An amateur theater group is preparing their production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons when the director and leading lady receive devastating news: their 2-year-old granddaughter has a rare and deadly form of cancer. Told by their doctor that an promising treatment is available, they launch a fundraising effort to pay for it. The rest of the theater troupe goes all in, including several of the director’s family members and friends, and a group of nurses at the local hospital. Alongside rehearsals for the play, they throw charity balls, run marathons and merchandise sales, and pitch in however they can.
All of this is presented as a collected bundle of emails, text messages, and other communications between the members of the theater club and a few other key figures. In a meta-narrative, the documents have been presented to two law students by a senior attorney in need of “fresh eyes” on the matter. Though the book’s cover mentions a murder, these two audience surrogates are not told even that much. Throughout the book they pop in occasionally to comment on the characters and their interactions, and perhaps to highlight key information the author wants the reader to keep in mind.
Hallett does a good job revealing her characters through their correspondence with others, especially in the case of local geriatric nurse Isabel “Issy” Beck. Issy latches on to hospital newcomers Sam and Kel Greenwood, fresh from volunteering in the Central African Republic, and corrals them into joining the theater club. In her emails, especially the ones to Sam, Hallett creates a memorable portrait of intense neediness. In fact, it’s possible she’s too good at making Issy irritating. It’s legitimately difficult to get through her emails.
Slowly but surely, Hallett introduces the idea that not all is what it seems in this story of a community banding together to help a sick little girl. Martin, the director and a local business owner, seems cagey whenever he is asked to provide hard info on the amount of money raised. His friend Sarah-Jane, a professional fundraiser, complains to her husband and co-star Kevin, who seems more concerned with making it to the pub after work. Martin’s correspondence with his granddaughter’s doctor is often testy, while the doctor’s communications with her family reveal cracks in her foundation as well.
Hallett’s presentation gets credit for originality, but it comes with some severe self-imposed limitations. A few characters’ emails are withheld, for reasons that may make sense for the author’s purposes but seem unlikely within the context of the plot. Within the frame narrative, the senior attorney keeps parceling out new material to his student aides, ostensibly to not prejudice them, but really its just a way for Hallett to keep vital info from the readers. The seams start to show.
Eventually, the twists and revelations start to pileup in ways that strain credulity. For people who in many cases have been lifelong friends, the members of the theater club don’t seem to have known each other very well at all. While the revelation of long-buried secrets is a staple of the genre, when it is done to this extent it starts to feel a little parodic. There’s so much uncovered in the book’s breathless final pages, and I’m not sure all of it really holds together when you really think it through. Still, it’s unusual set-up and structure will ensure that The Appeal lingers in the minds of its readers.