STARRED REVIEW
April 18, 2017

Going home again

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A woman returning to her childhood home is a perennial plot we never get tired of. Whether it’s a small Southern town or a California vineyard, the mix of old memories and new revelations always leads to satisfying drama. These three novels offer a particularly enticing take.

STARRED REVIEW
April 18, 2017

Going home again

Feature by

A woman returning to her childhood home is a perennial plot we never get tired of. Whether it’s a small Southern town or a California vineyard, the mix of old memories and new revelations always leads to satisfying drama. These three novels offer a particularly enticing take.

April 18, 2017

Going home again

Feature by

A woman returning to her childhood home is a perennial plot we never get tired of. Whether it’s a small Southern town or a California vineyard, the mix of old memories and new revelations always leads to satisfying drama. These three novels offer a particularly enticing take.

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A woman returning to her childhood home is a perennial plot we never get tired of. Whether it’s a small Southern town or a California vineyard, the mix of old memories and new revelations always leads to satisfying drama. These three novels offer a particularly enticing take.

BREAKING NEW GROUND
Catherine West’s latest inspirational novel, The Memory of You, is an affecting portrait of two families struggling with trauma and forgiveness, set in a sun-drenched Sonoma vineyard.

Natalie Mitchell hasn’t set foot in her family’s winery, Maoilios, since her twin sister died there when they were both 13. But as the majority shareholder, it’s up to her to decide whether to support her father’s wishes and close the vineyard down, or to support her grandfather, who still lives on the property and runs the business.

Natalie has been burdened by her parents’ expectations and the trauma of her sister’s death for years, and returning to Maoilios fills her with warring emotions. She basks in the familiarity of the vineyard and the renewal of her relationship with her grandfather, but under it all is the fear that being back at the site of her sister’s death will catastrophically escalate the PTSD she’s fought so hard to control. West uses the wide-open landscape of Northern California to excellent effect. Natalie’s environment is beautiful and warm, but also agoraphobia-inducing—a sprawling space under constant sun where she feels on guard against her recurring symptoms.

The Memory of You nails the way mental illness can glacially advance through a person’s mind or suddenly strike in full force, depicting both Natalie’s panic attacks and fluctuating anxiety with unvarnished realism. West also sensitively captures Natalie’s constant desire to hide her PTSD from those around her, and the ways in which throwing herself into studying possible improvements to the vineyard both soothes and exacerbates her symptoms.

A major source of stress is her childhood friend and former crush Tanner Collins, who now works as the winemaker for Maoilios. Tanner assumes that Natalie intends to shut the vineyard down, and he finds himself clashing with her despite his better instincts. While West makes clear that Tanner is going through struggles of his own, she refreshingly doesn’t let him off the hook and neither does Natalie. The terse, volatile interactions between the pair are compelling and complex, moving uneasily between irritation and attraction.

As Tanner and Natalie work through their respective problems, West weaves in both of their family histories, making clear that if the vineyard is going to be saved, both families will have to confront the lingering pain from their past.

FAMILY TIES
Three sisters descend on their mother’s home in Peachtree Bluff, Georgia, at the beginning of Kristy Woodson Harvey’s Slightly South of Simple. The oldest, Caroline, is in crisis. Her husband has left her for a supermodel and she’s several months pregnant. With Caroline’s failed marriage, youngest sister Emerson’s budding acting career and the usual family squabbles, it’s not surprising that Murphy family matriarch Ansley tries to keep her own personal life under wraps.

Right before her daughters arrive, Ansley’s life is rocked by the reappearance of Jack, her first love. Harvey makes Ansley’s confidence and maturity work as a dramatic device—every interaction between Ansley and Jack is weighed against Ansley’s love for her daughters, lingering grief for her late husband and security in the life she’s built for herself.

Harvey’s knack for realistic tension extends to the Murphy sisters. They frequently squabble but the brief blowups never upend their deep emotional bonds. They appreciate each other’s differences but still reach for the easy insult more out of habit than any real malice. Meddling, snobby older sister Caroline could have been the villain of the book, the big city woman who has to come home to her family to be knocked down from her self-made pedestal. But her sisters understand that Caroline often shows her devotion to her family in slightly unhealthy, but good-intentioned ways—like sending her aging mother arm workouts and expensive skin cream. But her boundless enthusiasm for bettering her family members’ lives also leads her to devotedly cheerlead Emerson’s acting career and encourage Jack to keep up his pursuit of Ansley.

Harvey’s devotion to realistic character development pays off by the end of the novel, which provides clear resolutions to some plots and leaves other hanging in a way that practically begs for a sequel. The lack of complete closure only works because Harvey is meticulous about closing out each character’s arc in a satisfying way. While this occasionally tips over into an overreliance on life lesson-style narration, Slightly South of Simple is so warm, inviting and real, that the reader forgives its flaws in favor of spending time with the Murphys.

AN UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE
When Sara Jenkins’ larger-than-life grandmother dies in Lauren K. Denton’s The Hideaway, she unexpectedly leaves her the titular dilapidated bed and breakfast. Margaret “Mags” Van Buren and a collection of her best friends have been living there since before Sara can remember. To make matters worse, her grandmother’s dying wish was that she renovate the crumbling Victorian house, so Sara has to go back to live in her hometown of Sweet Bay, Alabama, until the job is done.

The Hideaway jumps back and forth between Sara’s return and her grandmother’s very first visit in 1960, when it functioned as a sanctuary for artists and beatniks due to its functionally nonexistent rent. Having lost her patience with her cheating husband, small-town housewife Margaret is drawn to the freedom of the proto-hippie residents of the house. Denton nicely evokes their sense of hope and rebellion, as well as the shock such characters, as mild as they seem to us now, would evoke in someone like Margaret.

In the present day, Denton avoids easy answers for Sara’s dilemma. She begins Sara’s story in the midst of her bustling business in the French Quarter, and throughout the book makes it clear how much passion and satisfaction she derives from her work. The only reason Sara is able to take on the job of renovating The Hideaway in the first place is because of the skills and knowledge she’s accumulated over the years running her store. Ultimately, the slower pace of Sweet Bay gives Sara the space to survey her life for the first time.

Rather than force a big-city conformity vs. small-town individuality conflict, The Hideaway is more interested in how two women in different time periods learn to invest in their own lives and listen to their own needs. Mags’ journey is especially rewarding. She is such a delightful character, and her growth so fascinating to watch, one wishes the entire book was about her and Denton let us see more of her in her full mature glory, rather that relegate most of those details to stories told by her friends and Sara’s memories. But the inclusion of Sara leads to some poignant final reveals and reunions that make The Hideaway sweet and satisfying.

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Get the Books

The Memory of You

The Memory of You

By Catherine West
Thomas Nelson
ISBN 9780718078768
Slightly South of Simple

Slightly South of Simple

By Kristy Woodson Harvey
Gallery
ISBN 9781501158056
The Hideaway

The Hideaway

By Lauren K. Denton
Thomas Nelson
ISBN 9780718084226

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