I had initially been very excited to read this book – but after finishing The Last House on Needless Street I was wary of looking forward to this reading experience. I still held out some hope that this would be different, but despite being two really different books the experience was pretty similar. Ward writes about abuse – not as a voyeur, there’s not very much of the actual abuse itself in the novel, but the impact of abuse in the longer term. How do people who have not been treated very well treat other people? She really explores how we deal with trauma, which opens the door for so many interesting possibilities – and yet, her novels still fall flat for me.
Rob is a teacher, mother of two girls, and wife to Irving. The veneer of normality is quite thin for Rob – we know from the first pages that Irving is far from a good husband – he’s a serial cheater, longing to leave his sick child to go to the strange jazz party next door so he can get drunk and make eyes at the neighbor he’s sleeping with. Rob is emotionally unstable but also dealing with a horrible, abusive husband and an elder daughter, Callie, who is increasingly weird. This relationship between Irving and Rob was frustrating to read about – zero love or caring, not much of a hint of history together, just bizarre terror and possessiveness over their daughters Callie and Annie.
The first part of the novel teases a bizarre history for Rob, something that may be rearing its head in her daughter Callie. Callie seems to feel closer to her dad in general, but when Rob makes a grisly discovery she decides it’s time for some mother-daughter trauma bonding. Rather than enroll her child in therapy, or attempt to start modeling healthy relationships for her daughter, she drives her to her home in the desert, the very place where Rob herself dealt with her seriously unconventional childhood.
The next section of the book is told through a combination of Callie and Rob’s perspectives of the present moment at the deserted ranch, and Rob’s past. Interspersed is a story-within-a-story, a novel (poorly) written by Rob, using the real life names of her family members, depicting them as denizens of a boarding school, a safe place for Rob to write about murder. Is Rob a murderer? Is Callie criminally insane? What happened to Jack, Rob’s sister? Why did Jack and Rob grow up on a desert ranch with a bunch of dogs and a laboratory? What the hell is going on in this place, and why is no one else but Rob seemingly alive to tell this tale?
The final section resolves a lot of the above questions, and Rob and Irving’s marriage, with basically very little satisfaction. It involves several highly unethical decisions made on the part of people, some of whom you’d expect to be rather unethical, and others who are meant to be viewed as protectors. Very little of what anyone does, at any time, makes much sense. There’s no one here to root for, no redemption for anyone, and we don’t care about these characters enough for it to feel like an intentional tragedy.
If you’re sensitive to harm done to people and animals, tread lightly here. There’s violence towards humans and animals throughout – again, Ward is not trying to torture us or her characters needlessly, there’s a point to the violence that is part of the plot – but even if it’s not too drawn out, it’s still present, so be aware.