Basch’s, The Passion of Reverend Nash, which covers some of the same territory as The Listener: the complicated relationship between the healer and the patient.

9780767919418And finally, my current audiobook is One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson. Our couples’ book club is discussing this book in a few weeks, and I think it’s a great choice. Bill Bryson is one of my favorite nonfiction authors — he’s really mastered the art of writing books that simultaneously entertain and inform. However . . . I think maybe he should stick to writing and his publisher should hire a professional narrator for his audiobooks. His voice has a strange, prissy quality that is driving me crazy. I think I may have to switch to the print book and find another audiobook for my walks.

The sun is shining and the temperature in Chicago is heading toward 50 degrees, so I’m heading out to take a walk with Bill. I’ll let you know if I decide to end our relationship!

It’s Monday — What Are you Reading? is hosted by Book Journey.

An Uncomplicated Life — Book Review

9780062359940Having a child with a disability is like having a life coach you didn’t ask for. You realize that perspective is a blessing that ‘s available to anyone who seeks it. Or has it forced upon him. The miracle of an imperfect child is the light she casts on your own imperfections. After a time, she will teach you far more than you will teach her, and you will discover that “normal” comes in a sliding scale.

The words “miracle” and “blessing” in the same paragraph may raise red flags for some readers, but An Uncomplicated Life is not a sentimental story about saintlike parents and an angelic child. It’s a father’s honest, heartfelt, and nuanced account of “building a better Jillian” — and in the process, building a better Paul Daugherty. (“No one has ever accused me of being nice,” he claims.)

The day Paul and Kerry Daugherty’s daughter, Jillian, was born was “the last bad day” in the Daugherty family’s life. Paul, a sports columnist for the Cincinnati Post, was covering the World Series in San Francisco when his wife called with the happy news that Jillian had arrived. Paul and Kerry experienced the “dark kaleidoscope of human emotions” that day when they learned that Jillian had Down Syndrome.

The Daughertys determined before even leaving the hospital that “Jillian’s potential would not be tethered to anyone’s preconceptions.” Their mantras become “Expect: Don’t Accept”, “Nothing is Definite”, and “Let Jillian be Jillian.” When Paul questions their decision to fight the school system to keep Jillian in a traditional classroom, wondering if they were expecting too much of their daughter, Kerry reminds him of their guiding principles.

Kerry, ironically, is an employee of the school district that the Daughertys battle for years in order to ensure that Jillian receives the education to which she’s entitled. Readers will sympathize with Kerry and Paul as they spend Jillian’s high school years trying to “locate the elusive, happy middle between learning and learning under budget.”

Paul Daugherty

Paul Daugherty

Jillian brings laughter into her family’s life, and her father includes many charming and funny anecdotes that illustrate her headstrong and independent nature. Daugherty, a journalist who cranks out newspaper articles and columns every day, is a talented storyteller, and his anecdotes about Jillian’s escapades and triumphs are a joy to read. Daugherty takes pains to portray Jillian as an individual, not a stereotypical Down’s syndrome child. Often, Daugherty writes, people are patronizing and saccharine in their descriptions of Jillian, as if she were a “golden retriever”.

There’s an edge to Paul Daugherty, and the Daugherty household is like any other household — far from idyllic. The Daughertys’ approach has required sacrifices, and Paul — who can be a harsh self-critic — is frank about the resentment he sometimes feels. He knows, for example, that his dream of retiring to play golf in South Carolina probably won’t happen.

Expanding Jillian’s dreams means constricting our own. This isn’t a complaint. It’s not bitterness. It’s just a fact. Her goals tug at ours. They are not compatible. Our lives are less separable than the lives of typical parents and their grown children . . . Sometimes, I resent that.

Daugherty is also candid about the pain he and Kerry feel when Jillian is excluded from school or social activities. Although she is never treated unkindly, the fact remains that she is different from her peers. Jillian joins the JV dance team, and is able, for the most part, to keep up with her peers. But is she really part of the team?

Jillian’s dance teammates treated her like the rest of typical peers did: Arms-length pleasant. They didn’t mind having her on the team. But I don’t think they relished it ether. They included her in team functions . . . After practice or games they went their ways, and Jillian went home. We didn’t know if the girls hung out together after practice. We never asked.

Daugherty doesn’t dwell on his occasional feelings of anger or frustration, but chooses to focus on the enormous gifts Jillian has brought to his family. Although his family’s story is unique, any parent will identify with his experiences. All parents learn from their children. Jillian’s life may be less complicated than most others — including the lives of her parents and older brother– but its clarity of purpose inspires those she comes in contact with “to do better, to be better”.

In the bookstore, I’m frequently asked to recommend “feel-good” books that are “uplifting”. I’m often at a loss, since I find most books that fit that description to be unbearably hokey. For whatever reason, I gravitate toward books about war, family dysfunction, illness, and tragic events of all kinds. So it was truly a pleasure for me to read a well-written book that inspired me and made me think.

To read more reviews of An Uncomplicated Life, check out TLC Book Tours.

Watch the Youtube book trailer, with photos of Jillian and her family.