Morris builds her novel on the conflicting moral terrain of thirteen-year-old Nellie Peck and her parents’ nearly-crippling practice of denial in the face of life’s challenges.
Clinging to absolute trust in her father’s integrity and his ability to translate everything through the prism of history, Nellie is in awe of Ben Peck’s life’s work: an intimate history of the town they live in. Sandy Peck’s growing frustration with her spouse’s inadequacies both unsettles Nellie and inspires her respect for the delicate balance of a successful marriage, the household dependent on the trickle of money from the family hardware business and Sandy’s salary as a stylist in a local salon. In small-town America, Nellie’s adolescent awakening is drastically affected by three strangers who enter her life that summer: Max Devaney, a stoic ex-con who works as a handyman in her crotchety old grandfather’s junkyard; Bucky Saltonstall, a troubled NYC kid of thirteen sent to his grandparents; and Dolly Bedelia, who has rented the Peck’s tiny attached apartment.
Perhaps the family’s long habit of denial in lieu of action would remain peripheral but for unfolding events once Dolly moves in. A stripper, Dolly is a master of pretension and self-promotion - a sad character, really, but one whose shabby glamour attracts Nellie and her fifteen-year-old sister, Ruth, the rapt girls’ guide to the mysteries of the opposite sex. Caught up in the absolutism of a thirteen-year-old worldview, Nellie diligently weighs every aspect of her experiences, childish enough to think she can control the actions of others, a belief in increasing conflict with reality as Bucky bullies his way into her summer activities. Nellie’s independence is further curtailed by responsibility for nine-year-old Henry, who has his own problems - stuttering, an inordinate fear of others - shadowing Nellie as she strides through a rocky terrain of crumbling certitude in the face of reality.
McGarry Morris’s characters are an odd mix, the too-often passive Sandy, the rebellious Ruth, the insubstantial Ben (soon to disappoint his greatest fan), Jessica, a bullying schoolmate with a voracious appetite for food and domination, the malevolent Bucky, and Max Devaney. A summer like any other becomes a fulcrum for drastic change, a gruesome murder, a trial. Nellie, the star witness, holds the key to a man’s freedom, but, surely Ben’s daughter, seeks respite in secrets and avoidance. When she finally blurts out the truth, no one believes a girl whose recent past is littered with lies and omissions.
Much as I tried to enjoy this novel, there are no heroes here - not even very likable people. The author draws out revelations through an agonizing process where every human flaw is examined, from Dolly’s hyperactive emotional extravagance to Henry’s abuse at Bucky’s hands to Nellie’s sneaky monitoring of everyone’s personal business, including Ruth’s attempts to contact her birth father and critical knowledge about the murder Nellie misguidedly hoards. Nellie is not “endearingly wise” but secretive and judgmental, learning too late the cost of Ben’s passivity and the ease with which we adapt to the pressure of peers and bullies.
In the end, it’s like having a tooth pulled without anything to deaden the pain, family dysfunction writ large in a world of economic distress and a paucity of courage, truth as malleable as public opinion and as elusive as the affection a needy thirteen-year-old desperately craves.