The lives of four women are at the center of Molly Patterson’s super debut, Rebellion. Although the action covers multiple continents and centuries, Patterson’s tight focus on her characters offer revolutions more personal than political. Each of the main characters reject the expectations of family or society—whether it’s leaving familiar surroundings, embarking on an illicit relationship or simply confiscating a second pair of car keys after being forbidden to drive.
The novel opens in 1999, when Hazel moves into a nursing home and her daughter arrives to close up the family farmhouse in southern Illinois. The novel then shifts back to the 1890s, after Hazel’s mother, Louisa, has left her comfortable family home in Ohio to follow her husband to their new farm. Her sister, Addie, also left home, traveling to China as a missionary’s wife in the years just before the Boxer Rebellion. Fast-forward to the 20th century, and Hazel, newly widowed, is left with the farm while halfway around the world, Juanlan, a young Chinese woman, gives up her career to help care for her father and work in her family’s hotel in a provincial area of China.
Though ties of blood bind most of the women, the thematic connections are even more significant: filial duty, the lure of forbidden love and the changes wrought to the rural landscape by urban development. Hazel, Addie and Juanlan are also drawn into sexual relationships that in turn deepen friendships they have with other women.
The four strands of this novel never really come together, and despite political upheaval, what rises to the surface are the smaller moments that occur between family, lovers and friends. Yet the lack of a tidy ending is actually one of the novel’s strengths. Patterson creates intimate moments that are moving but not manipulative. By not connecting all the dots, she allows her readers to bond more deeply with her characters in this refreshingly unsentimental historical novel.