Summary (courtesy of GoodReads): Lulu and Merry’s childhood was never ideal, but on the day before Lulu’s tenth birthday their father drives them into a nightmare. He’s always hungered for the love of the girl’s self-obsessed mother; after she throws him out, their troubles turn deadly.
Lulu’s mother warned her to never let him in, but when he shows up, he’s impossible to ignore. He bullies his way past ten-year-old Lulu, who obeys her father’s instructions to open the door, then listens in horror as her parents struggle. She runs for help and discovers upon her return that he’s murdered her mother, stabbed her sister, and tried to kill himself.
For thirty years, the sisters try to make sense of what happened. Their imprisoned father is a specter in both their lives, shadowing every choice they make. Though one spends her life pretending he’s dead, while the other feels compelled to help him, both fear that someday their imprisoned father’s attempts to win parole may meet success.
And here's what I thought: This book wasn't always easy to read, but was thought-provoking and compelling. It is beautifully written, although sometimes, what is happen in the story might be ugly (and I think that's definitely a talent on the part of the author). As you can see by the summary, these two sisters don't have the easiest time of things. When we meet them, in July of 1971, Lulu's 10th birthday is right around the corner, and her little sister Merry is almost six. Their mother doesn't seem that interested in them, choosing instead to focus on herself, and their father has left them. It's not the nicest situation, but things take a horrific turn when their father appears at their door and bullies Lulu into letting him in. The sisters initially are taken in by family, but then put into a girls' home to spend their childhood. Visits to their grandmother provide some relief, but it's a different story for the visits to their father, who is now serving time in prison. Lulu cuts off all contact with her father, but Merry goes for frequent visits, taken by a grandmother. This pattern of Lulu having nothing to do with her father, and Merry feeling compelled to continue the visits (even though she doesn't really want to) continues through the story, as the sisters grow older.
The book has chapters that alternate between Lulu and Merry, so we experience this novel through both sisters. It's an interesting way to tell a story, with two characters who approach life completely differently, and who are drawn together by their family circumstance. Lulu's reaction to her mother's murder makes her emotionally cold, and she shoulders the responsibility of her own decisions, as well as feeling responsible for Merry, and making sure that Merry is provided for. Merry, on the other hand, seems to wear raw emotions on her sleeve at times, continuing the visits to her father, even though she dreads them. Lulu chooses a straight and narrow path and eventually becomes a doctor; Merry is a bit looser, eventually becoming a parole officer as an adult. The focus not only on the sisters' relationship with each other, but to their father, made this an absorbing read. Even if I didn't always like the sisters, I was interested in what was happening to them, or what their future would be. The pacing is even, with the time passing in chunks; the book begins in July, 1971, then 1972, 1974 and so forth, bringing us into the present day, but allowing us to see what happens to each sister during a certain time period. It's an interesting way to follow two lives.
Definitely a compelling story, with interesting characters. When you read this book, definitely read the Acknowledgments and the part from the author about why she wrote this book. She has some very personal reasons for writing this story, and once you read this part, you'll want to go back and re-read the whole book again.
First sentences: "I wasn't surprised when Mama asked me to save her life. By my first week in kindergarten, I knew she was no macaroni-necklace-wearing kind of mother. Essentially, Mama regarded me as a miniature hand servant."
Thoughts on the cover: I like how the two girls are shown walking on a boardwalk together, with the younger one reaching for the older one -- very evocative of the story.
Note: Thank you very much to the publisher, who sent me this book in exchange for a review. I don't know if I would have picked it up right away, otherwise, and it was a great read.